Gardener’s Guide to the National Mall


Here’s a blog post I wrote for two general-interest blogs, in which I review a fabulous new way to see the sights around the National Mall and illustrate with images of the gardens and landscape memorials along the way. It’s a garden tour with tips from a local gardenblogger’s perspective.

As digital content, a story like this – that any gardenblogger could easily put together – is valuable not just to visitors but to the gardens, the memorials, the bus system, and the entire business sector that benefits from tourism. At least here in D.C., that sector is largely unaware of the gardens, so maybe this will open some eyes. The response so far has been great. 

I’d love to know if other garden writers have created anything along these lines for visitors in their area. 


First published on Bad Wolf DC  6/23/15.

The Circulator Experience

DC has had Circulator buses for 10 years now but it wasn’t until last week, with the opening of its long-awaited National Mall route, that I finally rode one. I discovered my new favorite way to see the biggest collection of sights in all of D.C. Easy, relaxing, and super-cheap.

I arrived at the Mall from the subway, where I’d paid with a SmartTrip, so when I jumped on the Circulator it cost me an amazing nothing for a 2-hour window. Even if you don’t transfer, the fare’s just a buck for adults, 50 cents for seniors, and free for students.

All the info you need is here on their website. Speaking of which it’s terrific. Same goes for the one-page flyer available on the bus. I give them both a solid A, and I’m picky.


All 11 buses on this route are brand new and equipped with charging stations for phones and pads and whatnot. And the AC works great.

Driver Amat Ballard told me that this is a great gig for him, with friendly passengers and a route that avoids heavy traffic most of the way. So far, his passengers have been mostly tourists, plus a few locals getting to work.


Gardens and Garden-Style Memorials Along the National Mall Route

The National Mall route has 15 stops, and you can get on or off at any of them. The buses run at roughly 10-minute intervals and riding the whole route takes about an hour and 20 minutes.

The new route is especially useful for getting us to get to the sites farthest from the Metro, like the Jefferson, FDR and MLK, no matter our physical capabilities or level of endurance.

So let’s get right to the gorgeous plants and gardens you can see along the route. They’re listed by stop number and name.

And remember, you lucky Washingtonians, they’re all free to visit.

3. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden


This sculpture garden combines art, plants and a fountain for cooling off now and skating on in the winter. In the summer there are free Jazz in the Garden concerts on Friday nights. Very popular.


The Smithsonian’s Butterfly Habitat Garden runs along 9th Street between Constitution and the Mall. It’s a complex and stunning garden for all pollinators, not just butterflies, and succeeds in a very tough spot.

4. National Museum of American History/National Museum of Natural History


Here you can visit the Victory Garden at the Museum of American History, and beautiful tropical plantings along the Constitution Avenue side of the museums.

6. Holocaust Memorial Museum/Bureau of Engraving and Printing


Between these two attractions and the Tidal Basin is a “Tulip Museum” in the spring and beds of drought-tolerant perennials in the summer.

8. Martin Luther King Memorial/Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

National Park Service photo.

The MLK Memorial opened in 2011, so its trees and smaller plants are still filling out but already, its cherry blossom show is impressive.


Just next door is the FDR Memorial, a favorite of local gardeners. Designed by the world renown landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, it’s a series of water-filled garden rooms.

9. Lincoln Memorial/Korean War Veterans Memorial 

The Korean and nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial memorials are great examples of the new landscape-style memorials that are winning design competitions and converts to a new style.

11. World War II Memorial/Constitution Gardens

Coming in a few years – a totally new Constitution Gardens designed by landscape “starchitect” Peter Walker. It’ll include new attractions like dining and entertainment, and I can hardly wait.

13. Smithsonian Visitors Center


There are terrific Smithsonian Gardens at this stop, including the entrance gardens at the Castle and Freer, a rose garden near the Castle, and the serpentine Ripley Garden just east of the Castle – another big favorite among local gardeners.


Across the street from the Smithsonian Metro entrance is a vegetable garden, one of the USDA’s many People’s Gardens. Next door to it is the USDA’s Farmer’s Market, open Fridays May-October.

14. National Air and Space Museum/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardencirc12

Gardens on the Mall side of the Air and Space Museums are appreciated for their flowering cherry and magnolia trees in the spring and the stunning bark of their river birches in the winter.


The Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden includes this very cool “Lunar Bird” by Jean Miro in a bed of grasses.

15. United States Capitol/National Museum of the American Indian


The Native Landscape at the American Indian Museum is historically accurate and just fascinating.


Leave lots of time to see the U.S. Botanic Garden, at the foot of the Capitol. Its acres of outdoor and indoor gardens have made it the second-most visited botanic garden in the U.S.


Finally, the Disabled Veterans for Life Memorial just opened in November of 2014 and immediately drew raves. It’s beautiful and moving.


  1. Hi Jane – I just wound up a fabulous Study Weekend sponsored by the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, where Dan Hinkley was the keynote speaker. Over the moon about Dan, his mission, his life work, everything about him. Even had to buy one of the begonia cultivars he brought back from Myanmar. ANYWAY, in October we are returning to the East Coast for our second Fall Foliage tour – first was when our kids both left for colleg, leaving us empty nesters – in 1984. Washington DC is our first stop. Your outline of the Circulator Routes garden tour is just perfect, and what an amazing ‘find’ on this Garden Rant website, which I only visited because my sister said it was really, really good. No idea it would yield the perfect garden tour right off the top – and by public transit (my husband is an architect and designs transit stations among other things. He’s also working with Maya Lin on a project here.) SO Many connections. I’m a Garden Rambler … please forgive. But THANKS, Jane, for this outline of how to visit DC. We will follow it to the letter. Appreciatively yours, Kit Whittaker

  2. When we were visitng the Smithsonians in 2001, our 7yrold son was just not up to the walking about–and he just wanted to hang out with the dinosaur skeletons.

    If I ever get to DC again, I will go by myself if need be to see the gardens…and a few museums I didn’t get to then.

    If the US Botanic Garden second-most visited garden, what is the first, and maybe even a pointer to the top 10 most visited gardens in the US?

    • I’m told the most-visited BG last year was the Missouri, though their spike to first place was due to a Chihuly exhibition. Most years, US BG is first in visitors.

  3. Hi Susan! One of the most informative and useful posts you’ve ever done! Many thanks. I am sending it on to a friend due in DC with her grandson this month. Too bad I won’t be there as tour guide… oh well. The Circulator bus is a terrific recommendation.
    currently on Salt Spring Island, B.C.

  4. Susan, this is a great article and exactly the kind of thing we need to get out there. You’ve got a lot of us rooting for you (so to speak!) and we will plug DC Gardens as much as we can. The big question for the rest of us is, how do we get this information out there in a way that’s compelling rather than obnoxious?

  5. I am so glad you posted this. The tourism packet I received in the mail did not have this route listed as it is so new. I wouldn’t have known this route was available. This is a huge help as we are leaving for a family trip that includes a few days in DC and our plan is to leave the car back at the hotel in Arlington. With less walking from site to site I can have my way and we can stroll some of the gardens more leisurely. Looking forward to it.

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