Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Washington National Cathedral

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Voted this year as one of the top three most beautiful buildings in the United States by the American Institute of Architects, the cathedral is a grand slice of Europe in the city. The country's second-largest cathedral (after St. John's in New York) and sixth largest in the world, the building took 83 years to construct, officially completed in 1990. The cathedral, designed by England's top Anglican church architect, Frederick Bodley, is the final resting place for national and political figures, including Helen Keller and her tutor, Anne Sullivan.

It's a melange of medieval Gothic styles, including an amusing and scary assortment of gargoyles and grotesques that always attract visitors. It's also the highest point in Washington, at 676 feet, atop Mount St. Alban.

What's special: The country was built in part by those seeking to escape religious persecution, and the cathedral continues to represent religious freedom. Though it's Episcopal, the cathedral has always been welcoming of all faiths, even once temporarily housing a displaced synagogue's congregation.

Following the standard of other cathedrals around the world, architectural errors were purposefully incorporated into the design to show that man is less perfect than his deity.

One thing you didn't know: The cathedral's Great Organ has 10,650 pipes.

Best way to see it: The building appeals both to those with religious interests and to those curious to see the art and architecture. Mass and other services are held daily.

First-come, first-served guided visits are available most days, depending on the cathedral's activities. The behind-the-scenes tours (twice daily, weekdays from July through February) are most popular. The people-pleasing tour of the cathedral's gargoyles is held the fourth Sunday of each month from April to October; the final one this year is Oct. 28. A $3 to $5 donation is requested. If you prefer a self-guided tour, download brochures from the cathedral's Web site (see below).

What to expect: The cathedral is a mammoth building that's impossible to see entirely during one visit; the 200 stained-glass windows alone could take a whole afternoon (though your first visit should include a look at the space-themed window with a moon rock embedded in it). If you're taking a tour, always call first; the cathedral is not always open to the public.

Getting to the cathedral can be tricky; there's no nearby Metro, and parking is difficult to come by (though the church does offer a limited number of free spots on Sundays). The easiest way to get there by public transport is to take the Red Line Metro to Woodley Park, then hop on the 90 or 92 bus for a short ride.

Where to eat: Reserve a spot on the cathedral's Tour and Tea ($25), which includes a guided tour and afternoon tea in a private room with stellar city views. Offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. Call 202-537-8993 to register.

More info: 202-537-6200, http://www.cathedral.org/cathedral.


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