(Washington Monument, WWII Memorial in foreground, Capitol Building in background)
Washington D.C. is a city that symbolizes many things to many people. To state the obvious, it is first and foremost the capital of the United States and seat of the federal government. In this era of widespread dissatisfaction with government in general, and the federal government in particular, Washington D.C. is often the butt of jokes, the target of reformers and activists of all stripes, and the focal point of every perceived ill ailing the American political system. HOWEVER…I’m going to conveniently sidestep all of that and simply concentrate on our nation’s capital as a travel destination and avoid the political soapboxing. Whether your own political views fall left, right, or center, I think we can all agree there are far too many self-proclaimed pundits, prophets and windbags out there already. No one needs one more.
(Lincoln Memorial with WWII Memorial in foreground)
With that disclaimer aside, let’s explore D.C. from the traveler’s angle. On that score alone it certainly rates as one of the USA’s top cities to visit. In this article we’re going to look at some of the most iconic, recognizable monuments not only in the USA, but in the entire world.
(Jefferson Memorial from across the Tidal Basin)
No trip to Washington D.C. would be complete without visiting the National Mall, that vast swath of land which encompasses just about all of these well-known monuments. In fact with an early start and a pair of sturdy, comfortable walking shoes, you can visit all of them in a single day if you’re pressed for time. If not, I’d recommend taking a couple of days to really soak it all in, and also to have lots of time to spend in the nearby Smithsonian Museums.
For a D.C. first-timer like me, one of the most impressive aspects of the city is the sheer size of the National Mall. We’ve all seen photos and footage of many famous events, marches, etc. which have taken place over the years there, but honestly, until you get there and start walking around the area you really can’t grasp the size of it. So give credit for a suitably grand scale layout to the original design of Pierre L’Enfant. Broad avenues, foot paths and sidewalks mean plenty of room for the hordes of visitors to move around without feeling cramped, although that changes quickly when you arrive at any one of the monuments and queue up for a closer look. But that’s normal at any such famous destination around the world, whether you’re at the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Acropolis or Taj Mahal. So if you’re allergic to crowds and want to avoid them at all costs, why are you visiting any of these places to begin with? Stop whining, get in line and wait your turn to take your snapshots.
(The Washington Monument, all 555 feet of it)
One thing you always have to deal with is the weather and in this regard Washington D.C., like most of the eastern seaboard, is a place of contrasts and extremes in climate. Winters can be brutally cold and snowy, summers brutally hot and steamy. If you don’t care for either of those, try spring or fall for a more comfortable option. In spring you have the famous cherry blossoms, but also the even larger than normal crowds which they attract to the city. This leaves autumn as possibly your best bet for a combination of smaller crowds and decent weather.
(The Lincoln Memorial from alongside the reflecting pool)
For our trip we arrived in late August and stayed a week into early September which we quickly discovered is still the heart of summer, with daytime temperatures to prove it. I’ve griped about heat and humidity in enough previous articles to render the whole subject a moot point. All I will say is we walked, the sun shone brightly, we all sweat (some more profusely than others – that means me) and we all survived.
When it comes to the monuments themselves, it’s hard to say anything that doesn’t descend into hyperbole or cliché or hasn’t been said a hundred times before. They are all worth seeing up close and how you react to them will surely be a matter of personal interest and taste. For my own part, I truly enjoyed every moment spent at each of them. Maybe it helps to be a history buff and to already have an appreciation of the men and the events which these stone marvels commemorate. All I know is I stood there on a hot summer day and more than once shivered with emotion, awe, reverence and patriotic pride. A day I’ll not soon forget.
(Washington Monument from inside the Jefferson Memorial)
We started at the Washington Monument. This 555 foot-tall marble obelisk towers over the area and is visible from nearly everywhere within a several mile radius. Designed by Robert Mills and eventually completed by Thomas Casey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the structure was erected in two phases, one private (1848-1854) and one public (1876-1884). Built in the shape of an Egyptian obelisk, the Washington Monument embodies the respect and gratitude the nation felt for its most essential Founding Father. When completed, the Washington Monument was at that time the tallest building in the world.
(Approaching the Lincoln Monument)
At the west end of the National Mall, past the reflecting pool and opposite of the Washington Monument sits the Lincoln Memorial, built to honor the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The architect was Henry Bacon, the sculptor of the primary statue was Daniel Chester French, and the painter of the interior murals was Jules Guerin. Dedicated in 1922, the memorial has always been a major tourist attraction and since the 1930s has been a symbolic center focused on race relations.
The building is in the form of a Greek Doric temple and contains a large seated sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and inscriptions of two well-known speeches by Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The memorial has been the site of many famous speeches, including Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
(The Lincoln sculpture inside the monument)
If forced to choose one, I’d probably say this is my favorite of all the places we visited in D.C. I’ve always felt a particular fondness and admiration for Lincoln both as president and as a man. For me he embodies all that is best about the U.S. and all that I find sorely lacking in present day politicians (oops, I jumped on that soapbox for a second there.) The Memorial is a beautiful structure and serves well as a place to stand and dwell for a time on the life and legacy of (just my humble opinion) our greatest president. Plus it’s a really cool place to hang out, sit on the steps and gaze back across the reflecting pool at the Washington Monument.
(Washington Monument and reflecting pool as seen from the steps of Lincoln Monument)
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is often cited as the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing of the city’s grand monuments. It’s farther removed from the National Mall area and a bit of a hike around the Tidal Basin if you’re going to visit it on foot from the others, but well worth your time to do so. The neoclassical Memorial building sits just off the Washington Channel of the Potomac River and was designed by John Russell Pope. Construction began in 1939 and was completed in 1943, while the bronze statue of Jefferson was added in 1947.
(The Jefferson Memorial)
(Bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson inside the memorial)
Japanese cherry trees abound in the vicinity of the Jefferson Memorial, lining the walkways leading to it and being a focal point of the annual springtime cherry blossom festival, bringing an increase in foot traffic to this least visited of the city’s major monuments.
(A portion of the Declaration of Independence inscribed on the wall inside the memorial)
(A portion of the World War II Memorial situated along the Mall between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments)
The other main attractions you don’t want to miss are the major war memorials: the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial (1982) and the Korean (dedicated in July, 1995) and WWII Memorials (opened in April, 2004). Each of them is a unique, moving, and respectful tribute to the history and memory of the brave servicemen and women who fought and died in the twentieth century. No matter your personal feelings about any of these wars, you have to respect those who gave everything they had for their country, and visiting these memorials is a great way to do so. It will also afford you the opportunity to personally thank a veteran for their service, as there are always plenty of them visiting these sites. Shake a hand, say thank you and you’ll both feel good.
(Statues of the Korean War Memorial)
D.C. Monuments done; museums and other attractions coming next.
(Plaque inside the World War II Memorial)