Touring the national monuments in Washington D.C. is as American as apple pie. Avoid the crowds and summer heat by visiting after dark.
Touring the national monuments in Washington D.C. is so popular that it has become an integral part of American life. Schools organize field trips to the National Mall, families spend vacation time there, and national holidays are celebrated onsite. Seeing the sights in the nation’s capital is as American as apple pie and the 4th of July.
With their marble statues and inscriptions chiseled in stone, the monuments are thrilling, awe inspiring, and deeply meaningful, but the Washington heat at the height of the tourist season can make the reality grueling. Not to mention, the floor space in those marble temples gets stuffy and crowded when you’re sharing the experience with thousands of others.
The Lincoln Memorial alone, with its huge Greek columns and giant-sized figure of Abraham Lincoln, draws 8 million visitors a year, and more than a million of those visitors showed up in the single month of July 2016, according to the National Park Service. Here are some tips on how to avoid a few million of those tourists on your next visit.
Skip the Traffic, Escape the Sun
One way to beat the crowds, the gridlocked traffic, and the hammering summer sun is to do your touring at night. Most of the monuments stay open 24 hours a day and have park rangers onsite to answer questions and lead tours until 11 p.m. Capitol police are present around the clock.
“People don’t realize how beautiful it is at night,” says Sandra Groody, a nurse and mother of five from Vero Beach, Florida, who has experienced Washington both ways. “With the light focused on the monuments, it’s a work of art.”
Washington is a different city after dark. Locked down by security measures during the day, the city’s streets overflow with out-of-towners and federal staffers, and the only vehicles moving at a decent pace are those in official motorcades, such as those for the president or visiting heads of state.
An evening visit offers not only relative coolness during the summer months, but also relief from crushing levels of traffic. After dark, the city becomes almost car friendly, and you can usually make the monument rounds in your car with ease, complete with plenty of open short-term parking spots.
The Sites Become Magical
As a reward for your patience, the sites become almost magical in the evening, taking on a mysterious aura and a sense of theatrical drama that daytime tours can’t match. It’s even better for children who can stay up past their normal bedtimes. “They can see more,” Groody says. “If you’re a little height-challenged in those big crowds, like children are, you end up looking at grown-ups’ bottoms.”
But there’s no need to worry about being alone out there. “You’ll find fewer people after dark, but you’ll be far from the only person,” says National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst.
3 Hours, 3 Miles: A Lifetime of Memories
One popular walking tour takes a leisurely three hours and covers about three miles with access to eight monuments. To follow the same path, start at the Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin, the picturesque, 106-acre reservoir connected to the Potomac River and the site of the city’s famous cherry trees. You can usually find a parking spot at the end of nearby Ohio Drive. Follow the water line toward the Lincoln Memorial, pausing at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial along the way.
Stop to admire the Jefferson site behind you, lit up and reflected in the pool, before proceeding to the Lincoln site. Read Lincoln’s inspired lines, and admire the striking image of a giant Abe, meditating in a throne-like chair. “For me, the Lincoln Memorial all lit up is the prettiest sight on the Mall,” Litterst says. Proceed eastward to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Washington Monument, the iconic obelisk in the center of the whole area.
A Magnet for Visitors from Around the World
The Washington site is the one monument that closes in the evening at 10 p.m. in the summer and at 5 p.m. at other times. Even when the monument is closed, however, the open space around it between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial is a magnet for visitors from all over the world to congregate.
Finally, double back to the World War II Memorial and the imposing Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which depicts the civil rights hero emerging from a block of marble, at the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin. Head back to your hotel with a one-of-a-kind American experience under your belt, all after the sun has set.
No matter where you find yourself in bustling Washington, D.C., you won’t have time to be bored. Share your larger-than-life photos of these pieces of American history on Instagram.