Washington, D.C./National MallNational Mall, a national park, is a famous 2-mile long tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly boulevard in Washington, D.C. stretching from the Capitol Building in the east to the Lincoln Memorial and Potomac River on the west. The park is home to many museums of the Smithsonian Institution, some of the best free museums in the country, as well as many famous memorials and monuments. It's the #1 destination for visitors in the city, and receives 25 million visitors per year.
HistoryD.C.'s city planner, Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant, planned the park as the cultural center of the city in the late 1700s, but it didn't take the form it is in today until the early 1900s.
In the 1840s, the Mall was mainly used to cultivate vegetables and dump trash. In 1846, after much heated debate, under President James K. Polk, Congress established the Smithsonian Institution with the funds donated by James Smithson 20 years earlier. In 1855, construction of the Smithsonian Castle was completed, setting the precedent for educational buildings on the Mall. However, it was hard to access due to the Washington City Canal, which ran along what is now Constitution Avenue. Meanwhile, in 1848, construction on the Washington Monument began.
The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station was constructed in 1855 on the site of what is now the National Gallery of Art. The noise from trains frequently disrupted sessions of Congress. In addition, around 30 people died per year crossing the surface-level train tracks. In 1881, President Garfield was assasinated at this station 4 months into his term.
The year 1900 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of Washington and inspired calls for a redesign of the Mall in accordance with L'Enfant's original grand plan. In 1901, Congress created the McMillan Commission, which included Frederick Law Olmstead, a landscape architect that designed New York City's Central Park. After touring cities in Europe, the McMillan Commission made numerous recommendations to emphasize the importance of the Mall including landscaping the Mall into a grassy area lined with elm trees, building the Lincoln Memorial, Memorial Bridge, the reflecting pool, the Tidal Basin, and the Jefferson Memorial, and moving the train station off the Mall.
Many monuments and memorials were added later on including those for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. , as well as recent wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
The Mall has served as the principal gathering space for the nation's most important civic events, especially major protests and inaugural events. The Mall, particularly the Lincoln Memorial, has had an important history in the civil rights movement: in the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous I Have a Dream speech.
Over the years, the Smithsonian expanded to include an extraordinary collection of free public museums, the majority of which are in the eastern one-mile stretch of the park. The public favorites are the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History, famed for their respective magnificent collections of U.S. spacecraft and complete dinosaur fossils. The expansion continues, with the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture being the newest addition to the Mall.
- The Smithsonian Metrorail station is serviced by the Blue, Orange and Silver Lines, much like other stations in Downtown. The exit is convenient to get to many of the museums of the Smithsonian Institution. Federal Center Southwest Metrorail station is also serviced by the same Lines and is closer to the easternmost museums.
- The Archives/Navy Memorial Metrorail station in the East End on 7th Street NW and L'Enfant Plaza Metrorail stations are both 0.3 miles from the Mall.
- The closest Metrorail stations to the Lincoln Memorial on the west side of the Mall are Foggy Bottom station in the West End (0.8 miles), Arlington Cemetery, just across the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Arlington (0.8 miles), and Smithsonian station (1.2 miles)
By busRoutes #31 and #32, #36 all run northwest up Pennsylvania Ave to M St through Georgetown, and then up Wisconsin Ave all the way to neighborhoods in Upper Northwest. You can catch these buses as far south as Independence Ave west of the Capitol Building (after which they run up 7th St to Pennsylvania Ave).
Routes #52, #53, and #54 provide a quick service up 14th St through the Mall to nightlife hotspots in Shaw.
Routes S1, S2, & S4 operate service up 16th Street, through Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights all the way to Silver Spring. This bus is convenient if you want to catch the Sunday Drum Circle in Meridian Hill Park.
By bicycleCapital Bikeshare, the D.C.-area's bike-share service, has stations all over the city and throughout the Mall area, making it one of the easiest ways to get to and around the Mall. Just find the station nearest your hotel, get a daily membership, bike down to the Mall, and dock your bike at one of the stations.
Once you are on the Mall, Capital Bikeshare is the best mix of speed and convenience for moving around the Mall — or for leaving the Mall to grab lunch in the East End, where the food is better than the food trucks on the Mall. Museum-going is a tiring affair, and biking can help conserve your energy and stay out of the sun.
By carDriving in and around the Mall is a great recipe for a headache due to chronic traffic jams, unintuitive traffic patterns, and very limited parking. Driving towards a monument doesn't mean the road will lead you towards it - more likely, it will hurl you across the river into Virginia. If there is a special event going on, you can easily get stuck for hours. Parking garages throughout the West End and East End fill up early with office workers. Garage prices are steep. The 2,194 car garage at Union Station, costing $24/day, usually has space available. Double check the garage hours, so you can exit before the garage closes! Another nearby parking garage is at the Ronald Reagan Building, which is very close to several museums. The rates are generally $25 all day on weekdays and $17 on weekends. Open 24 hours.
On evenings and weekends during the winter, it is sometimes possible to find metered parking on the Mall, with two hour limits, although it may take a while to find a space. There is no enforcement of the time limit on Sundays or Federal holidays, so if you are lucky enough to find a spot, you can stay as long as you wish. Pay close attention to the hourly limits marked on street signs. If you remain parked on Constitution Avenue during rush hours, your chance of receiving a ticket is 100%.
The main north-south routes are 7th St, 14th St, and 17th St, while Pennsylvania and Independence Ave are the main routes for east-west traffic. If coming from Arlington, the simplest routes are I-395 to 14th St, or the Arlington Memorial Bridge to Independence Ave.
By taxi or rideshareTaxis and rideshares are easy to get all day and night, and can be a especially convenient option from Georgetown, Capitol Hill, or Arlington. Aside from peak tourist seasons such as during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, when traffic slows to a halt, these can be a nice way to take a load off your feet and quickly get from one end of the Mall to the other. Uber and Lyft drivers often have difficulty locating passengers who have input a destination such as "Natural History Museum" or "Lincoln Memorial". It is advisable to check your exact location on the map provided or the driver may be sent to the other side.
By circulator bus
- National Mall Circulator Bus is a free bus that runs Su-Th 7AM-7PM, F-Sa 9AM-7PM, with service to 8PM in the summer. Its route begins at Union Station, travels along Louisiana Avenue and loops around the Mall via Madison Drive, Constitution Avenue, West Basin Drive, Ohio Drive and Jefferson Drive, with a stop at all of the major points of interest.
By pedicabPedicabs have been authorized by the National Park Service to provide transportation and tours around the National Mall. They can be found in any of the 10 official pedicab stands in front of the major museums and monuments. They can also be flagged down on the street. Rates are negotiable. Many people find a pedicab ride to be the highlight of their trip to Washington D.C. Many companies offer pedicab tours of D.C.; these are best booked in advance. Two such companies that provide tours on the National Mall are Nonpartisan Pedicab and DC Pedicab. For more information, see Washington D.C.#Get_around.
There's a lot to see on the Mall. You can walk the whole Mall on an afternoon to admire the sights and monuments, but note that it is bigger than it looks—over two miles end-to-end (3.2 km)—an illusion that is reinforced by the sheer size of the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial. What looks like a short stroll can quickly turn into a long, painful march in the sun on a humid D.C. summer day.
Moreover, you will want to budget some good time to visit the museums. Even a month's visit would not be enough to really devour all the Smithsonian's collections, so pick and choose according to your interests. The art galleries are fantastic, but bad for kids, who will on the other hand love the Natural History and Air and Space Museums (as will adults).
A great way to see a lot during a limited stay is to visit museums during the day and monuments at night. The museums usually close at 5:30 PM, so head to dinner after the visit, then take a long walk to visit the monuments in the dark when the air cools, and when the monuments are their most beautiful. It's a popular activity in the summer, so you won't be alone even after midnight.
East–west along the north side:
phone: +1 202 737-4215The staggering depth and breadth of the world-class collections here are a clear testament to U.S. wealth and power. The east building of this museum is devoted to modern art, while the west building showcases traditional, mostly European, paintings and sculptures. The west wing's impressionist gallery is likely the most popular, although it would be a shame to skip the east wing's fauvist and abstract expressionist galleries. Just west of the buildings is the relaxing sculpture garden, with a foot pool for cooling off tired feet. There are dining options within the Gallery. Among popular options are the Garden Café and various dining options in the area connecting the east and west wings of the museum. Also, food is available in the park on the Gallery grounds.
phone: +1 202 633-1000The real show stoppers here are the gargantuan, complete dinosaur fossils, and you won't have to search to find them! Further into the museum you'll find displays of world cultures, meteorites, mineral samples, and the evolution of life from beginnings to today. Don't leave without seeing the overawing precious rock collection, including the Hope Diamond, the enormous blue diamond of legend. A dining area is on the first level of this museum. The food is good, but somewhat pricy.
phone: +1 202 633-1000There is a lot here in one of the city's most informative museums, covering topics ranging from war to technology, social and political history. The biggest draw, though, is the Treasure Room, with an astonishing set of iconic Americana objects, ranging from the original Star-Spangled Banner and Abraham Lincoln's top hat, to Kermit the Frog and Dorothy's ruby slippers!
phone: +1 844 750-3012The newest museum on the Mall, with a collection of remarkable artifacts illustrating the history of African American culture, from the years of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to pop culture figures. Given the interest in the museum, admission is refused without a timed entry pass. A few walk-up passes are released on weekdays (not weekends) at 1PM, but otherwise passes must be booked online. A limited number of same-day passes are available online every morning starting at 6:30AM, but they go quickly; the only other option are advanced passes, booked 3 months in advance.
East–west along the south side:
National Museum of the American IndianThis museum displays the cultural traditions of the Native peoples of North, Central, and South America. It focuses on 20th century and present day culture much more than pre-Columbian and colonial periods. The exhibits can be fascinating, but are not as grandiose as those of the other museums. Perhaps the most important attraction is the gorgeous building itself, designed by famous Native Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal of Blackfoot descent, echoing the ancient stone formations of the American Southwest, and surrounded by manifestations both metaphorical and literal of natural North American landscapes.
phone: +1 202 633-1000The most-visited museum in the U.S., with over 8 million visitors per year, this impressive repository covers the history of human flight, rocketry and space flight. It contains thousands of impressive artifacts, including the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer, Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, Apollo 11's command module Columbia, and the simulated bridge of an aircraft carrier. Enthusiasts should try to also make it to the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum out in Chantilly near Dulles International Airport; the Center houses full aviation and space aircraft (e.g., SR-71 Blackbird, Enola Gay B-29, Concorde, Space Shuttle Discovery, etc.) that would not fit on the Mall.
phone: +1 202 633-5285Home to D.C.'s premier collection of international modern and contemporary art, housed in an intimidating brutalist spaceship of a building. The exhibits are wonderfully stimulating and cutting-edge, albeit often not made accessible to casual viewers (a free docent-led tour available noon-4PM can be helpful), and very often not family-friendly with very graphic content. The museum tries to make it clear when you are about to walk into an "adult exhibit," but do not count on this if you are with children. The sculpture gardens, however, are great fun for kids, and a nice quiet escape from the Mall proper. And this modern sculpture collection of several Rodins, a huge Lichtenstein brushstroke, and other famous works, is world-class!
phone: +1 202 633-1000This beautiful building was the first major museum on the mall, built as the National Museum in 1881 to house the Smithsonian's earliest collections. The collections have since been moved to the Natural History and American History museums, but the building still does host occasional exhibits (and serves as office space for the Smithsonian).
phone: +1 202 633-1000This distinctive brick-red structure was the original Smithsonian museum. The building now presents an overview of the Smithsonian system as well as occasional exhibitions. Just south of the castle, the beautiful Haupt Garden features an ornate parterre as well as some quieter enclaves; it is a great place to stop to rest or eat.
phone: +1 202 633-4600A much smaller museum of art than the massive National Gallery and Hirshhorn museums, but it is excellently exhibited, and extremely family-friendly, with daily events and programs for kids. The exhibits subvert the name of the museum, showing that creative arts from the African continent, traditional and contemporary, are too diverse to fit neatly under the title of "African Art." The museum hosts frequent performances of storytellers, musicians, films, etc.
phone: +1 202 633-1000Asia is a rather large place, and a tour through these Asian Art museums is a bit like a travel from Japan to Turkey. The Asian galleries, along with the connected African Art museum are a lot quieter and more peaceful than the huge museums to the east, which can be quite a relief! Like their companion museum above, the Freer and Sackler galleries host very frequent events.
phone: +1 202 426-6841No man looms larger over American history than the first president, and no monument looms larger over D.C. than this, both the world's tallest stone structure and its tallest obelisk. When completed in 1884 it was the world's tallest structure, and remains the tallest building by far in D.C. Viewed from either end of the Mall its size may not be evident, but enter the enormous square on which it stands, and you'll realize just how monumental it is. The view from the 555-foot top is great on a clear day, allowing you to see up and down the Mall, and out as far as the Shenandoah Valley. The observation level reopened in September 2019 and is open for viewing with a ticket. Entrance is by timed ticket, which are distributed on a first come first served basis starting at 8:30AM from a National Park Service booth on 15th St east of the monument or online, if booked months in advance.
National World War II MemorialMany of D.C.'s monuments have a simple, sudden, and grandiose impact, and don't require much time to visit. Not so for this new memorial. WWII was the defining event of the twentieth century, in which sixteen million U.S. soldiers served, and 400,000 died—the enormity of the war is hard to grasp in one's mind, and the architect aimed to convey that enormity in this central memorial. To best appreciate it, you will have to walk around and slowly take it in. Kilroy was here—look for the hidden carving behind the Pennsylvania obelisk.
Reflecting PoolThe view from the Lincoln Memorial, with the 2,000 ft Reflecting Pool in the foreground and the Washington Monument just behind, and the Capitol Building in the distance, is famous and not to be missed. This was the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech, which he gave from the steps of the memorial over a crowd of 200,000 that didn't fit very well—many of them stood in the pool itself!
Declaration of Independence MemorialA little known memorial stands on the island in the Constitution Gardens Lake, dedicated to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Not content to reside only on the document itself, their signatures have been reproduced here, etched in large granite blocks.
District of Columbia War MemorialThe Mall's only local memorial, and the only memorial to WWI, is this small secluded structure in the form of a Doric-style open-air temple serving as tribute to the 26,000 Washingtonians who served in the Great War. You'll find here the names of the 499 who died engraved at the memorial's base. Recent attempts to re-dedicate the memorial as a national WWI memorial have ironically sparked fierce Washingtonian pride in the monument—the only local monument on the Mall, with locals seeing this as just one more indignity aimed at the city by a Congress for which it cannot vote.
Vietnam Veterans MemorialOften described as the most moving memorial in the city, the Vietnam Memorial stands as tribute to those who died or went missing, intended to transcend political controversy in remembrance of the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Its centerpiece is a simple black granite wall engraved with the 58,256 names of each.
Korean War Veterans MemorialThis memorial is a little hidden in the woods, and perhaps that's appropriate for the memorial to the one major war of the twentieth century (in which over 600,000 allied troops died) that did not leave such a huge impression in the American mind—the Forgotten War. It's easily one of the city's most powerful, though. The focus of the monument is the nineteen very realistic steel statues of American soldiers moving across the landscape (nineteen, because they total 38—referring to the 38th parallel—when reflected in the water). The lighting at night leaves an especially disconcerting, ghostly impression. The best time to visit might be after a winter snow storm, which will help you remember the worst hardship of the war—the snowy marches through the cruel Siberian winds.
Lincoln MemorialMost of the D.C. memorials, especially those for U.S. leaders, are meant to awe and impress in a very direct manner. None more so than this impressive monument in a commanding location at the end of the Mall. Modeled after the Greek Temple of Zeus, Lincoln sits with a commanding presence overlooking the reflecting pool, straight across the Mall to the Washington Monument and beyond it the Capitol Building. Few monuments in the world can match the simple power of the Lincoln Memorial at night.
Tidal Basin area
phone: +1 202 874-2330address: 14th and C Streets SWNot a museum; this is where the Treasury prints money. Free 1-hour tours run every 15 minutes on weekdays, but no, they do not give out free samples. It's plenty worth it to come, if only to drool at the millions of dollars created literally in the space of your tour.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt MemorialFilled with sculptures, wartime and depression era quotes, and numerous waterfalls (beautifully lit up at night), the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is one of the city's most peaceful and contemplative places for a walk. It is divided into four sections, each dedicated to one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's four terms in his twelve year presidency.
George Mason MemorialPossibly the hardest memorial to find on the Mall—perhaps fitting for the least known founding father memorialized here. George Mason is best known in the D.C. area for the nearby university named in his honor. Ideally, though, he would be better known as the drafter of the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights, which served as the basis and inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, as well as the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's a beautiful memorial, and can be empty even in the height of tourist season.
phone: +1 202 426-6841Thomas Jefferson played an outsized role as one of the republic's founding fathers, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third president. Accordingly, he has an enormous statue in a circular, neoclassical, open-air building, based largely on the design of the Roman Pantheon, and standing prominently on the bank of the Tidal Basin. Quotes from Jefferson's writings, including the Declaration of Independence, are reproduced on the walls.
phone: +1 202 426-6841The newest of the Mall's memorials, dedicated to the fallen civil rights leader. You enter between two slabs of granite that symbolize a "Mountain of Despair" before standing before the "Stone of Hope", both named based on a line in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. A 30-foot likeness of King is carved out of the Stone of Hope overlooking the Tidal Basin, while a nearby wall contains inscriptions of quotes from many of King's speeches.
phone: +1 202 488-0400Both a museum and a memorial, this space is dedicated to the exposition of just what exactly occurred during the Holocaust, its pointless inhumanity and unbelievable suffering. Exhibits include video and audio testimonies as well as more traditional museum exhibits. This is without a doubt the most somber, and even disturbing place for visitors on the Mall, and a good portion of the visitors leave sobbing—make sure your kids are old enough for this material. Entrance is by free timed ticket on a first come, first served basis during the busy months of March-August.
Japanese LanternTwo lamps were sculpted in 1651 and placed in Tōshō-gū temple, in Ueno Park, Tokyo. In 1954 the governor of that city gave one of those lamps as a gift to the people of the United States.
The Mall is a public gathering space not just for protesters and pigeons, but also for locals and visitors alike who are more interested in a jog, a game of frisbee, or just a picnic out on a beautiful section of the nation's capital, in the company of monuments, history, and public art. Keep in mind, though, that a hot summer day, with the unbearable humidity, can be the worst time of the year for this—you will inevitably rush inside to the air conditioned sanctuary of the nearest museum.
phone: +1 202 633-4629Shows IMAX films during museum opening hours, mostly on topics related to the museums.
phone: +1 202 289-3360A relaxing place just outside the National Gallery of Art to enjoy the fresh air, listen to music, and enjoy the surroundings, including a view of the National Archives building. Take a break from skating to enjoy hot cocoa or a meal at the Pavilion Café, next to the skating rink. Note that the sculpture garden itself closes M-Sa 5PM, Su 6PM, and access after that time is restricted to the ice rink only.
phone: +1 202 479-2426address: 1501 Main Ave SWPaddling around the Tidal Basin, admiring the monuments and the surrounding parks has got to be one of the best ways to laze about on the Mall. It's also one of the best ways to get sunburnt on the Mall, so bring lotion!
Festivals and events
phone: +1 202 289-3360address: 700 Constitution Ave NWSummer open-air jazz concerts at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Hugely popular, and a great time if you don't mind the crowds. Get there early.
The Mall is a great place to get souvenirs. All the museums have excellent gift shops and those owned by the Smithsonian are tax-free. The largest can be found in the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum. Of course, the cheaper option is to pick up your souvenirs from the street vendors along the Mall, although, as you would expect, the quality is a big step down from the museum shops.
The larger museums have cafeterias and cafes of varying prices and quality. However, your best bet on the mall is to eat at one of the food trucks - serving everything from burgers to vegetarian entrees - located at each end of the Mall. Walk around and look at which seems to be the most appetizing.
Your absolute worst bet are the little huts on the mall itself. Due to their monopoly on food over the outdoor part of the mall, they have absolutely atrocious prices and portions compared to even the Smithsonian restaurants and are much less tasty too, simply consisting of prepackaged food.
Alternatively, you can go north to the East End for chain fast casual restaurants or south to the Waterfront for some fresh-out-of-the-water crabs and other seafood.
phone: +1 202 737-4215In the National Gallery of Art, has fast buffet style food with salads and great desserts. It's not practical to visit unless you are already in the Gallery, but that gelato really hits the spot.
phone: +1 202 633-1000This cafe is slightly more expensive than most museum cafeterias, but with good reason. The cafeteria food thankfully does not taste like cafeteria food, and it features interesting pre-Columbian Native foods from throughout the Western Hemisphere.
phone: +1 202 357-2700Fast food from McDonald's, Boston Market, and Donatos Pizza in a relaxing, plant-filled, glass atrium adjacent to the National Air and Space Museum.
The Mall is a national park and no booze is allowed except in very limited areas. If you want to find a bar, you have three options, head north to the East End, south to the Waterfront, or east to Capitol Hill. Of the three, the Pennsylvania Ave strip on Capitol Hill to the east has superior options to the touristy bars just north. It's within easy walking distance of the Capitol Building. If you are over by the Lincoln Memorial, you could try your luck northward to the West End, with bars near George Washington University.
You can also enjoy a beer at the cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian or a glass of wine or beer at the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery. Beer and wine is also available from food concession kiosks located near the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. You can only consume while seated at the tables provided.
If you are here on a summer day, bring water. The museums have plenty of water fountains, but you'll need water outside. The huge sandy park that is the Mall is fun for throwing around a football, or for letting the kids loose to chase pigeons, but all that sand and gravel reflects the awful D.C. summer humid heat. The street vendors stock water bottles in large supply, but charge a big markup—bringing a couple bottles from wherever you are staying is a good idea.
There are scores of hotels within walking distance to the Mall, at all price ranges, in the East End and West End, as well as a few in Capitol Hill. But given the great service to the Mall via Metrorail, it's reasonable to stay anywhere in the city or the close-in suburbs near a Metrorail station. Arlington, Virginia is particularly close.
Most of the National Mall, including inside of the museums, has free WiFi. The outdoor WiFi on the National Mall is very weak.
The National Mall is very heavily policed and very safe. Muggings have occurred at night and received major press coverage due to their sensational nature, but they are extremely rare. Use the most basic common sense and you're guaranteed a lovely evening late into the night. (Note, though, that the fountains are turned off at midnight, so it is better to see the sights beforehand.)
Most of the museums on the Mall require security screenings to enter.
- Some of the city's best museums are not on the Mall! The East End is home to many more renowned museums, including the National Archives (where you'll find the U.S. Constitution), the National Portrait Gallery, the National Building Museum, and the Newseum. Head a few blocks south to find the International Spy Museum or the Museum of the Bible.
- The three branches of the government are located just around, but not on, the Mall. The White House is just north of the Washington Monument in the West End; the must-see Capitol Building and the Supreme Court are just east on Capitol Hill.
- The most famous war memorial in the area, Arlington National Cemetery is just across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial, via the Arlington Memorial Bridge in Arlington. At the northern tip of the cemetery is the marvelous Iwo Jima Memorial; at the southern tip, the Pentagon.