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The Ultimate Guide to the National Mall

Discover iconic monuments, museums and houses of government to explore on your trip.

U.S. News & World Report

The Ultimate Guide to the National Mall

National Mall with Washington Monument, Washington DC, USA
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(Getty Images)

Experience the best of the District with a quick jaunt to the National Mall.

No trip to the District of Columbia is complete without a visit to the National Mall. The site of presidential inaugurations, historic protest marches and a brand-new Smithsonian museum, this 2-mile-long grassy lawn that runs through the heart of the nation's capital sees over 25 million visitors per year. Here, you'll find the city's iconic marbled monuments and museums. Plus, the White House and Capitol are steps away. If you're visiting the city for the first time – or if you want to give your feet and camera a workout – plan on spending a day here. And if you're short on time, check out these top sights and museums.
The iconic residence of the sitting President of the United States.
Credit

(Getty Images)

The White House

There's no bad place to start a National Mall tour, but the White House might be one of the best places to kick off your journey. Just north of the Mall, the presidential estate is bounded by the pedestrian-only Pennsylvania Avenue on one side, a great place for an up-close view of the front of the White House, and the grassy Ellipse on the other, where you can catch a classic fountain and South Portico view. And while White House tours need to be planned far in advance, the public White House Visitor Center provides an extensive overview if you can't make it inside.
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Experience the best of the District with a quick jaunt to the National Mall.

No trip to the District of Columbia is complete without a visit to the National Mall. The site of presidential inaugurations, historic protest marches and a brand-new Smithsonian museum, this 2-mile-long grassy lawn that runs through the heart of the nation's capital sees over 25 million visitors per year. Here, you'll find the city's iconic marbled monuments and museums. Plus, the White House and Capitol are steps away. If you're visiting the city for the first time – or if you want to give your feet and camera a workout – plan on spending a day here. And if you're short on time, check out these top sights and museums.

The White House

There's no bad place to start a National Mall tour, but the White House might be one of the best places to kick off your journey. Just north of the Mall, the presidential estate is bounded by the pedestrian-only Pennsylvania Avenue on one side, a great place for an up-close view of the front of the White House, and the grassy Ellipse on the other, where you can catch a classic fountain and South Portico view. And while White House tours need to be planned far in advance, the public White House Visitor Center provides an extensive overview if you can't make it inside.

The Washington Monument

Rising out of the center of the National Mall and just a short stroll from the White House, the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument is one of the most iconic symbols in the District. Look closely at the tower and you'll spot a section about a third of the way up where the marble changes color. This is because the building ran out of money and construction was paused in 1854 – when construction started again 25 years later, the marble came from a different quarry.

The Reflecting Pool

Walk west from the Washington Monument, and you'll pass through one of the Mall's newer monuments: the National World War II Memorial. The tranquil arena is surrounded by pillars bearing the names of U.S. states and territories. At the western edge of this monument is a long pond known as the Reflecting Pool. At one end of the pool is the columned Lincoln Memorial, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous “I have a Dream” speech, as well as a classic scene from the 1994 Academy Award-winning film "Forrest Gump." On either side you'll find the solemn black wall commemorating Vietnam War veterans and the larger-than-life soldier statues of the Korean War Veterans Memorial.

The Tidal Basin

South of the Reflecting Pool, the Tidal Basin is home to another cluster of monuments. Most famous is the round, white-marble Jefferson Memorial. Nearby, you'll find the calming waterfalls of the FDR Memorial and the legendary statue of MLK, which pays homage to the civil rights leader. The Tidal Basin itself, a protected inlet, is a popular place for paddleboating. It's also a prime place to catch sight of the city's cherry blossom trees; come spring you'll see huge crowds flock to see the tiny pink and white blossoms.

The museums

While the western half of the National Mall is dominated by major monuments, the eastern half is presided over by grand museums and institutions. There are more than 10 museums surrounding the Mall, exhibiting everything from art to artifacts from the Holocaust. It would be impossible to visit everything in a single day, or week for that matter, so if you're short on time, stick to a highlights tour: the top three museums are the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Natural History Museum and American History Museum. And don't skip checking out the Mall's newest addition: the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in the fall.

The U.S. Capitol

At the far eastern end of the mall, just over 1 mile from the Washington Monument, sits the grand domed U.S. Capitol Building. There's a reflecting pool in front of the building where you can snap your "House of Cards"-style picture. Inside, the large underground U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is a good place to start your visit, or tag along on a tour, which includes a look at the magnificent rotunda and the Statuary Hall. If you want to see Congress in session, reserve ahead through your local representative's office.

Where to eat.

Despite being a top-visited destination, the dining options on the National Mall are fairly limited. Some museums such as the African American History and Culture and American Indian museums are known for their food courts, which carry through the cultural themes of the exhibits into cuisine. Otherwise, your best bet is to take a break from the mall for lunch or dinner, and refuel near the White House at a historic restaurant like Old Ebbitt Grill or in Downtown D.C. and Penn Quarter.

Where to stay.

Since the National Mall runs for 2 miles through the center of town, there are plenty of places to stay with easy access. Some of Washington's classic hotels are located around the White House; The Hay-Adams and the Willard InterContinental have welcomed presidents and dignitaries, while the W Hotel has one of the best rooftop bars in the city. Other neighborhoods to consider are Dupont Circle and Logan Circle. If you're looking to cut costs, consider staying across the river in Arlington, Virginia. It's an easy metro ride to the Mall, and reasonable priced lodging rates are easy to come by.

Get around the National Mall with ease.

If you're planning on tackling the National Mall by foot, wear comfortable shoes. Not up for walking? Happily, there are bus, bike and Segway tours running daily. Another option is to take a night tour (either self-guided or with a group), as the monuments are open and beautifully illuminated in the evening. Also, remember the busiest times to visit the Mall are late March to early April, particularly during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and during summer when school kids are on vacation. And keep in mind that if you come during the summertime, D.C. is very hot and muggy, so you likely will want to spend more time indoors.
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