Aside from being a place of worship, the National Cathedral is a great architectural and historical structure to explore. The cathedral and grounds are open daily for self guided, audio and group tours, with limited access during worship services. Families visiting the Cathedral should pick up (or download from their website before hand) the booklet titled, “Explore the Cathedral with Children.” This pamphlet gives detailed information on 7 points of interest for children in the cathedral including the Space Window and the Children’s Chapel.
A donation of $5 per visitor is requested upon entering the Cathedral. Free Audio Guides and 30 minute Guided Tours leave from near the main entrance and do not require advance reservations. As this was our first visit we decided to follow the booklet listed above and embark on a self guided tour.
My 6 and 5 year old girls were joined by out of town friends who are 10 and 12 so we were able to get a good perspective of the cathedral from both an older and younger child’s perspective.
The first stop of the self guided tour was the Lewis and Clark windows which are unfortunately under renovation and not on display at this time. Next up was a big hit, the Space Window, with stained glass planets and stars and embedded with a real piece of moon rock brought back by the astronauts of Apollo 11. Our tour of the Nave (upper level) continued with a visit to the Children’s Chapel, a small room with chairs and an altar sized for a 6 year old child.
Here each chair comes with an embroidered kneeler with a picture of a different animal which the kids liked looking through. Directly next to this is St. John’s Chapel, where the red embroidered kneelers are each dedicated to a famous American. The 10 and 12 year old girls visiting with us enjoyed looking through these and the adults liked trying to guess who each was based on the symbols and pictures on front of each.
Continuing through the Cathedral we saw statues of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and found the small statue of Martin Luther King Jr. We learned that Dr. King gave his last Sunday sermon at the Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 shortly before his death. In the “Humanitarian Bay” the kids enjoyed searching for animal carvings among the stone carvings which helped gear them up for searching the outside of the Cathedral for the animal gargoyles.
Special Gargoyle tours are given April through October to help spy all of the creatures featured in the cathedral’s outdoor carvings. Tours are offered on Thursdays at 6:30pm and Sundays at 2pm and cost $10 per adult and $5 per child under 12. In the family booklet it gives you pictures of six such creatures to find on your own from the South Lawn of the Cathedral – a frog, cat, boar, alligator, skeleton and dragon.
This was a lot of fun and not too difficult to find or see. Bring binoculars if you have them and a camera with a good zoom for photos. Around the Northwest corner of the Cathedral, high up on the tower is a small statue of Darth Vader, placed there in 1980. This is really hard to see without binoculars but is a lot of fun for kids to search for.
Once outside, there are expansive lawns, fountains, the Bishop’s Garden and the 5 acre Olmstead Woods to be explored. The Cathedral’s bells ring each Saturday from 12:30 to 1:15pm and Tuesday evenings from 7 to 9pm. You can also catch an organ demonstration back indoors on Mondays and Wednesdays at 12:30.
The Cathedral and grounds are very family friendly and accessible. Restrooms are located near the main entrance and on the lower level (crypt) which we did not make it down to explore. Stairs, a wheelchair ramp and elevators connect the main and lower levels. A Visitor’s Lounge and the Cathedral Store are located downstairs.
The store carries books, gifts and snacks. The Cathedral has its own underground parking structure accessible from Wisconsin Avenue which is free for Sunday services but charges for all other times. On weekdays it is possible to find parking in the surrounding neighborhood. Parking on the street is free but limited to 2 hours.
Consider a visit to Flower Mart at the Cathedral on May 6 and 7th this year. This annual event is part flower sale, part spring festival and has lots of fun for families including an antique carousel and puppet shows. Hours for Flower Mart are 10am to 6pm on Friday and 10am to 5pm on Saturday. You can read the Our Kids Review to know what to expect.
The Cathedral is open daily on the following schedule:
- Monday to Friday: 10am to 5:30 (the main level is open until 8pm on Tuesday and Thursday from June through August). Guided tours available 10 to 11:30am and 12:45 to 3:30pm.
- Saturday: 10am to 4:30pm. Guided tours available 10 to 11:30am and 12:45 to 3pm.
- Sunday: 8am to 5pm. Tours offered 1 to 2:30pm.
Tours may be interrupted during worship times and Holy Weeks. Check the website above before your visit. Enjoy the architectural and cultural experience of touring this sixth largest cathedral in the world with your children!
Might Be of Interest
- The Washington National Cathedral also offers Tower Climbs throughout the year. Visitors (must be 4 feet) climb the 333 steps to the top of the bell tower. This climb is not suitable for young children and takes approximately 45 minutes.
- During the holidays, the Washington National Cathedral also has their Annual Creche Exhibit featuring creches from around the country and world. This exhibit is suitable for all ages.