The Washington National Mall is one of the best organized, and most encompassing and colossal of all the forums of the world that I have ever witnessed. If you’re in town for only one day, which we find many people doing on road trips along the east coast, then there is a walk along the National Mall which we feel is mandatory to get a good experience of the city.
Time of year does matter, for example, the April coming of the Cherry Blossoms and the accompanying festival, but you can do this tour day or night, in the heat of summer or during a blizzard in the cold of winter.
You’ll have to time things yourself, but there is really only one thing that we feel is time sensitive, and that is viewing the sunset at the POV Bar (formerly SkyBar) on top of the W Hotel. It’s actually been newly renovated since the last time we were there, and it is a DC kind of place.
If you want to get away from the city center and have a cultural experience, check out what’s going on at the Millennium Stage, which takes place every night at the Kennedy Center, and is also time sensitive.
Another common question is “can I tour DC at night.”
The answer: Absolutely. DC is extremely beautiful at night. The only downside is that the museums are closed, but the monuments are open, nearly abandoned (making the experience very intimate), and the night-time experience is truly unique.
Start your day behind the National Capital, near the old residential homes on Capital Hill. The Supreme Court, which allows visitors to sit in on hearings, and the Library of Congress – make sure to take the tour.
The other tour which you might want to reserve in advance is the tour of the National Capital. I have to admit that the tour itself is boring, but you get to stand on holy ground in the standards of American constitutional history.
Outside the Capital building you will find a lot of great photo opportunities, and be able to sit and enjoy the greens, sculptures, and large fountain out front. Make sure to walk around.
From the Capital, walk along the mall and pick any of the Smithsonian Museums that you find interesting. Jess would recommend going to the Botanical Gardens anytime of year before moving onto the museums, and I often tend to agree. The museums are free, which is not common among good museums, and are for all ages. As an adult, I still find pleasure in being in the presence of great works that revolve around my passions, so pick the museums based on that. I like going to the two art museums on the eastern side of the mall, and was never very impressed with the Native American museum, but there is a lot of other interesting museums, like the Hirschhorn and the Sculpture Garden (which I like to call the Senses Garden) across the street are worth a visit. the Hirschhorn is hit or miss, but given how small it is, you can quickly change your mind about spending time there and not lose any time.
There are often events and activities taking place on the National Mall throughout the year – everything from awareness festivals to carnivals, holiday celebrations to special events. In the middle is the Washington Monument, which if you can get advanced tickets to get into, is amazing. Take notice of the two colored marble – a remnant of the Civil War, when construction had to be halted, during which time the stone quarry was extracting a different hue of the stone.
From there you can take a detour to the White House to the north, or keep walking south toward the Lincoln Memorial. My favorite memorial on this path is the World War II Memorial. From here, either walk along the reflecting pool (empty in the colder months) toward the Lincoln Memorial, or walk the path to the right (north side), along a pond and through Constitution Garden to the Vietnam Memorial.
At the Lincoln Memorial, go inside, but also walk the entire perimeter. If you stand at the back and look west you can see Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, across the Potomac River. At the top of the hill is the once home of General Robert E. Lee, before it was taken away from him for joining the South during the American Civil War.
Leaving the Lincoln, go south toward the Korean War Memorial, then onto the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at the Tidal Basin. In April, this is spectacular with the Cherry Blossoms, and quite crowded.
Across the tidal basin is the Jefferson Memorial, the forefather gazing out across the water, keeping his eye on the Presidency and the White House. It’s a nice walk to the memorial, and along the way, make sure to visit the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. In that direction, you’ll be experiencing the memorial backwards, since it is set to a chronology of the presidency over the three terms. If you visit the Jefferson first, you can walk back up, going through the memorial as intended, and be on your way back to wherever you decide to finish your day.
My suggestion, walk back to the White House at the end rather than taking the detour in the middle. You can then go grab a drink at the POV, or get over to Chinatown for dinner and drinks. On Monday’s, if you’re willing to splurge, the Old Ebbot Grill right by the White House has half-price oysters.