As world capitals go, Washington, DC is among the most impressive. Sure, it’s relatively young, without the distinguished history of the grand dames of Europe. But what it lacks in age, it makes up for in stately monuments and memorials. Many of the most significant are grouped around the National Mall, a large public park and gathering place also known as the “nation’s backyard.” They serve as a visual reminder of America’s sacrifices and commitment to freedom and equality. But with over 150 memorials spread over the city, it can be challenging to see them all, so I’ve put together a guide to my top eight memorials in Washington.
One of the most recognizable is the Washington Monument, the white marble obelisk towering over the National Mall. Law mandates that no building in the city can be taller than the 555-foot Monument, ensuring it is always visible on the skyline. Construction on the Monument, which honors America’s first president and general of the army which defeated Great Britain in a bid for independence, began in 1848 and wasn’t finished until 1884. It was the tallest building in the world at the time!
Damaged in a 2011 earthquake, the Monument has only recently been reopened to the public. Tickets are required to visit the observation deck and museum at the top.
Perhaps even more famous than the Washington Monument is the Lincoln Memorial, dedicated to the 16th president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln led the nation through the unfortunate years of the Civil War, ultimately emancipating the slaves at the heart of the battle and reunifying the states. The walls of the Memorial are engraved with Lincoln’s two most remarkable speeches, his second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address.
One hundred years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington in the name of civil rights and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Situated along the far side of the Tidal Basin, the white-domed Jefferson Memorial is one of the city’s most iconic structures, and a photographer’s dream come cherry blossom season. The Memorial honors Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, which established the United States of America as a country separate from Great Britain.
The exterior of the monument is made from Vermont marble, while the interior marble walls were sourced from Georgia, symbolizing the northern and southern borders of the original thirteen states. The materials for the statue of Jefferson came from Missouri and Minnesota, states added to the Union after Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase. The Memorial’s design was based on the Rotunda of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson established.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a metaphorical mountain of granite from which Dr. King rises. Sixteen more quotes are carved in the wall behind the sculpture of Dr. King, ensuring that his powerful words will continue to inspire the generations to come. Opened in 2011, it is the newest memorial on the National Mall. It is located along the Tidal Basin, not far from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Dedicated to the military men and women who served America in the Vietnam War, the Memorial Wall is powerful in its simplicity. The names of the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives are carved in the black granite wall, and it’s not uncommon to see loved ones making etchings of the names with paper and pencil. Two brave members of my family fought in the war and I’m fortunate and thankful their names aren’t listed.
The Wall was designed by Maya Ying Lin, who won the competition for the design when she was a student at Yale University and just 21 years old. A complementary statue of three young soldiers was added later to appease critics of the Wall’s plain and unconventional design.
When I visited Vietnam a few years ago, I had the opportunity to go inside the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. Click here to read about the unnerving experience.
Korean War Veterans Memorial
“Freedom is not free.” Nearly six million Americans served in the military during the Korean War. Although the fighting lasted just three years, over 54,000 soldiers gave their lives in the defense of South Korea. That’s nearly as many as those killed during the Vietnam War, which dragged on for 16 years.
The Korean War Memorial consists of 19 stainless steel statues and a black granite wall faintly etched with a mural. The statues, which stand in green shrubbery meant to evoke the rice paddies of Korea, represent four branches of the U.S. armed services: Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force. The mural wall utilizes actual photos of the Korean War from the National Archives and a has an eerie, ghost-like quality.
To read about my experience visiting the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, click here.
World War II Memorial
“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.” – President Harry S. Truman.
These words are written on one of the walls surrounding the lovely World War II Memorial. It has pride of place between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, two of our nation’s most important and revered presidents. The World War II Memorial consists of 56 granite columns, representing each of the U.S. states and territories. These surround a large fountain, with two pavilions at either end symbolizing U.S. victory on the Atlantic and Pacific fronts.
16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II and more than 400,000 gave their lives. This sacrifice is honored by the wall of 4,000 gold stars at the center of the Memorial.
US Marine Corps War Memorial
This striking sculpture, located just outside the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, is dedicated to all the Marines who have given their lives in defense of their country since 1775, when the Corps was founded. The sculpture is based on an iconic photograph from World War II, which depicts six soldiers raising the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. The names and dates of the major battles involving U.S. Marines are carved along the base and the U.S. flag flies continuously, year-round.
Have you been to Washington, DC? Which memorial is your favorite?