What to Expect on a Washington D.C. Monument Tour

Some cities are known for fantastic food, some for the exciting night life, some for their sports teams and events.  Some cities, however, are dripping in history and are known for the one billion monuments sprinkled throughout various neighborhoods, making the city a fascinating place to explore.  Washington, D.C. is such a place.

The Washington Monument mirrored in the Reflecting Pool

There are a few ways you can feast your eyes on the various monuments throughout town: several are all within walking distance from one another, and so a walking tour is easily accomplished.  You can hire a cab to take you to the rest.  You can also hop on a city bus and find your own way to each monument. There are two bus systems: the DC Circulator buses run every 5 to 10 minutes and cost $1 per ride; these buses stay in the National Mall area and are great for seeing some of the most popular monuments.  To see some of the more distant sights, you can purchase a ticket for the Metrobus, which can cost between $1.25 and $3.10.  You can also ride the Metrorail to some of the more remote sights (we did that to see the Arlington Cemetery).

If, however, you are worried about navigating the city on your own, getting lost, or just want to have someone take you to all the sights without you having to worry about the hassle, you can purchase a ticket for a city monuments tour - I did that for an evening tour of the monuments, which I highly recommend.  The monuments look amazing at night: Washington D.C. sure knows how to light something for dramatic effect!

The Lincoln Memorial all aglow in the evening.

We bought the "Monuments at Moonlight" tour package, which is $39.00 USD (and $29.00 USD for a child, but we had no children with us). There are little tour kiosks and buildings all over the downtown area of D.C., or you can purchase passes online.  The tour lasted 2 1/2 hours, and took us all over the city to see the most popular stops (some that I hadn't seen when I was touring the monuments on my own).  It was nice to be in a big group with a fun guide on an evening tour - I don't know details about Washington D.C.'s crime rate but I felt a little safer out at night with the tour group.

So without further ado, here are some of the key monuments that you should visit when staying in the lovely city of Washington D.C.

The Washington Monument

This structure is so important to Washington D.C. that it is named "The Monument". It is in the center of the green space known as the National Mall. You can go to the tippy top of the monument on the elevator (which as of lately has been shutting down, leaving visitors stranded at the top) or walk the 897 stairs up (and then back down again).  We did not go to the top, although if I returned to Washington D.C. I think I would definitely give it a go... on the elevator! Tickets are free, but you have to reserve them in advance, which can be tricky.  See the monument website for more details.

To help you understand the scale of the Washington Monument

Lincoln Memorial

This monument is located on the end of the National Mall, opposite the Capitol Building.  It was built to honor the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.  The monument is free to visit, and it is really fun to pack a snack and eat it while sitting on the steps leading up to the monument - they offer a great view of the National Mall, including the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument.

The Lincoln Memorial - don't expect to find the steps empty!

The giant statue of Abe Lincoln is impressive, and you'll enjoy reading the inscriptions from the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inagural Address that are etched into the interior walls of the structure.

Statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial

The Reflecting Pool

If you've seen the movie Forrest Gump then you'll definitely recognize this beautiful and peaceful monument. This is the water feature that Forrest's precious Jenny runs through in order to leap into Forrest's arms.  Seen best at twilight, with the sunset aptly reflecting off the water, this is one of my favorite Washington D.C. sights.  The pool separates the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial, and is over a third of a mile long.  It has recently undergone some extensive repairs to spruce it up, which is good: when I visited it was disappointingly scummy, low on water, with obvious cracks to the cement and facade.  Lots of ducks enjoyed, it however, and the little baby chicks seemed to make up for the pool's shabby state.  I am sure it is much nicer now that D.C. has decided to fix it up!

Enjoying the peaceful but slightly scummy Reflecting Pool

Jefferson Memorial

In keeping with the "democracy is America's foundation, and democracy was invented in Athens, so we'll be building the monuments with a distinctly Greek theme" design of most of Washington D.C.'s historical structures, the Jefferson Memorial is built with the Parthenon as inspiration. Thomas Jefferson was America's third president, and inside the columned dome you'll find a gigantic statue of said leader.  Like pretty much all of the monuments in D.C., it is free to stroll the memorial and its grounds.

Standing outside the statue of Jefferson

It stands on the edge of the Tidal Basin, a beautiful body of water, and there are lovely pathways and gardens all around the memorial where you can enjoy a nice walk or picnic when you are done marveling at the massive statue of Jefferson.  This monument is NOT located in the National Mall, so you'll have to find a way to transport yourself there, using one of the methods I listed above.

Jefferson Memorial exterior - so pretty!

World War II Memorial

This circular plaza is located on the eastern side of the Reflecting Pool, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It is a large plaza with a central fountain (sooo nice in the summer, but don't try to swim in it!) surrounded by 56 pillars and a pair of arches.  The pillars each represent a U.S. state or territory related to the U.S. who aided in the triumph of the Allies during World War II.  The arches are inscribed with the terms "Atlantic" and "Pacific".  The memorial is beautiful at night, as each pillar and both arches are lit up brilliantly, with the Washington Monument peeping through the gap in the pillars.

The World War II Memorial in the early evening - a nice place to relax.

Many have criticized the location of the memorial, saying that it interferes with the view of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial, but I thought the design was great - the Monument is featured centrally, with the World War II Memorial framing it on either side.  You'll have to visit it yourself to decide - other than strolling through the plaza, there really isn't too much to do at this location, but it sure is pretty.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Out of all the 'memorials' and 'monuments' in Washington D.C., I found this landmark to be the most sobering and thought-provoking.  Located just off the National Mall, and accessed through a lovely stroll in the Constitution Gardens - which are worth a visit alone - the Vietnam Veterans Memorial can be found in three parts.

The Three Soldiers statue depicts three soldiers, all with different ethnicities in an effort to represent the diversity of the U.S. army, standing in tribute to their fallen comrades.  The Vietnam Women's Memorial shows three uniformed females tending to a fallen soldier.  They represent the women who served during Vietnam, mainly as nurses.  These are both spectacular sculptures, full of meaning.

But they don't hold a candle to the Memorial Wall, at least not for me. The Memorial Wall is a harsh reminder of the damages in war - etched plainly for all to see in black and white.  The Memorial Wall is made of two large, 250-feet long black gabbro slabs (I always thought the stone was black granite, but nope, it is gabbro).  The slabs are triangular shaped, so that they begin at only 8 inches high but meet in the middle at 10 feet high.  They don't stand out like the walls of a fence - instead, they are sunk into the ground so that they are surrounded by earth.  The grabbo is polished to a high shine, which makes it tricky to take photos of the walls, as they act a lot like mirrors.

A portion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

But that's not what is impressive.  Etched into the stone are the names of the men and women that were killed in action, or listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War.  There are a whopping 58, 272 names in total - a reminder of the horrific loss we suffer when we go to war. (And yes, I realize war serves an ultimate purpose to retain peace, but I'm not interested in a philosophical debate about the validity of war.  Seeing all those names is slightly stunning - and those are only Americans.  It boggles the mind to think about the loss of Vietnamese lives, or the lives of other nationalities involved in the war.  Just crazy...)

So many names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall...

Not all the names mean the person died - a few people who were listed as missing in action have actually resurfaced.  However, those circumstances are indeed rare, and it doesn't take more than one look to realize how devastating the Vietnam War was.

Franklin Roosevelt Memorial

The Franklin Roosevelt Memorial is less of a memorial and more of a museum gallery in a park.  Rather than visiting a single statue and reading a placard about its history and significance, the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial allows viewers to stroll around its 7 1/2 acres, enjoying sculptures, fountains, gardens, and snippets of speeches engraved in stone.  You are virtually walking through time, as the memorial spans 12 years of Roosevelt-related U.S. history.

Statue of Franklin Roosevelt at the FDR Memorial

If I found the Reflecting Pool peaceful, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial sobering, then I found the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial inspiring.  If a memorial can be graceful, then that is what the FDR Memorial is.  Birds flock to it.  Waterfalls bubble and splash, shining out tiny rainbows.  Messages of peace, hope, and the end of war appear around corners.  You can even visit a statue of Teddy and kiss him on the cheek in thanks for all the good he did for the country of America!

Enjoying the cool spray of the waterfalls at the FDR Memorial

Iwo Jima Memorial

The Iwo Jima Memorial is perhaps the furthest away from the National Mall, so you'll really need to find additional transport in order to see this gem.  Also called the Marine Corps War Memorial, this memorial is a sculpture depicting the six soldiers who raised a U.S. flag during World War II during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  It is dedicated to all the U.S. Marine Corps who have died while defending their nation.

The iconic Iwo Jima Memorial

I don't know a lot about the Battle of Iwo Jima - I was only able to recognize the memorial because I'd seen the image on the DVD case of "Flags of our Fathers".  So that's something I'll have to research one day, unless anyone can leave a synopsis in the comments section below and school me now! All I know is that the memorial is very iconic and worth the view, even if you get caught in the rain while exploring it, as I did!

Navy Memorial

My travel companions and I didn't even realize we were visiting this memorial until we were standing right smack in the center of it.  The circular plaza memorial is located right in the downtown area of D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 7th St. NW and 9th St. NW.  It is fairly nondescript compared to some of the more popular memorials in Washington D.C., but once you find yourself there, it is pretty interesting.   There are some really nice fountains, and a statue entitled The Lone Sailor which overlooks a map engraved into the floor of the plaza.  The map is called The Granite Sea and accurately depicts the world's oceans.

The compass from the Navy Memorial plaza floor

There are, as always, way more monuments and memorials than we had time to visit.  For example, we didn't have the chance to see the Koren War Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Pentagon Memorial, or Theodore Roosevelt Memorial.  For the short amount of time that we were in Washington, I'm pretty impressed with what we did manage to see during the evenings and our two days where we weren't conferencing!

Taking a stroll to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.

Other sights that you really shouldn't skip are the Whitehouse (I didn't get a tour but I stood outside of it, which I suppose qualifies), and the Capitol Building.

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