Some of my favorite places to visit in Europe are the centuries-old cathedrals that inhabit almost every town, large or small. In America, we don’t have as many historic cathedrals but there is one that is a must-see while visiting our nation’s capital – the Washington National Cathedral.
The idea for a national cathedral dates back to 1791 when President George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant to design a new capital. His original design included plans for “a great church for national purposes.”
Fast forward a hundred years to 1893 when Congress finally granted a charter to the cathedral, and work began in 1907. After 83 years of construction, the cathedral was completed in 1990 and has been the site of state funerals, weddings, and services ever since.
The Washington National Cathedral sits high on a hilltop in northwest Washington, DC. It’s near the National Zoo, Embassy Row, and the Vice-President’s home at the Naval Observatory. It’s a beautiful building with much meaning.
Follow signs on Wisconsin Avenue to enter the parking garage located under the cathedral (if coming from Georgetown, drive past the cathedral to enter via Woodley Road). The garage elevators will bring you to the grassy area in front of the cathedral so be sure to get some great family portraits here.
The entrance is to the left of the building as you stand in front of it. Buy your tickets online here to avoid the line. There is a self-guided tour using a brochure so be sure to pick that up. You can also get an audio guide if you’d like to learn more.
You’ll enter the cathedral’s main level in the back left corner. Your children will be fascinated with the Abraham Lincoln statue immediately to your left.
Be sure to check out the 34 Lincoln pennies embedded in the floor, one for each state in the Union during his presidency. And don’t miss the stone carvings of Civil War soldiers’ hats above the door.
Walk down the middle of the nave, marveling at how big it is. The Washington Monument could lay on its side down the middle and fit!
Your child’s favorite stained glass window will likely be the space window, found on the right side of the nave as you walk down. It has a piece of a moon rock embedded in it!
Just past the space window, you’ll see President Woodrow Wilson’s tomb on the side wall. He is the only president buried in Washington, DC. His wife, Edith, is also buried here (be sure to read my review of her birthplace to learn about this amazing, accomplished woman!).
As you get near the altar, there are several chapels to discover. We wandered into each one and found them all unique and meaningful. Kids will be most interested in the children’s chapel where the ceiling is brought low so young kids can see it up close.
The great choir and high altar can be accessed from the side chapels. The high altar is nearly 460 feet from the entrance doors!
Take the elevator or stairs down to the lower level to see the oldest part of the cathedral, the Bethlehem Chapel. It opened in 1912.
There are several other chapels to see on this level along with the memorial plaque for Helen Keller, who is buried alongside her teacher, Annie Sullivan, in the cathedral crypt.
Go back upstairs to finish your tour. Be sure to visit the George Washington statue near the exit.
Take one more look at the nave and its ceiling before leaving!
Don’t miss the LEGO exhibit, which looks like a perfect activity to help kids understand just how massive an undertaking building a cathedral can be. You can buy a LEGO brick to be part of the world’s largest LEGO cathedral. It was closed on our visit but maybe it’ll be open when you visit.
If you’d like to see more, you can take an elevator up 7 stories to the Pilgrim Observation gallery. There are also many places on the grounds to visit, including the extensive stonework on the facade. Your kids will love finding the Darth Vader gargoyle! Many of the outside features are undergoing restoration work from the 2011 earthquake. Take a walk around the cathedral to get a behind-the-scenes view of how a massive cathedral is restored.
If you can’t make it in person, check out the cathedral’s virtual tour online.
The Washington National Cathedral is a beautiful, spiritual tribute to America. It’s a great place to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city for families, especially this time of year with its holiday decorations. Check out its Christmas services and make plans to visit!
- Cost: $15/adults; $10/children 5-17; free/under 5 (worship services are free)
- Recommended: ages 6 and up
- Tour time: 30-45 minutes
- Gift shop located on the lower level. Shop online here.
- Transportation: There is a parking garage on site. You can take the Metro trains to a Metro bus as well. See the cathedral’s site for details.
- Dining options: The cathedral has an onsite cafe. Two of my favorite Washington kid-friendly restaurants are a short drive away – Chef Geoff’s and Cactus Cantina.
- Hotel options: See my Washington page for suggestions of where to stay in the nation’s capital!
- Nearby attractions include: Beauvoir playground (weekends only), National Zoo, Politics and Prose indie bookstore, and the President Woodrow Wilson House
Books to Read:
All links embedded in photos are Amazon affiliate links.
Check out the official gift shop for even more ideas.
A House of Prayer For All People: A History of Washington National Cathedral
Building Washington National Cathedral
Mission Washington, D.C.: A Scavenger Hunt Adventure
Night of the Gargoyles
Good Night Washington, DC
This is Washington, D.C.