When you think of Washington, DC, you most likely think of the majestic monuments to our country’s great leaders or the conflicts in which we’ve fought. The monuments are grand examples of the ways we honor our country’s history and should be on every American’s must-visit list!
Washington, DC became America’s capital in 1800 during the presidency of John Adams. Built on a marshy swamp, the city was designed by Pierre L’Enfant, and it relied on Congress to appropriate funds to establish the grand city of his design. Over the years, the city grew despite its sacking by the British in the War of 1812, and the influx of soldiers and government officials during the Civil War and the world wars made it the most powerful city in the world as we know it today.
The first monument on L’Enfant’s planned National Mall was built to honor President George Washington, and at its groundbreaking in 1848, Dolley Madison and Eliza Hamilton were among the dignitaries in attendance. The construction was halted during the Civil War (you can still see the color change from the stones laid before and after!), and it was finally completed in December of 1884. Other monuments and memorials followed honoring Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, great Americans such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and our military that fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
The National Mall is reserved as the premiere civic and symbolic space in our nation and is a place for everyone to exercise, attend special events such as July 4th fireworks and presidential inaugurations, take part in protests and other forms of activism, and reflect on our nation’s history. As the National Park Service says, this is the front yard of America.
Running from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall is an over two-mile stretch of green space that serves as the heart of Washington, DC. There are hundreds of statues, monuments, and memorials in the District but the ones on the Mall are some of the most inspiring and important in our nation’s history.
Washington Monument – This 555 foot tall structure is dedicated to our country’s first president and recently reopened after being closed for years to repair damage from the 2011 earthquake. You can view the monument from any location along the Mall but to take the elevator to the observation deck, you need a ticket. Get tickets in advance (up to one day prior) here. There are some walk-up tickets but be prepared to wait in a long, hot line! Your older kids will love it, especially those who saw Spiderman: Homecoming! Note there are no restrooms at the monument, they are located just down the hill towards the Capitol.
- Transportation: The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian. There is public parking on the adjacent streets.
- Nearby dining options: A food kiosk is located just east of the monument in front of the American History Museum and there are usually plenty of food trucks in the general area. For a sit-down meal, I love the Sweet Home Cafe in the Museum of African American History and Culture
- Nearby attractions include: Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Jefferson Memorial – This iconic domed memorial to our nation’s third president is one of the prettiest places in DC, especially during the Cherry Blossom Festival. The memorial is open 24 hours a day and overlooks the Tidal Basin with a direct view across the Mall to the White House.
Inside the memorial is a huge statue of Jefferson and engravings of his most important words. My favorite time to visit the memorial is at night, and it holds a special place in my heart in that it is where I got engaged! Be sure to hold tight to little ones’ hands as there is no fence at the drop off to the Tidal Basin! Note there is a bookstore and restroom at the memorial.
- Transportation: The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian (but it is quite a walk!). There is a public parking lot at the memorial.
- Nearby dining options: Given its location in between the Tidal Basin and the highway, food options are not plentiful. There are usually food trucks near the memorial in the high tourist season. A short drive away is the Wharf area with many restaurants.
- Nearby attractions include: George Mason Historical Marker, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the International Spy Museum
Lincoln Memorial – Dedicated to our nation’s 16th president, the Lincoln Memorial honors the man who led the US during its most difficult time – the Civil War. The memorial is imposing and inspiring with its grand statue of Lincoln sitting alongside engravings of his famous words from his second inaugural and Gettysburg addresses. 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of this grand memorial, which not only honors Lincoln but also the many people who have stood on its steps and spoken to the masses gathered along the reflecting pool, including Dr. Martin Luther King. Your kids will love running up and down the stairs and don’t miss the small museum tucked under the stairs to the left. The memorial is open 24 hours a day. Note there is a restroom and bookstore onsite.
- Transportation: The memorial is not near a Metro stop (Smithsonian is a 25 minute walk). There is nearby parking on Ohio Drive, SW, and it can be easily accessed via walking from the Mall.
- Nearby dining: There is a food kiosk near the memorial and usually there are plenty of nearby food trucks.
- Nearby attractions include: Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial – This memorial honors the president who shepherded our country through the Great Depression and World War II. Kids will love it especially for the statue of FDR’s beloved dog, Fala. The memorial covers the four terms of FDR, allowing visitors to walk among the statues of people waiting in bread lines or FDR in his wheelchair. And don’t miss the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt – the only presidential memorial to honor a first lady in this way! The memorial is open 24 hours a day. Note there is a restroom at the memorial.
- Transportation: The memorial is not near a Metro stop (Smithsonian is a 25 minute walk). There is a nearby parking lot, and it can be easily accessed via walking from the Mall.
- Nearby dining options: There are no options nearby unless food trucks decide to park at the nearby baseball fields.
- Nearby attractions include: Jefferson Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial – This memorial pays tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and is located near the site of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It is a moving place to learn more about the Civil Rights leader and his inspiring words etched on the marble slabs. The memorial is open 24 hours a day. Note there is a restroom and gift shop located on site.
- Transportation: The memorial is not near a Metro stop (Smithsonian is a 20 minute walk). There is a nearby parking lot, and it can be easily accessed via walking from the Mall.
- Nearby dining options: There are usually food trucks close to the nearby Lincoln memorial, along with a food kiosk at the memorial.
- Nearby attractions include: FDR Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Lincoln Memorial
World War II Memorial – This stunning memorial honors the men and women of the “Greatest Generation.” Granite blocks represent the states at the time of the war, and a wall over 4,000 gold stars represent the over 400,000 men and women who gave their lives during the war. The memorial is open 24 hours a day. Note there is a restroom just southwest of the memorial past the visitor’s information center.
- Transportation: The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian. There is public parking on the adjacent streets.
- Nearby dining options: There are usually food trucks on nearby 17th Street, NW.
- Nearby attractions include: Washington Monument and Constitution Gardens
Korean War Veterans Memorial – This haunting memorial pays tribute to the service members who fought in what’s become a forgotten war – the Korean War. 19 statues depict a squad on patrol and are especially poignant at night with the lighting. The memorial is open 24 hours a day. Note the nearest restrooms are at the Lincoln Memorial.
- Transportation: The memorial is not near a Metro stop (Smithsonian is a 25 minute walk). There is nearby parking on West Basin and Ohio Drive, SW, and it can be easily accessed via walking from the Mall.
- Nearby dining options: There is a food kiosk between the Korean and Lincoln memorials. There are usually food trucks in the vicinity as well.
- Nearby attractions include: Lincoln Memorial and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
Photos provided by the NPS/Terry Adams in the public domain on the NPS website
Vietnam Veterans Memorial – This solemn memorial to the over 50,000 American lives lost in the Vietnam War is a place of reflection and mourning. There are usually family members touching their loved one’s name or taking a rubbing of the name etched in the black granite. If you have a loved one who served, you can look up the location of their name here or at a ranger stand at the memorial. Don’t miss the statues surrounding the memorial including one of the women who served in Vietnam. The memorial is open 24 hours a day. Note the restrooms are between the women’s statue and Constitution Gardens.
- Transportation: The memorial is not near a Metro stop (Foggy Bottom/GWU is a 20 minute walk). There is nearby parking on Constitution Avenue, and it can be easily accessed via walking from the Mall.
- Nearby dining options: There is a food kiosk between the Vietnam and Lincoln memorials. There is also an &Pizza restaurant nearby.
- Nearby attractions include: Lincoln Memorial, Constitution Gardens, and Albert Einstein Memorial
Visiting the Mall and its monuments can be challenging, especially in the summer. If you walk between all of the memorials and monuments, it will be almost 3 miles, which is impossible on a hot, humid summer day! If you do want to make the trek, check out this map for a suggested route and be sure to drink lots of water.
My best recommendation to see the monuments with kids is to visit them at different times. Some are best viewed at night and some are best seen during the day when you can read the inscribed words and go into the museums. In my opinion, the Jefferson Memorial, the Korean Memorial, and the World War II Memorial are best viewed at night and make a great after-dinner stop. A visit to the Washington Monument pairs well with a day spent at the Smithsonian museums. The memorials surrounding the Lincoln Memorial are a destination of their own and can be seen in one stop.
With young kids (elementary and younger), my best tip is to take a hop on/hop off trolley tour to easily move between the monuments and memorials. Kids love riding the trolley, and it will drop you off very close to the memorials (stops 11, 12, and 13) and near the World War II Memorial and Washington Monument (stop 10). If you’re not taking the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument, I don’t recommend getting off here, you can see it from just about everywhere on the Mall! Pick 1 or 2 of the memorials to see and just ride by the rest. With younger kids, I recommend getting off at stop 12 and viewing the Martin Luther King, Jr., Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial before getting back on the trolley.
With older kids (middle school and older), you’ll want to spend more time at the memorials. The trolley is a good idea for this age range as well but you could also take the Metro/walk or take the DC Circulator Bus. The National Mall route will take you to all of the places you want to go and only costs $1 a person! It’s a steal!
To see the monuments by night, consider taking a special moonlight trolley tour. It’s the best and safest way to see the beautiful memorials with the dramatic nighttime lighting. As always, be careful of your surroundings when you’re out at night, and stay on the well-lit pathways.
Washington, DC is a place that many people visit on a family vacation. Seeing the monuments and memorials along the National Mall is one of the best ways to learn about American history and show respect to the great leaders and servicemen and women who fought for our freedom.
- Cost: All monuments and memorials are free; there is a $1 charge for advance tickets to the Washington Monument
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 3 – 4 hours
- Gift shops located at many of the memorials
- Transportation: The monuments and memorials are along the National Mall close to the Smithsonian Metro stop. Street parking and parking lots are available at certain locations.
- Dining options: See specific monument or memorial for details. In general, food trucks and kiosks are located throughout the Mall. The Mall is also a perfect place for a picnic!
- Nearby hotels: See my Washington guide for recommendations!
- Nearby attractions include: Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, International Spy Museum, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Books to Read:
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