Pros: historic and fun things to see and do abound, almost everything is free
Cons: hot and humid in the summer, a lot of walking
The Mall is generally defined as the area stretching from 3rd Street the Lincoln Memorial that is bordered on one side by Constitution Avenue and on the other by Independence Avenue in Washington D.C. Even people who have never been to the Nation's Capitol are somewhat familiar with the area because it's often featured in movies and on television, especially at the 4th of July and Memorial Day when there are free televised concerts, sometimes accompanied by fireworks.
The Mall is where you'll also find the major museums of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Gallery of Art, many monuments and one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, the Washington Monument.
Many people have the mistaken impression that there is nothing for children, in particular toddlers, to do on the Mall. In this review, I'm going to cover the major attractions that you'll find on the Mall (as well as some that are just off the Mall) and make a pointed effort to identify toddler-friendly venues. This tour will start at the U.S. Capitol (which visually ends the Mall on the East side), amble down the Independence Avenue side of the Mall, and scoot back up the Constitution Avenue side until we've made a complete circuit. Should you visit this area, unless you are jogging and not actually entering any of the buildings, this is merely an informative guide and not an actual touring plan. I'd choose a few places of interest to visit instead.
The U.S. Capitol is an absolute must-see if you are visiting Washington, D.C. With a bit of prior planning, you can visit the House and the Senate Galleries. If you're really lucky you may even get to go down on the floor! In order to get tickets, you must contact your congressional representative or either of your Senators. To tour the Capitol, the entrance is on the side of the building opposite the Mall and this is also something everyone ought to do. The Dome is breathtaking with frescoes by Brumidi. Statuary Hall is very interesting. Each state is entitled to contribute two statues of famous residents to the Hall and most states have already filled their allotment. Be sure to check out the old Supreme Court Chamber where the Supreme Court met before their building was constructed across the street.
Toddler tip: Toddlers love climbing up and down the steps on either front of the Capitol. They are often closed off for security reasons but on the off chance you can find some stairs, these are a huge hit. Just remember that they are marble so keep a good eye on your little one. Toddlers also love riding in the Senate subway if you're able to take a ride. It's more fun that the subway on the House side.
In between the Capitol and the lawn of the Mall is a Reflecting Pool and large fountain with statues of horses and stuff that was designed by Bartholdi who also designed the Statue of Liberty. There are plenty of stairs for your child and they love watching water.
The next building you'll come to is the U.S. Botanical Garden. There are many plants and flowers to explore, including an impressive Palm House. This is a place that my daughter really enjoys. She loves pointing out the various flowers although it's sometimes difficult for me to get across to her that she's supposed to look at the flowers and not pick them!
Under construction is the National Museum of the American Indian. This looks like it's going to be really interesting when it opens. Be aware that entry, although free, will require a timed admission pass in order to ensure that crowds don't overwhelm the facilities. The exterior architecture is rippled, making it appear as if the building has been hewn from a cliff by the wind and rain.
The National Air and Space Museum is a great place if you like airplanes or spacecraft. If you don't, you'll just notice the worn carpeting and the humongous crowds. There's an IMAX theater and a planetarium.
Toddler Tip: My toddler likes the IMAX films. She's fascinated by something that large although the loud noises are a bit scary. She also likes the carousel out in front which charges $2 a ride. Be aware that as a parent, you will also be charged $2 to stand next to your child on the carousel.
The Hirshhorn Museum houses a ton of Modern art. Artists represented range from Matisse to Warhol - there's quite a range! The building has interesting architecture and has a large plaza with a fountain. Kids enjoy running about and wearing themselves out. My toddler usually has tired herself out so much that she's asleep in her stroller so we're able to enjoy the art.
Toddler tip: The Sculpture Garden across the street has plenty of running, crawling and exploring room in an outdoor sunken garden which features works by Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore.
Directly next door is the Arts and Industries Building. This used to be one of my favorite Smithsonian Institution museums years ago when they had a steam engine on display but the years have not been kind to the building. It's now closed for renovations although it's unclear when the funding will be available for the chore. Tourists often confuse the Smithsonian Castle and this building.
Speaking of the Smithsonian Castle, if you stick to the Mall, that's the next building you'll come upon. There isn't a lot to see in here as it's primarily administrative offices but there's a tourist information center with an informative film about the various museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institution.
Tucked away behind the Castle and the Arts and Industries Building are a duo of connected museums: the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. These museums are primarily subterranean so they're easy to miss but if you have an interest in African or Asian art, don't miss either one. At the Sackler, there's a great sculpture of monkeys trying to reach the moon that extends from the lowest floor almost all the way to the ceiling of the highest floor. These museums tend to be very quiet, not crowded and they are places I take my daughter when she is napping in her stroller instead of running around.
The same is true of the Freer Gallery of Art. I let my daughter run around outside because this just isn't a truly child friendly place. You can take kids in but it's so quiet and noise tends to travel. The must-see exhibit here is Whistler's Peacock Room. Even if you have to run in with the kids, it's worth it.
The last big building before 14th Street belongs to the Agriculture Department. It's not really geared for tourists but if you hang south, you'll see both the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The Holocaust Museum is an absolute "must see" but it's also 100% absolutely not appropriate for children. I have a special relationship to this museum because of the "Tower of Life" exhibit which is made up of 1,600 photographs from the Eishyshok shtetl. Last summer, a cousin of mine told me that our family came to the United States from Eishyshok. It was shocking to me, especially when he related his own experience at the Holocaust Museum which completely mirrored my own: I spent almost an hour looking at the faces in those photographs and I felt like I knew the people in them and had a connection to them. It turns out that I do. On a more pleasant note, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing offers tours which offer a look at how money and stamps are engraved and printed. Coins are not minted at this facility. No free samples are provided.
Back on the Mall, the Washington Monument presides over the middle of the area. It's tall, it's white, the base is surrounded by 50 American flags - you can't miss it. The white marble obelisk is 555 feet tall and recently underwent a major renovation. This is the tallest, free standing work of masonry in the world. You need a ticket to go up in the Monument. They're free if you wait in line but there's a service charge if you get them ahead of time. By the way, the stairs are off limits and visitors must use the elevators. If the reason you want to go up is to see Washington DC, I'd suggest heading off the Mall to the Old Post Office Pavilion. It's a better view and much less crowded.
Toddler Tip: Kids love running on the grounds of the Washington Monument. There are hills to roll down and it's a great place to fly kites. In the spring, the Smithsonian sponsors a kite festival every year.
Continuing down the Mall, the World War II Memorial is under construction. There's been a lot of controversy about cluttering the Mall and ruining the view from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. From what I've seen of the construction so far, I'm looking forward to the new Memorial. I think it complements the Mall beautifully and the veterans of World War II deserve to be recognized. I think we've lost sight of exactly what a service they performed for this country.
Off to the south is the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial. Neither one is on the Mall but they are close enough and are usually included in any accounting of Washington DC Monuments and Memorials. The Tidal Basin is the place to be in the early spring to see the cherry blossoms. There are over 3,500 cherry trees planted around the basin so it's really a sight to see. The Jefferson Memorial has an open rotunda with columns all about and a large than life sized statue of the third President in the center.
Toddler tip: It's not hard to see all of the stairs that fascinate toddlers!
Also along the Tidal Basin is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. It's quite unique, with four open air "rooms", one for each of his four terms as President. The use of water throughout the Memorial is breathtaking, ranging from a waterfall that is supposed to evoke the Tennessee Valley Authority water projects to another that symbolizes the shattered lives and nations caused by war.
Toddler tip: While swimming in the fountains is dangerous and discouraged, kids love the waterfalls here. It's also flat with plenty of room to run. The various sculptures are all accessible and I've seen kids climbing on them. Just be sure they don't stray too far as you don't want them falling into the Tidal Basin!
Heading back to the Mall, you'll see the Korean War Veterans Memorial. This is my favorite of the many Memorials on the Mall. It doesn't attract the same crowds as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial so you have more space and time to be introspective. You'll see statues of 19 infantrymen, perpetually on patrol in front of a polished black granite wall into which are etched the faces of the different troops who served in Korea.
At the far end of the Mall is the Lincoln Memorial. Resembling Greece's Parthenon, there are 36 Doric fluted columns which represent each of the States at the time Lincoln was assassinated. Inside is a 19 foot tall statue of Lincoln sculpted by Daniel Chester French. Anyone who has seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is familiar with the inscriptions on the walls of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address.
Toddler Tip: More stairs!
In front of the Lincoln Memorial is the Reflecting Pool. Listeners gathered around it to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. give his famous "I Have a Dream" speech and to hear Marian Anderson sing. You may also remember Tom Hanks wading through it in the film Forrest Gump. When the weather is extremely cold for long periods of time, you can skate on the Reflecting Pool. It's not a sanctioned activity and there is no Zamboni but the park rangers won't stop you as long as the ice is solid. When the weather is nicer, it's lovely to sit on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and look out toward the Capitol, gazing at the reflection of the Washington Monument in the water.
As you continue around the Mall, you'll come to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where the almost 500 foot long wall of names is simply gripping. The two polished black marble walls appear as a gash in the landscape and I always count my blessings as I read the names of those lost in the conflict. I'm lucky. My father came home.
Starting back up the Mall, after passing through what's left of Constitution Gardens from the construction of the World War II Memorial, the Ellipse can be seen to the north and behind it, the White House. Post 9/11 access to the public had been extremely restricted but public tours have resumed. If time permits, you'll want to see the East Room, the Blue Room and the State Dining Room. You won't be able to see the Oval Office.
Crossing over 14th Street, the first building you'll encounter is the National Museum of American History. This is where the popular First Ladies exhibit is housed and you can see those lovely dresses that were worn at Presidential inaugurations. There's a bit of everything here from Mister Rogers' cardigan zip up sweater to an original Apple computer. The Palm Court is a nice place to stop for some ice cream or a light lunch.
Toddler Tip: Be sure to see Oscar the Grouch in his garbage can!
Next door is the National Museum of Natural History. Handicapped access is available on the Constitution Avenue side of the building so don't be alarmed by the steps on the Mall side. Once you get inside, the Hall of Mammals has just been renovated and there's the popular Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals where you can see the Hope Diamond. I really like the exhibits here on earthquakes and geysers. Did you know that geyser is the only word in the English language that is derived from Icelandic?
Toddler Tip: There are caves to explore in the Hall of Geology. The gems are colorful and shiny which intrigues most children. Out in front is a giant log of petrified wood on the Mall side of the building. Of course, there are stairs!
In the winter months, the next attraction is an outdoor Skating Rink. All year round you can wander through the National Gallery Sculpture GardenI've skated here many times but if you're going to use blade guards, don't leave them on the boards! They will walk away, even though I'm sure whoever steals them doesn't need them or know what they're for. Instead of using my hard plastic guards, I just use terry covers and then shove them into a pocket or my leggings. That way, they don't need to be left on the boards. If you have your own skates, admission is a reasonable $5. I like skating here during the week, during the day. At other times, there are just too many people who want to know "How did you spin?" and "How do you stop?" If you actually know how to skate and just want to enjoy being outside, deserted times are the best.
Toddler Tip: I've taken my daughter skating at this rink and she simply loves it! I'm not sure I'd take a child skating as a toddler if I didn't skate myself. As some background, when I last tested, I was working on my Silver ice dances with the USFSA. Because I skate, I'm able to concentrate on her needs instead of worrying about whether or not I can keep my balance. The key is to bundle your child because he is going to fall. I dress my daughter in a snowsuit and mittens and a hat. It's worked out very well for us.
Behind the Sculpture Garden Ice Rink on the other side of Constitution Avenue is the National Archives. Again, this isn't "on" the Mall but it's pretty close. The Archives have recently reopened after a multi-year renovation. This is where you go to see the actual Declaration of Independence and the actual Constitution of the United States. I've haven't been back since they've reopened it but I look forward to stopping in soon.
The final stop before reaching 3rd street is the National Gallery of Art. It's divided between two buildings: the East Building and the West Building. The National Gallery of Art is not part of the Smithsonian Institution! The West Building is the big marble neoclassical building with a rotunda. Inside, you can see a DaVinci, a Vermeer, and some Raphaels. There's a wide variety of works here and you can spend an entire afternoon here and still not feel as if you've seen it all. The East Building is asymmetrical and the site of the Museum's holdings of 20th century art. Be sure to check out the Calder mobile! An underground tunnel connects the two buildings and a unique waterfall/fountain can be seen through the skylights and windows by the bookstore in the East Building.
That's the Mall, in a very condensed version. Enjoy your trip to the Nation's Capitol!