A Shrine to American Heroes
“Hanging out at the mall” takes on a decidedly different meaning at Washington, D.C.’s version, an emerald-green esplanade that serves as America’s Main Street and Town Square. The place where protesters protest, where locals take their dogs to romp, and where interns spend their lunch hours sunbathing, it’s also the vital first stop on any visitor’s tour of Washington.
To the surprise of many visitors – who bring the kids out of a sense of patriotism or to further their education – the seat of American government, with all its monumental trappings, is also a beautiful city. Founded in 1791, it was the first planned capital city in the world, purpose- built from marshy woodland.
Today its green, 2-mile-long National Mall is lined with the city’s most important monuments and museums, with the U.S. Capitol at the eastern end, the Lincoln Memorial at the western end, and the stark Washington Monument in between.
The Washington Monument was the first constructed on the Mall, and was completed in 1884, thrusting skyward 555 feet and offering spectacular 360-degree views from its peak. Its image is mirrored in a slender reflecting pool that stretches westward to the steps of the neoclassical Lincoln Memorial, from which the somber Civil War president gazes out, the powerful words of his Gettysburg Address engraved behind him, leaving few unmoved.
This area of the Mall is particularly beautiful when illuminated at night or when its thousands of cherry blossom trees (presented to the nation by the Japanese in 1912) burst into bloom.
South of the Washington Monument on the banks of the Tidal Basin, the serenely classical Jefferson Memorial appears like a temple. The 19-foot bronze statue of the third president stands beneath the graceful columned rotunda, surrounded by passages from the Declaration of Independence.
Erected in 1997, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is the Mall’s most recent presidential addition, comprising four outdoor galleries (one for each of the president’s terms in office) and a series of statues depicting Roosevelt, his wife Eleanor, and his famous dog Fala. Near the Lincoln Memorial, the V-shaped Vietnam Memorial is perhaps the most moving of all. A simple black granite wall set into the earth, it’s inscribed with the names of the 58,209 American men and women who gave their lives in America’s longest war, or remain missing as a result. The WWII Memorial is the Mall’s most recent addition.
The grassy Ellipse, north of the Washington Monument, links the Mall to the White House, one of the world’s most famous residences. Most (sometimes all) of the White House’s 132 rooms (and 32 bathrooms) are off limits, and don’t even ask about seeing the Oval Office. (Check with the tourist office for visiting possibilities; if tours are available, tickets are required.) Somewhere in every tourist’s jam-packed itinerary, time should also be made to tour the Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the National Archives. So much to see, so little time . . .
If your invitation for a night in the Lincoln Bedroom hasn’t come through, settle for a room at the 1927 Italian Renaissance – style Hay-Adams Hotel, directly across Pennsylvania Avenue, with White House views from some of the more expensive rooms. Since 1928, it’s been a home away from home for diplomats and visiting heads of state. Or head for the spot where Washingtonians bring out-of-town friends: the rooftop bar of the Hotel Washington, for the city’s best view of the White House and Treasury.