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Washington, D.C. is full of incredible free sights and experiences -- and equally expensive hotels. This week, guest host Ensley Eikenburg chats with author and travel expert Pauline Frommer as she shares her favorite tips to saving money during a stay in the nation's capital. Get the scoop on the city's restaurant revival, money-saving options for family travel, and great opportunities for cultural adventures at museums, embassies and the Capitol.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Costs of Visiting: Hotels may be expensive, but most of the sightseeing is free.
  • Where to Stay: Budget hotels, apartment rentals, or try one of Washington's guest houses. Compare $75 a night versus $200 a night for a hotel.
  • What to Eat: D.C. has the largest population of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia. Try the Ethiopian cuisine.
  • When to Go: Check the Congressional Calendar. Prices plunge when Congress is not in session.
  • Plan Ahead: Contact your congressman's office at least three months ahead of time in order to schedule tours of the White House or the Pentagon.
  • Museums: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Art Museum, Spy Museum, Museum of the American Indian.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Female Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com Travel Podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations please visit us at www.frommers.com This podcast is sponsored by Norwegian Cruise Line. Gone are the rules that say you must be somewhere, at sometime, for something. It's called freestyle cruising and it's only from Norwegian Cruise Line.
Lindsey Eikenberg: Welcome to the Frommers.com Travel Podcast. I'm Lindsey Eikenberg of Frommer's Travel Guides and I will be your guest host today. Our regular hosts Kelly and David are on vacation exploring the world and they will be back next week to tell you all about it. Joining me today is Pauline Frommer, series editor of the Pauline Frommer's Guides, and we're discussing our guide to Washington, D.C. that's available in stores now.

Pauline, you're an expert in turning expensive destinations into budget-friendly vacations. What's the secret to saving in D.C.?
Pauline Frommer: Well, you know, D.C. is an interesting destination in that the hotels there are among the most expensive in the nation, but the sightseeing is almost all free. You go to all of the Smithsonian Museums, it's free, you can visit the Supreme Court and hear fascinating arguments for no money, you can sit in the Chambers of the House and Senate and hear the debates that are so much more interesting live than they are on CSPAN.

It's also interesting to be there and notice that nobody else is listening to the debates except for the tourists up in the gallery! [laughs] So, all of that is free and that is a big money saver.
Lindsey: Sure.
Pauline: But hotels, hotels are so darn expensive! So what you do is you either go to a budget hotel, and you'll find a lot of them in Pauline Frommer's "Washington", or even better you go to one of Washington's guest houses. Now the interesting thing about Washington architecture is no building is allowed to be taller than the dome of the Capitol, so it's this beautifully preserved city. They didn't tear down all their Victorian houses because they couldn't build skyscrapers anyway, and when you stay in these guest houses you literally go back in time.

You're able to see what it might have been like to live in Washington in the 1890s or 1910s, when you stay in an antique-filled guest house such as the Kalorama Guest House in the Adams-Morgan District. All over the walls they have these sepia-toned photographs of who-knows-whose ancestors, but it gives you this homey feeling. Everybody meets for breakfast together, conversation is fascinating because it's people from all over the world, usually very political people. And you pay $65-75-85 a night: it depends on the season, it depends on whether you're sharing a bathroom or not.

In a city where the average is closer to $200 a night for a room, and that's just one of the many guest houses. There are also apartment rentals that you can do. Again, in these quaint, older buildings, often from the Victorian era and the nice thing about those is you get a kitchen too. That's not a knock to Washington's cuisine which actually has gotten very, very good in recent years, but it does save money.
Lindsey: That sounds like a terrific option and also great if you're going with kids to have a kitchen as well.
Pauline: Yes, absolutely! I visited dozens of these apartments when I was working on Pauline Frommer's "Washington, D.C." A lot of them really feel like homes, you go into... there was one place in the Dupont Circle area where you went in and the hostess -- she lived on the top two floors, it was a basement apartment with a little garden in the back - and she had stocked it with board games and children's books, to make the families who tended to stay there really feel welcome. It'd be a great place for a family.
Lindsey: And now you mentioned restaurants and food in D.C.
Pauline: Yes.
Lindsey: It traditionally has not had a very good reputation for restaurants. What's the scene like now?
Pauline: D.C. is one of the most multicultural cities in the United States, and there are hundreds of ethnic restaurants because of that. One of the biggest populations, is the Ethiopian population. In fact there are more Ethiopians in Washington, D.C. than anyplace else in the world, outside of Ethiopia.

So you get to have this culinary adventure, it really is. Because you eat with your hands, which is always fun, that's admitted, and sometimes fiery food, or deeply sour. Basically you get a tray mounded with little piles of stew, which you than use the spongy "injera bread" it's called, as your utensil to pick it up. It's a real adventure.

You go to a place like Dukem, which is in the U Street corridor. You get dinner for maybe $7, $8, $9 per person in a group, and you get a live show for an extra $1 on Monday's and Wednesday nights. They have Ethiopian drumming and dancing, and it's so much fun. It's the cheapest dinner theater in the United States, truly. So, that's a great thing to do.

There are other kinds of ethnic restaurants all over Washington. They keep the prices low, and I think raise the quality. Another big trend in Washington, D.C. dining is little plates restaurants. That is so much fun! There are all kinds of tapas restaurants all over Washington. It's not just Spanish food. Often it will be Mediterranean food, by which I mean Greek, Turkish, and the food is delicious. Because it's small plates, you don't have to order that many to get filled up, and they're much less expensive.

The one thing I would warn you, I went to a restaurant called "Zaytina" when I was in Washington, D.C. about a week and a half ago. I sat at the bar to eat some small plates, I was there to do a speech, and they carded me. Apparently...
Lindsey: Who did? [laughs]
Pauline: They did, they did. I'm in my early 40's, and they carded me. I was so thrilled! But I didn't have my ID with me, because I had run out from my hotel with just my money. But that is a new thing in Washington, D.C., they are getting very strict about carding. The bartender said, "They have to card everybody who looks 35 or under." So, I was thrilled that I looked 35 or under.

[laughter]
Lindsey: You certainly do.
Pauline: Well, thank you. Thank you. One more thing about saving money in D.C.
Lindsey: Oh, sure!
Pauline: It really is very important when you go. If you go when the Congress is not in session, prices plunge. You can stay at the fancy, deluxe hotels for what it would cost you to stay at budget places during more crowded periods. So, look at the Congressional Calendar.

The bad part of it is, you won't be able to go to Congress and see a debate, which is a lot of fun. But prices will be at their bottom.
Lindsey: In relation to that, is a lot of D.C. closed because of restrictions, security? Can you still go in and see the things that you used to be able to see?
Pauline: Yeah. You have to plan in advance more now than you used to see D.C. properly. You can no longer simply tour the White House. They take people in groups of 10 for these tours, but that doesn't mean you have to be traveling with nine other people. You simply have to contact your congressman or senator a good three or four months in advance, and they will add you to one of these groups of 10.

The same can be said with the Pentagon. If you wish to visit the Pentagon, you need to contact your congressman's office. For getting into the gallery and seeing debates, that can be done on the spot in Washington. You can simply find where your congressman's office is there, which is kind of fun to do, because you might meet him, and then you can go. But it's a better idea to do that in advance.

There are other types of tours that your congressman can set you up on. For example, many congress people have their staffers lead tours of the capitol, and that's really fun. Because these tours, they tell you a bit about the history, but they're mostly about the gossip that's going on right now in Washington. [laughs]
Lindsey: That's what you want to hear.
Pauline: Yeah. You really get an insiders perspective about what's going on, and what isn't heard outside the beltway. It's really, really fun.
Lindsey: Speaking of insiders, you have just been there and there are a lot of new attractions...
Pauline: Yes.
Lindsey: ... in Washington, new museums in particular. Have you visited those?
Pauline: Yes, I visited a number of them. Not only new museums, but ones that are newly reopened. I feel like a lot of people have forgotten about the National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian Art Museum, which is in the same building, because it was closed for six years.

But it's a wonderful, wonderful place to visit! I'm a big fan mostly of the Portrait Gallery, because I find it so much fun to see what the folks you've been reading about and learning about all your life looked like. So not only do you get great art, you get great history.

I met with the director of the National Portrait Gallery when I was last there. He said, "You should see it as the biography museum. Their mission was to figure out how human beings can stay in the company of other human beings throughout all time, even after they're dead." So walking through, it's a fascinating way to commune with these people. It's also fun to go to a museum that will have Toni Morrison on one wall, and George Washington on the next. It's just a wonderful place.

Also really fun is the Spy Museum, which is great if you have kids. You go there, you get a secret code name, and then you have to go and answer questions throughout the museum about looking at a picture. "Who do you think are really just pedestrians, and who are the spies?" According to the museum, there are more spies in Washington, D.C. than any other place in the world.
Lindsey: More than Moscow?
Pauline: That's what they say. So they go into how to spot them, different spy gadgets, and weaponry, like the poison tipped umbrella that apparently killed a Russian spy in the 1970's--they have that umbrella there. They go into the history of famous spies. It's really, really fun!
Lindsey: That sounds fascinating for adults, as well. [laughs]
Pauline: Yes, adults will like it too. It's a little expensive. It's one of the few museums you have to pay for in Washington. There's also the Museum of the American Indian, which is another great museum to visit. Not only for the museum itself, but it's the only place on the mall I think, where you can get decent food. They have food from all of the different Indian nations, and it's so delicious, really! Great fry breads, and Southwestern food, and venison, and very interesting affordable food.

While you're there, you'll get a real feel for the incredible diversity of American Indians in this country. We tend to picture them in one specific way, but there are Native Americans who live in icebound communities. You learn about how they build boats that can crack through ice, and how they count walrus. There are so many different types of Native American communities.

The nice thing that the museum does, is it doesn't have non-Native curators. So, all of the artifacts are described from the Native point of view. If you see a basket, the text next to it might be written by the person who wove the basket. It might have to do with how her grandmother taught her how to do this. It can be a very moving place to visit.
Lindsey: It's so interesting. As you're talking, I'm sitting here thinking, most people think of Washington, D.C. as this city of monuments, and can be cold and hard to penetrate. But you're really painting a picture of Washington that's so multicultural, and with very different elements to it.
Pauline: Well, I think that is the problem. I think a lot of people do think of it as the city of monuments. The monuments are fabulous. I remember taking my four-year-old to see Lincoln and she just was in awe of the big man. She kept wanting to go back to see the big man. But it is more than that. When you go beneath the skin of it you do find that it is this remarkably multicultural experience. In Pauline Frommer's "Washington, D.C.", we have a chapter called "The Other Washington". And it's about how to meet locals and how to have more unusual experiences. And some of the things you can do.

All of the embassies in Washington, they are not just to lobby the president and various houses of Congress and Congress members. They are also there to advertise their culture. Many of them will have evenings where you will go and you will hear a native orchestra or see dance. Or go to a lecture on some aspect of their culture. And you will meet ex-pats from that country because they all use these embassies as gathering places. It is really like stepping off American soil for an evening.

There are also fun things you can do. Washington, D.C., is a city where there are a lot of balls still. There are other inaugural balls and other balls. So people there who want to make their way ahead have to learn to dance. If you go to an evening dance class and learn to foxtrot or waltz your partner is probably going to be some young ambitious aide who is trying to work himself up the ladder and knows that dancing skills are important.

They also have classes for activists. In the book we tell you where to go and watch protests marches. How to interact with the protesters even it you don't agree with them. Talking with them and seeing the effort they have made to get to Washington and make their voices heard is a remarkable and uniquely Washingtonian experience.
Lindsey: That sounds wonderful and I love this concept of the other D.C. and getting beneath the surface.
Pauline: Yeah.
Lindsey: That's one of the things that your books do so well.
Pauline: Oh yeah, absolutely. We also talk about how every opinion maker in the world wants to come to Washington and do their book reading there. So you really get the top thinkers giving lectures, doing book readings literally every night of the year. It is just such an intellectually stimulating city.
Lindsey: And there are great bookstores in Washington, D.C., as well.
Pauline: Yes there are wonderful bookstores. You know, Washington is not the greatest shopping city, I have to say. I went to an inaugural ball many, many years ago. I was kind of stunned at how dowdy most of the dresses were, not to put them down, it has gotten better, but it is not a fashion city. None of that stuff is created in Washington. But it is a great city for political memorabilia. It is a great city for books because it is a highly intellectual city. If you like ethnic crafts you can get wonderful crafts from Latin America, South America, and Africa there very affordably.
Lindsey: We are just about running out of time here. Are there any other tips you would like to give our listeners'?
Pauline: Hmm, about Washington. I'd just say go, don't be worried about taking you are children there. There's much that will truly fascinate and educate them. It is a place that every American should see at least one time in their lifetime.
Lindsey: That's terrific. Thank you very much, Pauline. Pauline Frommer, the series editor of the Pauline Frommer's guides, discussing her book on Washington, D.C.
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