The National Mall is an amazing two-mile green strip of land in Washington, D.C., that stretches from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. Filled with monuments, memorials, museums, and a world-famous art gallery, the Mall is a great place to explore. You can fill a day (or several days) visiting the attractions. it’s incredible just to be here where so much of American history has taken place.
The Mall is sometimes described as reaching only from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. But in common usage, the “Washington Mall” encompasses the official Mall and the lawns and walkways to the west, including the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial. Sometimes people include the Tidal Basin, but I will leave that rich, worthy area for another article.
There’s so much packed into this plot of land, you will want to look at maps and do some planning before you go. Here are highlights starting at one end near the Capitol and going to the other end to the Lincoln Memorial.
Download The Free National Park Service App
Before your trip, download the NPS National Mall app. This will help you plan and navigate so you don’t miss what you would most enjoy. Save yourself from backtracking or overlooking anything. Look at the layout and see how far apart the memorials and monuments are. And read up on the many museums. You’ll also find listings of seasonal programming.
This app includes the Mall proper and the Tidal Basin, which is home to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.
Get Your Cultural Fix At The National Gallery Of Art
The National Gallery of Art is a cultural gift to America. At the northeast end of the Mall, the National Gallery houses more than 150,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, and drawings. These span the history of Western art. European and American paintings and sculptures date from the Renaissance to the present. And admission is free.
Given as a gift to the country by financier Andrew W. Mellon in 1937, the gallery first displayed Mellon’s art collection. Since then, donations have allowed the gallery to grow to its vast present size.
Be sure to visit the 6-acre sculpture garden that’s now part of the National Gallery.
Gaze Up At The Washington Monument
The iconic Washington Monument rises 555 feet into the sky and is visible from anywhere on the mall. The obelisk is the tallest freestanding stone structure in the world, built to honor the country’s first president, George Washington. Not only is it an imposing monument, but it also serves as a symbol of Washington, D.C.
Construction began in 1848 but came to a halt due to war and political disagreements. When you are up close, you can see a clear line where the color of the stone changes partway up. This marks the place where the first installment stalled and when construction resumed, builders brought in stone from a different quarry.
The monument opened in 1885. An original steam-driven elevator, which took about 10 minutes to reach the top of the monument, was replaced in 1901 with an electric elevator. Now closed for renovation, the elevator will likely not be running. But be sure to plan time to gaze up at the monument from the grass area at its base.
Pay Your Respects At The World War II Memorial
Walking west from the Washington Monument, you will come to the World War II Memorial. This honors the 16 million Americans who served in uniform in the war. With its graceful fountains and blue pool of water, this is one beautiful memorial.
The granite columns lined up around the pool represent each U.S. state and territory at the time of World War II. Quotes, references to theaters, campaigns, battles, and two massive victory pavilions chronicle Americans’ efforts to win the war.
Most impressive to me is the curving wall of 4,048 gold stars. Each twinkling star stands for 100 Americans who paid the ultimate price to help win the war. A granite sign in this field of stars notes: “Here We Mark the Price of Freedom.”
While you’re there, look for a hard-to-find detail in this memorial. An etching of “Kilroy Was Here” is hidden behind the Delaware state column. This is a popular WWII graphic that indicated American soldiers were present.
Between the WWII Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, the Reflecting Pool lies peacefully in the middle of wide paths lined with elm trees. This promenade is one of the most photographed sights in Washington, D.C.
You may want to walk alongside the Reflecting Pool in the daytime, at sunset, and after dark to take in the different kinds of light on the water.
Spend Time At The Lincoln Memorial
The stately Lincoln Memorial anchors the west end of the Mall and is one place you will want to take your time exploring. You’ve likely seen photos of this marble memorial, but once you are there, the massive size may make you feel small. It’s quite an experience to stand under the sculpture of Lincoln and look out at the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol building as the Mall spreads out before you.
Distinctive large columns rise from the top of the stone steps and reach more than 40 feet high. These 36 columns each represent a state in the Union when Lincoln died. Lincoln sits in contemplation behind these columns. Surrounding walls are engraved with words he spoke.
The Lincoln Memorial is modeled after the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The architect, Henry Bacon, stated that Lincoln defended democracy, so his memorial should hark back to the birthplace of democracy.
The steps of the Lincoln Memorial and the landscape of the Reflecting Pool have been the scene of rallies, concerts, and parties. Most well known is likely the day when Martin Luther King Jr. stood on these steps and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. An etching at the top of the steps marks the exact spot where Dr. King stood.
Visit The Somber Vietnam Veterans Memorial
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial spreads along the north end of the Mall just east of the Lincoln Memorial. This elegant dark wall is inscribed with the names of those lost in this war. The listing of the 53,318 Americans is in chronological order.
You can locate a name or simply walk along and think about the cost of the war in human lives. It’s moving to see someone reach out to a name or leave flowers at the base of the wall. While the war was controversial, it’s appropriate to honor those who gave their lives.
Seek Out The Lesser-Known Korean War Veterans Memorial
On the south side of the Lincoln Memorial, you’ll find the Korean War Veterans Memorial. This somewhat eerie depiction of life-sized soldiers is worth a visit. This monument honors those who were called on to defend a country far from home.
Take In As Many Fabulous Museums As You Can
The Smithsonian Institute runs many museums lining both the north and south sides of the Mall. Check the website for a full listing and maps. All of these are free to the public. Only time limits your explorations.
Two of the most popular are the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History.
The National Air and Space Museum is a treasure trove of aircraft. The museum focuses on the story of flight. Displays include Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule. Visitors can also see the space suit astronaut Neil Armstrong wore during his mission to the moon and touch a sample of a lunar rock brought back from the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
This museum is undergoing reconstruction which will be ongoing into 2025. It will be open during this time but some exhibits may be closed.
The National Museum of American History preserves an extraordinary national collection of intriguing objects ranging from Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet to Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Collections include a remarkable array of documents, photographs, and music. Whatever your interests, you are sure to find an exhibit you’ll want to see.
Other notable museums are the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
All of the museums are free and unticketed, so you can go back on different days if you didn’t get your fill of a particular museum. I went to the National Air and Space Museum two times on my last trip and still didn’t see as much as I wanted to. I hope to return!
Check Out The Options For Fascinating Tours
What you see as you stroll along the Mall is just the surface of American history. Why not go on a tour to learn more about the monuments, memorials, and museums?
One great choice is to take a tour with DC by Foot. This company offers daily tours of the National Mall, as well as other Washington, D.C., sights. You can extend the tour to cover the Tidal Basin. At the end of your tour, you pay what you want.
In your travels, you may have discovered that some cities must be seen at night as well as in the day. Washington, D.C., is certainly one of these. Most museums close at nightfall, but the monuments and memorials light up and are even more stunning than in daylight.
I enjoyed a fantastic bike tour with Bike and Roll DC that took me around the lighted monuments and gave the group time to sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for a stunning view of the Mall in lights. It’s a magical sight I will always remember.
You are in the heart of Washington, D.C., when you are strolling through the Mall. And not only is the Mall filled with historical sights but it is also lovely. The pools, fountains, lawns, and leafy trees invite you to relax in this peaceful place. You may find yourself contemplating, as Lincoln is in his oversized stone chair, the mysteries and joys of life.
Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, is filled with amazing sights and activities: