The National Mall is the monumental green space at the heart of Washington, D.C., the heart of the national psyche, and the heart of civic America. This national treasure stretches for two miles just south of the White House, from the U.S. Capitol Building in the east to the Lincoln Memorial and Potomac River on the west. The park is home to the Smithsonian, a huge collection of the nation's best (and free) museums, as well as most of the country's most famous memorials and monuments. It is the number-one destination for visitors in the city, and one of the biggest destinations in the country.
D.C.'s city planner, Pierre L'Enfant, planned the park as the cultural center of the city in the late eighteenth century, but while it today seems impossible to imagine the city without it, it took until the beginning of the twentieth century for the government to get its act together and complete it. The plan at its most basic was to connect with grand vistas the three most highly symbolic monuments of the republic: the political center of the republic, the Capitol Building, on the east; the monument to the founder of the republic, George Washington, at the center; and the monument to the leader who saved the republic, Abraham Lincoln, on the west. The collection of monuments has expanded with the times to include enormous constructions for other presidents, the most notable being those for Thomas Jefferson and for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as recent wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War (arguably the most moving memorial in the city). Construction continues with the tide of history—a new monumental sculpture of Martin Luther King, Jr. was unveiled in the summer of 2011.
Aside from the political powers that be, the main tenant on the Mall is the Smithsonian Institute, a government-run research and educational institution established in 1846 for the "increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men." Starting out with but a mere castle to its name, the Smithsonian has over the past 100 years established an extraordinary collection of free public museums unparalleled in size and scope throughout the history of mankind, the majority of which are in the eastern one-mile stretch of the park. The public favorites are the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History, famed for their respective magnificent collections of U.S. spacecraft and complete dinosaur fossils. The expansion continues, with the much anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture slated for completion in 2015.
Monuments, museums, and memorials can easily distract a tourist from the actual significance of the Mall. The Mall is not simply a tribute to American history, it is where American history is made. The three branches of the government find their headquarters here, and the president as well as the country's congressional representatives and senators look out from their workplace upon the park (the Supreme Court got the short end of the stick, with just a view of the front of the Capitol Building). The Mall serves as the principal gathering space for the nation's most important civic events, especially major protests and, of course, inaugural events. Likely the most powerful event to occur on the Mall in recent memory was the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I Have a Dream speech.
The Metro is extremely convenient to the Mall (it was designed that way), and is by far the superior option to driving or even taking the bus. Even taxis are often less convenient, owing to the awful traffic.
the Washington Monument on the Fourth of July
The main Metro stop for the Mall is the Smithsonian station on the Blue/Orange Line, which drops you out on the east end of the Mall, right by all the museums. The Smithsonian station is relatively close to the center of the park, so you won't have to walk much more than a mile to get to any sights (although a mile on a hot summer day can be an unpleasant walk!). One stop south of Smithsonian on the Orange/Blue lines is Federal Center, which is very close to the southeast end of the Mall. If taking the Green/Yellow Line, Archives/Navy Memorial on the north and L'Enfant Plaza on the south are both very close to the museums.
West Potomac Park is rather poorly served by Metro. If you are going to the Lincoln Memorial, the closest station is actually across the border in Virginia at the Blue Line Arlington Cemetery station, just across the Arlington Memorial Bridge (which has good views). The Blue/Orange Line Foggy Bottom station in the West End is a similar distance to the north. Either is a good ten minute walk from the Lincoln Memorial.
Driving in and around the Mall is a great recipe for a headache due to chronic traffic jams, unintuitive traffic patterns, and very limited parking. Driving towards a monument doesn't mean the road will lead you towards it (more likely, it will hurl you across the river into Virginia). If there is any sort of special event going on, you can easily get stuck for hours. Parking garages throughout the West End and East End fill up early with office workers. Some may still have space available, but prices are steep (at least $14 per day). Double check the garage hours, so you can exit before the garage closes!
On evenings and weekends during the winter, it is sometimes possible to find metered parking on the mall (with two hour limits), although you should budget a lot of time to find a space just in case. There is no enforcement on Sundays or Federal holidays, so if you are lucky enough to find a spot, you can stay as long as you wish.
7th, 14th, and 17th St are the main north-south routes, while Pennsylvania and Independence Ave are the main routes for east-west traffic. If coming from Arlington, the simplest routes are I-395 to 14th St, or the Arlington Memorial Bridge to Independence Ave.
Taxis are easy to hail all day and night, and can be a especially convenient option from Georgetown, Union Station, or National Airport. Aside from peak periods such as Cherry Blossom season, when traffic slows taxi travel to a halt, taxis can be a nice way to take a load off your feet and get from one end of the Mall to the other quickly.
While Metro will connect you with most of the city without needing to take the bus, there are a couple key routes to be aware of (especially to Metro-less Georgetown).
Routes #31 and #32, #36 all run northwest up Pennsylvania Ave to M St through Georgetown, and then up Wisconsin Ave all the way to Friendship Heights. You can catch them as far south as Independence Ave west of the Capitol Building (after which they run up 7th St to Pennsylvania Ave).
The D.C. Circulator runs a very tourist-friendly service Sa-Su 10AM-6PM: the Smithsonian–National Gallery of Art "Purple" line, which rings the Mall from the Reflecting Pool in the west to the Capitol Building in the east. The Circulator's Convention Center–SW Waterfront "Red" line is a great way to move from the Mall along 7th St either up into Chinatown and the Convention Center, or down to the popular Waterfront and the Fish Wharf.
Waterfalls at the Museum of the American Indian
There's a lot to see on the Mall. You can walk the whole Mall on an afternoon to admire the sights and monuments, but note that it is bigger than it looks—over two miles end-to-end (3.2 km)—an illusion that is reinforced by the sheer size of the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial. What looks like a short stroll can quickly turn into a long, painful march in the sun on a D.C. humid summer day.
Moreover, you will want to budget some good time to visit the museums. Even a month's visit would not be enough to really devour all the Smithsonian's collections, so pick and choose according to your interests. The art galleries are fantastic, but bad for kids, who will on the other hand love the Natural History and Air and Space Museums (as will adults).
A great way to see a lot during a limited stay is to visit museums during the day and monuments at night. The museums usually close at 5PM, so head to dinner after the visit, then take a long walk to visit the monuments in the dark when the air cools, and when the monuments are their most beautiful. It's a popular activity in the summer, so you won't be alone even after midnight.
The Smithsonian is not a single museum; there are nineteen, the majority of them are on the east end of the Mall, all of which are free, and are open every day save Christmas.
East–west along the north side:
National Gallery of Art, ☎ +1 202 737-4215, . M-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 11AM-6PM. The staggering depth and breadth of the world-class collections here are a clear testament to U.S. wealth and power. The east building of this museum is devoted to modern art, while the west building showcases traditional, mostly European, paintings and sculptures. The west wing's impressionist gallery is likely the most popular, although it would be a shame to skip the east wing's fauvist and abstract expressionist galleries. Just west of the buildings is the relaxing sculpture garden, with a foot pool for cooling off tired feet.
National Museum of Natural History, ☎ +1 202 633-1000, . 10:30AM-5:30PM daily, often 10AM-7:30PM during peak season. The real show stoppers here are the gargantuan, complete dinosaur fossils, and you won't have to search to find them! Further into the museum you'll find displays of world cultures, meteorites, mineral samples, and the evolution of life from beginnings to today. Don't leave without seeing the overawing precious rock collection, including the Hope Diamond, the enormous blue diamond of legend.
Cherry blossoms at the FDR Memorial
National Museum of American History, ☎ +1 202 633-1000, . 10AM-5:30PM, summer 10AM-6:30PM. There is a lot here in one of the city's most informative museums, covering topics ranging from war to technology, social and political history. The biggest draw, though, is the Treasure Room (yes, the one of Stephen Colbert obsession), with an astonishing set of iconic Americana objects, ranging from the original Star-Spangled Banner and Abraham Lincoln's top hat, to Kermit the Frog and Dorothy's ruby slippers!
East–west along the south side:
National Museum of the American Indian, ☎ +1 866 400-6624, . 10AM-5:30PM daily. The newest of the Smithsonian museums displays the cultural traditions of the Native peoples of North, Central, and South America. It focuses on twentieth century and present day culture much more than pre-Columbian and colonial periods. The exhibits can be fascinating, but are not as grandiose as those of the other museums. Perhaps the most important attraction is the gorgeous building itself, designed by famous Native Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal of Blackfoot descent, echoing the ancient stone formations of the American Southwest, and surrounded by manifestations both metaphorical and literal of natural North American landscapes.
National Air and Space Museum, ☎ +1 202 633-1000, . 10AM-5:30PM daily. The most-visited museum in the world, this impressive repository covers the history of human flight, rocketry and space flight. It contains thousands of impressive artifacts, including the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, Apollo 11's command module Columbia, and the simulated bridge of an aircraft carrier. Enthusiasts should try to also make it to the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum out in Chantilly near Dulles International Airport; the Center houses full aviation and space aircraft (e.g., SR-71 Blackbird, Enola Gay B-29, Concorde, Shuttle Enterprise, etc.) that would not fit on the Mall.
Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, ☎ +1 202 633-5285, . 10AM-5:30PM daily; sculpture garden 7:30AM-dusk. Home to D.C.'s premier collection of international modern and contemporary art, housed in an intimidating brutalist spaceship of a building. The exhibits are wonderfully stimulating and cutting-edge, albeit often not made accessible to casual viewers (a free docent-led tour available noon-4PM can be helpful), and very often not family-friendly with very graphic content. The museum tries to make it clear when you are about to walk into an "adult exhibit," but do not count on this if you are with children. The sculpture gardens, however, are great fun for kids, and a nice quiet escape from the Mall proper. And this modern sculpture collection of several Rodins, a huge Lichtenstein brushstroke, and other famous works, is world-class!
Arts & Industries Building, ☎ +1 202 633-1000, . This beautiful building was the first major museum on the mall, built as the National Museum in 1881 to house the Smithsonian's earliest collections. The collections have since been moved to the Natural History and American History museums, but the building still does host occasional exhibits (and serves as office space for the Smithsonian). Currently closed for renovation.
Smithsonian Castle, ☎ +1 202 633-1000, . 8:30AM-5:30PM daily. This distinctive brick-red structure was the original Smithsonian museum. The building now presents an overview of the Smithsonian system as well as occasional exhibitions.
National Museum of African Art, (Connected to the Freer & Sackler galleries via tunnel), ☎ +1 202 633-4600, . 10AM-5:30PM daily. A much smaller museum of art than the massive NGA and Hirshhorn museums, but it is excellently exhibited, and extremely family-friendly, with daily events and programs for kids. The exhibits subvert the name of the museum, showing that creative arts from the African continent, traditional and contemporary, are too diverse to fit neatly under under the title of "African Art." The museum hosts frequent performances of storytellers, musicians, films, etc.
Roses at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, ☎ +1 202 633-1000, . 10AM-5:30PM daily. Asia is a rather large place, and a tour through these Asian Art museums is a bit like a travel from Japan to Turkey. The Asian galleries, along with the connected African Art museum are a lot quieter and more peaceful than the huge museums to the east, which can be quite a relief! Like their companion museum above, the Freer and Sackler galleries host very frequent events.
Washington Monument, . 9AM-4:45PM. The Monument is currently closed to repair earthquake damage. No man looms larger over American history than the first president, and no monument looms larger over D.C. than this, both the world's tallest stone structure and its tallest obelisk. (When completed in 1884 it was the world's tallest structure, and remains the tallest building by far in D.C.) Viewed from either end of the Mall its size may not be evident, but enter the enormous square on which it stands, and you'll realize just how monumental it is. The view from the 555 ft top is great on a clear day, allowing you to see up and down the Mall, and out as far as the Shenandoah Mountains. Entrance is by timed ticket, which are distributed on a first come first served basis, and are available free from a National Park Service booth on 15th St east of the monument. Get your ticket online in advance at the NPS Reservation Center , or as early as possible on the day of your visit (opens 8:30AM). If you can't get tickets or don't want to spend the time, you can get a similar panoramic view of D.C. with no wait at the Old Post Office Tower just a block north from the Mall.Free.
National World War II Memorial, ☎ +1 800 639-4992, . Many of D.C.'s monuments have a simple, sudden, and grandiose impact, and don't require much time to visit. Not so for this new memorial. WWII was the defining event of the twentieth century, in which sixteen million U.S. soldiers served, and 400,000 died—the enormity of the war is hard to grasp in one's mind, and the architect aimed to convey that enormity in this central memorial. To best appreciate it, you will have to walk around and slowly take it in. Kilroy was here—look for the hidden carving behind the Pennsylvania obelisk.
Reflecting Pool. The view from the Lincoln Memorial, with the 2,000 ft Reflecting Pool in the foreground and the Washington Monument just behind, and the Capitol Building in the distance, is famous and not to be missed. This was the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech, which he gave from the steps of the memorial over a crowd of 200,000 that didn't fit very well—many of them stood in the pool itself!
Declaration of Independence Memorial. A little known memorial stands on the island in the Constitution Gardens Lake, dedicated to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Not content to reside only on the document itself, their signatures have been reproduced here, etched in large granite blocks.
D.C. War Memorial. The Mall's only local memorial, and the only memorial to WWI, is this small structure in the form of a Doric-style open-air temple serving as tribute to the 26,000 Washingtonians who served in the Great War. You'll find here the names of the 499 who died engraved at the memorial's base. Recent attempts to re-dedicate the memorial as a national WWI memorial have ironically sparked fierce Washingtonian pride in the monument—the only local monument on the Mall, with locals seeing this as just one more indignity aimed at the city by a Congress for which it cannot vote.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial, . Often described as the most moving memorial in the city, the Vietnam Memorial stands as tribute to those who died or went missing, intended to transcend political controversy in remembrance of the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Its centerpiece is a simple black granite wall engraved with the 58,256 names of each.
Trudging through the snow at the Korean War Memorial
Korean War Veterans Memorial, . This memorial is a little hidden in the woods, and perhaps that's appropriate for the memorial to the one major war of the twentieth century (in which over 600,000 allied troops died) that did not leave such a huge impression in the American mind—the Forgotten War. It's easily one of the city's most powerful, though. The focus of the monument is the nineteen very realistic steel statues of American soldiers moving across the landscape (nineteen, because they total 38—referring to the 38th parallel—when reflected in the water). The lighting at night leaves an especially disconcerting, ghostly impression. The best time to visit might be after a winter snow storm, which will help you remember the worst hardship of the war—the snowy marches through the cruel Siberian winds.
Lincoln Memorial, . Most of the D.C. memorials, especially those for U.S. leaders, are meant to awe and impress in a very direct manner. None more so than this impressive monument in a commanding location at the end of the Mall. Modeled after the Greek Temple of Zeus, Lincoln sits with a commanding presence overlooking the reflecting pool, straight across the Mall to the Washington Monument and beyond it the Capitol Building. Few monuments in the world can match the simple power of the Lincoln Memorial at night.
Tidal Basin area
Urban America and natural America coexist in close quarters in the crowded, but thickly forested Mid-Atlantic. For the most part the humans cause trouble for the wildlife, not the other way around, but beavers can give them a run for their money. A beaver husband and wife decided that the Tidal Basin would make an excellent location for a house, and began chopping down Cherry Blossoms in order to dam it up, threatening to flood the Mall. While the Park Service recognizes that the Mall would indeed make a grand beaver pond, it sided with the tourists, surrounded the tree bases with chicken wire, and moved the beavers to an undisclosed location.
Bureau of Engraving and Printing, ☎ +1 866 874-2330, +1 202 874-2330, . Not a museum, this is where the Treasury prints money. Free tours (tickets required) on weekdays, but no, they do not give out free samples. It's plenty worth it to come, if only to drool at the millions of dollars created literally in the space of your tour.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, . The newest of the Mall's memorials, dedicated to the fallen civil rights leader. You enter between two slabs of granite that symbolize a "Mountain of Despair" before standing before the "Stone of Hope", both named based on a line in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. A 30-foot likeness of King is carved out of the Stone of Hope overlooking the Tidal Basin, while a nearby wall contains inscriptions of quotes from many of King's speeches.
FDR Memorial, . Filled with sculptures, wartime and depression era quotes, and numerous waterfalls (beautifully lit up at night), the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is one of the city's most peaceful and contemplative places for a walk. It is divided into four sections, each dedicated to one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's four terms in his twelve year presidency.
Jefferson Memorial, ☎ +1 202 426-6841, . Thomas Jefferson played an outsized role as one of the republic's founding fathers, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third president. Accordingly, he has an enormous statue in a circular, neoclassical, open-air building, based largely on the design of the Roman Pantheon, and standing prominently on the bank of the Tidal Basin. Quotes from Jefferson's writings, including the Declaration of Independence, are reproduced on the walls.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ☎ +1 202 488-0400, . 10AM-5:30PM daily. Both a museum and a memorial, this space is dedicated to the exposition of just what exactly occurred during the Holocaust, its pointless inhumanity and unbelievable suffering. Exhibits include video and audio testimonies as well as more traditional museum exhibits. This is without a doubt the most somber, and even disturbing place for visitors on the Mall, and a good portion of the visitors leave sobbing—make sure your kids are old enough for this material. Entrance is by free timed ticket on a first come, first served basis during the busy months of March-August.
Balzac on a fine autumn day in the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden
The Mall is also a public gathering space not just for protesters and pigeons, but also for locals and visitors alike who are more interested in a jog, a game of frisbee, or just a picnic out on a beautiful section of the nation's capital, in the company of monuments, history, and public art. Keep in mind, though, that a hot summer day, with the unbearable humidity, can be the worst time of the year for this—you will inevitably rush inside to the air conditioned sanctuary of the nearest museum.
Jazz-o-scope, . 26 June-28 Aug: Th 5:30PM-7PM (usually). Open air concerts by the center fountain under the Hirshhorn Museum are well attended and feature some great performers both local and international.Free.
Samuel C Johnson IMAX Theater (in the Natural History Museum), ☎ +1 202 633-4629, . Shows IMAX films all day long, mostly on natural history topics, such as dinosaurs and ocean life, in addition to some major blockbusters.$9.
Sculpture Garden Ice-Skating Rink, ☎ +1 202 289-3360, . Nov–March: M-Th 10AM-7PM, F-Sa 10AM-9PM, Su 11AM-7PM. A relaxing place just outside the National Gallery of Art to enjoy the fresh air, listen to music, and enjoy the surroundings, including a view of the National Archives building. Take a break from skating to enjoy hot cocoa or a meal at the Pavilion Café, next to the skating rink. Note that the sculpture garden itself closes M-Sa 5PM, Su 6PM, and access after that time is restricted to the ice rink only.$7 adults, $6 children, students, and seniors; $3 skate rental.
Tidal Basin Paddle Boats, 1501 Main Ave SW, ☎ +1 202 479-2426, . 10AM-6PM daily 15 March–Labor Day; otherwise W-Su only. Paddling around the Tidal Basin, admiring the monuments and the surrounding parks has got to be one of the best ways to laze about on the Mall. It's also one of the best ways to get sunburnt on the Mall, so bring lotion!$10 2-person/hour, $18 4-person.
The Mall is a great place to get souvenirs. All the museums have excellent gift shops and those owned by the Smithsonian are tax-free. The largest can be found in the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum. The gift shop in the National Building Museum to the north is one of the best gift shops in the city (though D.C. sales tax applies). Of course, the cheaper option is to pick up your souvenirs from the street vendors along the Mall, although, as you would expect, the quality is a big step down from the museum shops.
The Galacha Emerald at the Natural History Museum (alas, not for sale)
The larger museums have cafeterias and cafes  of varying prices and quality—in general, you get what you pay for. If you're on the mall, it's either these cafeterias or the hot dog stands. Alternatively, you can march north towards the Penn Quarter and Chinatown, or better yet south to the Waterfront for some fresh-out-of-the-water crabs and other seafood.
Cascade Cafe, ☎ +1 202 737-4215, . M-Sa 11AM-3PM, Su 11AM-4PM. In the National Gallery of Art, has fast buffet style food with salads and great desserts. It's not practical to visit unless you are already in the Gallery, but that gelato really hits the spot.$5-10.
Mitsitam Café, ☎ +1 202 633-1000, . 10AM-5PM daily. This is by far the new favorite on the Mall. The National Museum of the American Indian's cafe is slightly more expensive than most museum cafeterias, but with good reason. The cafeteria food thankfully does not taste like cafeteria food, and it features interesting pre-Columbian Native foods from throughout the Western Hemisphere.$5-20.
Smartkart, Locations outside the Hirshhorn Museum and American History Museum, . 11AM-6PM. New concept for outdoor food carts, Smartkarts have appeared recently around D.C., selling tacos, empanadas, and salads, along with organic snacks, from an eco-friendly electric vehicle.$5.
The Wright Place, ☎ +1 202 357-2700, . 10AM-5PM daily. The food is not great (fast food chains), but it is in a relaxing, plant-filled, glass atrium adjacent to the Air and Space Museum.$1-10.
No booze on the Mall. It's not BYOB either. If you want to find a bar, you have three options, head north, south, or east. Of the three, the Pennsylvania Ave strip on Capitol Hill to the east has superior options (to the touristy bars just north). It's within easy walking distance of the Capitol Building. If you are over by the Lincoln Memorial, you could try your luck to the north near George Washington University.
You can also enjoy a beer at the cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian or a glass of wine or beer at the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery.
If you are here on a summer day, bring water. The museums have plenty of water fountains, but you'll need water outside. The huge sandy park that is the Mall is fun for throwing around a football, or for letting the kids loose to chase pigeons, but all that sand and gravel reflects the awful D.C. summer humid heat. The street vendors stock water bottles in large supply, but charge a big markup—bringing a couple bottles from wherever you are staying is a good idea.
People have camped out on the Mall or the Ellipse, waiting in line to get tickets for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll and other special events. Aside from that, there is neither camping nor accommodations on the Mall.
There are scores of hotels, at all price ranges, in the Penn Quarter and West End, as well as a few in Capitol Hill—all within walking distance of the Mall. But given the great service to the Mall via Metro, it's reasonable to stay anywhere in the city (or the close-in suburbs) near a Metro station. Arlington, Virginia is particularly close.
The Open Park Project is working to make the whole Mall between 4th and 14th St one big wireless hotspot, but until then you'll have to head north to Freedom Plaza (14th & Pennsylvania Ave) or east to the steps of the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress for your free wireless needs.
Alternatively, the Smithsonian Castle(10th St & Jefferson Ave SW) provides free WiFi in the immediate vicinity, and its gardens are a perfectly lovely place to catch up on your email.
The National Mall is very heavily policed and very safe. Muggings have occurred at night and received major press coverage due to their sensational nature, but they are extremely rare. Use the most basic common sense and you're guaranteed a lovely evening late into the night. (Note, though, that the fountains are turned off at midnight, so it is better to see the sights beforehand.)
Some of the city's best museums are not on the Mall! The East End is home to many more of the Smithsonian museums, including the National Archives, where you'll find the U.S. Constitution, and the International Spy Museum.
The three branches of the government are located just around, but not on, the Mall. The White House is just north of the Washington Monument in the West End; the must-see Capitol Building and the Supreme Court are just east on Capitol Hill.
The most famous war memorial in the city, Arlington Cemetery is not actually in the city—it is just across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial, across the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Arlington. At the northern tip of the cemetery is the marvelous Iwo Jima Memorial; at the southern tip, the Pentagon.
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