Washington, D.C.'s most famous green space is the National Mall, but locals are just as likely to escape to Meridian Hill Park for a bit of nature in the middle of the city. The historic park (part of the 1,754-acre Rock Creek Park) isn't far from downtown Washington's hustle and bustle, but you might feel like you're standing on an Italian plaza when you discover Meridian Hill Park's grand fountain.
The park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark. The story of Meridian Hill Park begins in 1819, according to the National Park Service, when John Porter built a mansion on this spot. The location was named Meridian Hill because it was the exact longitude of the original District of Columbia milestone marker. African-American astronomer and mathematician Benjamin Banneker helped set up that milestone marker.
Other memorable moments in the park's history include 1829, when President John Quincy Adams moved into the mansion after leaving the White House, and the Civil War, when Union troops set up camp in the park. At one point, a wealthy senator's wife named Mary Foote Henderson also lobbied to build a new White House or the Lincoln Memorial on the hill in the park.
The U.S. government purchased the mansion grounds in 1910, and landscape architects George Burnap and Horace Peaslee envisioned a design scheme that mimicked an Italian garden fit for the aristocracy—but this garden would be much more democratic than that, made for the masses.
Construction began in 1914, and the park wasn't finished until 1936. The National Park Service assumed ownership in 1933, and it became one of Washington residents' favorite getaways from the city. By the 1980s, the park became a site of vandalism and drug-dealing, but a concerned group of citizens called Friends of Meridian Hill helped bring the park back to its former grandeur.
The National Park Service shares some fun facts about the park on its site, including the fact that Meridian Hill's beautiful cascading fountain is North America's largest fountain and that the park's Joan of Arc statue is the only female statue on horseback in the city of Washington, DC.
What to See and Do at Meridian Hill Park
Don't miss that beautiful fountain, and lovely views of the city from Meridian Hill Park's elevated vantage point. According to the National Park Service, the park is divided into two principal areas: the lower park, with its reflecting pool, plaza, and symmetric stairways; and an upper part with a grassy area and wooded space and a broad terrace over the lower section of the park. Take a walk and enjoy this green space in the heart of the city, or make like the people you'll see there and read a book or throw around a Frisbee.
Weekly and Annual Events
Many Washingtonians know Meridian Hill Park for its weekly drum circle: every Sunday afternoon during warm months, drummers gather together and play in the park and anyone can join in with the music or just appreciate the beats. This tradition has been going on for forty years, according to NPR, ever since the 1960s when drummers gathered to celebrate Black liberation. The tradition dates back to Malcolm X's death in February 1965, and in fact, the park also goes by the unofficial name of Malcolm X Park.
Besides the weekly drum circle, other events at Meridian Hill Park include weekly Jazzercise and swing dancing classes. The park is also a popular spot for sledding in the winter months, on the occasion that D.C. gets enough snow for a sled.
Things to Do Nearby
Meridian Hill Park is located in the neighborhood of Columbia Heights, an enclave in downtown D.C. that is one of Washington's most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods. It's also a dining destination: You'll find upscale diners, taco hotspots, cocktail dens, and more here. Check out this list of where to eat in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.
Other points of interest for tourists in the area include the GALA Hispanic Theatre, which presents classical and contemporary plays in Spanish and English, and the Mexican Cultural Institute, which often has cultural programming for visitors about Mexico's vibrant cultural past and present.
More Things to Know
Meridian Hill Park is open during daylight hours and it is free to the public. Discover more at the National Park Service's website devoted to the park.