There’s a reason billionaires like to occupy the top floors of skyscrapers: Great heights confer a sense of power, of omnipotence even. While many cities’ best views go to the highest bidder, the situation in D.C. is more democratic — building-height and airspace restrictions limit the best views to passengers in helicopters of the military or medical varieties. So unless you plan to sustain a grievous injury or — even worse — get elected president, one of these relatively low-rise options will have to suffice. I took in the views at the D.C. area’s most famous high-altitude spots over the past few months (except for the one that’s closed yet again), and have ranked them according to a sophisticated aesthetic rubric known as my personal opinion.
7. The Donald D. Engen Observation Tower at Udvar-Hazy, 14390 Air and Space Museum Parkway, Chantilly, Va.
Height of view: 164 feet
The Chantilly, Va., branch of the Smithsonian National Air and Space museum boasts many fascinating sights, but the view from the observation tower isn’t one of them. As you gaze at a crazy quilt of cow fields and highways, you may find yourself asking how this supposedly free museum gets away with charging $15 for parking. Occasionally, a Dulles-bound airplane flies by, and you can almost see the dismayed faces of passengers as they realize they are nowhere near downtown D.C. Before heading back to the main museum, be sure to check out the observation tower’s display of early air traffic control technology and the accompanying FAA kiosk that explains to reluctant taxpayers why an upgrade might be in order.
6. Skydome Restaurant at DoubleTree, 300 Army Navy Drive, Arlington
Height of view: 200 feet
The barely perceptible rotation of this (unintentionally) retro restaurant affords ample opportunity to contemplate a variety of views. If you begin your journey at the host stand, the first thing you’ll see, at surprisingly close range, are the balconies of adjacent apartment buildings. No need to rush — you’ve got plenty of time to admire the outdoor furniture of military contractors. Next, your table will point you toward the majestic expanses of the Pentagon’s many parking lots. As you continue your journey, the HVAC units of nearby low-rise office buildings rotate into view, framed by the mesmerizing flow of traffic on I-395. About halfway through is the main event: Way off in the distance, if you squint and the weather’s clear, you can see the Washington Monument as well as Reagan-bound airplanes. It’s OK to be jealous — the people onboard are getting a much better view than you, and probably better food, too.
5. George Washington Masonic National Memorial, 101 Callahan Drive, Alexandria
Height of view: 300 feet
You know how sometimes, when you’re taking in a grand view, you think, “Gosh, this is great, but what I really want is to see this exact same thing on a nearby screen?” The folks behind the Masonic memorial have you covered. On the top floor of the tower, there’s a screen hooked up to a livestream from a camera that’s a few feet away on the balcony. Sure, you can walk out onto that balcony and see the view directly with your eyeballs, but unmediated experiences are so last century. Sadly, this livesteam is not yet available online — perhaps the Masons don’t want to undercut the tower’s $18 admission. In any case, the view is somewhat underwhelming — unless you’re a big fan of nicely mown lawns and suburban trees. More interesting is the memorial’s odd assemblage of Orientalist costumes, which your guide will make you look at en route to the top of the tower.
4. The View of DC, 1201 Wilson Blvd., Suite 214, Arlington
Height of view: 387 feet
The observation deck at the top of the Central Place Plaza skyscraper delivers just what’s promised: vertiginous views of all the D.C. landmarks, from the Kennedy Center to Congress, and all the way east to the Basilica. Less exciting are the tower’s westward views, though a touch-screen display tries its best to make Northern Virginia sound exciting. “As defense contractors associated with the CIA start setting up in Tysons, shopping malls and other leisure attractions follow.” (Emphasis theirs.) This hyperlocal history probably appeals to what appears to be The View of D.C.’s key demographic: Arlington residents, who get in free, and the out-of-town visitors they bring along (and who must pay the full $21). Like the Masonic memorial, The View also caters to people who prefer simulacrums of experiences to the real thing. A virtual reality ride called “HoverDC” gives you the feeling of zooming over all the major D.C. landmarks that allow drone photography — which is to say, none of the ones that matter.
3. The Old Post Office tower at the Trump Hotel, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
When Donald Trump leased the Old Post Office building from the federal government in 2013, he agreed to keep the building’s historic bell tower open to the public. But how to keep the hotel’s well-heeled guests from mingling with the sweaty masses? The answer lies in a special entrance for common tourists followed by a maze of long hallways seemingly designed to segregate the hoi polloi from esteemed guests of the hotel. Along the way, you’ll find historic exhibits that also declare the beauty and glamour of the Trump Hotel. You won’t be able to make that assessment for yourself, because the glass elevator that overlooks the lobby has been aggressively frosted, perhaps to keep tower visitors from playing “spot the Saudi lobbyist.” After another long hallway and yet another elevator, you finally reach the tower, and the view doesn’t disappoint, as long as you ignore the smudged plastic and thick safety bars. Unless, of course, you want to see the White House (or Congress) behind bars, in which case, this is the view for you.
2. Washington Monument, 2 15th St. NW
Height of view: 500 feet
It’s a shame the Washington Monument has been closed so much lately. While this Egyptian-ish obelisk bears only a tenuous connection to America’s first president, it’s an excellent beacon for tourists — a landmark as well as a great way to get the lay of the Mall when you first arrive. When I visited for my second-ever Staycationer column, I found that the Washington Monument had plenty to offer locals as well as visitors to D.C. In addition to unparalleled views (albeit through small, thick-paned windows), you get to go on a magic elevator ride — one where, with the push of a button, opaque glass turns clear, revealing some of the nifty memorial stones in the middle of the structure. Why the rangers don’t leave the windows clear for the full ride is a mystery. What are they hiding? Could this be the plot for the next “National Treasure” movie? Perhaps we’ll find out when the monument reopens (supposedly) in August.
1. POV at the W Hotel, 515 15th St. NW
Height of view: About 120 feet
The best seats at this rooftop bar, at the southern corner, are roped off for event attendees and VIPs. These lucky folks get unparalleled views of the entire Mall, and they are so close to the Washington Monument, they could almost hit it with paper airplanes. Don’t be jealous, though — the west-facing balcony delivers views nearly as scenic. On a recent weekday visit, I got a first-row seat to see the sun set behind the White House. This was thanks to a kindly stranger who offered up her stool when she saw me struggling with my enormous novelty cocktail, the “Bi-Partisan” — actually a pair of drinks, one red and one blue, balanced on a huge scale of justice. All around me, a friendly crowd of locals and business travelers played “spot the government sniper” while I watched the silhouettes of hard-working Treasury Department employees through their office windows. Their diligence inspired me to work overtime, too, so I ordered another drink — “The President’s Book of Secrets,” a hollow book containing a glass skull and a flask of date-infused rum. And it was delicious.
More adventures with the Staycationer