Earlier today, a friend flew to Washington, D.C., for the annual Romance Writers of America  conference. As a first-time visitor, she wondered about the best places to go, given limited time and money. Since I haven’t been to D.C. in a while, I asked some old school chums about their favorite haunts.
If you’re on a tight schedule, your first stop must be the National Mall  (202/426-6841), where it’s free to gaze upon the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and other national icons. The nearby U.S. Capitol Visitor Center  and United States Botanic Garden  (202/225-8333) are also free.
Here, you’ll also find the marvelous Smithsonian  (202/633-1000), the world’s largest museum complex, which is (unbelievably) free to visit. Some of the Smithsonian’s highlights include the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of Natural History, and National Portrait Gallery.
Another no-cost attraction is the National Building Museum  (401 F St. NW, 202/272-2448), whose engaging exhibits highlight the construction process. For a free architectural tour, meander through historic Georgetown , home to prestigious Georgetown University – and the ominous flight of stairs featured in The Exorcist.
Also worth a free look is the National Zoological Park  (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/633-4800), home to giant pandas, Asian elephants, and other amazing animals. Nature lovers might also enjoy a free stroll amid the woods of Theodore Roosevelt Island  (703/289-2500), an apt memorial for the 26th U.S. President, a passionate outdoorsman and conservationist.
Whether you need an inexpensive breakfast or a late-night snack, the Afterwords Cafe & Grill (1517 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/387-3825, $8-20) is an ideal choice. Part of Kramerbooks , a beloved indie bookstore, this popular landmark has been “serving latte to the literati since 1976” – with an eclectic menu that includes blueberry pancakes and miso-sake salmon salad.
For dirt-cheap burgers and fries, you can’t go wrong with Five Guys , a national chain that began in Arlington and is now favored by President Obama. Another local institution is Ben’s Chili Bowl  (1213 U St. NW, 202/667-0909, $4-9), a beloved dive that serves chili dogs, veggie burgers, and milkshakes.
Seafood lovers can slurp raw oysters and lobster bisque at Hank’s Oyster Bar  (1624 Q St. NW, 202/462-4265, $7-23), sip clam chowder at the eco-friendly Tackle Box  (3245 M St. NW, 202/337-8269, $6-19) in Georgetown, or order a gourmet pizza topped with mussels at nearby Pizzeria Paradiso  (3282 M St. NW, 202/337-1245, $6-19).
If you’re craving international fare, try Teaism  (2009 R St. NW, 202/667-3827, $2-10), a teahouse favored for its chicken bento boxes and green tea lassi. Also in Dupont Circle, Bistrot Du Coin  (1738 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/234-6969, $6-27) offers an authentic French dining experience. Nearby, locals love to sip margaritas on the patio of Lauriol Plaza  (1835 18th St. NW, 202/387-0035, $4-18), a popular Mexican restaurant that features an ever-changing, Latin-inspired wall mural.
After visiting the zoo, stop by NAM-VIET  (3419 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202/237-1015, $5-19), a Vietnamese joint that prepares everything from spring rolls to steamed Chilean sea bass. Farther south is another well-favored Asian restaurant, Mandu  (1805 18th St. NW, 202/588-1540), which serves a delicious Korean brunch plate ($11) on weekends.
History buffs should venture into the U Street Corridor, once known as “Black Broadway” and now home to Busboys and Poets  (2021 14th St. NW, 202/387-7638, $5-22), a progressive restaurant, bookstore, and Internet café, inspired by waiter-turned-poet Langston Hughes and featuring live performances. Across the street, Eatonville  (2121 14th St. NW, 202/332-9672, $6-17) – named after Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown in Florida – specializes in Southern cuisine. Together, the sister restaurants symbolize a mending of the decades-old rift between these beloved writers.
Once the sun goes down, your first stop should be The Dubliner  (520 N. Capitol St. NW, 202/737-3773), a long-standing Irish pub known for its vast beer selection and nightly live music. For a more mellow vibe, consider the Tabard Inn  (1739 N St. NW, 202/785-1277), where Sunday night patrons can sip signature cocktails amid live jazz in the cozy lounge.
In the lively Atlas District, you’ll spot The Argonaut  (1433 H St. NE, 202/397-1416), a friendly, English-style tavern offering an array of handcrafted microbrews. On weekends, nearby Granville Moore’s  (1238 H St. NE, 202/399-2546) teems with Belgian beer lovers, while The Palace of Wonders  (1210 H St. NE, 202/398-7469) lures a cast of characters for live burlesque and vaudeville shows.
Just remember: No matter what you do in D.C., use the inexpensive Metro  whenever possible.