When you visit Washington’s National Mall, you might stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and see the Capitol dome shimmering white in the distance. Inspired, you say: “Let’s walk down there.”
No. You won’t, and you shouldn’t.
It’s just over two miles from Lincoln’s lap to the Majority Leader’s office, but you can’t get there from here.
Oh, sure, if you stop nowhere — if you breeze past the National Museum of African American History & Culture, ignore the Vietnam and World War II memorials, avert your eyes from the White House South Lawn, blast by the soaring obelisk of the Washington Monument, and strut blindly past some of the finest collections of art, history, and technology in the nation, all while shimmying past gaggles of girl scouts from Iowa and high school civics scrums from Massachusetts… you might make it in, say, an hour. But you shouldn’t try.
Instead, you should rent e-bikes to take in all of this and more, reserving quality time for the few places that matter most to you and expanding your range of possibilities, all without adding a drop of sweat to your bucket list bucket.
If you haven’t had the pleasure, an e-bike packs a silent electric motor that provides a gentle assist as you pedal, magically compressing distance and extending time like some nutty astrophysicist’s two-wheeled basement invention. You needn’t have ridden a bike any more recently than the Carter administration. You don’t have to be in shape. You can have a bum knee, a titanium hip, or that thing in your neck where you slept funny.
All you need is comfortable clothes and the desire to pack as much National Mall touring as possible into a couple of hours, a half-day, or — oh, go ahead — a full breakfast-to-dinner extravaganza.
Pro Tip: Install the Capital Bikeshare app before you come to Washington. Not only will this spare you the indignity of setting up an account while standing in the sun trying to get your day going, but it’s also the only way to locate the nearest available Capital Bikeshare e-bike. Rentals cost about $6 per hour with a day pass, so call it around $50 for a full day.
1. The Lincoln Memorial
Yes, the Lincoln Memorial is absolutely one of the essential highlights of a Washington tour. You can leave your bike out front and take in the view from there or climb the steps and get close to the immense marble sculpture of Lincoln, his sad, knowing eyes nearly three stories above you. Take time to read his Second Inaugural Address, etched into the wall to your right. It’s one of the great pieces of American prose. I dare you to remain unmoved.
Pro Tip: At most places, for a short dismount, you don’t need to find a bike share dock or use the provided bike lock to chain it to a bike rack. The ubiquitous bikes are rarely the target of thieves.
2. Arlington Cemetery
Your first e-biking bonus! It’s over a mile from the Lincoln temple to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, and as you cross the Memorial Bridge by battery power, you’ll get intimate with the colossal, muscular, gilded Art of War sculptures standing guard. You can’t take the bikes on the paths among the thousands of graves, but you can dock in the rack and take in the startlingly precise, unpausing military ritual for the unknowns, pass JFK’s eternal memorial flame, and his brothers’ Robert and Ted’s graves, and stroll the somber rolling hills of emerald and stone.
Pro Tip: Trek up to the Robert E. Lee Memorial if you’d like a dose of lesser-known Washington history. The family of the traitor-turned-peacemaker once lived in a grand home overlooking the capital.
3. The Tidal Basin
Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, And Martin Luther King Jr. Memorials
Another e-bike bonus already! Others will trudge. You’ll effortlessly glide over a mile to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, far less visited because it’s a haul from the big National Mall attractions. It’s easy to take in quickly with a brief dismount.
On the way back, please spend some time at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, a more recent, lesser-known addition. It comprises several outdoor “rooms” that portray various chapters in the three-term president’s life. There’s a remarkable sculpture of Roosevelt sitting in his wheelchair, an image most Americans were denied during his lifetime. The bronze faces of the men standing in a bread line during the Great Depression will stay with you for the rest of the day, or maybe the rest of your life.
On the way back, you’ll cruise the rim of the Tidal Basin (take care! No safety fence!), home of D.C.’s famed cherry trees, and arrive at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The top of his body nearly lunges from a huge slab of Georgia granite. King looks stern, even intimidating. This created some controversy when the memorial was unveiled, as some observers expected compassion and quiet determination. If there were no controversy, this would not be Washington.
Pro Tip: Close to the King complex are the newest, cleanest bathrooms you’ll encounter outside the museums.
4. World War II, Vietnam, And Korean Memorials
As you return to the National Mall itself, you can take in monuments of the three wars that define mid-century America. The World War II Memorial plaza, split into zones memorializing the European and Pacific theaters, is classical and heroic, easy to take in via a ride around the circumference. The Korean War Memorial is an unsettling quick stop, depicting heavily-coated soldiers prowling anxiously through the brush. Then, of course, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The black walls embed the names of the nearly 58,000 dead from the Vietnam conflict, in chronological order. At the apex, where the wall of names soars high above you, the immensity of the human tragedy is overpowering.
Pro Tip: You’re allowed to walk your bike along the path.
5. The National Museum Of African American History & Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest National Mall museum. Its structure alone is a marvel just to look at, a three-layered crown recalling a West African headwear style, its elaborately detailed bronze-colored surfaces suggesting craftwork of the enslaved people of the American South. It stands alone, commanding, and unique.
Pro Tip: Touring the museum — by all accounts a fantastic and moving experience, but I haven’t had the pleasure — requires a ticket, so be sure to arrange it before you come. Happily, with your handy e-bike, you can nail the timing from nearly anywhere.
6. The White House And Lunch
While you can scoot over for a look at the White House South Lawn, which faces the National Mall, the money view is from Pennsylvania Avenue. You’re on an e-bike, so it’s just five minutes around the corner! From the front, you see the full expanse of the White House campus — the ceremonial East Wing, the (generous) family quarters, and the where-the-action-is West Wing. It’s all elegant and stately, its front door decorated with wedding-cake filigree. The omnipresent protesters remind you that part of the American story is being allowed to shout at the president about it.
Pro Tip: The only street name you need to know for your biking tour is 15th Street. It has a conspicuously marked, two-way bike path protected from car traffic by curbs and bollards. It’ll take you up to the White House and, from there, to any number of nearby restaurants (two picks: The Old Ebbitt Grill or the Vue Rooftop DC at the Hotel Washington). The path will take you deep into D.C. proper if you’re up for it. Your Bikeshare app has GPS.
7. National Mall Museums
Back to the National Mall, now you’re headed to museum alley, lined with some of America’s best tributes to, well, nearly everything. The opportunities overfill the mind, and if you don’t properly plan, your day. Targets are essential. At the National Museum of Natural History, for instance, ask at the desk where the Hope Diamond is, head there, and dip in and out briefly along the way. American History: Go for Jefferson’s lap desk, the original Star Spangled Banner, or Archie Bunker’s chair. At the National Gallery of Art, built around the nearly 1,000 works donated by banking heir Paul Mellon, just ask where to find the van Goghs, the Cezannes, or the Winslow Homers.
Pro Tip: The National Air and Space Museum was in a multi-year renovation when I wrote this, but if you’re looking for a target, I’m sure it’ll still have the replica Apollo program lunar module. It’s always looked to me like a monstrous junior high science project in a gold foil diaper, a shockingly primitive thing that somehow carried actual humans to and from the actual surface of the actual moon. Crazy.
8. The Capitol And Beyond
That alabaster dome you spied from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? You’re finally there, your legs as fresh as they were at breakfast! Cycle past the reflecting pool, the lot where only the Congressional big shots are allowed to park (most cars are quite modest, but who owns that Maserati?), and then bike around the spacious grounds. The views are invigorating from all angles. Depending on what unpleasant activity has occurred there recently, barriers may prevent closer inspection. Want a Capitol tour? Access varies, and reservations are recommended.
Wheel around behind the Capitol building for a drive-by of the Supreme Court building, the Library of Congress, and the unexpectedly located Folger Shakespeare Library. Insider bonus e-bike secret: Ride on a few blocks to D Street and duck into the Monocle, an eatery long known as a getaway for members of Congress seeking quiet refuge. You’re no insider, but at least you’re not sweating. So grab a drink or a meal, and raise a toast to your fine day.
For more information on traveling to Washington, D.C., check out these articles: