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Cherry Blossoms and Free Museums: Washington D.C. On a Budget

photo: Jeff Kubina

The National Cherry Blossom Festival runs from March 26 – April 10, 2011, and provides a nifty excuse to visit the nation’s capital. That’s assuming you are into parades, parties and free celebrations, of course.

If you think the Cherry Blossom Festival is just for garden-club retirees, think again. With a performance stage at Sylvan Theater featuring daily live music and free guided evening walks around the Tidal Basin, the 2011 festival celebrates the connection between Japan and the United States and commemorates the gift of cherry blossom trees from Tokyo in 1912.

Even if you are not planning on participating in the any of the festivities, visiting Washington D.C. in the spring is quite a treat. Washington D.C. features world-class restaurants, diverse entertainment and attractions, and plenty of outdoor activities, offering something for everyone. With a bit of pre-planning, you can stay on budget and still enjoy all the city has to offer.

Things to do

The best thing about visiting Washington D.C. is that many of the attractions, museums and monuments are free to visit. That’s right, free. Even the National Zoo is free and open every day except December 25th.  The Washington Monument is also free to visit, but a $1.50/person ticket is required and can be booked online through www.recreation.gov. Information about visiting the White House, Congress and the Capitol, and the Pentagon can be found on the Washington DC FAQ.

If visiting monuments and museums is not your cup of tea, consider a bike ride along the C & O Canal, with easy-to-navigate bike trails. Or how about a visit to one of the many city parks, along with a picnic lunch?

If you’re ready to splurge a little, consider high tea at the Empress Lounge ($32/person). Georgetown is a great place to spend the afternoon, shopping or enjoying a spa. And a trip to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate and gardens 16 miles outside of Washington D.C. is a nice way to escape the hustle of the city. (Tickets: $15)

Restaurants

Chose a cuisine, any cuisine: D.C. has them all. Seriously. French, Japanese, Spanish, Thai, Mediterranean (Komi, average bill $120), Indian (Rasika, $50), Pan-Latin (Guardado’s, $31), Irish (Eamonn’s, $17), and more. Find budget-friendly restaurants with the Washingtonian’s annual Cheap Eats list which leans heavily on ethnic and casual eateries. Standouts include the Ravi Kabob locations with great take-away kebabs, Obama’s favorite burger joint (is it Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington or Five Guys Burgers & Fries?), and of course, pizza and small plates from 2 Amys.

For upscale dining, the Washingtonian has also compiled the top 100 restaurants for 2011, including Inn at Little Washington, Citronelle, and Minibar. These are delightful restaurants for an expense account budget, but if you looking to keep costs down, consider lunch at one of these top spots – Vidalia, The Source, or Rasika.

As in many major cities, Washington D.C. has a thriving food truck scene, with new food trucks joining every month. A great way to save money, expect to pay $6-10/plate. Some of the trucks worth tracking down include PORC (Purveyors of Rolling Cuisine), Red Hook Lobster Pound and Sweetbites Mobile. And the Washington Post has a convenient D.C. Food Truck Twitter Aggregator to find the truck nearest to you.

Lodging

Finding a place to stay in Washington D.C. is straightforward, once you know where you want to focus your visit. Downtown hotels ($140-$260/night) will give you good access to Union Station, the White House and the International Spy Museum.  Northwest DC, near Dupont Circle, offers slightly reduced rates, $100-$180/night, with all the convenience of downtown, thanks to a great Metro system.

Further out, in Oxon Hill and Silver Spring, Maryland, rooms can be had for under $100/night, some with special discounts and free parking included. In the summer, you will want a hotel with a pool to keep cool.

A popular lodging option in Washington D.C. is a Bed & Breakfast guesthouse. Perfect for romantic weekend getaways, B&Bs are also comfortable options for business travelers and those who like to come “home” at the end of a busy day of travel adventure. Rooms in guesthouses are more expensive, $180-$350/night, but include breakfast, knowledgeable local hosts, and often afternoon/evening receptions for all guests.

Gudrun Enger is a travel, food and lifestyle blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @kitchengirl on Twitter.