Washington, D.C./National Mall

The National Mall, a national park, is a famous 2-mile long tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly boulevard in Washington, D.C. stretching from the Capitol Building in the east to the Lincoln Memorial and Potomac River on the west. The park is home to many museums of the Smithsonian Institute, some of the best free museums in the country, as well as many famous memorials and monuments. It's the #1 destination for visitors in the city, and receives 25 million visitors per year.


Lincoln illuminated and presiding over the Mall


D.C.'s city planner, Pierre L'Enfant, planned the park as the cultural center of the city in the late 1700s, but it didn't take the form it is in today until the early 1900s.

In the 1840s, the Mall was mainly used to cultivate vegetables and dump trash. In 1846, after much heated debate, under President James K. Polk, Congress established the Smithsonian Institution with the funds donated by James Smithson 20 years earlier. In 1855, construction of the Smithsonian Castle was completed, setting the precedent for educational buildings on the Mall. However, it was hard to access due to the Washington Canal, which ran along what is now Constitution Avenue. Meanwhile, in 1848, construction on the Washington Monument began.

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station was constructed in 1855 on the site of what is now the National Gallery of Art. The noise from trains frequently disrupted sessions of Congress. In addition, around 30 people died per year crossing the surface-level train tracks. In 1881, President Garfield was killed at this station 4 months into his term.

The year 1900 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of Washington and inspired calls for a redesign of the Mall in accordance with L'Enfant's original grand plan. In 1901, Congress created the McMillan Commission, which included Frederick Law Olmstead, a landscape architect that designed New York City's Central Park. After touring cities in Europe, the McMillan Commission made numerous recommendations to emphasize the importance of the Mall including landscaping the Mall into a grassy area lined with elm trees, building the Lincoln Memorial, Memorial Bridge, the reflecting pool, the Tidal Basin, and the Jefferson Memorial, and moving the train station off the Mall.

Many monuments and memorials were added later on including those for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. , as well as recent wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The Mall has served as the principal gathering space for the nation's most important civic events, especially major protests and inaugural events. The Mall, particularly the Lincoln Memorial, has had an important history in the civil rights movement: in the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous I Have a Dream speech.

Over the years, the Smithsonian expanded to include an extraordinary collection of 19 free public museums, the majority of which are in the eastern one-mile stretch of the park. The public favorites are the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History, famed for their respective magnificent collections of U.S. spacecraft and complete dinosaur fossils. The expansion continues, with the much anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture slated for completion in 2016.

Get in

By Metrorail

the Washington Monument on the Fourth of July

The Metrorail was designed to be is extremely convenient to the Mall and is the best option to get there if it is too far to walk or bike from your accommodation.

By bus

Routes #31 and #32, #36 all run northwest up Pennsylvania Ave to M St through Georgetown, and then up Wisconsin Ave all the way to neighborhoods in Upper Northwest. You can catch these buses as far south as Independence Ave west of the Capitol Building (after which they run up 7th St to Pennsylvania Ave).

Routes #52, #53, and #54 provide a quick service up 14th St through the Mall to nightlife hotspots in Shaw.

Routes S1, S2, & S4 operate service up 16th Street, through Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights all the way to Silver Spring. This bus is convenient if you want to catch the Sunday Drum Circle in Meridian Hill Park.

By bicycle

Capital Bikeshare, the D.C.-area's bike-share service, has stations all over the city and throughout the Mall area, making it one of the easiest ways to get to and around the Mall. Just find the station nearest your hotel, get a daily membership, bike down to the Mall, and dock your bike at one of the stations.

Once you are on the Mall, Capital Bikeshare is the best mix of speed and convenience for moving around the Mall -- or for leaving the Mall to grab lunch in the East End, where the food is better than the food trucks on the Mall. Museum-going is a tiring affair, and biking can help conserve your energy and stay out of the sun.

By car

Driving in and around the Mall is a great recipe for a headache due to chronic traffic jams, unintuitive traffic patterns, and very limited parking. Driving towards a monument doesn't mean the road will lead you towards it - more likely, it will hurl you across the river into Virginia. If there is a special event going on, you can easily get stuck for hours. Parking garages throughout the West End and East End fill up early with office workers. Garage prices are steep. The 2,194 car garage at Union Station, costing $24/day, usually has space available. Double check the garage hours, so you can exit before the garage closes!

On evenings and weekends during the winter, it is sometimes possible to find metered parking on the Mall, with two hour limits, although it may take a while to find a space. There is no enforcement of the time limit on Sundays or Federal holidays, so if you are lucky enough to find a spot, you can stay as long as you wish.

The main north-south routes are 7th St, 14th St, and 17th St, while Pennsylvania and Independence Ave are the main routes for east-west traffic. If coming from Arlington, the simplest routes are I-395 to 14th St, or the Arlington Memorial Bridge to Independence Ave.

By taxi

Taxis are easy to hail all day and night, and can be a especially convenient option from Georgetown, Capitol Hill, or Arlington. Aside from peak tourist seasons such as during the National Cherry Blossom Festival, when traffic slows taxi travel to a halt, taxis can be a nice way to take a load off your feet and quickly get from one end of the Mall to the other.

By pedicab

Pedicabs have been authorized by the National Park Service to provide transportation and tours around the National Mall. They can be found in any of the 10 official pedicab stands in front of the major museums and monuments. They can also be flagged down on the street. Rates are negotiable. Many people find a pedicab ride to be the highlight of their trip to Washington D.C. Many companies offer pedicab tours of D.C.; these are best booked in advance.


Waterfalls at the Museum of the American Indian

There's a lot to see on the Mall. You can walk the whole Mall on an afternoon to admire the sights and monuments, but note that it is bigger than it looksover two miles end-to-end (3.2 km)an illusion that is reinforced by the sheer size of the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, and Lincoln Memorial. What looks like a short stroll can quickly turn into a long, painful march in the sun on a D.C. humid summer day.

Moreover, you will want to budget some good time to visit the museums. Even a month's visit would not be enough to really devour all the Smithsonian's collections, so pick and choose according to your interests. The art galleries are fantastic, but bad for kids, who will on the other hand love the Natural History and Air and Space Museums (as will adults).

A great way to see a lot during a limited stay is to visit museums during the day and monuments at night. The museums usually close at 5PM, so head to dinner after the visit, then take a long walk to visit the monuments in the dark when the air cools, and when the monuments are their most beautiful. It's a popular activity in the summer, so you won't be alone even after midnight.


The Rotunda at the National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian is a complex of 19 free museums, the majority of which are on the east end of the Mall, all of which are free, and are open every day except Christmas.

Eastwest along the north side:

Cherry blossoms at the FDR Memorial

Eastwest along the south side:

Roses at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

West section


Trudging through the snow at the Korean War Memorial

Tidal Basin area

Dam rodents

Urban America and natural America coexist in close quarters in the crowded, but thickly forested Mid-Atlantic. For the most part the humans cause trouble for the wildlife, not the other way around, but beavers can give them a run for their money. A beaver husband and wife decided that the Tidal Basin would make an excellent location for a house, and began chopping down Cherry Blossoms in order to dam it up, threatening to flood the Mall. While the Park Service recognizes that the Mall would indeed make a grand beaver pond, it sided with the tourists, surrounded the tree bases with chicken wire, and moved the beavers to an undisclosed location.


Balzac on a fine autumn day in the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

The Mall is a public gathering space not just for protesters and pigeons, but also for locals and visitors alike who are more interested in a jog, a game of frisbee, or just a picnic out on a beautiful section of the nation's capital, in the company of monuments, history, and public art. Keep in mind, though, that a hot summer day, with the unbearable humidity, can be the worst time of the year for thisyou will inevitably rush inside to the air conditioned sanctuary of the nearest museum.

Festivals and events


The Mall is a great place to get souvenirs. All the museums have excellent gift shops and those owned by the Smithsonian are tax-free. The largest can be found in the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum. The gift shop in the National Building Museum to the north is one of the best gift shops in the city (though D.C. sales tax applies). Of course, the cheaper option is to pick up your souvenirs from the street vendors along the Mall, although, as you would expect, the quality is a big step down from the museum shops.


The Galacha Emerald at the Natural History Museum (alas, not for sale)

The larger museums have cafeterias and cafes of varying prices and qualityin general, you get what you pay for. If you're on the mall, it's either these cafeterias or the hot dog stands. Alternatively, you can march north towards the Penn Quarter and Chinatown, or better yet south to the Waterfront for some fresh-out-of-the-water crabs and other seafood.


No booze on the Mall. It's not BYOB either. If you want to find a bar, you have three options, head north, south, or east. Of the three, the Pennsylvania Ave strip on Capitol Hill to the east has superior options (to the touristy bars just north). It's within easy walking distance of the Capitol Building. If you are over by the Lincoln Memorial, you could try your luck to the north near George Washington University.

You can also enjoy a beer at the cafe in the National Museum of the American Indian or a glass of wine or beer at the Sculpture Garden at the National Gallery.

If you are here on a summer day, bring water. The museums have plenty of water fountains, but you'll need water outside. The huge sandy park that is the Mall is fun for throwing around a football, or for letting the kids loose to chase pigeons, but all that sand and gravel reflects the awful D.C. summer humid heat. The street vendors stock water bottles in large supply, but charge a big markupbringing a couple bottles from wherever you are staying is a good idea.


People have camped out on the Mall or the Ellipse, waiting in line to get tickets for the annual White House Easter Egg Roll and other special events. Aside from that, there is neither camping nor accommodations on the Mall.

There are scores of hotels, at all price ranges, in the Penn Quarter and West End, as well as a few in Capitol Hillall within walking distance of the Mall. But given the great service to the Mall via Metro, it's reasonable to stay anywhere in the city (or the close-in suburbs) near a Metro station. Arlington, Virginia is particularly close.


The Open Park Project is working to make the whole Mall between 4th and 14th St one big wireless hotspot, but until then you'll have to head north to Freedom Plaza (14th & Pennsylvania Ave) or east to the steps of the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress for your free wireless needs.

Alternatively, the Smithsonian Castle (10th St & Jefferson Ave SW) provides free WiFi in the immediate vicinity, and its gardens are a perfectly lovely place to catch up on your email.

Stay safe

The National Mall is very heavily policed and very safe. Muggings have occurred at night and received major press coverage due to their sensational nature, but they are extremely rare. Use the most basic common sense and you're guaranteed a lovely evening late into the night. (Note, though, that the fountains are turned off at midnight, so it is better to see the sights beforehand.)

Go next

Routes through National Mall

Springfield East End  W  E  Waterfront Largo
Vienna East End  W  E  Waterfront New Carrollton
Reston East End  W  E  Waterfront Largo

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, September 12, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.