Washington, D.C.’s main attractions are mostly crowded into a relatively small area around the National Mall, easily walkable over the course of a day (though if you keep getting distracted by museums, it will take a lot longer than that). At the east end of the Mall is the creamy white bulk of the Capitol, with the Library of Congress behind it, and at the west end lies the Washington Monument, with the White House a short distance to the north. Scattered in between are the many Smithsonian institutes, most of which rank among the best museums in the world, at least in terms of their specific collections.
The Smithsonian’s many free offerings are the most likely causes of delays, though tours through the Capitol, wherein the Senate and House have been bickering for a few centuries, are another appealing option. If you can resist though, there’s a second section of D.C.’s appeal to the west of the Washington Monument: the memorial tour. First up is the grandiose World War II monument, covering the nations and theatres of war in one circular confection of marble and waterworks. Beyond lies a long reflecting pool (dug up and under reconstruction as of October 2011) that leads to the temple-like environs wherein the famous statue of Lincoln sits enthroned.
On either side of the Lincoln Memorial are two sombre reminders of less popular wars: Korea and Vietnam. Stroll a short way south from the Korean monument and you find yourself at the margins of the Tidal Basin, where three more memorials await you. First up is the brand new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, where the famous civil rights activist is embodied in stone, gazing out over the waters and surrounded by some of his more famous sayings.
A short walk anti clockwise around the edge of the basin brings you to the most singular of the monuments, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Instead of a single oversized statue surrounded by classic white stone, FDR is depicted life-size surrounded by red granite, in a setting that invites the visitor to wander through areas that depict his four terms in office. Peaceful rather than grandiose, it’s perhaps the most appealing of the memorials in the heart of Washington.
A lack of pomp can’t be ascribed to the last of the monuments, on the southern edge of the basin. Dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most complex president of the U.S., it’s even more temple-like than Lincoln’s monument, a circular array of columns surrounding an oversized statue of the man himself, as seen above, under a domed roof, surrounded by some of his best-remembered words. While undoubtedly fitting to his stature as one of the U.S.’s founding fathers, it feels a little too straightforward to match the character described in the title of a book on sale in the shop downstairs as the “American Sphinx.”
If it’s fitting you’re looking for, the place to go is the river to the west, where Theodore Roosevelt Island hides a difficult-to-reach memorial to a president whose love of nature is probably unmatched among his fellow office holders. Surrounded by trees on an island inhabited by deer and squirrels (to be fair, part of his love of nature involved shooting certain elements of it), it’s a far cry from the manicured lawns of the Washington Monument and all the better for it.