A visit to the nation's capital doesn't have to break the bank. Here are some ideas on how to plan an affordable D.C. vacation.

The first thing you should do is map out your goals for the trip. Are you more interested in outdoor activities or museum-hopping? Looking for nightlife or family-friendly activities? Once you've established that, figure out a budget for tickets, transportation, food, etc.

When you arrive, combine your grocery shopping with a little sightseeing. Head to Eastern Market and load up on pastries for breakfast, cold cuts to keep in your hotel fridge, and delicious local bread, fruit, and cheese. There—now you've got breakfasts and snacking covered AND you've seen one of the oldest historical landmarks in the city.

Eastern Market
Courtesy of Eastern Market, Photo by S. Danaher

Don't get a rental car unless you absolutely have to. You can get almost anywhere via Metro in the city and parking will run you $25 or more per day at most hotels. Don't count on free street parking either—that's reserved for residents in most areas, or limited to two hours for visitors.

If you do plan on going out of the city with a car, say, to Annapolis or Ocean City, then leave that for the end of the trip instead of paying to keep your car parked for most of the time. You can also give Zipcar a try!

If you're looking for a show, it doesn't get any cheaper than free! Check the Kennedy Center calendar for free shows on the Millennium Stage. Be sure to go up to the roof to take panoramic photos of the D.C. landscape and the riverfront while you're there.

Tickets for shows often start under $20, and you can also ask about standing-room-only tickets at a reduced price. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center ticket FAQ page.

Lucky for you, most of the iconic historical sites are 100-percent free. Explore the National Mall and take photos at all of the memorials. You can spend days trying to see all of the Smithsonian museums. Don't forget to go to the National Zoo and the National Cathedral – they're both off of the same Metro stop.

Lincoln Memorial
Courtesy of the National Mall and Memorial Parks

If you're a big sports fan, then try to catch a Washington Nationals home game. Baseball is by far the cheapest spectator sport in the region, with tickets starting at under $20 a piece. Make sure you try local ballpark favorites like half-smokes with chili cheese fries!

As for souvenirs, your photos are going to make the best ones, hands down. An overpriced FBI baseball cap isn't quite going to be so cool a few years from now, whereas your framed prints will always remind you of your trip. If you must buy something, try local artwork or food. No one is going to turn down a bottle of mambo sauce for their wings!

With a little advanced planning, you can definitely pinch your pennies on your next D.C. trip. Save enough to splurge though, and have at least one fancy meal with a view!

Did we miss any of your favorite money-saving tips in the city? Let us know in the comments!