Updated June 16, 2020.
So you’re coming to D.C.! Whether you’re here for a school trip, a weekend getaway, or playing tourist around a conference or business trip, D.C.’s monuments and memorials are probably on your list of things to do. Here’s your guide, including a few tips and tricks to help you get the most of your time! You can certainly take a guided tour on a bus (they leave from Union Station), but if you’re able I suggest you walk the route. It should take about 2-3 hours, depending on how long you want to spend at each stop. Each monument and memorial has special meaning in their features, so taking a few minutes to look around should be worth your while. Here are a couple of maps to help you:
Tip! I usually like to start in the morning because there are fewer people out, and if you’re here in the summer, you’ll be beating the heat as best you can! Here is the route I like to take:
1. Metro to Smithsonian Station
Take the Orange, Blue, or Silver line to the Smithsonian stop. Need a little help getting a handle on the Metro system? Here’s a blog post for you: D.C.’s Metro System: A Guide. When you take the escalator out, you’ll be facing the Capitol Building. Now turn around–there’s the Washington Monument!
2. Washington Monument
There are three monuments that are the most iconic: Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson. And since Washington is the probably the most well-known, I like to start here. Standing just over 555 feet tall, it’s also the best place to get the best view of DC! Unfortunately, it’s closed for renovations until 2019, so you won’t be able to go inside until then. The 2011 earthquake in the DC area did a number on the structure, and after some recent elevator issues and security concerns, they are still making it safer for the public. Fortunately, there’s a great gift shop with books and the like (and batheooms!). You can, of course, still take pictures and walk right up to it. There are also ranger talks to enjoy throughout the day, so be sure to ask why the Monument is two colors!
3. World War II Memorial
Opened in 2004, this monument is beautiful and meaningful. Half represents the War in the Atlantic, and half represents the War in the Pacific. It also has a lovely water feature, but please be respectful and don’t use it as a wading pool or way to cool off–even if others are. Each star on the wall at the back represents a number of soldiers who died in the effort. Tip! If you’re lucky, there will be a group of World War II veterans there to see their memorial. There are “honor flights” that come into DC to bring in these groups, so be sure to thank them for their service! Also, there is a restroom at the white building to the left of the WWII Memorial as you look toward Lincoln.
4. Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence
Didn’t know about this one? Most don’t! But that’s why I love it. You can find an exact copy of every signature on the Declaration of Independence, and it’s a lovely place to sit by the water and reflect on what they put on the line so we could start this experiment that became the United States of America.
5. Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Symbolism abounds in this very moving memorial to those who gave their lives in Vietnam. The names are listed chronologically, and if you know or are related to someone whose name is on the wall, you are welcome to use a paper and pencil to rub the name and keep it with you. The wall is also reflective so that perhaps you can see yourself in the memorial as well.
6. Korean War Memorial
I’ll be honest, the first time I visited this memorial, I didn’t stay long. The faces are so lifelike, and the sculptor made sure you could see the fear in their eyes. The memorial is nicely done with greenery and even a pool of remembrance, but the most meaningful part of the memorial, after seeing the fear in the soldiers’ eyes, is the wall stating this fact: “Freedom is Not Free.”
7. Lincoln Memorial
Another of the most common memorials is Lincoln. Make sure you look behind you at the Reflecting Pool, and notice all the details. The sculptor of this monument was deaf, and he created Lincoln’s hands to form the sign for “A” on his right, and “L” on his left. The pink marble inside is from my home state of Tennessee, and there are 36 columns, one for each of the United States at the time of Lincoln’s death. Tip! Be sure to walk around the outside of the memorial to the back. You’ll enjoy a view across the Potomac River of Robert E. Lee’s Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery. There is also a gift shop here, as well as a small museum and bathrooms in the basement.
8. District of Columbia War Memorial
This memorial was created to commemorate the soldiers from D.C. who served in World War I, which was called The Great War prior to World War II. I stumbled upon it by accident soon after I moved to the area in 2008. It was overgrown and needed a thorough cleaning. But it wouldn’t have to wait long to be beautiful again. That same year, the oldest living World War I veteran, Frank Buckles, appealed to Congress asking that the site be expanded and designated as a national memorial to World War I. Now you can find it easily and enjoy it as it should be.
9. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial
This is the latest in D.C.’s monuments and memorials collection. It’s situated overlooking the Tidal Basin, so it’s in a lovely, peaceful location, and the design reflects a quote from one of his speeches, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” This is why it looks like he’s chiseled from stone.
10. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
He’s the only president to have been elected four times, and he brought the country through the Great Depression and World War II. The memorial is set up in four sections, one for each of his terms in office. It also highlights his wife Eleanor’s contributions, including the United Nations. It’s a special and meaningful memorial that does not need to be skipped. Tip! It’s important to start that the beginning, so approach this memorial from the direction of the MLK, Jr., Memorial, not the Jefferson Memorial–you’ll be seeing it backwards! Need water and/or a restroom? Those facilities are available after the Fourth Term section.
11. George Mason Memorial
George Mason is one of our Founding Fathers, but he had a bit of a falling out with some of the others, so he’s been a bit forgotten. You can visit his home, Gunston Hall, south of D.C. on the banks of the Potomac in Virginia, but if you can’t make it out there, you should definitely stop over to pay your respects on you monuments and memorials tour! Not only did he write the Virginia Declaration of Rights (a model for the future Declaration of Independence), and advocated for a Bill of Rights at the Constitutional Convention–before it was cool.
12. Jefferson Memorial
The third of the top three monuments and memorials, the Jefferson Memorial comes alive most in the springtime, during the cherry blossom festival. But really, any time of year is a good time to pay him a visit! Read the words on the walls. It might give you a new appreciation for the words. Tip! There is a great museum and gift shop (and bathroom!) in the basement, so don’t miss it!
And there you have it! You’ve just enjoyed the main monuments and memorials in D.C. Be on the lookout for the ranger-led talks, and take lots of pictures!
Need more? Check out my Washington D.C. Page for everything you could possibly want to know about D.C.!
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