D.C. for Less During the Cherry Blossom Festival and Beyond

by  Christine Wei | Mar 10, 2014
Cherry Blossoms in Washington, D.C.
Cherry Blossoms in Washington, D.C. / BackyardProduction/iStock

If the nation’s capital is on your must-see list, there’s no time like the gorgeous Cherry Blossom Festival, which begins this month, to visit. We’ve already showed you how to save on D.C. hotels during this time. Here's what to do and where to eat, all without breaking the bank.

Culture & Entertainment
Get cultured at the Kennedy Center, which hosts free hour-long performances daily as a complement to their full-length evening programs. Stop by at 6 p.m. for everything from orchestra concerts to hip hop performances to poetry slams. And don’t forget the views from the wraparound rooftop terrace, which is also open to the public at no cost.

For more heightened views, an under-the-radar observation deck is the 270-foot-high outlook from the Old Post Office Tower, right on top of the tower’s iconic clock. Hours are slightly limited before Memorial Day, which marks the start of the summer season, but entry is free as always.

If you’re new to the city, Free Tours by Foot is an extremely affordable way of getting the lay of the land. The pay-as-you-like tours are led by licensed local guides and typically last about two hours. Most of the one-mile walks are themed by interest; the Embassy Row and Dupont Circle Tour, Lincoln Assassination Tour, and U Street Food Tour are just some of the offerings.

Of course, there are the Smithsonians, and a multitude of other attractions, that are always free in D.C.. The National Portrait Gallery is home to a new American Cool exhibit with 100 black-and-white photos encompassing everyone from Walt Whitman to Missy Elliot. Just this January, Bao Bao the baby panda made her debut at the National Zoo. While she sleeps a fair amount, she’s quite active in the den when she’s awake, particularly early in the morning during feeding time. (You want to get there early to beat the lines, anyway).

As a part of the Cherry Blossom Festival itself, three weeks of free programming will take place on and around the National Mall. Learn about Japanese culture through readings and origami workshops, partake in a fitness workshop at the Jefferson Memorial or Washington Monument, and enjoy cultural concerts and performances. (You can search for free events on their calendar page.) Also exclusive to the festival, the Petal Pass, which can be picked up from any Capitol One Bank, offers savings at various restaurants and stores.

A tried-and-true method for saving on food? Hit up the happy hours. Locals love that Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza, just across the street from the National Portrait Gallery, offers promotions daily, weekends included. From 5-7 p.m., hungry visitors can enjoy a selection of 7-inch pizzas for $6, house wines and sangria for $4, pints for $4-6, and more. Belgian restaurant Brasserie Beck is another favorite, though their half-price happy hour deals for beer is for weeknights only. Still, one order of very generously portioned mussels with frites (from $24) will make a satisfying dinner for two.

Cleveland Park, the neighborhood around the National Zoo, is a residential treasure trove of independent restaurants that serve up affordable meals. A gem here is the part casual, part fancy Palena, an establishment that’s divided into a coffee shop, a cafe, and a formal restaurant. Pick your price point and choose from creamy lattes, lemon doughnuts, pillowy pizzas, or a decadent prix fixe.

You’ll also find a robust restaurant scene along 14th Street between P and U Streets, an area that’s experienced a dining boom in the past two years. It’s easy to go fancy here, but plenty of hip, affordable bites await. Tacos, sandwiches, and cheap pints are just as well-loved as the ethnic fare.

Getting There and Around
If you can avoid driving in D.C., you should definitely do so. Traffic aside, parking can get expensive - if you can find parking space at all. The good news is that if you’re already on the East Coast, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional trains provide nearly hourly service to the city. And, as with all Amtrak journeys, tickets are up to 25 percent off when you book at least 14 days in advance. Planning on flying? Reagan National Airport is much closer to the city center and more easily accessible via metro than Dulles International Airport.

That’s not to say that the metros won’t be crowded on festival weekends either - they most certainly will be. L’Enfant Plaza, the closest station to the Basin, will be particularly congested. We recommend putting on comfy shoes and getting off closer to the Metro Center station and walking over instead. And you don’t necessarily have to spring for a pass, especially if you plan on doing a lot of walking. Fares vary depending on the number of stops you’re traveling, but they usually fall between $1.50 and $2.10 for most inner-city travel.

A few more metro tips: Get a SmarTrip card at the Metro Center station or a retail store like CVS or Safeway. The card itself costs $2, but that beats a $1 surcharge per ride for paper fare cards from ticket machines. Beware: When you’re adding value to cards at the ticket machines, the default amount is $20 - but you can adjust that number down.

Finally, if bus tours are your thing, Big Bus Tours is offering 25 percent off a few of their combo hop-on, hop-off tickets during the festival. It’s not the cheapest way to get around, but if you enjoy a little trivia in transit, it’s worth looking into.

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