Experiencing D.C. on a Budget: A Guide for the Unpaid Intern

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Every summer, thousands of the young and politically minded flock in their pencil skirts and shiny shoes to the annual gathering of financial sacrifice and a leg up. Capitol Hill is arguably the largest incubator of interns—whether paid or not. But mostly not. According to a 2013 report by The Atlantic, of the 100 senators on the Hill, only 35 pay their interns. To afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in D.C., the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that not even minimum wage will get you by—it estimated $28.04 per hour would be necessary. So when you’re making nothing, we understand the budget might be a little tight when it comes to, well, the fun stuff.

But besides touring embassies, meeting with senators, completing tasks for supervisors, and confusing one white building with white pillars for another, interns still have plenty of opportunities to experience the capitol’s charm firsthand without breaking their bank. Here are 10 wallet-friendly (and free) suggestions to entertain yourself whether on a Friday night or Saturday morning.

1.For the history buffs: Part of the lure of interning in D.C. is the culture—and on a sweaty Saturday afternoon, find decades’ worth of it inside the dozens of air-conditioned museums. Most of which are free. The Smithsonian alone has 19 museums and a zoo (all free): tyrannosaurus rex remnants at the Natural History Museum; moon rocks and gendered space toilets at the Air and Space Museum; westward expansive works from Frederic Remington and modernist collections featuring Georgia O’Keefe at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is a block from the Smithsonian metro stop and thoroughly documents that heavy moment in world history (also free). The National Building Museum even has a beach—albeit an exhibit. But it doesn’t really feel like one, with its “ocean” of nearly one million recyclable translucent plastic balls.

2.For the fitness fanatics: Active Life DC lists a variety of free and discounted yoga and pilates classes every week all over the district. Georgetown, most notably, is full of them. Every weekend, Nolan Hart Yoga offers free morning yoga along the Georgetown waterfront. Lululemon also has a schedule of free yoga and barre classes that aren’t easy, but the results are worth it. Occasionally, free workout sessions offer complimentary meals provided by emerging restaurants in the area.

3. For the music lovers: D.C. has a tight music scene. Not sure where to start? Showlist DC is your guide to modestly priced concerts in the city. This site lists every show at every venue on a day-to-day basis. If you’re looking for a laidback set, Jazz in the Garden at the National Gallery of Art in the Sculpture Garden takes place every Friday through August 28—for free. And if you’re craving that lively basement crowd, be sure to check out Babe City in Dupont Circle. Also an up-and-coming record label, Babe City has its one-year anniversary coming up on August 22 and represents some killer local bands.

4. For the sight seers: If the crowds got you down the last time you visited the Lincoln Memorial, easy fix: Beat the heat and try again in the late evening or early morning hours. By that time, the crowds have usually dissolved, save for the few wise folks taking in the mirroring of the Washington Monument on the reflecting pool. Or, experience the monuments at sunrise while embarking on a morning jog. It’s only two miles from the Lincoln to the U.S. Capitol.

5. For the social butterflies: It’s really easy to break your wallet while trying to experience the glamor of the D.C. nightlife. If you’re interning in D.C., take advantage of happy hour specials throughout the city. Not only are happy hours great networking opportunities, by chance, you could end up with a bar tab equal to zero: Many bars randomly select past customers to host their own happy hours, meaning you drink for free and your friends drink for cheap. On Tuesdays, The Mighty Pint offers $2 Miller Lite and Yuengling pints. Wednesdays, a whole bucket of Bud or Bud Light for $10 at Union Pub, a popular place for Capitol Hill interns to “network.” Thursdays at Madhatter are usually hoppin’ with $1 mugs of Bud Light, or $4 rail drinks, if you’re feeling classy.

6. For the foodies: In a place like D.C., where all the business can quickly feel overwhelming, a farmers market will help you feel grounded. Dupont Circle’s FRESHFARM market and the Columbia Pike farmers markets are great picks for fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, fish and baked goods. Both the Eastern Market and the Union Market are known for their historic presence in the area as indoor flea markets of a similar nature that offer arts and crafts from local vendors. It basically boils down to your climate and price preferences, though any of these places would be a good place to start.

7. For the theatre lovers: Sure, everyone who missed The Book of Mormon on Broadway would love to see it at The Kennedy Center. Yet Interns know that the ticket prices don’t make this a viable option. Fear not: The Kennedy Center offers free performances on the Millennium Stage every evening at 6 p.m. Acts include everything from performances by the National Symphony Orchestra to The Washington Ballet to poetry slams. Plus: The Kennedy Center also offers unbeatable discounts to patrons between the ages of 17-25 through its Attend program. In addition, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company offers “pay what you can” tickets for the first two performances of every production.

8. For the film buffs: In the summer, living is easy for film buffs. Especially when the city offers so many outdoor film experiences to choose from. So pack some popcorn and a blanket for an evening in one of many D.C. parks for a classic film on a massive screen. Screen on the Green is a summer tradition in the district, located at the National Mall. Starting July 20, this film series projects films every Monday around 8:30-9:30 p.m. Even though each film begins at dusk, people start claiming their lawn spots as early as 5 p.m.

9. For the nature lovers: As an intern, it’s easy to feel claustrophobic in D.C. Let your inner nature guru off its leash by taking a leisurely stroll around Roosevelt Island. This nature preservative memorializes the 26th president’s early environmentalism. The island is covered with miles of trails through wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands. But if you prefer the water to the land…

10. For the boating enthusiasts: Bring a buddy boating with you on a sunny weekend. For $15 an hour, you could paddle your way down the Potomac River. Boating in D.C. offers lessons in boating, kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding. But if you already consider yourself a pro, just rent a boat and get out there. Starting in Georgetown guarantees the scene from your canoe will be spellbinding.

Other weird things to do: Consider finding the legendary stairs from The Exorcist in Georgetown, dog watching at the Congressional Cemetery doubling as a dog park, or examining the DEA’s bong collection in the building’s small gallery of confiscated items in the building’s front lobby.

Other suggestions? If you’re an intern, live in the area or know the district fairly well, drop a comment and let us know about your favorite free activities in the capitol.