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A visit to Washington DC is a journey through American history. And visiting the monuments and memorials helps bring the passion of our forefathers, leaders and visionaries to life. Luckily, you can visit any of them anytime and for free. Many of them are located near each other in the National Mall, making your travels easy and convenient.
Here are the top monuments & memorials you just can’t miss while in Washington DC:
An imposing sight, the Washington Monument was constructed to honor our nation’s first president, George Washington. Made of marble, granite and bluestone gneiss, this magnificent obelisk towers at 555 feet in front of a shimmering reflecting pool. Visitors can take the express elevator to the 500-foot observation deck and enjoy picturesque views of the city. After snapping photos, visit the museum on the 490-foot level. While the tour of the monument is free, you must get tickets either in advance or upon arrival for entrance.
In remembrance of those who fought in the Korean War, the United States Congress confirmed that a memorial be built upon the National Mall on April 20, 1986. The most prominent and impactful section, known as the ‘Field of Service,’ depicts a platoon of patrolling soldiers in long ponchos marching among the memorial’s granite grounds and juniper bushes. The spread-out formation and the 19 stainless steel effigies, meant to represent all the branches of the U.S. Military, strike one as startlingly life-like upon first encounter. The number 19 has a special significance. A polished granite wall that runs along the field reflects the images of the soldiers, thus arriving at the number 38, a reference to the 38th parallel, the demilitarized zone established between North and South Korea. The Mural Wall, as it is known, contains more than 2,500 photographic, archival images representing the land, sea, and air troops who supported those who fought in the war. The Pool of Remembrance, a shallow reflecting pool surrounded by a grove of trees, is an especially moving, meditative space with inscriptions that list the total number of those who lost their lives, went missing in action, or were held as prisoners of war.
Located just across the Washington Monument’s reflecting pool, the Lincoln Memorial is also a striking sight. It’s here that we pay tribute to our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. Considered to be one of our nation’s most iconic monuments, the memorial features Abraham Lincoln sitting in a marble chair surrounded by columns in a Greek-style temple.
It was constructed on the site of many famous speeches, including Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech in August 1963. Steeped in history and symbolism, the Lincoln Memorial has 36 columns, representing the number of states in the union when the President died, carved inscriptions of his second inaugural address, his Gettysburg Address and many other features.
One of the newest additions to the list of monuments in Washington DC, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial opened in August 2011. This date was chosen because it marked the 48th anniversary of the march on Washington for jobs and freedom, lead by King. Located just southwest of the National Mall in Potomac Park, this monument celebrates the tireless work of freedom visionary Martin Luther King, Jr. and is a lasting legacy to his leadership.
The design of this memorial and its location are intended to create a visual line of leadership, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial. A 30-foot stone figure of King, named the “Stone of Hope,” stands past two pieces of granite, symbolizing a line from King’s famous speech, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
Often referred to as the wall that heals, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was created to honor and remember the men and women who served and to help reconcile and repair the wounds that frayed the American spirit in the aftermath of the conflict. There are 58,209 names etched into an enormous, black granite wall remembering those who went missing or died in the line of duty. This is a place of solace for many, especially those in search of the names of a loved one, friend, or fellow soldier, often transfering the name on the wall onto a sheet of paper as a keepsake. You’ll also see flower arrangements, gifts, medals, notes, cards and other items resting against the wall, many of which are preserved for posterity at the Museum of American History. Also part of the memorial is the Vietnam Women’s Memorial that honors the women, both enlisted and civilian, who gave their service to our country during that time. Finally, there is the famous bronze sculpture by noted artist Frederick Hart, called ‘The Three Soldiers,’ which depicts three battle-weary young men, each representing the ethnicities of those who fought in the war. It is an ever-present reminder of the toll the conflict had on a whole generation of young people.
Just across the Tidal Basin from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial pays tribute to one of our founding fathers and third president. It was built in 1943 and is constructed of marble and stone, reminiscent of a Roman temple complete with circular steps, a circular colonnade, columns and a dome. Inside, a 19-foot bronze statue of Jefferson stands facing towards the White House. The open-air monument features excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and a letter written by Jefferson. One of the most visited memorials in Washington DC, the Jefferson is a definite must see.
Commemorating the 16 million people who served in the United States Military during the war and the more than 400,000 who died in battle and supported our troops from home, the World War II Memorial is a stunning tribute to sacrifice and honor in the face of immeasurable adversity. Those who visit this awe-inspiring monument are moved by its grandeur and its message of commitment, spirit and freedom represented by the 56 pillars surrounding the memorial plaza, each acknowledging the states and territories that united together during the war effort. 4,000 sculpted gold stars sit on the Freedom Wall for the 400,000 Americans who lost their lives. And the Rainbow Pool provides a serene focal point where beauty and balance can be experienced by taking a seat around its circumference. The World War II Memorial sits between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and was opened to the public in May 2004. Since that time, it has become one of the most important points of interest located in the National Mall.
There aren’t many better candidates to name a nature retreat after than this champion of conservation and the outdoors. What was once neglected, overgrown farmland, known as Mason Island, was converted by landscapers to a nature preserve in honor of the the 26th President of the United States. Dedicated on October 27, 1967, this memorial is unique among the many in the DC area as it is located in a dense forest designed to look like the woodlands that were found there before the island fell to disrepair. A 17-foot bronze statue of the former president, designed by sculptor Paul Manship, is prominently featured as the memorial’s centerpiece, while four 21-foot granite stelae are inscribed with quotations expressing Roosevelt’s philosophy on manhood, youth, nature, and the nation. There are plenty of things to do and see at this National Park, like ranger-led kayak excursions on the Potomac River that circumnavigate the entire island and guided tours that take you throughout the entire park where you can encounter Whitetail deer, fox, box turtles, squirrels, coyotes, bats, and chipmunks. Bird-watching is another activity that this area is very well suited for.
Dedicated to the 32nd President of the United States, this touching monument is located on the western shore of the Tidal Basin. Spanning 7.5 acres, the outdoor memorial takes visitors through each of Roosevelt’s four terms of office, tracing 12 years of American history and his presidency. There are four different outdoor rooms, each featuring sculptures of Roosevelt in various scenes. There’s also a bronze statue of his beloved wife and first lady, Eleanor, making it the only presidential memorial to include a first lady.
Sitting at the West Front of the United States Capitol, you’ll find the largest and most important Civil War monument in Washington, DC. Though he was the 18th President of the United States, the memorial is meant to commemorate Grant’s accomplishments and leadership as the commanding general of the Union Army. The component parts that make up the memorial took many years to build, having been constructed in stages. After the first decade of the 20th century, the first of the memorial’s various tableus was built which consisted of a bronze lion sitting atop a massive marble platform. In later years, a depiction of the Union artillery and a visceral portrayal of the cavalry in battle were added. And finally, in 1920, the enormous 17-foot tall, bronze statue of General Grant sitting astride a steed was erected culminating in the memorial’s completion.
The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, the official designation, is dedicated to “the Marine dead of all wars and their comrades of other services who fell fighting beside them.” The memorial was inspired by the iconic 1945 photograph of six Marines raising a U.S. flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II taken by Associated Press combat photographer Joe Rosenthal. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial is located on Arlington Ridge along the axis of the National Mall. A panorama of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Capitol Building are visible from its grounds.
The U.S. Navy Memorial is a truly spectacular tribute to those who served or are currently serving in the nation’s sea services. A stunning plaza paved in granite forms a 100-foot diameter of the world. Fountains, pools, flags and historic panels surround the deck of the plaza tracing the achievements of the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines. The famous Lone Sailor statue stands as a representation of the men who joined the service to fulfill their patriotic duty; a striking sight, it is perhaps one of the most well-known aspects of the memorial.
Washington DC can be a very tricky city to navigate on your own if you’re not familiar with it. Traffic and parking are always a concern whether you live there or not. If you want to eliminate the stress and confusion of your visit and maximize your time in the Nation’s Capital, put your DC adventure in the hands of those who know it best. Old Town Trolley Tours has a long history as DC’s favorite storytellers and it’s the best way to see all the district’s popular monuments and points of interest. Each tour is approximately 90-minutes long and narrated by highly-trained guides for an experience that is both informative and, most importantly, fun! Unlike other tour operators, the vehicles are all state-of-the-art stadium trolleys specifically designed to give riders a comfortable ride and unobstructed views no matter where they happen to sit. This award-winning tour is sure to make your stay in DC one to remember!
Resonating with an awesome power all its own and a symbol of personal sacrifice, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier may possess the most mystique of any grave or memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. After the end of World War I, a movement formed to honor soldiers who were killed in battle that could not be identified. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier contains the remains of such a soldier but the tomb itself speaks for all of those that were not given a proper burial and consigned to anonymity. The tomb is guarded by members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment who rotate their duties every hour between October 1 to March 31 and every half hour between April 1 and September 30 in a ceremonial changing of the guard that is the highlight of any visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
The gravesite of fallen U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is easily one of the most visited places in all of Arlington National Cemetery. Initially interred in a different part of the cemetery in 1963, a permanent resting place was constructed for him in 1967 that allowed much better access to the millions of visitors that would pay their respects in the years to come. The stone slab that radiates a flame that lies alongside the grave marker, commonly known as the Eternal Flame, was the idea of his wife and First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. The inspiration for the design came, in part, when she accompanied her husband during a presidential visit to Paris where she observed an eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe that made an impression on her. She was also moved to include such a symbol through their shared love of the musical “Camelot,” a story chronicling the rise and fall of the folk hero King Arthur which explores themes of chivalry, honor, love, idealism, and hope. The lyric to the final number of the show expresses her wishes best: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot.”
A lasting tribute to the men and women who have died during active military duty, as retired veterans, or as elected officials while serving our nation, Arlington National Cemetery is visited by millions of people each year. These hallowed grounds are where more than 400,000 service men and women and their family members are laid to rest. As in any active cemetery, there are funerals held every day that honor those who have died or given their life defending the values and ideals of the United States. This sacred place is an absolute must-see during your visit but, spread out as it is over some 600 acres, your best bet is a guided tour. Old Town Trolley Tours offers a Gold (1-day) Pass that includes the only authorized tour of the cemetery in the city. If you’re planning a vacation to Washington DC, a visit to Arlington is not something you want to leave off your itinerary.