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Visiting the Washington National Cathedral
With its neo-Gothic architecture, medieval-style garden and eerie gargoyles, the city’s Cathedral is worth a stop whether you’re worshipping or just looking on in wonder.
Stained-glass windows, Gothic spires and flying buttresses make the Washington National Cathedral look ages old, but the grand church was actually constructed during the 20th century. Though overseen by the Episcopal Church, the house of worship welcomes people of all faiths to its impressive site on the highest point in DC.
History and architecture
Stonemasons and builders erected the Cathedral beginning in 1907, completing it 83 years later in 1990. Carved from Indiana limestone, the structures boasts a 30-story-tall central tower, an interior nine-bay nave and 231 stained-glass windows, including one embedded with a moon rock. Inside, you’ll find a crypt level where Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson are buried. On the nave level, you’ll discover an intricately carved wooden choir area and numerous serene chapels.
On the exterior, you can search out the 112 gargoyles (carved stone creatures) and grotesques (decorative rain spouts) with the help of a map (available at the entrance) or via guided tours conducted during summer months. Be on the look out for the grotesque of Darth Vader and the hippie gargoyle.
You’ll find 59 acres of grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. around the National Cathedral. Enclosed by stone walls, the medieval-style Bishop’s Garden includes herb plantings, roses and a 13th-century Norman arch. Stone paths wind through Olmstead Woods, one of the only old-growth forests in DC. There’s also a café serving coffee, desserts, brunch and lunch located on the grounds in the 1904 Old Baptistry building. Guided tours and a self-guided tour brochure can help you explore the green spaces.
Seeing the Cathedral
Admission is free. You can tour it on your own with a free guide that you’ll find at the entrance. Free 30-minute highlights tours are also available. Numerous ticketed specialty tours, including gargoyle hunts, bird walks and tower climbs, are available to be booked in advance. You can also sightsee with Big Bus Tours, and its hop-on, hop-off tickets let you exit the bus to explore inside the Cathedral once you're there.
Church services and musical performances are another way to experience the church. Sunday services are open to all, and Monday through Thursday at 5:30 p.m., evening concerts fill the nave with singing.
After the National Cathedral, make a day of it exploring the Upper Northwest neighborhood.