National Mall Guide and Things to Do

This post is a guide of things to do on the National Mall in Washington, DC, with tips on how to get here, where to park, on choosing museums as well as a self-guided tour.  

Video of our pay-what-you-wish National Mall Tour

 


WHAT AND WHERE IS THE NATIONAL MALL?

The National Mall is basically a long, rectangular public park stretching from the U.S. Capitol Building on its east end to the Lincoln Memorial on its west end. It is 1.8 miles (3 km) long by .3 miles (.5 km) wide. It is bordered by Constitution Ave. on its north side and Independence Ave. on its south side.

There are really two halves on the National Mall – the side with the museums, which stretches from the U.S. Capitol Building to the Washington Monument and the side with the national memorials, which stretches from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial.  Not all of the memorials nor all of the museums are found in these two sections, but this is a good reference point to work from.  

 

National Mall DC

 

How to Get to the National Mall?

Washington, DC isn’t really all that large and the National Mall is a big chunk of the downtown area, so it’s not a hard place to find. Depending on where you’re coming from you can use many forms of transportation to get to the National Mall.  However, we strongly recommend that you take mass transit if you are not planning on using a hop-on, hop-off bus.  Where you are headed can make the difference between which mode of transport will best suit you.


DC Metro (subway)

Most visitors to the National Mall will take the subway.  There are 6 subway stations that each service part of the National Mall.  Below the map, we have listed the stops and the attractions that they service.  Be sure to read our guide and video on how to navigate the DC Metro System.   


MetroMallMap

 

The nearest Metro Stations to the various sites on the National Mall are:

  • Federal Center SW: Capitol Building, National Botanical Gardens
  • L’Enfant Plaza: Air & Space Museum, Hirshhorn Museum
  • Archives: National Gallery of Art, Newseum, Pennsylvania Avenue
  • Smithsonian: Smithsonian Castle, Natural History Museum, American History Museum, Washington Monument
  • Federal Triangle: American History Museum, Washington Monument (and the start of our National Mall Tour)
  • McPherson Square: White House, WWII Memorial
  • Foggy Bottom: Lincoln Memorial

DC Circulator Bus

Circulator Bus National MallThere are not that many convenient WMATA buses that service the National Mall, so we recommend the newest Circulator Route. The Circulator is $1 per person, no matter where or when you hop on. This new route will take you around the National Mall and Tidal Basin and back to Union Station.  It services all of the major stops on the National Mall, however, it’s not the most convenient to get to, unless you are staying near Union Station.  TIP: Take our self-guided Bus tour using Circulator.

For more convenience, consider one of the commercial hop-on-hop-off buses that make stops at many hotel areas.

Circulator Operating Hours:

Summer (April 1 – September 30) – 7 am – 8 pm (weekdays), 9 am – 8 pm (weekends)
Winter (October 1 – March 31) – 7 am – 7 pm (weekdays), 9 am – 7 pm (weekends)


Parking On the National Mall

There is limited parking on the National Mall. Spots are available on:

  • Madison Drive (in front of American History, Natural History, and National Gallery of Art)
  • Jefferson Drive (in front of Air & Space, Hirshhorn, and Smithsonian Castle).

On-Street Parking around the National Mall is restricted during morning and evening rush hours. It is also limited to 3 hours – total. So don’t expect that moving your car a few inches forward will thwart the meter maids. These are paid spots. You can use the parking machines along the road or use the Parkmobile App.

Hains Point/East Potomac Park: There are 320 free spots on Hains Point, near the Jefferson Memorial. This is a great option if you don’t mind walking as it is more than a mile to the Smithsonian Museums.

The best option if you plan to drive into the city is to park in one of the many garages in the area. The fees are worth avoiding getting towed and ticketed! You can find and reserve a parking spot ahead in one of the garages near the National Mall through a service called Parking Panda. They offer a bunch of reasonably priced parking options on their website, and the entire process makes parking pretty easy. Check out their availability by clicking below.


Other Ways to Travel:

  • There are taxi stands around the National Mall, though they are very easy to hail around any of the memorials/museums.
  • Uber is very popular in DC. 
  • Pedicabs can be found all over the National Mall. Most of the drivers work for tips – so keep that in mind based on how far you’re going and how many people you have!
  • Biking is a popular way to travel to the mall. If you have your own bikes, there are bike racks at many of the memorials. There are also many Capitol Bikeshares in the area.
  • On Foot! That is our preferred way to travel. Starting at the Capitol Building, it is one mile to the Washington Monument and another to Lincoln – those two miles are filled with memorials and museums and great sites to see.

 


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MUSEUMS AND ATTRACTIONS ON THE NATIONAL MALL

The biggest tip for your museum-heavy visit to DC is that there is not only one Smithsonian museum. The Smithsonian Institution is made up of 19 museums, and a research center (the National Zoo) And they aren’t all on the Mall either, but 11 of the most visited Smithsonian Museums are.  There are also several musuems that are only affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution or are completely independent. 

Air and Space (National Mall) 

The Air and Space is probably the most visited museum in the city, more or less on the Mall. Here you can find the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk Flyer, the Apollo 11 Command Module, Charles Lindbergh’ Spirit of St. Louis, and a moon rock you can touch.  There is another building for the Air and Space Museum called the Annex, which is located near Dulles Airport, about an hour’s drive out of the city.  There you can find the Enola Gay and one of the Space Shuttles.  


American History Museum

Within the American History Museum, you’ll find a collection of gowns from the First Ladies, Julia Child’s kitchen, one of the muppets, and the actual flag that flew over Ft. McHenry: The Star Spangled Banner.  This is a uniquely American museum.

 

 


Natural History Museum

If you’re picturing a giant T-Rex in the center, that’s New York. We have an elephant in the rotunda! Though, there is a TRex in the back. The main fossil exhibit is closed until around 2019 but you can still see the fossils of some of the great American dinosaurs, as well as ancient mummies, a white rhino shot by President Teddy Roosevelt and the Hope Diamond. http://naturalhistory.si.edu/

 

 


National Museum of the American Indian

This is one of the newer Smithsonian Museums and focuses on Native Americans of the Western Hemisphere. Its sister museum is in New York City. The staff at the museum are incredibly knowledgeable and you can learn a lot about the beliefs, languages, and culture of various Native American tribes.

 

 


Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden

This contemporary art museum features works by Picasso, Matisse, Pollack as well as exhibitions of more modern artist.  The sculpture garden has two parts – one just in front of the Hirshhorn and one across the Mall, that is actually part of the National Gallery of Art. You will find Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree, which contributions from around the world and Rodin’s (think… the Thinker) Burghers of Calais.

 

 


Smithsonian Castle

If you’ve seen Night at the Museum II: Battle of the Smithsonians, this building will look familiar. Think of it more as a visitor center where you can get a map and information about the institution that started it all. You can also pay your respects to James Smithson, who is interred near the Mall entrance of the building.

 


Freer and Sackler Galleries & National Museum of African Art

The Freer & Sackler Galleries make up the Asian Art Collection, though the Freer is closed until 2017 for renovations. The Sackler continues to display exhibitions of Asian Art.

 


African Art Museum 

Just across the garden from the Sackler and houses the largest public collection of African art in the country.

Both the Freer/Sackler and the African Art Museums are located behind the Smithsonian Castle.

 


National Gallery of Art

While this is not technically a Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art is a non-ticketed, open to the public museums just like the Smithsonian. There are two wings: East (Contemporary) and West (Traditional) – connected below ground with a beautiful walkway and underground waterfall. Highlights include a Calder mobile, self-portraits of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and the only Leonardo Da Vinci in the Americas!  The National Gallery of Art sculpture garden next to the museum showcases the contemporary sculpture collection, including a Calder and a Lichtenstein.


Newseum

Technically, this is not on the Mall but you can see it from the Mall. It’s just behind the National Gallery of Art. A museum of news it includes the Pulitzer Prize Gallery, the Comcast Tower from the top of World Trade Center, and a 4 D film about the history of journalism. It is not a free museum but well worth the ticketed cost. Many area attraction passes include the Newseum, check out our comparison page to purchase the best pass for you.

 

 


Holocaust Memorial Museum

Also, not officially on the Mall but just across the street. We have an extensive Guide to Visiting the USHMM.

 

 


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Attractions on the National Mall

 

U.S. Capitol Building

Bordering the east end, the National Mall stops at the West Lawn of the Capitol Building. You can learn all about the Capitol and get tickets inside the building on our Capitol Hill & Library of Congress Tour.

Carousel

National Mall CarousalA Carousel was originally added to the National Mall as part of the Smithsonian’s Arts & Industries building, but this is the second carousel here. It has its own history and was a part of the Civil Rights Movement when the carousel was part of the segregated Gwynn Oak Park in Maryland. When it was finally opened to all, the first black-American family to enter the park chose this carousel as the first thing to ride.

Is the White House on the National Mall? Officially no. You can see the South side of the White House from the National Mall, which is why we talk about it on our National Mall Walking Tour, but you can get much closer by going to the North Side. Or even by taking a public tour of the White House.

 

 


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Where to Eat on the National Mall?

Don’t expect any restaurants on the Mall that aren’t part of the museums. Meaning you’ll need to go through security and enter the building for the food court and won’t be able to take food out of the food court.

By the Museums:

  • American History: The Stars & Stripes Cafeteria has standard pizza, hamburgers, salads.
  • Natural History: This will have bit more variety and sometimes has special ethnic cuisine that complements an exhibit.
  • National Gallery of Art: You’ll find similar fare to American History; pizza, chicken fingers but some more specialty paninis and less-fried options.
  • Air & Space: McDonald’s with some Boston Market options on their menu

The best place to eat on the National Mall is the American Indian Museum, Mitsitam Cafe. It features seasonal, local, Meso-American fare. Expect to pay museum cafeteria prices but the food is very good and the cafeteria is very large.

Nearby is L’Enfant Plaza Food Court, entrance located on D St SW between 9th and 10th St NW but it is only open for weekday lunches. Don’t get this confused with the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station – which isn’t actually at the plaza. The Food Court is easily accessible via L’Enfant Plaza Road which is directly behind Smithsonian Castle.

Also available for weekday lunches, Maryland Ave SW between 7th St SW and 6th St SW, just behind the Air and Space Museum is usually a haven for local food trucks. And we’re not talking hot dog stands – these are gourmet, excellent meal options for a fraction of museum cafeteria prices. Only downside is you have to eat outside but you’ll see lots of people having make shift picnics in the many grassy areas nearby.

Food by Lincoln MemorialBy the Memorials:

If you find yourself near the memorials and hungry, the only option is the refreshment stands. These are more than just hot dogs – there are sandwiches, salads, and a variety of options.

You’ll find the most options to eat at the Lincoln Memorial/Korean Memorial refreshment stand on the Independence Ave side of the Lincoln Memorial.

There are smaller refreshment stands to eat at near the Jefferson Memorial and between WWII Memorial and Vietnam Veterans in Constitution Gardens.

If you want a sit-down restaurant/cafe, the Foggy Bottom area is about a 15-minute walk from Lincoln Memorial. Just take 23rd St NW, the road the literally comes straight out of the side of Lincoln Memorial and walk up the hill. Here you’ll find pizza shops, burger joints, salad bars and a Whole Foods.

 


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Self Guided National Mall Tour

Of course, we think the best way to visit the memorials on the National Mall and Tidal Basin is on one of our walking tours – we offer National Mall 2 hour walking tours from 830am-8pm and a 4 hour National Mall and Tidal Basin tour nearly every day of the week!

Don’t want to travel on foot? Take our self-guided Bus tour using Circulator. Or in the hot summer months, we offer a Twilight Bus Tour.

If you cannot take our walking tours or prefer to wander on your own, use our Self Guided National Mall Tour below. Keep in mind, that a guide will be able to answer questions and help you deal with the logistics of navigating the National Mall.

Washington Monument

From here take any of the sidewalks leading west towards the Lincoln Memorial you see in the distance. It is only 1 mile away but there are a lot of things to see between!  How to Get Tickets to the Washington Monument

View of the White House South Lawn

You can get a much better view of the White House up close, but from here you can see the South Lawn. Here is where Marine One, the presidential helicopter takes off and lands. The White House is a direct line with the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the round columned building across the Tidal Basin. We encourage you to walk around to see the Jefferson in person but this is a good view if you don’t plan on doing that!

Be careful crossing 17th Street, its one of the few roads you’ll have to cross but since these are not intersections some cars often don’t realize they need to stop for the red light!

Stand in the center of the WWII Memorial facing the Lincoln Memorial. You’ll see a large plaque explaining why this location for the memorial was chosen.

National WWII Memorial

Restrooms: You’ll find these in the building behind the Ranger Station. There is also a brown octagonal building between WWII and Vietnam Memorials that is what we call emergency only restrooms. They are there if you need them, but don’t expect much.

As you exit the WWII Memorial via the Atlantic Archway to head towards the Lincoln Memorial – DON’T take the sidewalk leading along the Reflecting Pool unless you want to extend your walk. The quickest way to the next memorial is via Constitution Gardens, the windy pathway to your right.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial & Vietnam Veterans Women’s Memorial

Restrooms: You’ll find these in the basement of the Lincoln Memorial.

From the flagpole, backtrack along the sidewalk keeping the memorial to your right and walk past it to the corner of Henry Bacon Drive and Constitution Ave NW. Cross Bacon Drive and then take the crosswalk on your right to cross Constitution Ave NW. The entrance to the Einstein Memorial is a little further up the road so DON’T turn right on the sidewalk once you cross the street, keep walking until you see the sign.

Albert Einstein Memorial

This memorial was placed in front of the National Academy of Sciences in 1979. Its the only memorial where it is encourages to climb on – owing to how huggable he looks! Notice his nose is a different color because everyone reaches up to rub it.

Looking at the ground, those small dots you see are an exact layout of the stars and constellations from the night the memorial was dedicated. If you stand in the center (you’ll notice many lines leading to that point) and face the statue – say something to Einstein. While it will sound normal to everyone else, it will sound distorted to you!

Cross back over Constitution Ave NW and head towards the Lincoln Memorial. You should be able to see it from here!

Lincoln Memorial

Restrooms: You’ll find these in the basement of the memorial.

With the Lincoln Memorial behind you, enjoy the view down the Reflecting Pool (Jenn-ny!). You can see the Washington Monument, Capitol, Library of Congress, and Smithsonian Castle all in this view. Head towards the trees on your right. You should start to see a scene of lifelike statues walking through the trees.

Korean War Veterans Memorial

Restrooms: You’ll find these in the basement of the Lincoln Memorial.

As you exit the memorial, head towards the left to cross Independence Ave NW. The cross walk here is in two parts – to cross westbound and then eastbound lanes so you’ll have to press the button to cross twice. Turn left after you cross the street and walk along the intramural fields until you reach the MLK Memorial.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

Restrooms: You’ll find these in the back of the Bookstore building, entrance outside.

Make your way to the water and take the sidewalk to your right walking along the Tidal Basin until you reach the steps. Take the steps into the FDR Memorial but instead of going directly in, turn right at the top of the steps towards to building. If you make your way around to the front of the building, that

is the true entrance to the memorial.

Frankin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Restrooms: You’ll find these at the beginning and end of the memorial.

There are two paths to take. If you exit the memorial past the bathroom, that sidewalk will lead you to the Inlet Bridge. You can also make your way back to the water and walk along the water to get to Inlet Bridge. These two pathways will merge as you cross the bridge. Keep an eye on the right – that is the Potomac River and the Pentagon in the distance. After the bridge, you’ll see a seated statue across the street, cross the road to visit the George Mason Memorial.

George Mason Memorial

This memorial is often over-looked as George Mason is referred to as the Forgotten Founder. A representative of Virginia who encouraged the addition of individual rights to the Constitution, you can learn more about George Mason’s role in our nation’s beginnings at this memorial.

Cross back over the street towards Inlet Bridge but turn right so you don’t actually walk back across the bridge. The sidewalk splits and one follows the road (often where you see rows of coaches parked) and one heads towards the water – take the one near the water to walk around to the Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial

Restrooms: You’ll find these in the basement of the memorial.

To make your way back to the National Mall or nearby Metro, follow the sidewalk along the water past the Jefferson Memorial. It will merge with 15th St SW and you can walk past the Bureau of Engraving and Printing & the Holocaust Memorial Museum. You’re now back on the Mall at the start by the Washington Monument.

The nearest Metro is Smithsonian Metro Station (Blue/Orange/Silver). If you turn right on Independence Ave SW from 15th St SW, the station is on that side of the street in two blocks at the corner of 12th St SW.

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