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Tips for visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

What you need to know before you hit the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and other national monuments

The Mall in Washington, D.C., with the Capitol

The Mall in Washington, D.C., with the Capitol building in the background. Make your Capitol visit early in the morning, as workers are showing up. Photo Credit: Alamy/Hemis

Millions of visitors descend on the National Mall every year, touring the U.S. Capitol, posing for photos in front of the memorials and picnicking on the Washington Monument grounds. With so many people jostling for space in the strip of green running between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, the key to an enjoyable visit is finding the right time to go. These are our suggestions for making the most of the Mall.

Note: All outdoor memorials are open round the clock every day, though rangers are on duty only from 9:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., and memorial bookstores and museums have varying hours.



If you want to get inside the Capitol, the easiest and fastest way is to arrive at the same time as the people who work there. The U.S. Capitol Visitors Center opens at 8:30 a.m. — a half-hour before some senators and representatives begin public office hours. The Visitors Center begins offering its free 45-minute guided tours at 8:40 a.m. and starts new ones every 10 minutes. Visitors can reserve slots online, but if you haven't, an early arrival is usually your best chance for first-come, first-served passes. Early arrivals are also good for photographers: The morning sun shines brilliantly against the Capitol dome, which finished an extensive restoration in 2017.

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The Washington Monument is closed for repairs to its elevator, and the National Park Service promises an August 2019 reopening. In the meantime, the best place to take pictures of the obelisk is from the area between the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, where you can catch its reflection in the Reflecting Pool.

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Morning is the best time to spend some quality time with the thousands of trees that surround the Tidal Basin, and if you come early enough, your chief competition will be exercise fiends getting in their morning run.

The Jefferson Memorial itself is mostly a peaceful place, with visitors sitting on the sun-kissed marble steps, looking over the water and the Washington Monument beyond, or marveling at the 19-foot statue of Thomas Jefferson inside. If you want to reflect on Jefferson's words, or visit the small exhibition on the memorial's lower level, it's better to beat the rush of school groups. Early risers have a better chance of scoring one of the three swan-shaped boats that glide around the Tidal Basin — they are rented on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 10 a.m.

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The World War II Memorial sprawls across 7.5 acres of the Mall. If you want to explore the memorial, with its bronze reliefs showing scenes of battle and the home front, or pose for a photo in front of your state or territory's memorial column, afternoon might be the best time. This will allow you to take advantage of free tours and talks led by National Park Service Rangers. You might learn about "The Road to Pearl Harbor" or venture on a guided 2.5-mile hike to find "Obscure Memorials of the National Mall." Events often begin at 2 p.m., but check the online schedule for more details.

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There's a lot of inspirational reading to be done at the most recent memorial to grace the Mall. The walls surrounding the 30-foot statue of MLK contain famous quotations from his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," his Nobel Prize acceptance speech and other notable works. Because of this — and because you'll want to take photos — it's easier to visit during daylight hours. (There's a neighboring bookshop, too, where you can buy material to take home.) Park rangers are on hand to lead tours and discussions; a recent talk covered King's approach to voting rights and the 15th Amendment. Talks often begin at 2 p.m., but check with rangers or the bookstore.

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Most visitors feel the solemn presence of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial before they reach the famous Three Servicemen Statue or see the austere memorial's black granite panels, inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 American casualties. Even teenagers on school trips instinctively seem to know that this is a place for hushed voices; when you do hear someone talking on their phone, it's a visitor calling a family member for help finding a specific name on the wall. For first-time visitors, go during the day, when park rangers and volunteers can assist in finding the name of a friend or loved one. 

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BEST TIME TO VISIT Afternoon or sunset

The Lincoln Memorial is a popular gathering spot for tourists who want to take a photograph in front of Daniel Chester French's statue of the 16th president or stand on the spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. The steps and benches also provide a great place to rest and enjoy the view.

Once the school groups have left for the day, the atmosphere becomes less frenetic. (Except on summer Tuesdays, when the Marine Corps' Drum and Bugle Corps and Silent Drill Platoon perform on the plaza at the base of the memorial.) The Lincoln Memorial offers one of the most beautiful and memorable vistas in Washington, and the white marble glows ethereally with the light of the setting sun behind it. The bookstore, focused on Lincoln and the Civil War, is open until 8 p.m.

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Visitors talk about "the Mall" as if it's a small, easily walkable park. In fact, the stroll from the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center to the Lincoln Memorial is about 2.6 miles. The Circulator is an accessible city-run bus that follows a 15-stop route that begins at Union Station before wrapping around the Mall and Tidal Basin. Riders can hop on and off at any time. Buses are air-conditioned, and newer models offer free Wi-Fi and USB ports for charging phones. The fare is $1 (exact change required) or use a SmarTrip card (also valid on the Metro).

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The Washington Post


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