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The National Cathedral: Washington DC

Updated on May 10, 2013

About the National Cathedral

The National Cathedral is one of the most beautiful places in Washington, DC and a must-see destination on any trip to the nation's capital. The cathedral hosts state funerals and national memorial services, but it's also an active church, welcoming worshipers of all faiths. The official name of the National Cathedral is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, and it's religious denomination is Episcopal, not Catholic.

Built in the English Gothic style, the National Cathedral took 83 years to complete, which is actually fast by world standards. (Heck, they've been working on the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona since 1882!) Construction began under Teddy Roosevelt in 1907and was completed when President George H. W. Bush was in office in 1990.

Why Is the National Cathedral Famous?

The National Cathedral has held State Funerals for Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Funerals and memorial services for other notable figures are held there also.

The Presidential Inaugural prayer services, in recent times, have been held at the National Cathedral.

President Woodrow Wilson is interred at the National Cathedral. You can see his tomb when you visit.

Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral before his assassination.

The National Cathedral is a gathering place for the nation for mourning and remembrance, and to mark important events. You may have seen the President, Vice President, or other heads attend services there after tragedies like the London bombings, the Virginia Tech shootings, and the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster. President George W. Bush addressed the nation from the National Cathedral after 9/11 on the National Day of Prayer, and it was at that same service that opera singer Denyce Graves gave her soul-stirring performance of "America, The Beautiful."

National Cathedral at Sunset

The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC is a must-see attraction in the nation's capital.
The Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC is a must-see attraction in the nation's capital.

Inside the Church

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Stained Glass Dragon inside the National CathedralNave of the Washington National CathedralTomb Effigy...with man's best friend.Staircase to church tower at the National CathedralOn the cathedral tour, you get to ring the church bells in the ringing room.Holy Hot Chocolate in the National Cathedral Store.
Stained Glass Dragon inside the National Cathedral
Stained Glass Dragon inside the National Cathedral
Nave of the Washington National Cathedral
Nave of the Washington National Cathedral
Tomb Effigy...with man's best friend.
Tomb Effigy...with man's best friend.
Staircase to church tower at the National Cathedral
Staircase to church tower at the National Cathedral
On the cathedral tour, you get to ring the church bells in the ringing room.
On the cathedral tour, you get to ring the church bells in the ringing room.
Holy Hot Chocolate in the National Cathedral Store.
Holy Hot Chocolate in the National Cathedral Store.

National Cathedral Facts

Among the grotesques and gargoyles at the National Cathedral is a grotesque of Star Wars' villain Darth Vader on the cathedral's northwest tower. The design was chosen as part of a children's sculpture contest in the 1980’s.

The Space Window, a stained glass window commemorating the Apollo 11 mission, has a piece of moon rock in it brought back by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

The top of the Gloria in Exelsis (central) tower is the highest point in Washington, D.C., at 676 feet above sea level. The National Cathedral is visible from many points in the city. I personally like to look for it from the airplane window when flying into and out of Reagan National Airport.

The National Cathedral has 112 gargoyles and grotesques, and over 200 stained glass windows. The National Cathedral organ has over 10,000 pipes. The cathedral is over 500 feet long and the nave ceiling is 10 stories high.

Washington National Cathedral Quiz

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DC Gardens at the National Cathedral

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The Bishop's Garden at the National CathedralNorman Court fountain at The Bishop's GardenNorman Court fountain at The Bishop's GardenBishop's Lawn and the Shadow House (gazebo)Locals and visitors enjoy a sunny day on Bishop's Lawn at the National Cathedral
The Bishop's Garden at the National Cathedral
The Bishop's Garden at the National Cathedral
Norman Court fountain at The Bishop's Garden
Norman Court fountain at The Bishop's Garden
Norman Court fountain at The Bishop's Garden
Norman Court fountain at The Bishop's Garden
Bishop's Lawn and the Shadow House (gazebo)
Bishop's Lawn and the Shadow House (gazebo)
Locals and visitors enjoy a sunny day on Bishop's Lawn at the National Cathedral
Locals and visitors enjoy a sunny day on Bishop's Lawn at the National Cathedral

More Secrets Await on The National Cathedral Grounds

The National Cathedral has some of the most beautiful gardens in DC, so take the time to amble through the cathedral grounds. There's lots to see:

The Herb Cottage and gift shop sells cathedral-related goods, handmade goods, and garden accessories.

Bishop's Lawn and The Bishop's Garden: Bishop's lawn and garden are an oasis in the city. It's a walled garden with nooks and crannies to explore. Find hidden fountains, carvings, statuettes, a rose garden, herb gardens, and a couple of cedar trees from Palestine. When the weather's nice, you will find Washingtonians there reading, having a small picnic, or just laying out in the sun enjoying the scenery. The medieval style garden was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect of the cathedral grounds (and designer of New York's Central Park).

Other Gardens on the National Cathedral grounds include The Walker Fern Garden and Garth garden are located on the North side of the cathedral, The Phyllis Nitze shrub garden and the Kenney garden, located south of the cathedral, and the West Front Oak Grove (on the west front).

There's an elementary school and two prep schools on the National Cathedral grounds: The National Cathedral School (for girls) and St. Albans School (for boys), with its well-connected, famous political alumni.

The Amphitheater was recently restored for Cathedral and community use. St. Albans also uses the Amphitheater for school events.

Olmsted Woods is a 5-acre beech and oak forest on the cathedral grounds, named for Frederick Law Olmsted,designer of New York's Central Park and first landscape architect of the cathedral grounds. It features a footpath for nature walks.

Opening Hymn at the Washington National Cathedral

National Cathedral Highlights

Don't miss these amazing things to see at the National Cathedral.

  • George Washington Bay and statue
  • Space Window (above the Warren Bay stained glass window)
  • Woodrow Wilson Bay and tomb of President Woodrow Wilson
  • The Humanitarian Bay with a statuette of Eleanor Roosevelt and stained glass window of George Washington Carver
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. statuette in the Kellogg Bay
  • Robert E. Lee stained glass window
  • "Creation," the West Rose Window, with over 10,500 pieces of hand-blown stained glass. Designed by Rowan LeCompte, it depicts the creation of man and is considered one of the finest 20th century rose windows in the world.
  • The Canterbury Pulpit, made with stones from England's Canterbury Cathedral, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon. (In the cathedral crossing, on the right if you're facing the high altar)
  • The High Altar, built with stones from Solomon's quarry outside Jerusalem
  • The Last Judgment Rose Window (stained glass) (north transcept)
  • The 23rd Psalm stained-glass windows in Dulin Bay
  • Abraham Lincoln Bay, with a bronze statue of Lincoln and real pennies in the floor
  • Darth Vader grotesque on the northwest tower
  • The Childrens Chapel with kid-sized chairs, organ and altar
  • Don't forget to stop in the Cathedral Store after your visit for gifts and religious items, books, beverages and snacks. (lower level)

Plan Your National Cathedral Visit

If you're looking for free stuff to do in DC, the Washington National Cathedral is completely free. Don't miss it!

Have you ever visited Washington National Cathedral during a trip to DC?

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