Best Things to do in Washington DC

The USA’s capital teems with iconic monuments, vast (and free) museums, and the corridors of power where visionaries and demagogues roam. Seeing the White House and soaring Capitol will thrill, but it’s the cobble-stoned neighborhoods, global cafes and jazzy bohemian quarters that really make you fall for DC, no matter your politics.

Things to do in Washington DC – Visit Lincoln Memorial

There’s something extraordinary about climbing the steps of Abe Lincoln’s Doric-columned temple, staring into his solemn eyes, and reading about the ‘new birth of freedom’ carved in stone beside him.

In a city of icons, the monument for the nation’s 16th president stands out in the crowd. Maybe it’s the classicism evoked by the Greek-temple design, or the stony dignity of Lincoln’s gaze, or reading about ‘the new birth of freedom’ in the Gettysburg Address chiseled beside him. Whatever the lure, a visit here while looking out over the Reflecting Pool is a defining DC moment.

The Lincoln Memorial Columns

Plans for a monument to Lincoln began in 1867 – two years after his assassination – but construction didn’t begin until 1914. Henry Bacon designed the memorial to resemble a Doric temple, with 36 columns to represent the 36 states in Lincoln’s union.

The Statue & Words on the Memorial

Carvers used 28 blocks of marble to fashion the seated figure. Lincoln’s face and hands are particularly realistic, since they are based on castings done when he was president. The words of his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural speech flank the statue on the north and south walls, along with murals depicting his principles. Look for symbolic images of freedom, liberty and unity.

MLK Marker

From the get-go, the Lincoln Memorial became a symbol of the Civil Rights movement. Most famously, Martin Luther King Jr gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech here in 1963. An engraving of King’s words marks the spot where he stood. It’s on the landing 18 steps from the top, and is usually where everyone
is gathered snapping photos.

Reflecting Pool at Lincoln Memorial

Henry Bacon also conceived the iconic Reflecting Pool, modeling it after the canals at Versailles and Fontainebleau. The 0.3-mile-long pond holds 6.75 million gallons of water that circulate in from the nearby Tidal Basin. The site is all gussied up after a $34 million renovation completed in 2012.

Things to see in Washington DC – Washington Monument

DC’s tallest structure – the 555ft obelisk honoring the nation’s first president – is back in business after renovations, and it’s more beautiful than ever.

Rising up on the Mall like an exclamation point, the 555ft obelisk embodies the awe and respect the nation felt for George Washington, the USA’s first president and founding father. The monument is DC’s loftiest structure, and by federal law no local building can reach above it. A 70-second elevator ride whisks you to the observation deck at the top for the city’s best views. Recent renovations have freshened the monument (and made it earthquake proof).

Mismatched Marble at Washington Monument

Construction began in 1848, but a lack of funds during the Civil War grounded the monument at 156ft. By the time work began again in 1876, the quarry that provided the original marble had dried up. Contractors had to go elsewhere for the rest of the rock. Look closely for the delineation in color where the old and new marble meet about a third of the way up (the bottom is a bit lighter).

Washington Monument Pyramid Topper

In December 1884 workers heaved a 3300lb marble capstone on the monument and topped it off with a 9in pyramid of cast aluminum. At the time, aluminum was rare and expensive. Before the shiny novelty went to Washington, the designers displayed the pyramid in the window of Tiffany’s in New York City.

Observation Deck & Memorial Stones at Washington Monument

Inside the monument, an elevator takes you to the sky-high observation deck that provides grand city vistas. On the way back down, the elevator slows so
you can glimpse some of the 195 memorial stones that decorate the shaft’s interior. Various states, cities and patriotic societies purchased them as part of the monument’s initial construction. There’s even one from the pope.

Exhibits

The Washington Monument was the world’s tallest structure until the Eiffel Tower surpassed it. In August 2011 an earthquake rattled the monument causing structural damage. It took 33 months and $15 million to fix. Exhibits inside explain it all.

Visit Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Simple and moving, the black wall shows the names of the Vietnam War’s 58,272 American casualties, listed in the order they died. The mementos people leave will break your heart.

The opposite of DC’s white, gleaming marble, the black, low-lying Vietnam memorial cuts into the earth, just as the Vietnam War cut into the national psyche. The monument shows the names of the war’s 58,272 American casualties – listed in the order they died – along a V-shaped granite wall. It’s a subtle but profound monument, where visitors leave poignant mementos, such as photos of babies and notes (‘I wish you could have met him, Dad’).

The Reflective Design of Vietnam Memorial

Maya Lin, a 21-year-old Yale architecture student, designed the memorial following a nationwide competition in 1981. The ‘V’ is comprised of two walls of polished granite that meet in the center at a 10ft peak, then taper to a height of 8in. The mirror like surface lets visitors see their own reflection among the names of the dead, bringing past and present together.

Order of Names on Vietnam Memorial

The wall lists soldiers’ names chronologically according to the date they died. The list starts at the monument’s vertex on panel 1E on July 8, 1959. It moves day by day to the end of the eastern wall at panel 70E, then starts again at panel 70W at the western wall’s end. It returns to the vertex on May 15, 1975, where the war’s beginning and end meet in symbolic closure.

vietnam memorial washington dc

Diamonds & Plus Signs

A diamond next to the name indicates ‘killed, body recovered.’ A plus sign indicates ‘missing and unaccounted for.’ There are approximately 1200 of the latter. If a soldier returns alive, a circle is inscribed around the plus sign. To date, no circles appear.

Nearby Sculpture

In 1984 opponents of Maya Lin’s design insisted that a more traditional sculpture be added to the monument. The Three Soldiers depicts three servicemen – one white, one African American and one Latino – who seem to be gazing upon the nearby sea of names. The tree-ringed Women in Vietnam Memorial is also nearby.

 

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