If you’re looking for the best spots to watch and photograph the sun setting in Washington DC, you’ve come to the right place.
The National Mall can get crowded, overwhelming and confusing. I’m here to help you navigate the park so you can get your best shots quickly and efficiently.
I’ve lived in the area my whole life and been photographing the National Mall for over 8 years. I’ve pretty much been to every one of these places at least 20 times. So here’s my complete list of the best to watch the sunset in Washington DC:
But First, Here’s What You Need to Get Ready for Your Sunset Shoot
Because of the number of people that visit the National Mall every day, sunset is a little more difficult to navigate than sunrise. There are far more people, we’re talking busloads of people, so be prepared. That means if this is your first time in Washington DC, I’d highly suggest public transportation either by metro, Lyft or even an electric scooter! All are very convenient ways to get you around the Nation’s Capital.
Also with the number of people, I’d even say try to get to your sunset location earlier than you think you should. Who knows what kind of hang-ups you could possibly run into. If it were a cold winter day, I say you could get by with going 30 minutes early. On a beautiful summer day, I’d go as far as saying an hour before sunset would not be a bad idea.
And my number one most asked question, are tripods allowed? For the most part, yes, but you may run into some complications. If you’re in a densely crowded area like World War II Memorial or Lincoln Memorial, you will probably be asked to take it down immediately by Park Police. They can be a walking hazard and just get in the way of people. But if you’re in a more spread out area like the Washington Monument grounds or even the Tidal Basin, there is a little more elbow room so you could get away with it.
The United States Capitol is unique because it’s technically not a part of the National Mall. The last time I spoke to Capitol police they said tripods are allowed. Since then, other photographer friends have told me that the Capitol police asked them to take down their tripods. So I’m still pretty if-y if they are actually allowed. I tend to just bring my tripod to the Capitol and if I’m asked to put it away, I do so politely.
Now on to The Top 5 Sunset Locations in Washington DC:
The Washington Monument is Always a Good Idea
The Washington Monument is so iconically Washington DC and the tallest structure in the city. So because of that, there is no best time to photograph it. It can be seen from so many different vantage points around the city that the possibilities are endless. However, if you catch it at the right time, it can glow orange. It’s absolutely amazing if you see it.
In order to capture the glow, I’d recommend getting to your sunset location early and face east towards the Monument. I would suggest standing either in front of the World War II memorial or along the grassy area in front of the west side of the monument and maybe 30-40 minutes ahead of sunset will work. I think the closer you are to the monument the better the imagery. But the key is to be patient. The way that the sun reflects off of clouds and on to the monument to glow doesn’t happen every day but if you see it, it will make your travel images very unique.
Other cool places to see the Washington Monument: POV Bar at the W Hotel, Rooftop Bar at the POD hotel in Chinatown (I have a thing for rooftop bars), Netherlands Carillion in Arlington VA, or along the Tidal Basin.
The Other Side of the Reflecting Pool
Since you’re already by the Washington Monument, my second favorite spot is by the Reflecting Pool. The Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is amazing at sunrise but if you go on the opposite side, you’ll find that even at sunset it’s a gorgeous view. The best part is that it doesn’t even get that crowded on this side of the pool. (So let’s keep this spot between us).
To get there you’ll want to step outside of the World War II memorial and go behind it. There you’ll find a sidewalk that will lead you right along the pool’s edge. Looking towards the World War II Memorial, you’ll see a nice view of the Washington Monument, but if you turn around, facing west, you’ll probably have of the best views for the sunset sky. On a very still evening, you can catch a reflection of the Lincoln Memorial. If you’re visiting in the spring and summer, expect to see baby ducklings here. It’s so cute!
The image below was taken around sunset but a storm was developing. I loved the way that it made the sky glow but the best is seeing the reflections in the ripply water.
The United States Capitol is Magical at Sunset
If you want to capture the US Capitol at sunset, your best bet is to be standing on the east side of the building, facing west. Makes sense right? It’s very cool to see every side of the US Capitol but you’ll get the best skies at sunset from the east.
One of my favorite parts about shooting from this side of the building are these seating wells that are located on the grounds. There are signs that you’re not allowed to stand on them, but sitting is just fine. The center is actually a skylight that allows light to shine through the visitor center of the US Capitol. When those below are using it as a window, you can use it to get some cool reflections of the architecture.
Don’t be alarmed if you see a lot of Capitol Police walking around with big weapons and combat boots. They’re usually pretty friendly and willing to help out if you have any questions.
This will also place you along East Capitol Street which is in between the Library of Congress and Supreme Court. These are two interesting places to visit on your trip to the Nation’s capital however if I had to pick just one, don’t miss the Library of Congress. You’ll be awestruck by the interior. It’s one place that I tell everyone who’s visiting to check out and great for a mid-day photo adventure.
However if you find yourself on the west side of the building during sunset, don’t worry. The US Capitol is so beautiful that there are even great vantage points from almost anywhere you are. Just in case this happens, I would head over to the US Capitol Reflecting Pool. It’s not as big or popular as the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, but you will still get some beautiful images. And it’s another great view of the Washington Monument 🙂
Step outside of Washington to The View of DC
Sometimes the best views are when you get out of the city when you can see it as a whole. One of the newest and most exciting places to view the sunset of the is actually in Rosslyn, Virginia at the View of DC. Located right across the bridge, it’s an easy drive or a metro ride to get to one of the only places to see an elevated view of the city. But I love the fact that the National Mall isn’t your entire view. You’ll see 360 degrees around you, so be on the lookout for the National Cathedral, Iwo Jima Marine Corps Memorial and even some of the bustling views of Arlington, Virginia. If you are afraid of heights, just don’t look down while you’re going up the elevator. The view is standing at 400 ft in the air.
Warning: All of my previous recommendations have been free. This is the only place (besides my last suggestion) that will cost you money to get in. The upside to it is that there’s a bar with drinks that you can sip on while you’re enjoying the views. The downside is that tripods are not allowed. It may also be a good idea to call ahead to make sure there are no events in the evening you plan on visiting. Sometimes they’ll close the view to the public without any warning on social media or their website. Better safe than sorry, I know from experience.
Not only will you see cool 360-degree views of the city, but the architecture itself is so amazing. I love photographing other people enjoying this space.
As Your Airplane is Taking off or Landing at Reagan National Airport
If you’re are flying into Washington DC to visit, I’d highly recommend flying into Reagan National Airport (DCA). It technically located in Arlington, Virginia but it’s right behind the Jefferson Memorial and the closest airport to the city. The interior itself is stunning (on your way from ticketing to secutiy) but it’s what you can see from your airplane seat that is the reason why this made the list.
If you’ve booked your tickets right, you’ll get this up close and personal view of the National Mall. It’s so exciting and such a unique perspective. However, it’s not always guaranteed that you’ll see the Monuments as you travel to and from the airport. The probability of you actually seeing the monuments is based on the direction of take-off/landing and the visibility of the skies.
Pro tip: In order to improve your chances of seeing the memorials, book your tickets for the right-hand side of the airplane for taking off at DCA. It’s just the opposite for landing, sit on the left-hand side. If you’re unable to get these seats and have to sit on the opposite side of the airplane than I suggested, you’ll at least get to see the Pentagon and the Air Force Memorial. But always remember the golden rule of flying, window seats only 🙂
So I hope you enjoyed my suggestions for photographing the sunset in Washington DC. It’s a beautiful city with so many photo opportunities. I wanted to mix it up with a few suggestions inside the National Mall and a few outside. This just scratches the surface. So please let me know if you have any other questions about photographing the Washington DC area and leave them in the comments. I’ll try my best to answer your questions.
If you’re more of a morning person, be sure to check out these 7 Magical Sunrise Spots to Photograph in Washington DC.
Last but not least, if you’re interested in more Washington DC photography suggestions, check out my book, Snap DC: Your Guide to Taking Extraordinary Photos of the National Mall and Beyond… It was created for any level of photographer from mobile to DSLR, who wants to cut down the research time and spend their time out doing what they love- shooting.
- Angela B Pan
- Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
- Edition no. 1 (04/26/2018)
- Paperback: 210 pages
Wishing you good light and Happy Snapping!