The Nation's Capital: The Big Picture

When Jefferson insisted that D.C. be "America's Paris," we wonder if he envisioned all this

Thank you, Thomas Jefferson, for insisting that the capital be “America’s Paris,” i.e., blessed with green expanses and wide avenues. And thank you, early citizens, for mandating height limits that keep the city core and its character free of skyscrapers and (architect term) “shadow poison.” Of course, this nice restriction does make it hard to find an aerial view. The city’s tallest structure—the Washington Monument—rises 555 feet. Unfortunately the ongoing repairs there after the 2011 earthquake have for now barred access to its full-compass views. But the tallest so-called habitable buildings? The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at 329 feet, the Old Post Office at 315 feet and the Washington National Cathedral at 301. The bottom line: “getting high” takes a little planning, so here are a few of the region’s rare places to ascend throughout the day.

Morning Start the day with a grand 360-degree sweep of downtown D.C. landmarks from atop the clock tower of the Old Post Office Pavilion, at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The transplanted Bells of Congress ring every Thursday night, and National Park Service Rangers give free daily tours (Mon.-Sat. 9 am-7:45 pm, Sun. noon-5:45 pm, 202.606.8691). Donald and Ivanka Trump, spending $200 million to turn the 1899 structure into a 271-room luxe hotel, promise not to disturb the access or the aesthetics of this legendary lookout. Federal regulations forbid the Trumps to lease spaces at the site to certain businesses—flea markets, escort services, cabarets or revues, adult bookstores and (who knew? but it makes sense) dentists.

Mid-day Alexandria, Virginia, has a surprising vantage point—the tower of the George Washington Masonic Memorial. Here visitors have a 360-degree perspective on Old Town and beyond. Daily guided tours ($8, at 10 and 11:30 am, 1:30 and 3 pm) take visitors up elevators to peer through windows and from an observation deck. The view: King Street running to the river, tree-lined neighborhoods, highway systems and a capital skyline. 101 Callahan Dr., Alexandria, Va.

In nearby Arlington’s Crystal City, Ruth’s Chris Steak House offers tables with 11th floor views of Potomac River shorelines and a sweep that features the U.S. Capitol. But closer by, gleaming like a sci-fi movie set, are the arching roof and control tower of Cesar Pelli’s Reagan National Airport. 21231 Crystal Dr., Arlington, Va.

Afternoon In Chantilly, Virginia, from the Engen Observation Tower at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, visitors see the misty Blue Ridge Mountains plus the futuristic Eero Saarinen-designed terminal of Dulles International Airport. What draws more than a million people here each year? The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s history-making collection. The 10-story Boeing Aviation Hangar holds military planes, experimental and stunt flyers. The McDonnell Space Hangar holds Gemini and Mercury capsules and, as of 2012, the orbiter Discovery. Charred, battered and piggy-backing a 747, the Discovery looped over the capital then landed here, its passage sending thousands from their offices to watch and cheer. 14390 Air & Space Museum Pkwy., Chantilly, Va.

After dark P.O.V., of course, means Point of View, the cool name for a lookout famous for its angles on the White House (are those real security guys on the roof?), the National Mall and even Virginia. Locals once came here (warm weather only) for the views and the daiquiris. Now that it’s P.O.V., the reserve-ahead, name-on-the-list lounge of a W Hotel, the quarters have gone stylish and function year-round. The lofty main room affords an angle on ceremonial Pennsylvania Avenue. From lunch until 9 p.m., find a menu bearing the serious cred of Jean-Georges Vongerichten whose luxe J&G Steakhouse operates stories below. But after dark this becomes a social scene with bottle service, wines, champagnes, craft cocktails and sightings of athletes and other celebs. 515 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C.

Other Views and Vistas

Although under repair for damage caused by the 2011 earthquake, the National Cathedral, a magnificent neo-Gothic church on Saint Alban Hill, still welcomes visitors. Its tower spires suffered, but access remains to the grand sanctuary and chapels as well as the seventh-floor Pilgrim Observatory, currently showing photographs of the restoration by Colin Winterbottom. On special days guides lead “Tower Climbs,” a 45-minute ascent up 333 steps to the great bell-ringing chamber of the central tower. The rewards: a rare view of the city and a demonstration of the peal bells. Daily tours include self-guided, audio or docent-led highlights (stained glass and gargoyles), but schedules also feature tours with tea and meditation walks with spiritual reflection. Although Episcopal by denomination, the church welcomes all faiths. 3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.

Lower-scale institutions afford fine vantage points too. From the Hirshhorn Museum, a second floor gallery allows contemporary art lovers a wall of glass that overlooks its own sunken sculpture garden as well as structures lining the National Mall. From the Newseum’s southern deck, the sweep includes Pennsylvania Avenue east to the Federal Triangle and west to the U.S. Capitol and buildings of Congress. Hirshhorn, 7th St. NW and Independence Ave., Washington, D.C. Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.

But how does one experience the ultimate, broadest panoramas of Virginia and the federal district? From the window of a plane, of course, taking off or descending at our close-in, riverside airfield Reagan National Airport. The view spans from Alexandria’s Masonic tower, the “Iwo Jima” Marine Corps memorial and the gravestones of Arlington Cemetery across the Potomac River to the memorials and monuments, the spires of Georgetown University and the distant towers of the National Cathedral—a landscape that encompasses the capital’s history and its vital present.