It's such a constant, that imposing obelisk at the end of the Mall. And probably the only time you even remember that it has an inside is when you're snickering at the tourists wrapped around it in a 400-person line on a 100-degree day. This, for sure, is one of those instances when a cost-benefit analysis is required. Spend two hours waiting to get to the top of the Washington Monument and you'll probably be happy when the whole thing is over. But if you're able to saunter up, zip through security and have the whole place more or less to yourself, it's a spectacular experience.
"From the top you have a view of the greatest of all Washington monuments: the city of D.C. itself," a guide says on the minute-long elevator ride to the top of the 555-foot structure. And she's right. There's all of it, cinematic and pristine: the Potomac, the Anacostia, the Washington National Cathedral, the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, the White House and Capitol.
We spend an awful lot of hours on the ground, sitting in traffic, shuffling through some numbing routine. It feels healthy somehow to hit a different altitude -- to suddenly see farther, better than before.
Tip: You can reserve tickets, but there's a $1.50 surcharge per ticket. If you go at an off-peak hour, you should be able to nab one on the spot for free. The guides suggest coming later in the day (the last tour goes up at 4:30) for a good view and a thin crowd.
--Ellen McCarthy (Jan. 25, 2008)
The basics: As befits a tribute to the man known as the "Father of Our Country," the monument remains the defining item on the Washington skyline. At 555 feet, it is also one of the world's tallest freestanding masonry structures.
Background: Authorized by Congress in 1833, the monument followed a convoluted path to construction and completion. Architect Robert Mills's original proposal included elaborate plans for a Revolutionary War Memorial, but for financial reasons, the builders were only able to render the centerpiece of the plan -- a stark stone obelisk based on an Egyptian design.
Construction started in 1848 and continued to 1854, but due to a tale of bureaucracy and political intrigue, work was effectively halted for 25 years. In 1876, Ulysses Grant spearheaded the monument's drive to completion. Construction was completed between 1878 and 1884.
The two phases of construction produced one of the most noticeable features of the monument: its two-tone color scheme. Stones were taken from different quarries during the two periods of construction.
Visitor experience: A 72-second elevator ride ferries visitors to the summit, where a park ranger describes the construction and design of the building. On clear days, visitors can see as far as 40 miles away in each direction, but they will have to jockey for prime vista-viewing position in the cramped tower top.
Visitors are no longer able to trek up the 896 steps inside the monument, but park rangers can arrange a guided tour for visitors interested in walking down and viewing the more than 190 memorial stones mounted along the walls. These tours are subject to ranger availability. Call 202-426-6841 and press zero to speak to an operator for more information.
Vital details: The monument is open daily, except July 4 and Dec. 25, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, hours are extended until 10 p.m.To ascend the tower, visitors must first get a free, timed-entry ticket. Tickets are available at the kiosk on the 15th Street side of the monument on a first-come, first-served basis, beginning at 8:30 a.m. Advance reservations can be made (with a service charge) by calling 877-444-6777 or visiting www.recreation.gov. Even with a ticket, visitors may wait for a while in a line around the base of the monument.
By Metro: From Smithsonian (Blue, Orange lines), walk westbound on Jefferson Drive to monument.
By car: Parking is scarce, but may be available on Jefferson or Madison drives.
(Updated March 9, 2012)