A Visit to the National Mall
I often travel to D.C. for work and equally as often lament the fact that I don’t ever get the chance to just be a tourist there, because I love the city. Every time I go, though, I make it a point to make time for at least one museum or landmark, and over the years I’ve managed to slowly work my way through some of the best sites D.C. has to offer. On my most recent trip I was lucky enough to be staying near the National Mall and had the opportunity to walk or run the roughly six mile loop every day I was there. Each trip up and down the historic strip between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol reminded me of how many wonderful things there are to do and see in the park’s 146 acres (yes, it is technically a national park, although an urban setting like D.C. is not usually what this Colorado girl thinks of when someone says the words “national park”).
The distance from one end of the Mall to the other is a little under three miles and can be walked in about 40 minutes if you don’t stop – but you are definitely going to want to stop!
Lincoln Memorial – This is my favorite place along the Mall and the perfect spot to do some reflecting or start an early morning run. The monument is equally as impressive in daylight as it is lit up at night. It’s often extremely crowded, though, so if you prefer to let the awe of the place sink in in relative quiet, early morning is your best bet. The good news is that it’s open 24 hours a day, so it’s easily accessible to those who want to start (or end) the day here. After you’ve climbed the stairs, make sure you take a minute to turn around and take in the spectacular view of the Washington Monument and reflecting pool in the distance.
The Vietnam Wall is at the this end of the Mall and a short walk Southwest of the Lincoln Memorial. I’ve only made that stop once, but its reputation for being a powerful memorial is well deserved.
Washington Monument – A brief stroll from the Lincoln Memorial along the reflecting pool will take you to the Washington Monument. Unfortunately, it’s currently closed for repairs, which means that no one is allowed inside the actual monument, but it’s still an iconic landmark that’s fun to walk past.
If you’re planning on walking to the White House (about a mile and 20 minutes on foot), now is the time to head North. The Washington Monument sits on a hill and the White House is visible from this vantage point.
My next favorite place on the mall is the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian Institute oversees and curates many of the museums in D.C. and they do a great job. I haven’t been in one that I’ve been disappointed in, and that’s coming from a huge museum nerd. As if that wasn’t enough, they’re also free! Be prepared to go through security in each building and to leave any bags that are overly large in coat check. The Smithsonian Castle is across the mall from the Natural History Museum, and even though its collection is small, it’s not to be missed. The building itself stands out because of its gothic architecture and they always have some fun oddities on display that rotate fairly often. Also in the Smithsonian family is the National Gallery of Art, which spans two buildings and has an impressive permanent collection as well as various visiting collections. The Gallery has a small but lovely Degas sculpture collection that includes not only some of the ballerina pieces that he is well known for but also a collection of lesser known horse figurines that are a great example of his early work. The third museum that I put in the can’t miss category is the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s both well designed and well curated. Every visit makes me wish that I had longer to spend. The food they serve in the cafeteria on the main floor is some of the best (and more reasonably priced) I’ve had along the Mall. The one museum that I haven’t had the opportunity to visit and I really want to is the African American History and Culture Museum. I was hoping to be able to go this last time I was in D.C., but they’re still requiring advance reservations and they were booked for several weeks out when I got online to reserve tickets.
The Mall ends at the United States Capitol. The Capitol Visitors’ Center is located below the East Plaza (which is the side opposite the Mall). Security is extremely tight to enter the Capitol and no food or drink is allowed inside.
While they are not technically on the Mall, my final, favorite stops are the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. The Supreme Court is located directly across the street from the Capitol Visitors’ Center and the Library of Congress is catty corner. The Library of Congress, which is actually spread across three buildings, is stunning and it doesn’t surprise me that there are often very long lines to get in. The experience is well worth the wait. I love that they offer themed tours in addition to their general guided tours.
I think that D.C. is an often underrated city and vacation spot. You could easily spend 3-4 days just visiting all of the sites along the Mall, but that’s just a small slice of what D.C. has to offer. And if confining yourself to the city isn’t enough, the surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland also have a lot to offer.