Definitive Guide To The National Mall in Washington D.C.: What To Do and See

Wondering what to see and do on the National Mall in Washington D.C.? Here’s my guide to visiting the National Mall, which is home to some of the most beloved treasures in D.C.

This guide covers all the top monuments, memorials, museums, and historic landmarks on the National Mall. To help you along, I give you must know tips for visiting. I also tell you about other nearby attractions and the famous monuments surrounding the Tidal Basin.

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The National Mall is the heart of Washington, D.C. and the center of sightseeing in the city. It’s 2 miles long and sees over 25 million visitors per year.

The Mall is stuffed with historical landmarks honoring the legacy and history of the United States.

I lived in the D.C. area for 20+ years, so I’ve visited the National Mall dozens of times. In fact, I went again just last week on a long weekend visit.

map of the National Mall in Washington D.C.

What To See At The National Mall

Here’s my list of the top 25+ attractions to see on or near the National Mall. My list includes all the magnificent monuments, memorials, and world class museums on the National Mall and Tidal Basin.

These National Mall attractions are listed in the order you’ll encounter them, moving from the Lincoln Memorial in the west to the U.S. Capitol in the east.

There’s so much to see and do at the National Mall that visiting could take days. With this National Mall guide in hand, you can pick and choose what you what to see on the National Mall over the course of your Washington D.C. visit.

Lincoln Memorial, one of the top things to see on the National Mall
Lincoln Memorial

1. Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial is a tribute in marble to our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. The columned memorial was built to resemble a Greek temple, modeled after the Parthenon. There are 36 Doric columns.

A marble staircase leads up to a sculpture of Lincoln by the American sculptor Daniel Chester French. It’s situated in the center of the memorial chamber and is the visual highlight of the monument. A seated Lincoln is deep in contemplation with hands clenched.

On the ceiling is a mural panted by Julies Guercin depicting the angel of truth freeing slaves.

The south wall is inscribed with the words from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The north wall is inscribed with the words from Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

The Lincoln Memorial was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a Dream” speech in 1963. The memorial’s steps are a great place to stop, rest, and enjoy the view

Memorial Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Memorial Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

2. Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Dedicated in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a profoundly moving monument. It’s, by far, the most popular memorial on the National Mall. It’s as iconic as the Lincoln Memorial and well-cherished.

The memorial is in three parts: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, The Three Soldiers Statue, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.

The solemn Memorial Wall, designed by Maya Kin, is the most moving and powerful section. The minimalist wall, which cuts into the earth’s surface, was shocking when it was unveiled.

Vietnam Women's Memorial
Vietnam Women’s Memorial

Lacking the typical heroic statues, it was initially derided as a “black trench” on the mall. But it built a grassroots following of fans.

The Memorial Wall consists of a long V shaped granite wall. The wall bears the names, in a seemingly never ending account, of over 58,000 of the dead and missing in action from the war of folly.

The wall is reflective. That means you see your own reflection in the wall as you’re reading the names. It’s a way of connecting the living to the lost.

The thing I like about this memorial is that it showcases the warriors, not the war itself. Photos, flowers, and other tributes are often left by visitors.

sculptures at the Korean War Memorial
sculptures at the Korean War Memorial

3. Korean War Memorial

From 1950-53, the US joined the United Nations to fight in the Korean War. Dedicated in 1995, the Korean War Memorial honors the more than 50,000 Americans who fought in that war.

You approach the memorial along a winding path. A triangular garden is supposed to simulate a battlefield.

You’ll see 19 larger-than-life stainless steel sculptures. They depict soldiers clad in ponchos.

The figures gesture, crouch, and spring to action. They stand in a bed of juniper bushes, meant to evoke the rice paddies of Korea.

On a 164 foot wall flanking the sculptures, you’ll see faces of soldiers sandblasted into black granite. At the top of the memorial is the slogan “Freedom Is Not Free.”

Constitution Gardens
Constitution Gardens

4. Constitution Gardens

Constitution Gardens is a pastoral oasis on the bustling National Mall. There’s a lake in the park with a small island.

On the island, you’ll find a memorial dedicated to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a semi-circular granite sculpture. It bears the names and signatures of the singers as they appeared on the document.

This is also a place to enjoy a bit of nature. You can also stroll along tree-lined paths and admire the gardens themselves.

WWII Memorial
WWII Memorial

5. World War II Memorial

The WWII Memorial sprawls across 7.5 acres not The National Mall. It’s at the top of the reflecting pool. Bronze reliefs show battle scenes.

The Neo-Classical memorial has a fountain in the center. It’s encircled with 56 granite columns and arches. The columns stand for the 50 states and territories.

Two massive arches represent the war from both the Pacific and Atlantic fronts. The Freedom Wall pays tribute to those that died in the conflict.

It’s adorned with over 4,000 gold stars which represent 400,000 Americans who died during the WWII. There are designated sections of the memorial which commemorate important dates of major events like Pearl Harbor and D-Day.

The National Park Service offers daily tours of the WWII Memorial every hour on the hour.

I have to confess this isn’t my favorite memorial on the mall. The architecture is rather bland. The arches have a whiff of imperialism, perhaps glorifying the war.

The memorial also makes me think of a water park, especially when people rather disrespectfully hop into the Rainbow Pool.

Washington Monument
the Washington Monument

6. Washington Monument

The Washington Monument honors the first president of the United States, George Washington.

It’s the tallest structure in the nation’s capital, towering 555 feet above the National Mall.

After design squabbles that latest decades, the obelisk was finally finished in 1885. The monument is the world’s tallest obelisk.

view from the top of the Washington Monument at sunset
view from the top of the Washington Monument at sunset

After lengthy off and on closures for the pandemic and renovations, the monument reopened to visitors in July 2021.

With a timed entry ticket, you can ride the elevator to the top for spectacular views of the city. You’ll need to book in advance and go through several layers of security.

One the way down, you can see the changes in the marble from the older and newer parts.

WWI Memorial. Image: National Park Service
WWI Memorial with a canvas of the bas relief. Image: National Park Service

7. World War I Memorial

More than a century after World War I ended, a WWI Memorial dedicated to the global conflict opened to the public in April 2021. The memorial is across from the White House Visitor’s Center.

It honors the 4.7 million Americans who served in World War I, including 116,516 who died in sacrifice.

The memorial is unfinished. The central element of the Memorial will be a 60 foot long bas-relief sculpture titled A Soldier’s Journey.

This Wall of Remembrance is scheduled to be installed in 2024. For the time being, a canvas with sketches of the future sculpture stands in its place.

The WWI memorial incorporates a statue of General John J. Pershing. There’s also a Peace Fountain and a stone wall bearing an excerpt from Archibald MacLeish’s poem The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak.

the White House
the White House

8. White House

Take a left and veer north to get a glimpse of the White House.

The presidential estate is bounded by the pedestrian-only Pennsylvania Avenue. This is a great place for an up-close view and to snap photos

White House tours need to be planned far in advance. If you can’t make it inside, the public White House Visitor Center provides an extensive overview of the building and its history.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
the National Museum of African American History and Culture

9. National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the newest addition to the Smithsonian family. It was inaugurated in 2016 by President Barack Obama.

This Smithsonian museum is a revelation. It houses artifacts, photography, and other media reflecting the culture, heritage, and experiences of African Americans.

You’ll find Harriet Tubman’s personal clothing, slave shackles, a bill of a sale for a young slaved girl, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and photos of black civil rights activists. A top exhibit is the Emancipation Proclamation.

statue depicting the famous medal stand protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics
statue depicting the medal stand protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics

Even the architecture of the museum is stunning. The entire building is wrapped in an ornamental bronze colored metal lattice. It pays homage to the iron works crafted by American slaves.

The museum is one of the most popular Smithsonian museums. Because of this, the museum requires visitors reserve a timed entry pass online before arriving, which is free.

Here’s my complete guide to the Smithsonian African American Museum. If you’d like a guided tour of the museum during your walking tour of the National Mall, click here to book one.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

10. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Holocaust Memorial Museum is one of the top attractions in Washington D.C. It’s definitely worth visiting. 

The Museum is a living memorial to the Holocaust, one of the world’s most horrific tragedies. It’s a place for somber reflection on man’s inhumanity to man.

Founded in 1993, the Holocaust Memorial Museum is a modern museum that captures the visceral memories of a nightmare. It shines a harrowing light on the insane megalomania and brutality of the Nazi party, who stole not just lives but identities.

With unflinching eye-opening detail, the museum documents the rise of the Nazi party and its atrocities. It reveals the demonic not in a grandiose way, but in the most minute bone chilling details.

Here’s my complete guide to the Holocaust Museum, with tips for visiting. Free timed entry passes are required for the permanent exhibit.

National Museum of American history
National Museum of American History

11. National Museum of American History

The National Museum of American History collects and preserves significant artifacts from American history and popular culture. There are more than 3 million items in the collection.

The most popular treasures include the original Star-Spangled Banner, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Jacqueline Kennedy’s yellow silk state dinner dress, and Julia Child’s kitchen.

The museum hosts myriad public programs, including lectures, tours, demonstrations, and live theater experiences. The museum also offers music programs by resident jazz and chamber ensembles.

Smithsonian Castle
Smithsonian Castle

12. Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian Castle houses the Smithsonian Institution’s administrative offices and information center. You could make this a starting point for your National Mall journey.

At the castle, you can get a sense of the scope and scale of the Smithsonian museums. You can also tour the castle and admire its 19th century architecture.

You can see see what exhibits are at the Smithsonian museums. You can also consult with in-house experts about what are the best things for you to see and do on the National Mall.

Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art
Peacock Room in the Freer Gallery of Art

13. National Museum of Asian Art

The National Museum of Asian Art preserves, exhibits, and interprets Asian art in ways that deepen our understandings of Asia, the United States, and the world.

This museum consists of two separate galleries, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art. It houses more than 40,000 objects dating from the Neolithic period to the present.

James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, 1865 -- in the Peacock Room
James McNeill Whistler, The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, 1865 — in the Peacock Room

The object and artifacts originate from the ancient Near East to China, Japan, Korea, South and Southeast Asia, and the Islamic world.

Another highlight of the museum are works by American painter James McNeill Whistler, including the famed Peacock Room. It’s a gorgeous harmony of blue and gold, filled with peacocks.

Before the Peacock Room was painted by Whistler, the panels were in the dining room in the London mansion of Frederick Leyland.

Here’s my complete guide to the Museum of Asian Art.

the Hirshhorn Museum, with Roy Lichtenstein's Brushstroke sculpture
the Hirshhorn Museum, with Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstroke sculpture

14. Hirshhorn Museum

The Hirshhorn Museum is where you go to experience modern and contemporary art. The museum’s vast collection boasts a comprehensive range of pioneering painting, sculpture, photography, and video from 21st century artists.

The museum has works by artists such as Edward Hopper, Constantine Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, Wilhem de Kooning, and living artists.

Free tours take place twice a day. You can pop into Dolcezza for an espresso or gelato.

Yayoi Kusama, Phalli’s Field, 1965 --one of her infinity rooms
Yayoi Kusama, Phalli’s Field, 1965 — one of her infinity rooms

You can also visit the magnificent Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. It’s an outdoor art park filled with world famous, eye catching sculptures by some of the world’s greatest artists. 

First opened in 1974, the museum’s Sculpture Garden is 197,000 square feet of beauty.

In 1981, the garden was renovated. Landscape architect, Lester Collins, created a small jewel box, a “park within a park.” 

Here’s my guide to Hirshhorn Museum and my guide to the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden.

interior of National Museum of National History, a popular attraction on the National Mall
interior of National Museum of National History

15. National Museum of Natural History

This massive two story National Museum of Natural History is beloved by children, science lovers, and wannabe paleontologists. It boasts the largest natural history collection in the world. There are over 124 million objects and artifacts.

Highlights are the Hall of Human Origins, Sant Ocean Hall, Live Butterfly Pavilion, Last American Dinosaurs exhibit, and a Live Insect Zoo.

Perhaps the most famous exhibit is the 46 karat Hope Diamond. Its brilliant blue sparkle caught the eyes of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette before disappearing during the French Revolution.

The museum could take all day to visit. Click here if you want a 2 hour guided tour of this fine museum.

East Wing of the National Gallery of Art
East Wing of the National Gallery of Art

 The National Gallery of Art is one of the world’s best museums. It’s a preeminent cultural institution with a massive and revered collection of American and European art.

In my opinion, the NGA is the #1 attraction in Washington D.C., especially for art lovers.

The collection includes over 140,000 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture, and decorative arts from the 13th century to the present. The art ranges from Byzantine/Medieval altarpieces to Pop and Conceptual art. The museum has the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Untied States.

The NGA is a two part collection. It’s comprised of a West Wing and an East Wing.

The West Wing is massive. It’s the largest part of the museum.

The main floor alone consists of 90 galleries. They houses European art from the 11th to century to the early 1900s and American art from the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s arranged in chronological order by art periods and national schools.

Opened in 1978, the East Wing was designed by I.M. Pei. It houses the NGA’s modern and contemporary collections. They cover the turn of the 20th century to the present day.

You start in the Picasso era. Then, you’ll work your way through all the different phases of modernism — Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Fauvism, and Pop art.

Here’s my complete guide to the National Gallery Of Art, with 30 masterpieces and tips for visiting. If you’d like a guide tour of this amazing museum, click here to book one.

National Air and Space Museum
National Air and Space Museum

17. National Air and Space Museum

Founded in 1876, the National Air and Space Museum is one of the most visited museums on the planet. The museum explores the evolution and science of air and space. It houses the world’s largest collection of aviation and space artifacts.

The museum has 23 exhibition galleries. You’ll see aircrafts, spacecrafts, Wright Brother experiments, and Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.

The museum caters to both children and adults. There are IMAX movies, planetarium shows, and flight simulators.

If you want to visit both the Air and Space Museum and the Museum of American History, great museums for kids, you can book this 2 hour tour.

National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of the American Indian

18. National Museum of the American Indian

This National Museum of the American Indian boasts one of the world’s most expansive collections of Native American objects. The museum is dedicated to bringing Native culture voices to life throughout its contemplative exhibitions.

The museum was designed exclusively by Native American architects. It’s visually striking, with limestone material intended to resemble rock formations formed by wind and water over thousands of years.

The collection spans more than 12,000 years of history across 1,200+ indigenous cultures from the Americas. The objects on display are diverse, with aesthetic religious, and historical significance.

Eisenhower Memorial
Eisenhower Memorial

19. Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial

The Eisenhower Memorial is just a short detour off the National Mall. It’s a 4 minute walk south from the American Indian Museum and well worth seeing. The memorial was designed by starchitect Frank Gehry.

It opened to the public on September 18, 2020. It traces the trajectory of Eisenhower’s career — from his coming of age, to his selection as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, to his tenure as the 34th President of the United States.

Gehry’s memorial design is a mix of large architectural gestures, green space, and large scale figurative sculptural groups. Its key feature is a metal tapestry that’s 60 feet tall and 450 feet wide.

It’s almost three quarters of an acre of woven stainless steel, which is held aloft by piers the height of an eight story building. The screen replicates a freehand sketch by Gehry of a D-Day landing site in Normandy. The tapestry is nearly transparent in the daytime.

READ: One Week Itinerary For Normandy

U.S. Botanical Garden
U.S. Botanical Garden

20. United States Botanical Garden

The U.S. Botanical Garden is a state of the art indoor garden. It showcases approximately 4,000 seasonal, tropical and subtropical plants.

The gardens offers special exhibits and educational programs throughout the year. The goal of the Botanical Garden is to teach visitors about the importance of plants’ interrelationship with humans and a fragile ecosystem.

It was George Washington who wished to include a botanical garden on the National Mall. Established in 1820, this is the oldest operating botanical garden in the United States.

Currently, the outdoor gardens are open and the Conservatory is closed.

 Ulysses S. Grant Memorial
Ulysses S. Grant Memorial

21. Ulysses S. Grant Memorial

The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is a monument honoring the American Civil War general and 18th U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.

The memorial sits at the base of the U.S. Capitol. It’s the largest equestrian monument in the United States — 252 feet long by 71 feet wide by 44 feet high.

Grant and his horse, Cincinnati, are on a 22 foot marble pedestal. Grant is shown in his customary stillness, without a sword and wearing his wide brimmed army hat.

U.S. Capitol building
U.S. Capitol

22. United States Capitol

At the far eastern end of the mall, just over 1 mile from the Washington Monument, sits the grand domed Capitol Building. There’s a reflecting pool in front of the building where you can snap your House of Cards style picture.

The U.S. Capitol was designed by Dr. William Thornton in 1793. It was partially burned by the British in the War of 1812, but fully restored.

Hall of Statuary in the U.S. Capitol building
Hall of Statuary in the U.S. Capitol building

Visitors must pre-book free tickets and begin their tour at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Because of increased security, the Capitol Dome is open to the public for guided tours only.

Tours are conducted from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. They include a look at the magnificent rotunda and the National Statuary Hall.

If you want to see Congress in session, reserve ahead through your local representative’s office.

Washington Monument on the National Mall
Washington Monument on the National Mall

Tips For Visiting the National Mall

1. Where Is The National Mall?

The National Mall is located just south of downtown and the White House in Washington, D.C. The National Mall is one of the United State’s most prestigious and famous National Parks. 

2. How To Get to The National Mall

The National Mall is the busiest area in Washington, D.C. It’s best to take public transportation because parking is limited and expansive.

Metro Stations near the National Mall include:

  • Smithsonian
  • Federal Triangle
  • Metro Center
  • Gallery Place-Chinatown
  • Capitol South
  • L’Enfant Plaza
  • Federal Center SW
  • Archives-Navy Memorial
  • Arlington National Cemetery.
Constitution Gardens

There are many metered parking spaces on the National Mall along Madison and Jefferson Drives in front of the Smithsonian museums. But they usually fill quickly and on street parking is restricted to two hours.

3. Getting Around The National Mall

The National Mall is completely walkable. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes.

Not up for walking? Happily, you can take a bike tour, Segway tour, or electrical vehicle tour of the National Mall. Another option is to take a night tour, as the monuments are open and beautifully illuminated in the evening. 

If you want a regular guided bus tour, this tour will fit the bill.

4. Where To Stay in Washington D.C.

If you’re not a local, there are plenty fo great hotel options near the National Mall.

If you want a splurge, I’d stay at the St. Regis, the Waldorf Astoria, the Grand Hyatt, or the Willard Intercontinental. On my last visit, I stayed at the Hilton National Mall.

Three Soldiers Statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Three Soldiers Statue at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

5. When To Go To The National Mall

The National Mall is frequently busy and crowded. The best time to go is the spring or fall. Though you can get sunny days in the winter as well.

In terms of timing, it’s best to go early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Morning is also the best time to go paddle boating, as they are rented on a first come first serve basis.

More Time In Washington D.C.?

If you have more time, there are plenty of other must visit attractions right near the National Mall, including the iconic monuments on the Tidal Basin.

cherry blossoms along the tidal basin with Washington Monument  as a backdrop
cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin

1. Tidal Basin

After the mall, your first order of business is to head over to the Tidal Basin. It’s just south of the Reflecting Pool. Or, you could take a detour to the Tidal Basin after seeing the Washington Monument.

The Tidal Basin is a popular place for paddle boating. It’s also a prime place to catch sight of the city’s magnificent spring cherry blossoms.

The Tidal Basin is home to another cluster of important monuments in Washington D.C. You’ll find the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Thomas Jefferson Memorial

2. Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial is dedicated to the third president of the Untied States. He was politician, diplomat, architect, and philosopher.

Jefferson played a pivotal role in the American revolution and famously drafted the Declaration of Independence.

The Neo-Classical memorial was designed by John Russel Pope. It’s a round white marble gazebo like structure with a fetching location on an island in the Tidal Basin. It was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, which Jefferson believed was the perfect building.

The memorial is open air. Inside is a 19 foot tall bronze statue of Jefferson, gazing at the White House. The walls of the memorial are engraved with text from is speeches, including the Declaration of Independence.

3. FDR Memorial

The FDR Memorial is a tribute to the 32nd president, the nation’s only four term president. The memorial is immersive.

It consists of four red granite outdoor alcoves. They represent each of FDR’s terms in office and the historical events that occurred.

Stone expresses the fracture and upheaval of the times. You’ll find bronze sculptures of Roosevelt, the First Lady, other citizens, and even a dog.

The sculptures depict images from the Depression and WWII. There are calming waterfalls and pools.

This is a good memorial to visit at night. It’s more peaceful then and you can see the play of the statues in the shimmering water.

sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr.
sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr.

4. MLK Memorial

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is dedicated to the legendary civil rights leader. King’s most famous quotes are engraved on a 450 foot curving granite wall, giving you a lot of inspirational reading.

You enter the memorial through the granite Mountain of Despair with craggy contours. It’s a passage symbolizing the struggles of African Americans. There’s also a 30 foot tall (and rather grandiose) statue of King.

It emerges halfway out of the mountain of granite, looking like a mini Mount Rushmore.

With folded arms and grim expression, King looks uncharacteristically fierce or authoritarian. His eyes are fixed in the distance.

King doesn’t exactly look hopeful, though he’s standing on a self-described “stone of hope.” The statue was carved by Lei Yixin and it’s been criticized for having Mao-ist overtones.

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Barack Obama, 2018 -- in the National Portrait Gallery
Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Barack Obama, 2018 — in the National Portrait Gallery

With even more time, I’d head to the National Portrait Gallery, just north of the National Mall. The NPG is a beguiling combination of history, biography, and art all in one go. The wonderful museum tells the story of America, from pre-Revolutionary War to the present. 

The NPG houses an amazing collection of portraits of America’s most famous politicians, celebrities, writers, artists, sports figures, and influencers. The museum also has the world’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.

Here’s my complete guide to the National Portrait Gallery, with tips for visiting.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to what to see and do on the National Mall. You may enjoy these other U.S. city itineraries:

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