Five Favorites: Vantage Points

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courtesy of ‘alifayre’

Washington is a beautiful city, with its grand avenues and grid street system. But it’s hard to really absorb the beauty of the city from street level. Flying into Reagan National Airport offers great views of the city, and even the view from space is spectacular.  But there are plenty of other places around town that offer great views of the city too, so here are my picks for my five favorite views of the District.

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‘Washington Monument from POV, W Hotel Washington’
courtesy of ‘Jenn Larsen’

5. POV Roof Terrace. Ever since the W Hotel reopened last year, the buzz has been all about the POV roof terrace.  Sure, the drinks may be a bit overpriced, and you’ll have to wait in line unless you have a reservation, but the view is worth it (Katie couldn’t have described it better: “I looked fondly on Arlington, the Potomac, and a kickball game on the mall while a motorcade formed leaving the White House, holding up traffic on Pennsylvania Ave. All of it so DC, all of it my city, laid out in front of me. Cheers to that.”)  From the terrace, you get a great view of the Washington Monument and White House, and you can see all the snipers hanging out on the White House roof.

Fun fact: While you’re taking in the view from the terrace, enjoy the fact that you can see the buildings on the $5, $10, and $20 bills all in one view.

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courtesy of ‘Mo Kaiwen è�«æ¥·æ��’

4. The National Cathedral. Climb the 333 stairs to the top of the National Cathedral’s bell tower for a truly stunning view.  The next organized tower climbs, which include demonstrations of the bells and descriptions of the cathedral’s architecture, are scheduled for May 7 and 8 and tickets cost $10.  But beware if you’re afraid of heights or not good with lots of stairs, as the climb includes open spiral staircases that look kinda scary.

Fun fact: Because it sits on a hill, the top of the tower is the highest point in DC— even higher than the 555-foot Washington Monument!  That’s because the tower is 300 feet tall, and sits on ground that is 400 feet above sea level.

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Sunrise Over DC from Iwo Jima, Courtesy of WeLoveDC Author Dave Levy

3. Iwo Jima Memorial/Netherlands Carillon. Sure, it’s technically outside the city, but I’ve got to include the view from Iwo Jima, because it lets you see the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Capitol building all lined up.  It’s a great place to watch fireworks while avoiding the Mall, and it gives you a chance to soak in the true monumental nature of the city.  Plus, you can climb the tower at the Netherlands Carillon to get an even better view of the District.

Fun fact: If you haven’t made it to the Netherlands Carillon, there’s a National Park Service webcam that shows you the view that you’re missing.

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‘Looking West On Pennsylvania Ave From The Old Post Office Pavilion Clock Tower’
courtesy of ‘Daniel.Techie{TaiShan~4Ever} @’

2. Old Post Office Tower. There’s no other view in the city that epitomizes the power of the grand avenues that Pierre L’Enfant planned than the one from the top of the tower at the Old Post Office building.  The Capitol stands to the east, the White House stands to the West, and you’ve got a beautiful view down Pennsylvania Avenue connecting the two from the 270-foot-tall observation deck.  National Park Service rangers give free tours of the clock tower every day.

Fun fact: It wouldn’t be approved to be built today.  The Old Post Office Pavilion was built between 1892 and 1899, just squeaking in before the 1899 Height of Buildings Act, which decreed that no building could be taller than the 289-foot Capitol dome.  The top of the tower reaches 315 feet, making it the third-tallest structure in the city (after the Washington Monument and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception).

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‘View from the Top’
courtesy of ‘JulieLG’

1.  The Washington Monument. No big surprise here– the most impressive view of the city is from right in the center of it at the Washington Monument.  Take the elevator to the top of the tallest structure in the city and just soak it all in.  You’ve got the Mall and Capitol on one side, the reflecting pool and Lincoln Memorial on the other side, and great views of the rest of the city in between.  Admission is free, but you need to reserve a ticket ahead of time.

Fun fact: On a clear day, you can see more than 30 miles out from the top of the monument.  So not only can you get a great view of the city, you can see out into the suburbs too.

Those are my picks for best views of the city.  Are there any great ones that I left out? Leave me a note in the comments if there’s an even cooler view of the city that I missed.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at)!

10 thoughts on “Five Favorites: Vantage Points

  1. Another fantastic vantage point is the Capitol Dome – an exclusive Capitol Dome tour can only be guided by a Member of Congress or their Chief of Staff!

  2. What about the view coming down 13th on Clifton in Columbia Heights? I love that look- it seems like the whole city is laid out in front of me.

  3. The view from the Frederick Douglass home is excellent, and then even better further up by the church on Morris Road.

    During the Civil War, the views from the forts were remarkable, as reported from oral histories.

  4. If you can get onto the roof or top floor of any of the apartments near the Cathedral on Wisconsin, you get about the same view with a nice look at the Cathedral included. Alban Towers at Mass & Wisconsin was a fantastic place to sit on the roof.

  5. I 2nd the view from the top of 13th street.

    Also the view from the Hirshorn onto the mall is really nice, and they have great seating.

  6. Heath: L’Enfant didn’t pick it, Robert E. Lee’s inlaws who were descendants of Martha Custis Washington, did. Then, the government seized it from the Lees because they didn’t pay their taxes during the Civil War.

    I always found it appropriate that the Union turned traitor Lee’s beloved estate into a cemetery for Union soldiers. Sadly, Lee’s son got it back via the courts, but sold it to the government.

  7. The Skydome Lounge at the Crystal City Doubletree has shockingly good views. From the outside it doesn’t look possible, but you get a great view of the mall.