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A Walk Down Washington DC’s National Mall

A fusion of history and heritage, of contemporary and cool – Washington DC is where the business of America happens. The US capital is peppered with major landmarks, world-class dining, an abundance of designer shops and, perhaps most importantly, is beloved for its appearance in dozens of Hollywood blockbusters. So when I found myself with some free time to stroll along its iconic National Mall, it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse…

National Mall

At around 1.8 miles long, the National Mall is a strip of landscaped gardens, monuments, memorials, museums and parkland stretching from the United States Capitol at the eastern end to the Lincoln Memorial to the west. The site of many a protest march, it’s where each new president comes to get inaugurated, and, unsurprisingly, is DC’s number one attraction. In fact, 24 million visitors flock here each year – and I was about to be one of them...

Arriving into Washington

I arrived into Washington’s Union Station and headed straight for the National Mall. It wasn’t hard to find: I simply walked towards the Statue of Freedom – the bronze sculpture towering proudly atop the Capitol’s dome – which I could see peeking out from between the trees. After a 10-minute walk I was there, standing outside the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress – in awe of a structure I had often admired on the big screen.

The Capitol Building

I stood on the polished marble floor and gazed up at the dome of the Capitol Building. It was another building I'd seen a thousand times before – when it exploded in Independence Day, when it was destroyed by a tsunami in Deep Impact and in the background as Captain America meets Falcon in the opening scene of Captain America: Winter Solider. But there was something different about seeing it up close. It was larger than I expected, and shinier, although that could have been the beating sun.

I walked around the front of the building where the peaceful Capitol Reflecting Pool was surrounded by flowers (and tourists). Here I was rather amused to see the controversial duck ramps – criticised by a local congressman as "government waste" – which allow the adorable ducklings to get in and out of the water with ease. This also made a lovely photo stop, as the Capitol reflected nicely in the water, although the ramps were, sadly, duck-free on this occasion.

The museums

There are over 200 museums in the city, 17 of which are part of the Smithsonian Institution and 11 of which are found along the National Mall. I peeked at the flowers and hedges of the United States Botanic Garden before continuing to the museum I had been most excited about: the National Air and Space Museum. To my delight, despite being the most visited museum in the USA, it was completely free to enter.

I browsed the spaceships and rockets, which included the Apollo 11 command module, the Wright brothers’ plane and an Air France Concorde, as well as a piece of real moon rock. It was all very impressive.

Afterwards, attracted by its striking red exterior, I popped into the Smithsonian Institution Building – otherwise known as 'The Castle' – where I indulged in a gallon of coke, the perfect refreshment in the blistering heat.

The Washington Monument

In August 2011, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck the city, cracking the Washington Monument in four places. Unfortunately the towering obelisk has been closed since that day, so all I could do was admire it from below, as it jutted dramatically into the sky like a needle. Of course I’ve already seen it up close: being climbed by Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and being hit by a plane in Olympus Has Fallen.

Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial

While I loved the National Mall, I heartily recommend a little detour down to the Tidal Basin. This man-made reservoir is just south of the Mall, surrounded by memorials to various notable people, mostly presidents. A circumnavigation of the basin (tough in the heat, but worthwhile) brought me to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, a neoclassical building with dramatic columns and a dome, housing a bronze statue of Jefferson himself.

The Roosevelt Memorial

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial was next, featuring various sculptures of the president, his wife, and events from his life – all surrounded by waterfalls. As a dog lover, my favourite was a depiction of him and his beloved Scottish terrier: Fala.

The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial

I found the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial to be the most intriguing of the bunch. It opened in 2011, so was more modern in style than the others, and reminded me of Mount Rushmore, with a nine-metre-tall relief of Martin Luther King Jr – known as the Stone of Hope – carved into jagged rock. The most fascinating part was reading the inspirational quotes from King’s most beloved speeches and sermons.

The Reflecting Pool and the Korean War Veterans Memorial

From here I returned to the National Mall and walked to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, made up of a Pool of Remembrance as well as 19 stainless steel soldiers emerging from the juniper bushes – a particularly striking spectacle that made me audibly gasp. Talk about breathtaking! And then, as I strolled along the edge of the Reflecting Pool, I thought back to the scene in Forrest Gump, where Jenny runs out into the water at a peace rally.

The Lincoln Memorial

The main event, of course, was the Lincoln Memorial. Just standing here evoked feelings of history and significance for me – after all, this is the spot where Martin Luther King Jr gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech. I felt particularly small as I gazed up at the regal 5.8m Lincoln statue, and I couldn’t help but think of him with an ape head in Planet of the Apes (2001), and when Reese Witherspoon asked him for advice in Legally Blonde 2.

The White House

I walked back to the Capitol along the north side of the Mall, passing first the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Constitution Gardens, and then taking a detour to the White House. If you want to go inside for an official tour, you will need to book this in advance. On this occasion, though, I was satisified with peering at the President's residence through the fence, taking some pictures, and remembering it as the place where Michael Douglas romances Annette Bening in The American President, as well as the new home of Kevin Klein in Dave.

Back along the Mall I diverted to the fountains of the National World War II Memorial, where people were cooling their hot feet in the pools (don’t worry, it’s encouraged), and told myself that, next time, I would make time to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I headed out of the city to continue my USA adventure, my mind full of monuments and marble, and I felt rather cultured after my trip to the nation’s capital.

Written by Angela Griffin

Born with a severe case of itchy feet, I’ve tried to appease my perpetual wanderlust by selling high-end safaris, dabbling in guidebook writing and more recently travel writing and blogging, but to no avail. A life-long lover of the great outdoors, I’m at my happiest when hiking up a mountain, or skiing down one.