DC Guide: National Mall & Monuments

Marvel at the national landmarks in Washington, DC that make up America’s front yard. Apart from the politicking, DC is perhaps best known for its stunning monuments and world class museums that spark awe in visitors and locals alike. Here is our DG Guide to the National Mall & Monuments for the highlights and helpful tips – from locals!

“There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”

-Franklin D. Roosevelt

Catch sunrise.

Wake up early and head down to the National Mall. Watching sunrise from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial is absolutely breathtaking. Plus, you’ll be rewarded with peaceful views of the Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument with none of the crowds. Maybe even bring along some hot coffee and breakfast if you’re feeling extra – everyone around you will wish they had thought of that too!

Capture that perfect lighting and great memories with a photographer while you’re at it! Derek Calderon Photography is amazing and so easy to work with – Derek took all our photos in the gallery below.

Explore the sites by foot, rent a Capital Bike Share, or take a Big Bus Tour.

We recommend this route mapped out below to hit all the highlights if you have the good part of a day to spend, or pick and choose which sites you want to see.

Note: We highly recommend either walking or biking. While you can use a ride share scooter on the Mall, you will not be able to park and end your ride in this zone.

  1. Lincoln Memorial – Try to time your visit at sunrise for one of the prettiest views in the city!
  2. Korean War Veterans Memorial – Pop over before venturing on from Lincoln. Seeing the statues of soldiers marching onward is captivating and gives off a different mood in various types of weather and times of day.
  3. Vietnam Veterans Memorial – The memorial has an unconventional design with its dark color and lack of decoration, but it has become a place of grieving, pilgrimage and healing; visitors have made a tradition of leaving mementos, letters and photographs of loved ones lost in the war.
  4. Constitution Gardens – Rest on a park bench by the pond and weeping willows. You just might forget you’re in the middle of DC until you look up and take in a unique perspective of the Washington Monument.
  5. World War II Memorial – One of our favorite monuments and very symbolic, take time to walk the entire monument and read the inscriptions on the walls.
  6. White House – Located just off the National Mall. Not many people realize, but the prettiest view is from the south side coming from the Mall, so you don’t even need to walk around to the other side where most of the crowds congregate.
  7. Washington Monument – Get a bird’s eye view of the nation’s capital. Timed tickets are required to ride the elevator to the 500 foot observation deck. Tickets become available daily at 10 am for the next day’s visits.
  8. Martin Luther King Memorial – The memorial itself is based on a line from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, which was delivered from the nearby steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The memorial depicts Dr. King as the “stone of hope” and the two pieces of granite placed near him as the “mountain of despair.” The monument also serves as a gateway to the Tidal Basin, which is truly magnificent in the spring during Cherry Blossom season.
  9. Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial – Stroll down the path along the Tidal Basin to the expansive FDR Memorial. In honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four terms in office, the memorial is divided into four outdoor “rooms,” where statues and murals stand to represent issues from the Great Depression to World War II. 
  10. Thomas Jefferson Memorial – The memorial, which stands as a symbol of liberty, was designed as a smaller version of the Roman Pantheon with marble steps and monumental Ionic columns; its interior holds a bronze statue of Jefferson and the walls are inlaid with excerpts from his letters, speeches and the Declaration of Independence.
  11. Smithsonian Castle – Completed in 1855, the Castle is home to the Smithsonian Visitor Center. Visit the vast gardens in the back, including the Enid A. Haupt Garden opened in 1987. The end of the garden nearest the African Art Museum contains an interpretation of an Islamic garden, and the end nearest the Sackler Gallery is accented with pink granite moongates, a traditional Chinese garden feature.
  12. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden – Great place to sit and unwind among the lush greenery, bubbling fountain, and unique outdoor sculpture installations. The Pavilion Cafe is also a great spot for a casual bite.

Visit the Smithsonian Museums.

Smithsonian Museums are always free, and many are currently open and taking reservations. These museums typically do not require a reservation, except for the Museum of African American History & Culture which requires a reserved ticket and entry time in advance. Check for special measures and precautions during COVID-19 (i.e. timed entry passes, masks required).

Must see Smithsonian Museums: American History, Air & Space, Natural History, Hirshhorn, National Gallery of Art, National Portrait Gallery (located in Chinatown) and the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Where to Eat.

Finding a spot to eat around the National Mall can be a challenge. Here are some of our favorite spots that are close by:

West end of the Mall (closer to Lincoln): The Hive – awesome rooftop, cozy interior, attached to &pizza ($$), Tonic at Quigley’s ($$), Founding Farmers DC – a DC classic ($$), Dunkin’ ($), and Starbucks ($)

Middle of the Mall (close to the Washington Monument/White House): Pavilion Cafe – located inside the Sculpture Garden ($$), Juan Valdez Cafe – Colombian coffee ($), W Hotel ($$$), Old Ebbitt ($$$), Astro Donuts & Fried Chicken ($$)

East end of the Mall (closer to the Capitol): We the Pizza – some of the best pizza in DC ($), Firehook Bakery ($), Ebenezers Coffeehouse ($), Le Bon Cafe ($$), Good Stuff Eatery ($)

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Tips for Planning Your Visit to Hillwood Estate: A Garden Retreat in DC

With so many museums and attractions to visit in Washington, DC, we didn’t realize a hidden gem in the middle of the city like Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens existed until we finally discovered it this year, playing tourist in our city! Hillwood Estate is the perfect way to spend an afternoon, especially during COVID-19 since there’s tons of beautiful outdoor spaces, and they’re taking excellent safety precautions and limiting the number of visitors.

Hillwood Estate is a decorative arts museum housed in the former residence of businesswoman, socialite, philanthropist and collector Majorie Merriweather Post (yes, of the Post cereal family). Hillwood is known for its large decorative arts collection that focuses heavily on the House of Romanov, including Faberge eggs, as well as 18th and 19th century French art and one of the US’s most impressive orchid collections.

COVID-19 Precautions

Hillwood Estate is taking great precautions to keep visitors and staff safe. We were very impressed and comfortable thanks to all the guidelines they have in place. Face masks must be worn, and all visitors must maintain 6 feet “social distancing” at all times. Sanitation stations are located throughout the grounds

Book tickets in advance

Reservations are required and can be booked online or on the phone. Suggested admission is $18. Visitors are required to select an estate visit entry time to access the estate, and can also select an optional mansion and/or exhibit entry time. Note: Closed Mondays.

Plan Accordingly

Most visitors spend about 3 hours at the Estate, so plan to arrive early to have enough time to relax and enjoy everything the Estate has to offer, and try to plan your visit during the week (open Tues-Fri) since it tends to be less busy than weekends. Also, dress for comfort and bring along comfortable walking shoes, as there are some hills and gravel paths.

Sips + Bites

Pick up sandwiches, salads, snacks, and refreshments (looking at you, froze) from the Merriweather Cafe or bring your own picnic. For safe, contactless pick up and payment, the cafe is offering optional advance ordering. You can sit on the patio at a socially distanced table or grab a spot for a safety distanced picnic elsewhere on the grounds. Note: Cafe hours are from 11 am to 3 pm Tuesday through Friday and from 11 am to 3:30 pm on Saturday and Sunday. 

Explore the gardens.

There is plenty explore outside! You’ll come across a variety of gardens following paths around the estate with plenty of chairs scattered around to sit and enjoy the view. Perhaps the most well-known garden at Hillwood is the French Parterre. There’s also a Russian-style Dacha, Japanese garden with multiple water features, rose garden, cutting garden (hello stunning dahlias, pictured below), and a tucked away little putting green, plus an incredible green house with a vast collection of orchids.

We’ll plan another trip to explore the Museum inside the mansion next time!