Washington isn’t home to the Empire State Building. Or the Sears Tower. Or the Space Needle. But we don’t need any of those, because we have something better.
We have a monument.
A 555-foot obelisk from which you can gaze toward the Capitol to the east and the Potomac River to the west. The Washington Monument was damaged by an earthquake in August 2011, leaving it closed to visitors for more than 2 1/2 years. But workers have removed the scaffolding, and the monument soon will be back in business; it’s set to reopen May 12, setting the stage for a busy summer. (See tips for getting tickets bellow.)
And there are other locations across the city with awesome — in the true sense of the word — vistas, not to mention smaller crowds. Take a virtual tour here with Washington Post photographer Bill O’Leary, and learn how to take them all in when you visit in person. (First tip: Bring a camera!)
- GALLERY: Vantage points: Take in Washington’s great vistas
- BEST BETS LIST: Best views of Washington: Beyond the Monument
- PANORAMA: The view from the highest spot in Washington
What makes it special: Standing under the massive columns of Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial, atop a hill in Arlington National Cemetery, visitors can observe American history — from the years leading up to the Civil War onward — in one sweeping view that unfurls for miles.
The story begins on the lawn of the Greek revival-style mansion built in the early 1800s. Long before the grounds became the final resting place for hundreds of thousands of warriors, it was a sprawling 1,100-acre plantation owned by George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Arlington House’s prime location, however, nearly proved to be its undoing during the Civil War, when the home’s occupant, Custis’s son-in-law Robert E. Lee, resigned from the U.S. army and evacuated his family to Richmond. Union forces soon took over the valuable real estate. The mansion, which was named for Custis’s ancestral homestead farther south, fell into disrepair.
In addition to getting 360-degree views of the cemetery, visitors can look out across Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol building. To the south, you can see the Pentagon, slightly obscured by trees.
While you’re there: Tour the house, which recently underwent a restoration, and check out the peculiar mural painted by Custis of a lion attacking a tiger. You also can pay respects to Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who planned the District and is buried in the front yard.
If you go: Arlington House is located within Arlington National Cemetery. Parking is available near the visitor center, and the Arlington Cemetery Metro station also is nearby. From the center, it’s about a 10-minute, uphill walk to the house. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. www.nps.gov/arho. Free.
What makes it special: The Washington Monument may be able to claim the status of Washington’s tallest structure, but the National Cathedral’s Gloria in Excelsis Tower has it beat in terms of being the city’s highest spot. The 300-foot-tall tower sits on a hill 400 feet above sea level.
Tower climbs, in which visitors can walk the 333 steps to the top, are offered annually during the cathedral’s Flower Mart. This year, the climbs are on Saturday, May 3, and at 20 minutes they are not for the faint of heart: At times the spiral stairs are tightly enclosed and, at other spots, wide open with stomach-flipping views downward.
The climb begins in the crypt, and the narrow stone steps are dimly illuminated by stained glass windows at each landing. The stone stairs finally let out on the seventh floor, where an expansive southern view awaits. But there’s plenty more hiking to get to the very top floor.
The climb continues up tight, metal stairs past the cathedral’s carillon bells and into the room where bell ringers play the peal bells. Here there are large windows on all four walls, so visitors can gaze out in every direction. In the foreground, you’ll notice ornate stone spires shooting skyward. Beyond that, to the north, you can see Wisconsin Avenue cutting through Bethesda and, on a clear day, all the way to Sugar Loaf Mountain. To the south, you can’t miss the downtown skyline and unparalleled views of the Potomac.
If you can’t make the climb, take the elevator to the Pilgrim Observation Gallery on the seventh floor, which also offers 360-degree views of the city and has signs pointing out landmarks. It’s open daily, and there’s a tea and tour Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m.
While you’re there: In the tower, in the same room as the first metal staircase, don’t miss the collection of champagne bottles. The dusty assortment of bottles from as far back as 1960 were placed there in honor of master stone carver Vincent Palumbo, who would toast New Year’s with his workers and sign the bottles. The last bottle in the collection came from Palumbo’s funeral in 2000.
If you go: The cathedral is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. 3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202-537-6200. www.nationalcathedral.org. $10, $6 seniors and students, free for age 4 and younger. Flower Mart is May 2 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and May 3 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.allhallowsguild.org/fm. Free; tower climbs, $10.
What makes it special: There’s no part of this 21-mile out-and-back route on the Virginia side of the Potomac River that one would consider a “best-kept secret.” It’s frequently packed — especially in good weather — with joggers, cyclists and the occasional kid riding a scooter erratically.
So why make the effort?
Because the views are just that good.
Beginning at Roosevelt Island, the mostly flat trail hugs the Potomac tightly, affording riders and runners unobstructed views of the memorials across the river. Majestic weeping willow trees and perky flowers dot the trail’s sides, and the uninterrupted views continue to Gravelly Point, a spot best known for being directly under planes coming and going at Reagan National Airport. Even if you’re quickly passing through, you’re likely to have such a close encounter with a plane that it feels like you could stand on your toes and touch it.
You can take the path all the way to its namesake terminus, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, but for a more manageable ride and bonus view, a good turn-around point is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trail, which connects to the Mount Vernon Trail about 8.6 miles in at Jones Point Park. Other bridges that cross the Potomac offer pedestrian walkways with great views of the city, but with its panoramic vistas, the Woodrow Wilson Bridge trumps them all.
The Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trail, which runs along the bridge from Virginia to National Harbor in Maryland, includes bump-outs where you can stop and see not only boats on the river, but Alexandria’s bustling waterfront, Andrews Air Force Base in Prince George’s County and all the way to the Capitol dome. There also are signs describing the area’s history and telescopes offering a closer look at the skyline and shore. And there’s a brand-new grand sight on the horizon: the Capital Wheel, a 175-foot Ferris wheel at National Harbor, set to open to riders next month.
While you’re there: The Navy and Merchant Marine Memorial, a striking statue of gulls flying over the crest of a wave, is accessible from the Mount Vernon Trail. Also be sure to jump off the trail just a bit to check out the squat white lighthouse at Jones Point near the District’s southernmost former boundary stone.
If you go: There’s parking at both ends of the trail — at Roosevelt Island off north-bound George Washington Parkway and at Jones Point in Alexandria. No car? The trail runs near Reagan National Airport and Metro’s Blue and Yellow lines.
What makes it special: Georgetown has plenty of shops, restaurants and historic homes, but what it didn’t have (until last year) was a rooftop lounge.
Enter the Observatory atop the seven-story Graham hotel.
The handsome U-shaped bar seats about 140 and offers views of Georgetown University to the north; the Kennedy Center, the Washington Monument and downtown to the south; and Rosslyn to the west.
While you’re there: Enjoy a cigar (the bar has a partnership with Georgetown Tobacco) with the bar’s most popular drinks — a Graham Punch or a bourbon.
If you go: The rooftop bar officially opens for the season on Friday. But lose the flip-flops and tank tops — there’s a dress code — and make reservations. The Graham, 1075 Thomas Jefferson St. NW. 202-337-0900. www.thegrahamgeorgetown.com.
Reagan National Airport
What makes it special: There’s perhaps no better view of the nation’s capital than from the window seat of a plane taking off or landing at Reagan National Airport. From that high up, you can see the stately monuments and memorials, the curves of the mighty Potomac and the sprawling suburbs. And, since last fall, when the FAA relaxed the rules on use of personal electronic devices, it has become easier to snap a photo.
If you go: Unfortunately, there’s no way to predict which side of the plane will offer the best view. According to airport spokesman Kimberly Gibbs, takeoff and landing routes can change depending on wind. To give yourself the best odds for seeing the downtown sights, Gibbs suggests sitting on the right side of the plane for takeoff and the left side if you’re landing. The best views come when taking off toward or landing from the north.
The 500 tons of scaffolding have come down, and workers have mended the last of more than 150 cracks. For the first time in nearly three years, the Washington Monument is just about ready for visitors.
A 5.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the city in the summer of 2011, damaging its tallest structure. Closed ever since, the obelisk has been shrouded in scaffolding since May 2013 as workers repaired the iconic landmark.
It’s all been leading up to May 12 at 1 p.m., when the public can once again take the elevator to the observation deck at the top. But set your alarm; free tickets will be distributed (up to six per person) beginning at 8:30 a.m. at Monument Lodge, at 15th Street between Madison and Jefferson drives. Don’t want to wake up early? Tickets for tours are available through www.recreation.gov, with a $1.50 reservation fee and a $2.85 shipping and handling fee. You can reserve up to six tickets, but act quickly — as of press time, tours were sold out through May 19.