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Visiting the Washington National Cathedral

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This post is about visiting the Washington National Cathedral, covering direction and admission, as well as a self-guided tour and information about our guided private tours.

Washington National Cathedral

Directions, Hours and Admission

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:

  • By Metro and Bus
    • The nearest metro stops to the Cathedral are the Tenleytown and Woodley Park Metro stops. Each is on the red line and is about a mile and a half from the Cathedral.
    • From Tenleytown you can take any 30 series bus south on Wisconsin Avenue until you reach Woodley Avenue and see the Cathedral to the left; from Woodley Park take the 96, 97, or X3 bus toward McLean until you reach the cross streets of Woodley and Wisconsin Avenues and see the Cathedral on your right.
  • By Taxi – The Cathedral is a  short cab ride from Georgetown or the DuPont area.

Hours

  • Daily, however there are many days the Cathedral is closed to sightseeing due to services or events. 10 am–5 pm (some days 3pm) (The Cathedral is open as much as possible around activities but hours vary.) - we offer tours most Wed, Fri and Sat that the Cathedral is open!
  • Sunday the church is open for services 8am-5pm

Admission:

  • Visitors do require admission if they are there for touring purposes.
  • Entering the Cathedral for worship is free.
  • $15 per adult, $10 per youth (ages 5–17), senior, military (active or veteran), or student. (as of April 2022)
  • Children 4 and under are free.


Highlights:

  • The Space Window on the south side of the Cathedral as it contains a chunk of lunar rock.
  • The beautiful music of the great organ during one of the many recitals held on varying Sunday evenings at 5:15pm. See full schedule here.
  • The Canterbury Pulpit, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final sermon.
  • The Darth Vader Gargoyle! How many cathedrals do you know that has a Darth Vader Gargoyle?!
  • Interested in attending a sermon or worship service? Here is the full schedule of services.

Tours of the National Cathedral

We offer guided tours of the National Cathedral on a private basis for small groups. Find out more on Guided tours of the National Cathedral.

Self-Guided Tour of the Cathedral

Self-Guided Tour of Washington National Cathedral

There are many ways to be a visitor at Washington National Cathedral. First and foremost is to realize that Washington National Cathedral is actually a busy, active church in the Protestant Episcopal faith. Everyone is welcome to attend the cathedral’s public worship services. For more information on the cathedral’s services, consult the calendar at Cathedral.org.

Despite being an active Episcopal church and having the word “National” in its title, the construction of Washington National Cathedral, as well as the ongoing operations in and maintenance of the building are accomplished solely on funds raised by the cathedral. Washington National Cathedral receives no funding from the national Episcopal church, no funding from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (for which it is seat), and certainly received no money from the federal government. Most of the day-to-day operations of the cathedral are supported by private gifts and donations, but the cathedral also charges a sightseeing admission fee, so visitor and sightseers will also play a part in keeping the cathedral open.

As of April 2022, Washington National Cathedral has reopened for sightseeing, following the COVID pandemic. The schedule on when the cathedral is open for sightseeing is not entirely regular but is also available on the cathedral’s website. When the cathedral is open for sightseeing, the cathedral is always trying to offer docent-led tours to walk-in visitors, but, following the pandemic, that is not happening on a regular schedule yet.

We recommend taking a guided tour with DC by Foot guide Andy Bittner, who is also the author of the book, “Building Washington National Cathedral”. If, however, you find yourself at the cathedral at a time when no other tour is available, we’ve asked Andy to give you a quick self-guide to some of the cathedral’s highlights.

Background

Although it is commonly called Washington National Cathedral, this church is officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It is the seat of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Washington D.C., and seat of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., but, from its inception, the founders of Washington National Cathedral chose “House of prayer for all people,” as a commitment and “great church for national purposes” as a fundamental part of their mission.

When George Washington chose Pierre L’Enfant to design the new capital city for an emerging nation, L’Enfant allowed space in the city where he suggested, “a great church for national purposes,” should be built. Of course, the government of the U.S.A. does not build churches, so L’Enfant’s suggestion languished for the better part of a century. His original location was on the property where the National Portrait Gallery stands today. The cathedral’s founders, intent on actually finishing a massive church building, chose to accept no funding from the national Episcopal church, no funding from the diocese that was founded around it, and, for most of its existence, had no congregation. Washington National Cathedral would be built, entirely, from private gifts and donations given specifically toward building the church. Adopting L’Enfant’s suggestion in the process, the founders of Washington National Cathedral effectively expanded their fundraising base from local or nationally prominent Episcopalians to anyone in the world who thought Washington D.C. could use a true great church.

After exploring many options, the founders of Washington National Cathedral chose a property, well removed from the city at the time, on the most prominent hill overlooking downtown Washington. The property is called Mount Saint Alban and St. Albans Episcopal Church, the cathedral’s neighbor, predates the cathedral’s foundation stone by over 50 years. The Mount Saint Alban site is now considered one of the inspired cathedral sites anywhere in the world, for the way Washington National Cathedral towers over the nation’s capital.

STOP 1 West Front:

Welcome to Washington National Cathedral! As you approach the main entrance, with three big entry portals, two towers, and a big round window, you are at the west end of the building. This orientation of a cross-shaped floorplan with the base of the cross to the west is also true at Notre Dame in Paris, Westminster Abbey in London, and St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

At Washington National Cathedral, this west facing front is the newest part of the building, constructed between 1970 and 1990. The building’s first stone -the foundation stone- is under the opposite end of the building, roughly one-tenth of a mile to the east and was set on September 29, 1907. President Theodore Roosevelt attended and spoke at that service. The highest, upper-righthand-most stone on the cathedral’s west façade -the final finial- was the stone that completed the cathedral’s construction and was set 83 years after the foundation stone, on September 29, 1990. The President George H.W. Bush attended and spoke at the event.

Washington National Cathedral

Walk around to the North side of the Cathedral to your left.

Stop 2 Darth Vader Grotesque:

In the early 1980s, a competition was held in National Geographic’s children’s magazine, World, for schoolchildren to submit design suggestions for four grotesques, technically known as gablet termination stones, high on the cathedral’s west towers. The grand prize winner was a little man doing his job of protecting the building from water, with an umbrella. The second award went to a girl showing her braces and the third to a cartoonish raccoon. The fourth award got all the attention. A young boy suggested that, since there was so much weird, evil-looking sculpture on the ancient Gothic cathedrals that we don’t understand today, we should put Darth Vader on Washington National Cathedral and let people guess about him in 800 years.

You'll need binoculars, extra zoom on your camera, or good eyesight to see him, as he is about 170 feet up.

How to find the Darth Vader Gargoyle (Grotesque): Stand on the north side of the Cathedral, on the sidewalk that parallels the wheelchair ramp. Facing the handicapped entrance (at the top of the wheelchair ramp), look very high above at the east facing (the back) side of the cathedral’s 23 story northwest tower. Very high up on the face of the tower are two very tall arches that appear to contain vents, louvres, shutters or some other kind of horizontal slats. These arches will also appear darker than the surrounding stone. In between the tops of those arches on the center column of the back of the tower, there is a small, triangular, roof-like structure (a gablet) with carvings on its two lower corners. Darth Vader is the carving on the right corner of that triangle, looking right down at the viewer. (The raccoon is on the other corner. They were placed together, iconographically-speaking, because they are both creatures in black masks.)

Stop 3 Entrance:

The cathedral requires admission.

National Cathedral Ticket Prices:

  • Entering the Cathedral for worship is free.
  • $15 per adult, $10 per child (ages 5–12), senior, military (active or veteran), or student.
  • Children 4 and under are free.
  • No admission charge on Sundays.

Walk straight ahead (south) in the front hall until there are state seals in the floor

Stop 4 Nave:

All 50 states are represented in the National Cathedral with their seals in the narthex floor as you enter, and in several other places as well. As you stand in the narthex (front hall) facing into the nave, the state seals are ordered in lines, left-to-right, that are stacked top-to-bottom. As if the floor was a sheet of paper, Delaware, first state to ratify the U.S. Constitution, is in the upper-left corner and Hawaii, the newest state, is on the lower-right. Now, take a deep breath, put down this guide and walk into the cathedral’s main public space, the nave.

Washington National Cathedral is built from 150,000 tons of weight-bearing Indiana limestone, wrapped around a brick core. Despite being built during the 20th-century there is no structural steel included in the cathedral’s design. Structurally-speaking, it is an entirely masonry building.

The massive Gothic features are almost overwhelming. The vaulted ceiling is over ten-stories high and the pointed arches of the main arcades, down each side of the room, roughly half that. Each of the large round “boss” stones on the ceiling’s center rib weighs over two tons. The massive ceiling is thrusting the walls outward, between the large clerestory (highest level) windows. That thrust is countered by flying buttresses outside the walls.

Turn around and face the rose window over the west entrance. This is the Creation rose window, by an artist named Rowan LeCompte. There are over 10,000 pieces of glass in this abstract design, intended to evoke the biblical phrase, God said, “Let there be light”. Rowan created his first window for Washington National Cathedral at the age of 16, was 51 the year the Creation rose window was dedicated, and delivered his final window, Isaiah, when he was 86 years old. Every clerestory (upper level) window in the nave, each of which is the size of the front of a three-story townhouse, was designed by Rowan and that collection is probably the largest, single artist, stained glass commission in the history of stained glass.

Stop 5 Space Window:

There are 231 stained glass windows in Washington National Cathedral. They range in subject matter from the Bible and religious history, our nation’s history, our nation’s geography, to the history of the cathedral itself. Among these windows there are also nature scenes, abstracts, and memorials.

On the south side of the nave, in the middle tier of windows, is a spectacular window that seems to depict space. It is so rich in color and modern in its appearance, it stands out to the viewer. Designed in the late 1960s by an artist named Rodney Winfield, the window is intended to honor people in the fields of science and technology. Of course, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, humanity’s great achievement in the fields of science and technology were NASA’s Apollo moon missions. In the lower righthand corner of the window, a deep blue and green circle suggests an earth-like planet. Off of that, a white line of trajectory -the looping path we take into space- reaches up and around the big red circle at the center-top. In the center of that circle is a white ring, and within that white ring is a dark circle. That circle is a piece of the moon, picked up in the Sea of Tranquility in July of 1969, and returned to earth by the Apollo 11 crew. In a church building that may, eventually, double as a time capsule for the century in which it was built, the moon rock is like the great secular relic of the 20th century.

Stop 6 President Woodrow Wilson Tomb:

Of all the American presidents, Woodrow Wilson is the only whose final resting place is in Washington D.C. When Wilson passed away in 1924, this part of the building was not yet built, so the president was laid to rest in a vault beneath Bethlehem Chapel, on the cathedral’s lower level. The permanent presidential tomb, in the south aisle of the cathedral’s nave, would be completed in the early 1950s, and Wilson’s remains were translated there on his 100th birthday, December 28, 1956. Wilson’s second wife, Edith, is laid to rest in the cathedral’s columbarium, on the crypt level, which is also remembered in the president’s tomb space. Take note… Across the front of the president’s sarcophagus, you will see the seals of the State of New Jersey, where Wilson was governor, the United States, and the seal of Princeton University, where Wilson had been president.

Stop 7 Crossing:

This is where the cross-shaped floorplan crosses. The leg of the cross is the nave, the arms of the cross -north and south- are called transepts, and the head of the cross is called the choir. At the four corners of the crossing are four massive, masonry piers -19’ thick on the main level- which are really the four legs of a 30-story, 15,000-ton bell tower. That tower, the Gloria in Excelsis Tower, is rare in the world, containing two complete sets of ringing bells: a 53-bell carillon, and above that, a set of ten swinging peal bells.

At the far-right corner of the crossing stands the Canterbury Pulpit. The stone from which this pulpit was carved was quarried in Normandy, France and was built into the Bell Harry Tower at Canterbury Cathedral in the early 15th century. Canterbury Cathedral is the primary church in the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the American Episcopal Church is part. When Washington National Cathedral was still in its planning stages, the British, who were in the midst of a restoration at Canterbury, harvested these stones as a gift to the new American cathedral. It took a team of stone carvers approximately five years to carve the Canterbury stones into the Canterbury Pulpit. The pulpit’s imagery depicts the development of the English church and the English Bible.

From the beginning, the founders of Washington National Cathedral chose “house of prayer for all people” as a principal mission. As such, everyone is welcome, and the cathedral has a long history of ecumenical outreach and interfaith services. There have been rabbis in the Canterbury Pulpit. There have been imams in the Canterbury Pulpit. On several occasions, Tibetan Buddhism’s Dalai Lama has spoken from the Canterbury Pulpit, and, in the spring of 1968, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final Sunday sermon from the Canterbury Pulpit, just days before he was assassinated.

Stop 8 St. John's Chapel

Walk through the wrought-iron gate to the right of the Canterbury Pulpit and you are standing at the junction of three chapels. To your right is War Memorial Chapel, which honors the men and women of the United States that have served in the armed forces. Look for the Iwo Jima flag-raising, the liberation of Paris, and a military cemetery in the stained-glass windows.

At the back of War Memorial Chapel is a statue of Jesus as a small boy with his arms outstretched welcoming children to Children’s Chapel. Children’s Chapel was given in memory of a young boy who died at the age of six, so everything in Children’s Chapel is built to the size of a six-year-old.

Continuing in the aisle passing Children’s Chapel, you are now in St. John’s Chapel. The needlepoint kneelers hanging from the backs of the chairs in St. John’s Chapel memorialize a fascinating list of people from the history of the United States. The end wall of the chapel -the altar and altar screen- are marvels of 20th century stone carving. With the exception of four standing statues in niches, the rest of the wall, carved entirely in-place, took two men over two years to complete. 

Step up through the doorway in the wooden screen to the left.

Stop 9 High Altar:

As you enter, you'll see the high altar -the Jerusalem Altar- and the beautiful altar screen to your right. The altar itself is made from stone quarried at a place called Solomon’s Quarries, in Jerusalem, where legends say Solomon's Temple was quarried. In the floor in front of the altar (hidden) are ten stones brought from St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, where legend says Moses encountered a burning bush. Symbolically, the Jerusalem Altar stands on the Ten Commandments.

The stone carvings above the altar depict 110 men and women who exemplify the ideals of Christianity, surrounding Christ in Majesty in the center. While most of the altar screen is carved from French limestone, the architect, wanting to create a focal point at the end of a very long room, chose to have the figure of Christ in Majesty, in the center, carved from yellow Texas limestone.

Big, beautiful churches are not always cathedrals and not all cathedrals are big churches. A cathedral is any building housing the seat or throne of a bishop, and the Greek word for seat or throne is cathedra. The cathedra at Washington National Cathedral is the large stone chair on the north (left) side of the space. This chair is called the Glastonbury Cathedra, as the stones for this chair were brought from the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, the legendary birthplace of Christianity in England.

As you stand in the choir at Washington National Cathedral, you are almost completely surrounded by a 10,650 (-ish) pipe organ. The console is to the left as you face west, with large pipe display cases high on the left and right. There are more sets of pipes further toward the wooden screen, on top of the minstrel galleries, and the high-pressure Trompette en Chamade is above the altar screen. What you are seeing is like the tip of an iceberg. Most of the organ pipes are in the triforium -behind the low row of dark arches halfway up the wall- of the entire east end of the building, and range in size from that of your pinky finger to a 32’ pipe, doubled in diameter and laying on its side. That pipe functions, essentially, as a sub-woofer.

Leave through the door in the wooden screen opposite where you entered. Watch your step. Turn left. Proceed through and out of St. Mary’s Chapel. Turn and look back. Off to your left, in the corner of the north transept is a carved screen and stairway.

STOP 10: Stairs to Lower Crypt

The stairs here lead to the crypt level. The mobility challenged may access the crypt via an elevator in the south transept. In what is an innovation for Gothic architecture, Washington National Cathedral has three large, architecturally varied chapels on its crypt level. Beneath the choir, to the left of the bottom of the stairs, is Bethlehem Chapel. Turn right from the bottom of the stairs, up a few steps, and turn left, and you are moving into the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea. The chapel has stairs down and is beneath the crossing and bell tower. The four columns set into the four corners of the chapel, 27’ in diameter, are, again, the four big legs of the bell tower.

As the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea is themed on the death and entombment of Jesus, there is a mural behind the altar, the only mural in the building, depicting the funeral procession of Jesus in a way that suggests the Episcopal Church’s processional. At the back of the room is a locked wrought iron gate, which is the entrance to the cathedral’s columbarium. Among many others laid to rest here, are Woodrow Wilson’s second wife, Edith, renowned 20th-century religious composer Leo Sowerby, and U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull. It is also the final resting place of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, both of whom were cremated and now share the same niche.

In Conclusion…

As of the spring of 2022, the cathedral has not re-opened its gift shop after the COVID pandemic. When it does, the gift shop is beyond St. Joseph’s Chapel and to the right and is an excellent return to the main level. Just proceed through the shop and up the stairs at the other end. In the meanwhile, the ticket you purchased at the front desk is access to the cathedral for the rest of that day, including leaving and returning. Backtrack through the cathedral, enjoy yourself and look around. There is more to see than you could ever see and, when you’re done with that, go to the front hall, find an elevator, go to the 7th floor, and enjoy the view from the highest, public viewpoint in the region.


About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the producer of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 28 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 4) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.
Updated: June 14th, 2022
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