National Mall Travel Guide

Where to go and what to do at the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

Byby PATRICIA SCHULTZ, author of "1000 Places To See Before You Die" via via logo

May 5, 2008 — -- The Mall is impressive year round and at any time of day. It is particularly beautiful when illuminated at night, and in early spring when thousands of Japanese cherry trees burst into bloom around the Tidal Basin. Presented as a gift in 1912 from Japan, more than 3,700 cherry trees explode into a sea of pale pink and white, heralding the arrival of spring in our nation's capital.

National Mall and Memorial Parks Visitor Information:

Web site:

Phone: 202-426-6841

Smithsonian Institution Visitor Information:

Web site:

Phone: 202-357-2700

To the surprise of many visitors the seat of American government is also a beautiful city, a celebration in marble and stone of the ideals on which democracy was founded.

Though laid out roughly according to the original 1791 plan by French military engineer Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, Washington D.C. has changed considerably over the years. At its heart is the National Mall -- a majestic two-mile greensward running west from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial, lined with some of the nation's most important monuments and civic and cultural institutions -- an awe-inspiring centerpiece for sure, but one that did not assume its current form until the early 20th century.

The focal point and unmistakeble icon of the National Mall is the Washington Monument; the Mall's first presidential memorial, it was completed in 1884. Thrusting skyward 555 feet, it offers visitors a spectacular 360-degree view from its peak.

To the west, the neoclassical Lincoln Memorial is probably the most emotional of the Mall's presidential memorials. Built to resemble a Greek temple, it has 36 Doric columns representing the 36 states in the union at the time of Lincoln's death. Inside, Daniel Chester French's massive 19-foot seated sculpture of our nation's 16th president gazes out, the powerful words of his Gettysburg Address etched behind him, below a mural depicting the unity of North and South. For the most profound experience, visit at night, after the crowds have thinned out.

South of the Washington Monument on the banks of the Tidal Basin, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial was designed in 1936 by John Russell Pope and modeled on the Pantheon in Rome. Inside, a 19-foot bronze statue of the third president stands surrounded by passages from the Declaration of Independence that he helped pen.

The Jefferson Memorial was planned and constructed during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, so it's apt that the next presidential memorial built on the Mall was to that great man himself. Dedicated in 1997, the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial is composed of four outdoor galleries, one for each of his terms in office, with waterfalls, shade trees, statuary, and the president's words carved into walls of red South Dakota granite. Near the entrance, visitors are greeted by a statue of Roosevelt seated in his wheelchair, his beloved Scottish terrier, Fala, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt nearby.

The Mall's most moving memorial is to the men and women who fought and died in America's longest war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a simple V-shaped wall of polished black granite set into the earth, inscribed with the names of the 58,245 soldiers killed or MIA. Dedicated in 1982, the wall's unconventional design, by Maya Lin, was initially controversial but has since been recognized for its powerful evocation of the personal cost of war.

Nearby, the Korean War Veterans Memorial consists of a circular Pool of Remembrance and sculptures of 19 infantrymen crossing a field. Located at the other end of the slender reflecting pool that stretches between the Lincoln and Washington memorials, the National World War II Memorial has a more traditional design. Dedicated in 2004, it pays homage to the 16 million who served in the war. Its central plaza and fountain are surrounded by 56 granite pillars and a "Freedom Wall" with 4,000 sculpted gold stars commemorating the more than 400,000 Americans who died in the war.

A number of premier museums and galleries line the National Mall, among which are many of the Smithsonian Institution's museums, including the National Museum of Natural History, the kid-favorite National Air and Space Museum, the new National Museum of the American Indian and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. A good place to start is the Smithsonian Institution building, also known as The Castle, which houses the Smithsonian Information Center. Of the others not under the Smithsonian umbrella are the National Gallery of Art and the Holocaust Museum.

And standing above it all at Mall's easternmost point is the Capitol building, where a visit will be as insightful as a year back at school. Throw in a visit to the White House, just off the National Mall (and due north of the Washington Monument) and you will have captured the highlights of one of the great capital cities of the world.

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