Get it? Because there are so many monuments? I’m here all night, folks. Anyway, the best thing to do in Washington, D.C. is to check out the National Mall. It is filled with iconic monuments and museums. The best part? It’s all free. That’s right! Those who make the journey to our nation’s capital are rewarded with lots of amazing sights celebrating the foundation of our country, open to the public free of charge. Oh, and no, it’s not a shopping mall. Sites highlighted in photos will be in bold.
Get ready for walking.
The mall is an approximately 2 mile long rectangle anchored by the Lincoln Memorial on the west end and the U.S. Capitol building on the east end. In the center is the eye-catching, tall Washington Monument. To go to the top, get a ticket in advance. Note: The Washington Monument is currently closed for renovation through 2018.
The best Metro stops to utilize are Federal Triangle or Smithsonian. These will let you out near the center. If you choose to check out museums, you’ll go east, if you want to walk in the lawns or gardens you’ll go west.
East: Museums (and Capitol building)
One of the most popular museums is the inspiring Smithsonian Air and Space Museum (above), and for good reason. A wide variety of historic aircraft reside here including The Spirit of St. Louis and the Space Shuttle Discovery.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, near the Washington Monument, was under construction when I visited in March 2016. It has now been open for several months and has already welcomed over 1 million visitors. It is the newest museum to open on the Mall and is in high demand. As such, entry is still free but tickets need to be requested and downloaded ahead of time. More information can be found at their website.
Other free Smithsonian Institute museums located on the Mall include the American History Museum, the American Art Museum, the American Indian Museum (above), the Natural History Museum, and more. The complete list can be found here. The Newseum, not a Smithsonian and not free, is nonetheless extremely highly recommended by everyone I know who has gone.
The U.S. Capitol building is also at this end of the Mall but every time I’ve been to D.C. it is covered in scaffolding so I don’t have any great photos for you. Fair warning to look out for scaffolding if you’re in town 😉
West: Important Figure and War Memorials
On the west side of the Washington Monument is the reflecting pool and a much more open lawn area. Closer to the impossible-to-miss Lincoln Memorial are the Vietnam War Memorial (on the north) and the Korean War Memorial (on the south). These two are fairly busy since the wars are more recent in our collective memory. You will see relatives and friends leaving trinkets and memories behind. It is a very sobering experience. If you poke around you will find other, smaller, statues and plaques peppered through the parks.
One of the newest additions to this area is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. It is a very impressive sight to behold, celebrating the U.S.’s most influential Civil Rights leader. From the King Memorial you can see across the tidal basin to the Jefferson Memorial, which has a beautiful setting and a nice architectural appeal. On a nice day it would be easy (but kind of far—it’s 22 on the map at the top of this post) to walk over, but on a cold or rainy day you can always take a taxi or an Uber like I did.
For food: You can eat at somewhat pricey museum cafes, or go a few blocks off the Mall to find some restaurants. Planning ahead or using a smartphone will be helpful for this, and eat early or late to avoid the lunchtime rush because lots of government employees do actually work around this area. You’ll find food trucks scattered around, or you could bring a picnic with you. There are lots of nice places to relax and rest between museums or memorials.
Viewing everything in one day wouldn’t be my recommendation, because it is a lot of slow-paced walking and standing which can cause leg aches. Everyone’s stamina is different, but it’s easy to get burned out, and then the sightseeing becomes a chore instead of a joy. Additionally, the museums go very in-depth so allow for plenty of time especially if there is one area you are particularly interested in.
To not get burned out, my tip is to make two half-day excursions and contrast the other half-day with something really different like exploring a funky neighborhood (like Adams Morgan or Old Town Alexandria) or take in a concert or play.
D.C. locals or aficionados, please check in! What is your favorite site to see on the National Mall!
Map via WikiCommons. Air and Space Museum photo by Sean Silverthorne on flickr. All other photos by Staci and Doug Jackson for The Voyageer.