When I think of Washington DC, the image that immediately comes to my mind is the tall spire in the center of the National Mall. From there you can see the Capital Building, The Lincoln Memorial, and the White House. That tall spire, created to commemorate our first president, is an iconic monument that is recognized around the world. But this city, so steeped in American History, has monuments everywhere you turn. One of my favorite activities in this city is to monument hop, and see these unique works of art, built to remind of our past, and make sure we honor it.
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Top Must See Monuments
Growing up on the East Coast, Washington DC was always a close weekend trip. And we always seemed to come at the best times weather wise, in the fall and spring. This recent trip was no different. We were in Washington DC during the end of April and the tail end of Cherry Blossom season. The beautiful weather and clear, sunny days (most of the time) made for wonderful weather to walk about and explore the beautiful monuments. Here are what I think are the monuments you have to make time to see when you are in the nation’s capital
How can you go to DC and not take a moment to get an up close and personal look at the spire built to honor George Washington. This monument is 555 feet tall, and if you look up about 150 feet, you will see that the stone changes colors. This is because the monument had started construction, then had to stop due to the need to secure more funding. After 23 years, they restarted construction, but the stone was from a different source. Surrounding the Washington Monument are 50 American flags (1 for each state). You can take an elevator to the top, and it is even free. But it must be reserved in advanced, up to 90 days ahead of time online. These reservations will sell out quickly. If you cannot secure a reservation for your trip, a limited number of next day tickets are released daily at 10 AM. They will go quickly, so have the whole family ready with multiple phones.
Dedicated in 2011, this is a new-ish memorial. This trip was my first time seeing the monument and it was everything I imagined it to be. Set in a large plaza, the walls around it have quotes from the civil right leader’s famous speeches. When you come up, you see a giant relief of the Martin Luther King carved out of stone. The stone breaks away from the walls of the plaza and it symbolizes how Martin Luther King Jr was a stone of hope out of a mountain of despair. It’s a powerful piece and you feel small next to it, understanding all this man did for our country. The relief is looking out at the tidal basin of the Potomac River and across the river to the Jefferson Memorial, a powerful juxtaposition to a formal slave owner and president, and a civil rights leader who helped changed the way our country treats African Americans (understanding there is still a long way to go). While I felt the power of this memorial, I know the kids did as well, as they were reading the quotes, and reflecting on the man and discussing recent events such as the George Floyd shooting and Black Lives Matter protests just a year earlier.
I grew up in a household obsessed with World War II history, and my sister worked for the Historic Home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, so it is insane that this trip was the first time I was visiting this the FDR memorial. This memorial is a large, interactive memorial that is set into four sections. Each section is dedicated to one of his terms of presidency. The start is heavy on the imagery of the soup lines and the radio terms. There is symbolism of the war breaking out and peace being broken. And the fourth section is incomplete, showing how he never finished that term. There is also a nod to Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife who helped him throughout his presidency, and took on such an important role afterwards as well. His memorial is fully accessible by wheelchair, a nod to FDR who was wheelchair-bound his entire presidency. Parts of the memorial are interactive, with flowing water (during the summer) and parts to climb to keep the little (and not so little) ones entertained. It’s a beautiful way to honor this man who served our country for so long at such a crucial time in our history.
One of the most famous monuments, the Lincoln Memorial sits at the westernmost end of the National Mall. You can walk up the 57 steps into a columned pavilion where Lincoln is sitting looking over the capital of the country, he was able to hold the nation together during the Civil War. On the left is the Gettysburg Address. One of my children started reading it, and when they got tired, the other started, I joined in and soon, we all rotated through all the lines until we read all of it. It was a spontaneous but powerful way to honor this man and what he did. Heading up the steps, you get to the giant statue of Lincoln seated, with his most famous speeches on each side. When you are standing on the pavilion, with Lincoln to your back, you look out across the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument. Two anchor points for two of the greatest presidents this country has seen.
While we did not make it to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial this trip, it’s one that I saw a number of times growing up and sticks in my mind for how powerful it is. Unlike the other memorials in Washington DC that are grandiose and full of symbolism in their icons, this is simple and intentionally so. Dedicated in 1982, it is a flat black wall, carved into the land, that gradually gets taller than shorter. It lists all the names of the dead and missing in action of the Vietnam War. The sheer number of names is staggering, and that in of itself makes it powerful. Many of my parents’ generation fought in this war, and when I visited it in high school, a friend was taking rubbings of names for their family members. As that generation ages, those who come to visit friends will be less. But they will be forever remembered as a person who lived. It is a beautiful moving tribute, and truly shows how less can be more.
The monuments above are must visits, but if you have time and the inclination, there are a few that deserve an honorable mention. These monuments are ones worth mentioning and worth the visit if you have the time.
Just off the mall is the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which pays tribute to both his time as president and his time leading the allied forces to victory in World War II. It has some famous quotes and gave us a chance to talk about a lesser known president to the kids and all the good he did for our country.
I’m old enough to remember when this one was finally completed, and we first got a chance to go see it. I was a senior in high school and was blown away by its sheer size. There are twenty-four bronze panels that flank the entrance. Granite columns that represent each U.S. state and territory at the time of World War II and surround a pool with water that shoots high into the air. In addition, there are quotes, references to theaters, campaigns, and battles, and two victory pavilions tell the story of the Americans and what they did to win the war. I’ve only been about to see it once, unfortunately it was without the fountains on but still in all its glory.
Similar to the Lincoln memorial, it is in a large building with stairs. But out by the Tidal basin, you really need to trek out to see this monument. Because of the trek, my family never made the effort to go. Maybe I’m a bit biased in my old age now that I know more about Jefferson as a person, and with him being a slave owner, I haven’t made the effort to go out and see it but I would say it’s supposed to be beautiful lit up at night and it might be worth looking from afar.
Tips for Monument Hopping
- Washington DC is bigger than you think. Sure, they look close together on the map, it’s just across the mall you tell yourself. But looks are deceiving. Those moments are further apart than you expect them to be. Unless you and your kids are fit, walk fast and comfortable all the time, and walk for miles without complaint, make a plan to get from monument to monument. I would suggest either using the DC Circular, which is minimal per ride fee, or rent a electric scooter from Bird or Scoot. You could do the Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour, but it is not as convenient for monument hopping as it looks.
- If it is pleasant weather and you have teens or tweens are like staying up late, I would suggest walking the Mall and seeing the monuments at night. They are all lit up at night and less crowded.
- Try to group together monuments that are near (or near-ish) to each other. That will let you see more, and save your legs and feet (and complaints from your kids who are tired of walking)
- Note that the fountains are not on year-round. Many of these monuments are meant to be seen with water. If that’s important to you, make sure to look and see when the water will be turned on.
One of the amazing things about Washington DC is that almost everything you do in the city is free. And the monuments are available 24/7, so you can always plan them in when museums and other activities are closed. It’s a great way to see the city, feel the weight of it’s history, and learn lessons in strength, grace and humility with all the generations in your family.
If you need more help planning your Washington DC Trip check out my Family Guide to Washington DC .
Editor: SKS (Son) (Give him your honest feedback so that he can get better)