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This post is about visiting the Washington National Cathedral, covering direction and admission, as well as a self guided tours and information about our guided private tours.
Visiting the Washington National Cathedral is certainly a highlight to any trip to DC. Located just north of Georgetown, the Washington National Cathedral is the 6th largest cathedral in the world. Some visitors are surprised to learn that it took 83 years to complete the Cathedral, but a closer look at the magnificent structure reveals the intricacy and precision of the architecture.
The Washington National Cathedral held funeral services of former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford. It also serves as the final resting place for Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson.
How to get here:
We offer guided tours of the National Cathedral on a private basis for small groups. You can also take our self guided tour of the church below.
Come off the beaten path to the highest point in the District! Join a Certified Cathedral Guide to discover the architecture and artistry of the Washington National Cathedral.
Enjoy an in-depth look at the engineering, architecture and artistry, hidden passageways and stained glass, and the breathtaking views from the Pilgrims Observation Gallery. Proceed outside to view the exterior, adorned with over 200 gargoyles and grotesques, and stroll the park-like setting of the Cathedral Close ending in the peaceful Bishop’s Garden gazebo.
TOPICS COVERED ON THE NATIONAL CATHEDRAL TOUR:
Tours last about 2 hours.
These tours are available as a private tour only for small groups (maximum of 14 people – no exceptions!).
Contact us for rates and availability!
If you find yourself in Northwest DC, perhaps after our Embassy Row & Dupont Circle tours, and you’re unable to visit the National Cathedral during one of their guided tours, use our self-guided tour of the Washington National Cathedral to learn more about this national treasure.
Though it is commonly called the Washington National Cathedral, its officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It is a national church by congressional order, by its location in the nation’s capital, and by its representative nature of American history. However, no federal funds went into its building or for its current maintenance. The church relies solely on donations and grants, so thank you for purchasing your admission ticket into the cathedral today.
The idea for a national church dates back to Peter L’Enfant and his grand plans for the capital city. His original location was downtown, where the National Portrait Gallery stands today. It would take more than a century for his plans to come a reality, but by this point the city had already been built. The location in Northwest DC at this highest point in city was chosen and the work began.
STOP 1 West Front:
As you’re looking at the west facade of the cathedral, this is actually the newer part. The cornerstone was laid in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt and worship service began in the Bethlehem Chapel, which has been used for worship ever since as the cathedral was slowly built it around it.
It took 83 years to finish the cathedral, with the final piece placed at a ceremony under President George H.W. Bush. In some ways, however, it is not completed. Some of the carvings were left undone so future generations can add to this national house of worship. While 83 years seems like a lengthy amount of time, it was actually quite fast considering how long it took the built the great cathedrals of Europe. This Gothic structure was built in much the same way medieval cathedrals were built – with no steel supporting structure. It is made of Indiana limestone.
Walk around to the North side of the Cathedral to your left.
Stop 2 Darth Vader Gargoyle (Grotesque):
In the 1980s, a competition was held for designs of some of the sculptures. There is a postal worker, a young girl with braces, and other interesting faces dotting the facade of the building. The National Cathedral grew up in the age of Star Wars, so there is also a Darth Vader grotesque!
You’ll need binoculars or extra zoom on your camera, or good eyesight and imagination.
How to find the Darth Vader Gargoyle (Grotesque): You’re on the north side of the Cathedral, so find the top of the tower you just walked around (the one that has the Entrance at the bottom). Face its east side (the side you weren’t able to see from Stop 1). There are three pinnacles at the top of the tower, with the smallest one in the center. Follow the line of its right side down until you reach the peak in between the two large windows. There are two gargoyles at the ends of that peak, and the one on the right is Darth Vader.
Stop 3 Entrance:
The cathedral requires admission.
National Cathedral Ticket Prices:
Find out more about that here.
Stop 4 Nave:
All 50 states are represented in the National Cathedral with their seals in the narthex as you enter and their flags flying along the nave. The flags are arranged based on the order they became part of the Union.
As you’re looking down the Nave, follow the line in the center on the floor. Note how it doesn’t match up in a direct line with the high altar at the end. There are a few theories as to why this is a common practice in cathedrals. There are intentional flaws throughout the building, because only God is perfect. Also, it helps correct a trick your eye plays on you. If it were a straight line, it would make the Cathedral seems shorter than it is, this allows you to truly get a sense of it’s grandeur.
While you’re walking through the Nave, you’ll notice many features that make this a Gothic church. You’ve seen the flying buttresses outside to support the weight of the walls. Inside, we have pointed arches that allow great height and great light, and stained glass windows.
Turn around and face the rose window in the west entrance. It is based on the story of Creation. The window was designed by Rowan LaCompte, whose artistry can be seen in many of the windows. He came to visit the church as a 13 year old boy and fell in love with the windows already completed. He began to study the art and returned to submit his first of more than 40 works to the church. He was only 16 years old at the time.
Stop 5 Space Window:
The stained glass windows in a church typically depict scenes from the Bible. In an age where many people were illiterate, and even if they could read it was unlikely they could read the Latin the Bible was written in at the time. The National Cathedral’s windows don’t only show biblical scenes, but also scenes from the nation’s history. In addition to statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the windows show a farmer and his John Deere tractor, Lewis & Clark’s expedition, and the flag raising over Iwo Jima during WWII.
One of the most popular windows is the Science and Technology Window. As you’re looking at it, you’ll notice that it’s a scene from Space. The large red globe in the center is the moon, with a small yellow line orbiting it and another globe in the lower right, Earth. The yellow line is the route of Apollo 11 mission. We all know Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but a third man was there manning the spacecraft, Michael Collins. He was a student at St. Albans, the all boys school on the cathedral campus. When they returned, they donated to the church a piece of the moon, seen in the center of the red Moon in the window.
Stop 6 President Woodrow Wilson Tomb:
President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith, are both buried here in the Cathedral. He is the only president buried in the District of Columbia. You’ll see in the bay the American flag and the flag of Princeton University, of which he was president also. The cross on top of his tomb is the Crusader’s Cross, to represent his crusade for peace after WWI.
Stop 7 Crossing:
One of the other Gothic features is that the church is in the shape of a cross. We’re here at the crossing, where the long arm meets the short arm. Look at the four pillars at the corners and note their size. These hold the weight of the 301′ (91m) tower above but also the bells – a 53 bell carillon and 10 peal bells.
The carillon is played by pounding keys that correspond to each bell, but the peal bells are played by head. Imagine Hunchback of Notre Dame. Each bell is pulled by a rope but needs to settle back in place before it can be played again. The change ringing is not a musical song or piece but more of a mathematical system. Each succession of bells must be rung in an order than will allow them to come to a stop before being played again.
At the right side of the crossing, you can see the Canterbury Pulpit, carved from stone from the Canterbury Cathedral in England, the seat of the Episcopalian church. Though officially Episcopalian, the National Cathedral is a house of worship for all. All faiths are welcome and many interfaith services are held here. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbiship Desmond Tutu, and Dr. Martin Luther King have spoken from here. In fact, it was here that King gave his last Sunday sermon before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The images you see on the pulpit depict the translation of the Bible into English.
Stop 8 St. John’s Chapel
Walk to the right of the Canterbury Cathedral and past the War Memorial Chapel on your right. You’ll also see to your right the small Children’s Chapel. This enter chapel from the pews to the organ is sized to a 6 year old, in order to make children feel included and comfortable.
The needlepoint kneelers on the chair’s lining St. John’s Chapel all depict men and women from America’s past.
Stop 9 High Altar:
As you enter, you’ll see the east end of the Cathedral on your right and the high altar. The altar itself if made from stone quarried near Jeruselum, where it’s believed stones for Solomon’s Temple were quarried. In front of it are ten stones from Chapel of Moses on Mount Sinai.
The altar is farther away than it looks. The cross in the center is actually 6′ tall!
The stone carvings above the altar depict 110 men and women who exemplify the ideals of Christianity, surrounding Christ in Majesty in the center. Notice the difference in stone. The smaller reliefs are made from French stone, but Christ is from Texas. Well, the stone is at least.
In order for this to be a Cathedral, it must have a cathedra. The stone chair you see on the left is the seat for the bishop. It is carved from stone from Glastonbury Abbey in England.
Behind you, you’ll see the choir and the organ. This is the largest organ in the area with over 10,000 pipes, some as small as your pinky. The mirror above the seats is so all can see the direction of the organist.
STOP 10: Stairs to Lower Crypt
The stairs here lead down to the lower Crypt, where you’ll find restrooms and the gift shop. As you make your way towards the gift shop, stop in the St. Joseph’s Chapel. As you descend down, it is as if you are entering a tomb. The depth represents the lowest point of Jesus’ life. The mural on the wall, the only mural in the entire building, is the scene where Joseph donates his tomb to Jesus. On the opposite side, many people are buried in the crypt behind the gates, namely Helen Keller and her friend/teacher Anne Sullivan. You can see a well-touched plaque for them on the wall.
If you exit through the Gift Shop, as you come up the stairs to the main level, you’ll see an elevator to the Observation Level. It provides a great view to walk around the west tower for a view over DC, Virginia, and Maryland!
All photo credits to Jay Schwantes, 2015.