America's "town green"—that might be the best short description of this fabled strip of Washington, D.C., the heart of almost every visitor's trip to Washington. The Mall is a picnicking park, a jogging path, and an outdoor stage for festivals and fireworks. People come here from around the globe to tour the illustrious Smithsonian Institution museums, celebrate special events, or rally to make the world a better place. And because the taxpayers foot the bill for the
majestic museums here, they're all free to the public.
Visitors often confuse the Mall with the National Mall. The Mall is the expanse of lawn between 3rd and 14th streets, while the National Mall is the park that spans from the Capitol to the Potomac, including the Mall, the monuments, and the Tidal Basin. To reach the monuments, head west from the Mall or south from the White House and be prepared for a long walk.
With 12 museums spread out along 11 city blocks, you just can't expect to see everything in one day. To avoid mental and physical exhaustion, try to devote at least two days to the Mall and choose your priorities.
If you want a day devoted to history and culture, start at the National Archives, Bureau of Engraving & Printing or Holocaust Museum (all of which allow you to make advance reservations); and then grab lunch at the Ronald Reagan International Building's Food Court. You can spend the afternoon at either the American History Museum or at the Museum of the American Indian at the other end of the Mall.
If you want a day filled with spectacular paintings and sculptures, begin at the National Gallery of Art. There's also a sculpture garden directly across the Mall at the Hirshhorn, which has an excellent collection of avant-garde art in its indoor galleries. If you prefer international artifacts, head to the Freer Gallery of Art, Sackler Gallery or National Museum of African Art.
If you're with kids, start out at the National Air and Space Museum, a must-see just for the WOW factor alone. Grab lunch at the museum's food court or at a hot dog cart outside. If your young bunch can handle two museums in a day, cross the lawn to the Natural History Museum. This itinerary works well for science buffs, too.
For a day devoted to the best of the best of the Mall—in other words, the best of the Smithsonian—start at the Air and Space Museum, then skip to the side-by-side Natural History and American History museums. Picnic on the Mall or hit the museum cafeterias so as not to waste a moment.
Remember that while many of the structures on the Mall present their finest face toward the great lawn, they all have entrances on Constitution or Independence avenues, which do not border the Mall's lawn. Use these doors to gain admission without crossing the Mall itself.
Planning: Since 9/11, security has increased and visitors will need to go through screenings and bag checks, which can create long lines during peak tourist season. Most of the museums on the Mall open daily at 10 and close at 5:30, except during the spring and summer when most extend their closing times to 7:30.
The Mall is accessible by public transportation. There are several nearby Metro stations: on the Blue and Orange lines, the Federal Triangle stop is convenient to the Natural History and American History museums, and the Smithsonian stop is close to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Sackler Gallery. On the Yellow and Green lines, Archives/Navy Memorial takes you to the National Gallery of Art. The L'Enfant Plaza stop, accessible from the Blue, Orange, Yellow, and Green lines, is the best exit for the Hirshhorn and Air and Space Museum.
Martz/Gray Line (www.graylinedc.com/tours) offers two transportation options: an Express Shuttle bus between Union Station and Arlington National Cemetery, which stops at most major attractions on the Mall as well as key monuments on the National Mall; and Big Bus Tours with four routes and 60 stops including Mall museums, National Mall monuments, the National Zoo, White House, and Washington National Cathedral, which let you hop on and off their double-decker buses. Old Town Trolley Tours (www.oldtowntrolleytours.com) also has a 20-stop route along the Mall and downtown that allows you to get on and off their charming orange and green trolleys. You can purchase a one- or two-day pass and even track the location of your trolley and closest stop with the company's online GPS tracking tool.
There's metered parking along the Mall; you can pay with a credit card or via the mobile app. And there are parking garages north of the Mall in the Downtown area, where you pay a daily rate. If you're willing to walk, limited free parking is available on Ohio Drive SW near the Jefferson Memorial and East Potomac Park.
Washington, District of Columbia, United States