Pros: Historical and famous attraction; gorgeous view from the top; free admission; quick visit.
Cons: Expect a crowd; not for those with a fear of heights.
There are several routes into downtown Washington D.C., and any of them are sure to pass one or two famous monuments or memorials. Only one of these, however, is easily visible no matter which road you're traveling - the Washington Monument. Standing an impressive 555 feet tall, this white marble tower is one of the most easily recognized buildings in our nation's capitol, as well as one of the most popular tourist attractions.
During a recent weekend visit to D.C., we had to pick and choose carefully which sights we most wanted to see in our limited amount of time, and this one was near the top of our list.
~* A Brief History of the Monument *~
As anyone who muddled through elementary school is probably aware, this particular monument is named for George Washington, the first president of the United States and often called "the father of our country." The cornerstone of the monument was laid on July 4, 1848, and construction began immediately using white marble from Baltimore, Maryland. After ten years, the new monument had reached a height of 152 feet - only 1/5 of it's planned finished height - when the project ran out of money. The monument sat dormant for twenty-two years.
On August 7, 1880, construction resumed at the 152 foot mark; to this day, a difference in color between the top and bottom of the monument is very apparent. The monument was finished in 1888 and opened to the public on October 9 of the same year. The total cost of the structure was $1,187,710, and to this day it remains the tallest free-standing structure (no iron supports) in the country.
Over the past few years, the Washington Monument has closed for periods of time while undergoing extensive restorations - the outside of the monument was cleaned, commemorative stones on the inside were repaired or replaced, and the observation decks were remodeled. It has most recently reopened to the public on April 1, 2005, although the stairwell and the grounds surrounding the monument are still under construction and are inaccessible to visitors.
~* Getting There *~
You hardly need directions to this attraction as it's easily visible from most anywhere in D.C. However, in the interest of saving time, go armed with the knowledge that this monument is located on 15th Street SW, at the far end of the grassy Mall. Because parking in the downtown area is extremely limited, I'd highly recommend ditching your car in a more convenient location and taking the Metro instead. From the Smithsonian station, the Washington Monument is only a very short walk.
Although the monument is open from 9:00 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. daily, you will need a ticket in order to enter. Tickets are available for different time slots throughout the day - I believe in half hour intervals, as our ticket was good for a 4:30 entry. Free same-day tickets are available at a kiosk just in front of the monument's entrance beginning at 8:30 a.m., and are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. We arrived at this kiosk at approximately 9:30 and were offered either 1:00 or 4:30 entry; I would also recommend getting your tickets early to ensure availability and to allow you to choose a time slot that's most convenient for you.
Tickets may also be purchased in advance through the National Park Service Reservation System by calling 1-800-967-2283 between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. You will be charged a $1.50 service charge and a $.50 shipping and handling fee when ordering tickets in this manner.
~* You're In! *~
So you've found the monument, procured your ticket and are at the right place at the right time - but if you're afraid of heights, you may quickly wish you were somewhere different. Looking up toward the peak of the Washington Monument from the entrance door at the base is absolutely staggering; I couldn't even see the peak from that vantage point.
Once the majority of the group ahead of you has exited the monument, you are allowed to enter and go through a security check. No large bags are allowed into the monument; those smaller than 18" x 16" x 6" must go through an x-ray prior to entering. Be prepared to empty your pockets of keys, change and wallets as well. Not allowed in the building are:
- drinks (except water in a clear plastic bottle)
- guns and/or ammunition
- aerosol cans or mace
Since we were traveling with a toddler, we had to make use of the "stroller parking" located near the entrance and haul in a diaper bag and cameras that we weren't comfortable leaving outside. I was asked to open the diaper bag after the x-ray and quizzed about the contents of Rachael's orange sippy cup. When I admitted that there was diluted juice in the cup, the guard told me I'd have to dump it out before being allowed inside, as there was nowhere to leave it at the security area and a long line behind us that would make getting outside and back in next to impossible. To this, I replied "NO WAY!" since we didn't have anything else for my daughter to drink with us; after getting good and worked up and telling the guard that I wouldn't dump out my daughter's only drink, he said, "OH, it's for the BABY!" and let us enter. The moral of this story is to clearly identify liquids that are in sippy cups as belonging to your CHILD if traveling with a toddler. This guy obviously didn't get it at first.
~* Going Up *~
Once through security, you're ushered into a hallway where you wait in line until the elevator returns to the ground floor. Once emptied of the previous group, you'll be crammed into the elevator like so many head of cattle; the actual capacity is 25 passengers, and I dare say we had every bit of that number in our group, which included a tour guide who gave us the rundown on the monument's history during our 70-second ride to the observation deck, located at 500 feet.
The observation deck consists of a somewhat narrow hallway winding around the elevator, which is located in the center of the tower. On each of the four sides of the monument is a rectangular plexiglass window overlooking the city below. Because of the number of people admitted in each group, expect to wait a few minutes at each window. (Photos taken from these windows are surprisingly clear, even though the windows appear somewhat scratched and dull from their years of service.) Posted just beneath each window is a large full-color photo of the scenery below with points of interested labeled for easy identification. A few of the more famous landmarks you'll have a great view of from the top of the Washington Monument are the Reflecting Pool and the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Capitol building and the White House.
A small bookstore is located in a corner of the observation deck near the back entrance to the elevator; despite it's size, a nice selection of books about the Washington Monument and about George himself are available here. Outside of the bookstore, a line forms quickly to take the elevator back down to the bottom - especially now that the stairs are temporarily out of commission.
~* On the Way Down *~
The elevator, which has doors on either side for easier loading and unloading, efficiently moves crowds through the monument in a hurry. After packing back into the elevator (again crowded to capacity), we began the 2 minute, 18 second descent to the ground floor. Wait a minute, it only took 60 seconds to travel to the top - so what gives?
The elevator travels more slowly on the return trip in order to allow visitors to view the commemorative stones set into the inside wall of the monument. According to the National Park Service's website, these stones "have come from every state in the Union, private organizations, civic groups, Native American nations, and foreign countries. Each unique in its composition and design, but all donated to the memory of Washington and his contributions to democracy and freedom in this country." There are currently 198 commemorative stones, 45 of which are showcased from the elevator. Unless you are either the first or the last onto the elevator for the ride down, however, it will prove more than a little difficult to view them from the center of the car, so plan accordingly.
Once back at the ground floor, the doors open and the hoarde files out of the monument into what was, for us, ridiculously bright sunlight after twenty minutes or so inside the dimly lit tower. We had officially visited the Washington Monument.
~* Overall *~
Granted, the Washington Monument isn't the most thrilling attraction that D.C. has to offer, but then, monuments rarely are. However, the history of both George Washington and this monument constructed in his honor, the instant recognition of the structure and the breathtaking views from the top make this monument a tourist attraction that no visitor to D.C. should miss.
~* Random Interesting Facts *~
Many of the facts regarding the Washington Monument are courtesy of the National Park Service's website. Here are a few that I found particularly interesting, although of no real importance to the review itself:
- The exact height of the monument is 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches.
- The width of the monument at it's base is 55 feet, 1 1/2 inches.
- The monument walls are 15 feet thick at the base and 18 inches thick at the observation deck.
- The total weight of the monument is 90,854 tons.
- There are 36,491 blocks in the monument.
- There are 896 steps in the stairwell, which means that I'd likely have opted for the elevator even if the stairwell had been open.
~* Contact Information *~
Visit the National Park Service online at www.nps.gov/wamo/ for every detail you can imagine.