The National Mall: What to Know Before You Go

Located just south of downtown and the White House in Washington, D.C., the National Mall is one of the United State's most prestigious and well-known National Parks. Over 24 million visitors from around the world come to this 146-acre park in the middle of the nation's capital.

The National Mall is home to numerous monuments, memorials, sculptures, statues, and attractions honoring the legacy and history of the United States including the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument, the Constitution Gardens, Ford's Theatre, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

 However, before you head off to the National Mall, there are a few things every visitor should know about this famous tourist attraction including its main attractions, where you should park, what places are great for kids, and the history of this National Park.

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Main Attractions and Destinations

 Taylor McIntyre / TripSavvy

The National Mall is a national park with landscaped gardens and expansive open spaces that are often used for public events, speeches, rallies, protests, and all sorts of activities throughout the year.

Of the numerous permanent attractions on site, the ten museums of the Smithsonian Institution that call the Mall home are among the most popular, offering a wide variety of exhibits ranging from art to space exploration. Other major attractions include the national monuments and memorials, the U.S. Capitol Building, the National Gallery of Art, and the U.S. Botanic Garden.

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Driving, Public Transportation, and Parking

DC metro

Due to its central location and the importance of nearby buildings in national politics, the area around the National Mall is one of the busiest parts of Washington, D.C. As a result, one of the best ways to get around this part of town is to use public transportation.

Metro Stations near the Mall include Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Metro Center, Gallery Place-Chinatown, Capitol South, L'Enfant Plaza, Federal Center SW, Archives-Navy Memorial, and Arlington National Cemetery.

If you do plan on driving, it's best to check a map of the National Mall before you go to find parking garages nearby as parking is very limited in this part of the city. For suggestions of places to park, you can use our guide to parking near the National Mall.

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Best Activities and Attractions for Kids

National Air and Space Museum

Victoria Chamberlain / TripSavvy 

While wandering through stone memorials on a hot summer day might not be the most ideal vacation activity for a child, there are plenty of things to do on the National Mall that are kid-oriented, the most popular of which are the National Museum of Natural History, the National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of American History.

Other activities in the park include paddle boating on the Tidal Basin—which is a great way to relax while sightseeing in the nation's capital— and rides on the carousel near the Arts and Industries Building, which is especially great for younger kids. There is also plenty of stuff to with your teenager in D.C., but you may have to leave the National Mall for some of the fun.

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Walking the Mall: Distance and Transport Options

Washington DC traffic police
krblokhin/Getty Images

The distance between the Capitol at one end of the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial at the other is two miles, which is quite a long walk for most people. However, if you pace yourself and take time to stop and see things along the way, you should be able to walk around the entire park in under a day.

The best way to see all of the national memorials, though, is by taking a sightseeing tour, which generally provides transportation between memorials that are further away from one another. Additionally, all of the Smithsonian museums and memorials are equipped to accommodate visitors with disabilities, and there may be a few handicap parking spaces in some areas of the Mall. The best way for the elderly to get around may be to rent a mobility scooter.

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Most and Least Crowded Times to Visit

Rally on the Mall
Rachel Cooper

While tourists come to the National Mall year-round, there are certainly high and low periods in the tourist season when more or fewer crowds gather to see the monuments and museums. However, unlike many other destination cities, D.C. is crowded year-round as it's both a popular summer destination for families and a popular destination for school trips.

Understandably, the Mall is the most crowded during holidays and special events and less crowded earlier in the day and on weekdays in general. Annual events that take place on the National Mall that draw the biggest one-time crowds include celebrations for 4th of July, Memorial Day weekend, and the National Cherry Blossom Festival.

The best time to visit D.C. is late fall and early winter, between the months of October and December, when schools are in session and summer vacation is over but the cold weather hasn't really settled into the northeast yet. Since school trips typically take place during the spring and winter and summer vacations bring huge crowds, a weekday in the fall is really your best chance of avoiding crowds.

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Dining Options: Nearby Restaurants or Picnic Lunches

National Air & Space Museum
Don DeBold/Flickr 

Although the museum cafes are expensive and often crowded, they are also the most convenient for dining within the National Mall itself as there are no restaurants on the Mall. However, there are plenty of restaurants in neighborhoods within walking distance, including popular eateries found in downtown or Capitol Hill.

For inside the Mall, Cascade Cafe inside the National Gallery of Art's East Building has the biggest selection, offering everything from soups and salads to wood-fired pizzas and fresh-baked desserts. Outside the mall, you can head to Union Station for a quick and inexpensive meal at one of the venue's several full-service restaurants including Uno Chicago Grill, East Street Cafe, and B. Smith.

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Potty Break: Bathrooms In and Near the Mall

National Mall restrooms
Joel Carillet/Getty Images

Since the National Mall is a National Park, the National Parks Service provides and maintains restroom facilities within the Mall at West Potomac Park. These public bathrooms are typically cleaned regularly and kept in great working condition. However, during special events, the Parks Department also brings in hundreds of porta potties that are set up to accommodate the crowds.

Additionally, all of the museums and most of the memorials on the Mall have public restrooms, and you can typically use the bathroom at nearby restaurants if you order something from them. 

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Where to Stay: Hotels and Accommodations Nearby

JW Marriott DC
Marriott International

A variety of hotels are located near the National Mall, providing guest services to meet the needs of visitors from around the world with accommodations ranging from family-friendly suites to luxury hotel rooms.

While you can always stay at hotel chains like Holiday Inn Capitol, the Marriott at Metro Center, or the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown, there are plenty of unique accommodations in the area that offer an experience unlike any other. The Hotel George next to the U.S. Capitol Building, for instance, is an ultra-modern hotel with direct and easy access to most of the city.

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Photography and Examples of What to Expect

Jefferson Memorial

Victoria Chamberlain / TripSavvy

The National Mall is one of the most photogenic areas of the city, and photography is allowed everywhere in the National Mall unless specifically noted. As a result, thousands of amateur and professional photographers have snapped some dynamic pictures of this two-mile stretch of monuments, memorials, and historic buildings.

If you plan to conduct a professional photo shoot on the Mall, though, you will need permission (a permit) from the city's parks department. While the use of a tripod for photography is not specifically prohibited, it may be hard to set up and dangerous to leave your tripod alone if you hope to take timed photos, especially during busy tourist days.

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History of the National Mall

The National Mall as proposed by Pierre L'Enfant, 1790
Library of Congress

The establishment of the Mall dates back to the early design of the City of Washington as a “federal city" but has been included in almost every early development plan for Washington, D.C. since L'Enfant City Plan was introduced in 1791. However, while the green stretch of land has always been part of the city, it wasn't referred to as the Mall until 1802.

During the 1850s, architect Andrew Jackson Downing developed the Downing Plan to change the landscape of the National Mall, and over the next 50 years, the federal government developed multiple parks within the Mall as part of his plan.

Since then, the National Mall has undergone several major renovations and restructurings, ultimately resulting in the current two-mile stretch of land visitors flock to in droves today.