The window seat of an airplane descending into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport might offer the best overall view of the National Mall and its multitude of monuments, but more accessible alternatives to see the sites and scenes of the nation’s front yard abound.
The elevator inside the Washington Monument takes hundreds of people daily to a view of the orderly grids of green grass lined with gravel sidewalks that lead to the majestic Capitol building and the city beyond.
And it’s just one of many means that people can use to explore the wide variety of monuments, museums and memorials in the city.
Biking is a great way to cover the Mall’s 146 acres.
“I was walking down the street, and it looked like the distance was more imposing than I expected,” said Sebastien Maret of Switzerland, as he biked around the Mall on a recent morning. “But it’s day one of my stay in Washington D.C., and I wanted to have a first look at the Mall. I know for sure there is a lot of green area, so I thought it would be nice to do it with a bicycle. And I think that using a bicycle is as good as spending 30 minutes in the gym at the hotel.”
Bicyclists pedaling west of the Washington Monument through the tree-lined, sun-dappled pathways can see the World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Traveling east, they will pass several of the Smithsonian museums and their adjacent gardens and green spaces.
Visitors are welcome to zip along the pathways on their own bikes, or on bikes rented through the city’s Capital Bikeshare program or one of the District’s many private rental companies, such as Bike and Roll, Rollin Cycles, and Big Wheel Bikes.
Park Service employees lead free, public bike tours of the Mall that meet at the Jefferson Memorial a few days a week, though participants must bring their own bikes and helmets.
To take the speed up a notch and keep the effort down, especially for those blazing hot D.C. summer days, jump on a Segway to glide around the sites.
City Segway Tours offers National Mall tours for those 16 years old and up. Located on 23rd Street NW, just a few blocks from the Lincoln Memorial, the Segway tour experience follows the route of presidential inaugurations on Pennsylvania Avenue and explores sites between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Monument within two to three hours.
At each stop along the tour, tourists are given time to take pictures and listen to one of their 40 licensed guides explain the historical significance of the landmark with additional fun facts.
“It’s not all about dates and dead presidents,” said John Voci, the city operations manager.
Mr. Voci began working as a guide eight years ago while attending George Washington University.
“It’s a unique experience. I love the Segways because they allow you to get up close to the monuments. On buses sometimes they park pretty far away or just pass by something you want to see; Segways allow more freedom,” Mr. Voci said.
If you prefer four wheels to two, you might be able to catch a ride on a golf cart. Most of the time, golf carts are exclusively for Park Service employees to transfer materials to the different gardens, but volunteering on the Mall could get you a ride.
Army Staff Sgt. James Pierce, park ranger and Volunteer in Parks coordinator, leads groups through the Mall to weed the Constitutional Gardens and take on other projects.
His favorite part about working on the Mall: “Everything that I fought for and worked hard for — it’s all symbolized by these monuments right here,” Sgt. Pierce said.
When the heat and humidity kick up, head toward the river — not to take a dip but to take a ride.
Tidal Basin Paddle Boats, which come in two- and four-passenger models, depart from a small dock in the Basin, offering stunning views of the Jefferson Memorial, the verdant banks of the Potomac, and, in late March to early April, nearly 4,000 cherry trees bursting with blossoms.
“It’s just me and my brother today, and we thought the boats would be cool to do,” said Jessica Brewer, in the District from Mississippi to visit her father in the National Guard. “It was really peaceful, and we got to be next to the ducks and we got to see everything from a different angle, which was neat.”
Another boater, Wolfram Schwalbe from Germany, noted the cool reprieve the paddle boats offered him.
“We felt very hot and we expected it would be more breezy and chilly outside, on the water, which was partly true. It’s quite impressive because the monuments are so huge and they are spread apart, so you have to walk a lot and you get tired and you sweat a lot. The boats are great because they are a nice thing to do in between.”
Finally, for the purists, exploring the National Mall on foot is always an option. Walkers will no doubt fall among school groups and businessmen and women taking their lunch breaks, as well as people enjoying the Mall with games of kickball, soccer and frisbee.
A mosey around the center of the Mall will lead to a number of museums, including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution Building (better known as the “castle”).
A short jaunt along the Tidal Basin waterfront will take tourists inside the Jefferson Memorial, a masterpiece of domes and columns that harkens the Roman Pantheon. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where people can tour the printing press that churns out our nation’s money, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are only a few blocks away.
If walking on one’s own proves overwhelming, visitors can opt to join a tour group. The walking tours given by guides at DC by Foot, a company that allows independent, licensed DC tour guides to lead the curious masses around different parts of the city, are among the most well known. The best part? The tours are “pay what you want,” making them perfect for the interested but impecunious.