National Mall Walking Tour, Washington, D.C.

This Tour Comes From...
National Geographic Driving Guide: Washington, D.C., and Environs
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Stops on This Tour
1.  Lincoln Memorial
2.  Washington Monument
3.  Jefferson Memorial
4.  Freer Gallery
5.  U.S. Botanic Gardens
6.  National Gallery of Art
The National Mall stands at the heart of monumental Washington, embodying the ideals of democracy in its gleaming white marble edifices, pools, fountains, and perfect greenswards. The Mall honors this country's most hallowed heroes in memorials and monuments, and its many museums celebrate the arts, histories, and cultures of the world. The Smithsonian Institution exerts the most powerful influence here, with nine different buildings, but other stellar institutions such as the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum maintain their own strong presences.
1. Lincoln Memorial
To the west of the Mall stands the Lincoln Memorial (23rd St. N.W. +1 202 426 6841), immediately recognizable as the building pictured on pennies and five-dollar bills. Inside sits a larger-than-life sculpture by Daniel Chester French of the Great Emancipator, staring pensively toward the Capitol. Built in 1922, the monument's 36 Doric columns represent the states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death. Many demonstrators have spoken out from these steps, literally "backed" by Lincoln as they faced enormous crowds gathered around the long Reflecting Pool below. In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his "I have a dream..." speech here. Well before that, in 1939, opera singer Marion Anderson gave a groundbreaking concert after being barred from performing at nearby Constitution Hall because of her race. If you stroll around to the Potomac side of the monument, you'll see it faces Memorial Bridge with a long view up to Arlington House, once Robert E. Lee's home. The view is intentional, a symbolic reuniting of North and South.
Northeast of the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Constitution Gardens at 21st St. and Constitution Ave. +1 202 426 6841) makes a moving statement amid the greenery of Constitution Gardens. Called simply the Wall, its polished granite surface, really two joined triangles, is inset into a hillside and inscribed with the names of the roughly 58,000 men and women of the American armed forces who were killed or reported missing in action in Vietnam. The 21-year-old Yale architectural student, Maya Ying Lin, who designed the Wall in the early 1980s, said of it, "Take a knife and cut open the earth, and with time the grass would heal it." Judging by the many visitors who come here to mourn or pay hushed respects, Lin's moving symbol of healing remains powerfully affecting.
Three other, more conventional, war monuments stand nearby—one to women who served in Vietnam (1993) and another by Frederick Hart depicting soldiers in that same conflict (1984). The latter was commissioned to help abate the controversy that first raged concerning the abstract quality of the Wall. The third, dedicated in 1995, memorializes soldiers who served in the Korean War.
2. Washington Monument
Above rises the Washington Monument (15th St. N.W. +1 202 426 6841. Tickets required for entry. Same-day tickets available; arrive early. Reserved tickets available for handling fee at 800 967 2283 or, perhaps the city's—and country's—quintessential landmark, piercing the Washington skyline with austere marble simplicity. Crowning a small rise near the east end of the Reflecting Pool, this 555.5-foot [169.3-meter] obelisk was long in the making. As early as 1783, the Continental Congress voted to erect an equestrian monument to Washington. But, perhaps providentially, the new nation could not afford such statements, and for decades the idea languished. Then in 1833, private citizens founded the Washington National Monument Society and raised enough funds to begin planning the memorial. Preeminent architect Robert Mills won the design competition with his "grand circular colonnaded building... from which springs an obelisk." Construction actually got underway in 1848, and over time the concept was simplified to a single shaft. The monument committee solicited aid from states, aid that eventually took the form of granite blocks for the interior, engraved with appropriately respectful inscriptions. When Pope Pius IX contributed a block from a Roman temple, it was stolen by the radical, anti-Catholic "Know-Nothings" of the American Party.
With 150 feet [45.7 meters] of the obelisk completed, work ceased while the Civil War raged. Construction resumed in 1878, but contracts changed hands, and the marble used was quarried from a different source, resulting in the subtle color differentiations still visible today. That small flaw does not dissuade the crowds that perpetually wrap around the monument beneath fluttering American flags, waiting to ride the elevator to the observation room at its summit. From here, the city and the Virginian suburbs swell below, divided by the sweep of the Potomac.
South of the monument, the quiet waters of the Tidal Basin reflect the changing panoply of the seasons. In early spring, the scene becomes an unforgettable mirage of pink, as Japanese cherry trees in full, creamy bloom weep their petals into the basin's waters. The trees have a distinguished lineage, a gift to the city in 1912 from the mayor of Tokyo.
3. Jefferson Memorial
Appropriately, the nation's great gardener and aesthete, Thomas Jefferson, keeps an eye on the scene from the Jefferson Memorial (Off Ohio Dr. +1 202 426 6841). Modeled on the Roman Pantheon, it stands at the edge of the Tidal Basin, its domed Ionic colonnade an honor to the third President's love of classical architecture. Like so many neoclassic Washington buildings of the 1930s, this memorial was designed by John Russell Pope. In the center of the open-air monument, a bronze Jefferson stands holding a rolled parchment, a symbol of his Declaration of Independence. More of his memorable writings are inscribed on the encircling walls.
From here, walk back toward the city, heading right on the pathway curving up to 14th Street to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (14th and C Sts. S.W. +1 202 874 3188. Mon.-Fri. Tours fill quickly April-Sept. Requires free tickets, available at the ticket booth in front of the Bureau on Raoul Wallenberg Pl. between Independence and Maine Aves.). A break from the high-toned sublimity of the monuments, this printing plant offers a look at just how the nation's paper currency is produced. With its presses running nonstop, the bureau prints billions of dollars in paper money and billions of postage stamps annually. The exact number of bills and their denominations is regulated by the Federal Reserve Board, but normally most of the bills printed here are one-dollar bills, as their heavy use gives them a street life of only 18 months.
The guided tour begins in a processing area where large linen-and-cotton currency sheets are printed with bill impressions. The sheets are then passed into an area where they're examined and trimmed. A third area overprints the Treasury seal, serial numbers, and the Federal Reserve District seal and number. After this, the sheets are cut into separate bills, stacked, and sent to Federal Reserve banks throughout the country.
Next door rises one of the newest and most visited sites on the Mall—the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (100 Raoul Wallenberg Pl. S.W. +1 202 488 0400. Passes are necessary only for the permanent exhibit; advance passes through (fee) 800 400 9373. Free same-day passes available at museum from 10 a.m., but arrive early as they can go quickly). This recent addition to the Mall was conceived to perpetuate the memory of the victims of the World War II Holocaust. The massive limestone exterior encases an interior courtyard whose redbrick walls are meant to recall the architecture of Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz. Off the courtyard, the emotionally riveting exhibit "Daniel's Story" traces the life of a young German Jewish boy in the 1940s, from his secure middle-class home to the privations and horrors of the death camps.
The museum's darkly powerful permanent exhibit dominates the remainder of the building, with historic footage and artifacts tracing Hitler's rise to power and his increasing obsession with his "final solution" to the problem of Jews and other "impure" races and individuals. In the hushed marble Hall of Remembrance, an eternal flame burns for the more than 11 million victims of the resulting Holocaust.
As you exit the museum, turn left down 14th Street. The massive, turreted redbrick government building just beyond was built in 1879 to house an earlier Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Continue up 14th Street, turning right on Jefferson Drive, where the Smithsonian Institution (+1 202 357 2700. All museums free and open daily) commences a corridor of world-class museums. The concept for the Smithsonian began with English scientist and man of letters James Smithson (1765-1829). Although he never traveled to the United States, he bequeathed his estate to this country's government, stipulating the moneys be used "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The Smithsonian now ranks as one of America's great cultural achievements and the largest complex of museums in the world. Besides its eight Mall museums (and the Castle), the institution manages two museums in New York, an astrophysical observatory in Massachusetts, numerous scientific research centers throughout the world, and five other sites in D.C.—the National Portrait Gallery, the adjoining National Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery, the Anacostia Museum, and the National Zoological Park.
4. Freer Gallery
The first stop you'll encounter on this tour of the Mall is the elegant marble Freer Gallery (12th St. and Jefferson Dr. S.W.). Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer left his outstanding collection of American and Asian art to the Smithsonian in 1919, also giving the moneys to build this refined Italian Renaissance gallery. Among the museum's extensive collection of works by American artist James McNeill Whistler is his fanciful Peacock Room.
Like the Freer, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) was conceived by an individual. Dr. Sackler, a New York psychiatrist, was a voracious private collector with a connoisseur's eye. In 1982 he donated his superb collection of Asian art to the Smithsonian, and now gallery after gallery is filled with exquisite Chinese jades, Neolithic bronzes, beautifully wrought Near Eastern gold and silver, and a renowned series of Islamic manuscripts that span the 11th through the 19th centuries. The architecture of the museum creates a compelling atmosphere for the collection. A green, pyramidal roof covers an entrance pavilion leading to a cool, winding warren of underground galleries. Viewing the objets d'art in this undistracted subterranean setting seems to intensify their aspect.
A similar pavilion, this one with a rounded roof, stands across the pleasant Enid A. Haupt Gardens from the Sackler. This serves as the gateway to another underground museum, paralleling the Sackler in style and connected to it by a subterranean corridor: The National Museum of African Art (950 Independence Ave. S.W.), which once occupied the Capitol Hill town house of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, is dedicated to the study, collection, and exhibition of the arts of Africa. Focusing on traditional African arts from south of the Sahara, the treasures on display range from the detailed artwork of Benin sculptures to the figurative wood works of the Yoruba and Asante peoples, along with masks and sculptural art of many other ethnic groups.
At the rear of the Haupt gardens, flanked by these two museums, stands the Smithsonian's signature building, the aptly named Smithsonian Castle (Mid-Mall on Jefferson Dr.), its nine towers rising from a crenellated cornice. A true piece of Romanesque Revival architecture designed by James Renwick, Jr., the red Seneca sandstone Castle opened as the first Smithsonian building in 1855. No longer a museum, it now houses the Institution's management offices as well as a Visitor Center, where touch screens and maps allow tourists to plan their visit to the Smithsonian and other Washington sites.
Next door, the Arts and Industries Building (Mid-Mall on Jefferson Dr.) offers a nostalgic look at the past. Its 1881 exterior has a Victorian whimsicality in keeping with its purpose: to house a portion of the massive amounts of artifacts left over from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia. Today, two of the four wings radiating out from a central fountained and skylit rotunda remain filled with those same artifacts—machinery, gizmos, and exotica celebrating the best the world had to offer in 1876. The other wings house changing exhibits dealing with the culture and history of Native Americans and African Americans.
Leaping from old to new, the adjacent Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Jefferson Dr. at 7th St. S.W.) celebrates modernity. The distinctive concrete drum-shaped building and its Sculpture Garden contain one of the best collections of modern art in the world. Within, paintings by Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock are represented, as is the challenging contemporary art of Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns. Works by 19th-century American masters and a number of French sculptors can also be found. The museum's benefactor, Joseph Hirshhorn, arrived in Brooklyn early in this century as a poor Latvian émigré. A genius at finance, he became a Wall Street broker at the age of 18 and went on to make a fortune in uranium investments. After his collection was exhibited at New York's Guggenheim Museum in 1962, Hirshhorn was courted by a number of different countries, all offering to establish a museum to house his masterpieces. Persuaded by President Lyndon Johnson and S. Dillon Ripley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian, Hirshhorn ultimately donated some 12,000 works of art to this museum bearing his name.
Raised on piers, the museum, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, dominates a plaza punctuated with large works by such contemporary sculptors as Claes Oldenburg and Tony Cragg. In front of the museum, facing the Mall, the sunken Sculpture Garden displays classically modern masterworks, including sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and Henri Matisse.
The final Smithsonian building on the east side of the Mall, the National Air and Space Museum (Independence Ave. at 6th St. S.W. Adm. fee for theater and planetarium shows) celebrates the romance of aviation in both its exhibits and its visitor count. Year after year a steady stream of admirers pours through its doors, making it the most popular museum in the city. Inside the museum's large, sleek facade, the history of flight—and the epic-making flying machines that made it possible—are recounted and preserved in loving detail. The Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer is here, as is Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis; the Apollo 11 capsule, whose lunar module landed astronauts on the moon; and a more recent U-2 spy plane. You can experience the thrill of being airborne in the museum's five-story IMAX theater, or peer deep into the heavens at the Albert Einstein Planetarium.
5. U.S. Botanic Gardens
Stroll a couple of blocks toward the Capitol, where a warm tropical air and heady perfumes fill the huge greenhouse that constitutes the U.S. Botanic Gardens (1st St. S.W. and Maryland Ave. +1 202 225 7099). Sweet-smelling orchids, banyans, and other exotics mingle here with seasonal floral displays of mums and poinsettias. The lovely Bartholdi Fountain dominates a gracious park and pool on the Mall in front of the greenhouse.
6. National Gallery of Art
Follow Fourth Street across the Mall to its north side, where the polished angles of the breathtaking East Building of the National Gallery of Art (Madison Dr. and 4th St. N.W. +1 202 737 4215) glint in the sunlight. I. M. Pei designed this monumental building on a trapezoidal site, to make an architectural statement that would simultaneously contain the boldness of modern art, serve as a showpiece for the northeast corner of the Mall, and harmonize with the classical architecture of the adjacent West Building. As with the older West Building, it was largely the Pittsburgh steel fortune of financier and statesman Andrew Mellon that bankrolled this new structure.
Even the plaza linking the two buildings does not suffer from understatement. Seven glass tetrahedrons protrude from its rough stone surface, and water ripples down a waterslide. At the museum entrance, an organic rounded form, unmistakably by 20th-century British sculptor Henry Moore, makes clear that this is a place of masterpieces. Inside, the museum's cavernous skylit atrium sweeps upward, showcasing an immense mobile by Alexander Calder. Intimate galleries off this main space feature rotating exhibits of smaller works. Other exhibit spaces angle off the museum's three levels, highlighting 20th-century painting and sculpture as well as major traveling and special exhibitions. An underground concourse, with more exhibits, a café, cafeteria, and bookstore, links the East and West Buildings.
The severe neoclassic lines of the original National Gallery, now called the West Building, are the work of John Russell Pope. The museum's Tennessee marble facade extends 785 feet [239.3 meters] (from Fourth to Seventh Streets), making it one of the largest marble buildings in the world. Chartered by Congress in 1937, the museum was the brainchild of Andrew Mellon. Early in his life, Mellon began collecting European art, often traveling to the Continent for that purpose with his friend Henry Clay Frick, who gave New York its famous Frick Collection. During his tenure as Secretary of the Treasury in the 1920s, Mellon hit upon his plan to endow a national gallery of art. In the next decade, he collected ardently, focusing on the true masterpieces of Western art, including a score of superb pieces he acquired from Leningrad's Hermitage Museum. In 1941 his long dreamed of National Gallery of Art opened. With its healthy endowments, it has continued to grow and now stands as one of the world's foremost repositories of masterworks.
Beneath the high dome of the West Building's rotunda, a bronze statue of Mercury wings his way above a fountain surrounded by dark Italian marble columns. Two stately corridors lined with sculpture sweep off either side of the rotunda, leading to a suite of galleries arranged by country. The galleries west of the rotunda begin with Byzantine religious art, then progress into the ethereal beauty of Italian Renaissance works by masters like Botticelli and Raphael. The pièce de résistance is the portrait of Ginevra de' Benci (1474) by Leonardo da Vinci. Other galleries on this side of the museum display flamboyant baroque art and the more somber works of such Spanish painters as El Greco and Velázquez. Flemish and Dutch paintings are also represented, including several Rembrandt masterpieces.
On the other side of the rotunda, the story of Western art continues with a strong dose of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century French, British, and American paintings. Highlights here include the romantic portraits of Britain's Thomas Gainsborough and America's Gilbert Stuart, the mystic abstractionism of J. M. W. Turner and Albert Pinkham Ryder, and the controlled brushwork of John Singer Sargent. But the greatest draws are the Impressionist galleries, where you'll find paintings by all the greats—Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cassatt, Gauguin, and others.
Leave the National Gallery from the ground-floor Constitution Avenue entrance and walk northwest a short block to the National Archives (Constitution Ave. between 7th and 9th Sts. N.W. +1 202 501 5000). Yet another building by John Russell Pope, this pedimented limestone repository houses the nation's most hallowed documents. Its soaring, 75-foot-high [23-meter-high] rotunda, popularly known as the Shrine, serves as an appropriate backdrop to the three "charters of freedom," displayed on a marble dias: the Declaration of Independence, the preamble and signature pages of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. A side case holds the 1297 version of England's Magna Carta, on permanent loan to the archives from its owner, Ross Perot. Though lines perpetually snake past these revered parchments, many visitors come here to avail themselves of the genealogical records stored in the microfilm research room, which is open to the public (Photo ID required. Closed Sun.).
Fronting both the Mall and Constitution Avenue, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (Madison Dr. between 9th and 12th Sts. N.W.) always echoes with the voices of school groups. They come to ogle the 13-foot-high [4-meter-high] taxidermied African bush elephant that seems to charge across the rotunda, or the 92-foot-long [28-meter-long], life-size model of a blue whale that hangs in the Life in the Sea section. Along with the many creatures—present and prehistoric—featured in this museum are dioramas and murals depicting native cultures worldwide, an insect zoo, moon rocks and meteorites, and the Smithsonian HoloGlobe—a rotating globe of the earth. The Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals, a new addition to the museum, features the National Gem Collection and a new display of the renowned Hope Diamond, the largest blue diamond in the world.
Next door, the National Museum of American History (Madison Dr. at 14th St. N.W.) seems to prove that the Smithsonian is indeed the nation's attic. At this final stop on the Mall, progress, nostalgia, Yankee know-how, and simple patriotism are celebrated in the items on display and the stories that accompany them. The original tattered, age-faded star-spangled banner that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem is undergoing a three-year conservation project; visitors have a chance to see the conservators at work. Also on exhibit are vintage cars, railroad memorabilia, First Ladies' gowns, and the unforgettable ruby slippers that took Dorothy home in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
To return to your starting point at the Lincoln Memorial, you can turn left on Constitution Avenue and continue down to 23rd Street. If you are planning to use the subway system, a Metro stop is located almost directly across the Mall, near the Freer Gallery.
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