National Cathedral

Not to Be Missed:

  • Stained glass windows
  • Gargoyles and other carvings

The National Cathedral is the seat of the diocese of the Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. More than that, though, it’s one of the prettiest churches in the United States, and one of the country’s largest. Its collection of stained glass windows, gargoyle carvings (including one of Darth Vader), and its church organ draw an estimated 400,000 visitors per year.

The cathedral’s size can be best appreciated by approaching it on foot from the front. The land around the entrance has been largely cleared of trees, and there are no tall buildings within view to compete with the cathedral’s soaring towers. If you visit when the sun is not directly overhead, you’ll be able to get excellent photos of the façade.

The inside of the cathedral is formed by long halls of tall, vaulted, Gothic arches, similar to those of Notre Dame de Paris, and Chartres. The National Cathedral, though, is several hundred years younger than those: construction started in 1907 and ended in 1990, although carving, detail, and restoration work continues today.

One of the Cathedral’s most famous feature is its set of 231 stained glass windows, in styles ranging from Gothic to modern. Most of the windows represent religious themes, people, and events, but there are dozens dedicated to significant people and events in American history, from explorers Lewis and Clark, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the Battle of Iwo Jima, and the first men on the moon. That window, officially named the “Scientists and Technicians” window, contains an actual piece of moon rock and is informally known as “The Space Window.”

In 2015, the dean of the cathedral announced that two windows containing images of the Confederate flag would be re-done to remove the flags. The rest of the two windows commemorate the lives of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who betrayed the United States to defend slavery, are under review for removal from the National Cathedral’s windows too.

Besides the stained glass, the cathedral is also known for its gargoyles. More than 20 of these exist around the outside of the church, and they’re actually part of the roof’s drainage system. Each gargoyle is unique, and many of them have contemporary themes. The one of Darth Vader, on the Northwest Tower, is the most famous, but others include “Crooked Politician” (also the Northwest Tower), “Horse Skeleton” (Southwest Tower), “Artist” (Southwest Tower), “Alligator” (South Nave), and “Bearded Bulldog” (South Transept, East Side). Check http://gargoyles.cathedral.org/gargoyle/indexA.php for a complete list and locations before your visit. Because they’re up high, it helps to bring a set of binoculars to spot these carvings.

The Cathedral boasts several towers open to small, public groups. The Classic Tower Climb takes place in the central tower, which holds the church’s bells, is a six-story, 333-step climb that takes around 90-minutes. It affords some of the best views of Washington DC, plus visits to the stained glass windows. The Gargoyle Tower Climb takes place in and around the cathedral’s two western towers, including a walk outside on the open-air walkway between the towers, for better viewing of the gargoyles. The tours have a 48-inch height and 5-person minimum requirement, and they are strenuous climbs. Check the cathedral’s website for details and reservations.

Unofficial Tip: Among those buried at the National Cathedral are Hellen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson.

Touring Tips

It’s a 1.5-mile walk from the Tenleytown Metro stop to the cathedral, mostly downhill (and uphill on the way back). An alternative to walking is to take any 30-series bus (31, 32, 36, or 37) from the west side of Wisconsin Avenue, going south. Get off at Woodley Road (again, about 1.5 miles) and the cathedral will be on your left.

If you’re driving, the cathedral has an underground parking garage – look for the signs as you approach. Cost is roughly $6-$7 per hour weekdays ($22 maximum), $7-$10 weekends flat rate. See the website for specifics.

Guided tours are available 10 – 11:15 AM and 1 – 3:30 PM Monday through Friday; 10 – 11:15 AM and 1 – 3 PM Saturday; and 1 – 2:30 PM Sunday. Tours last 30 minutes, do not require advance reservations, and are included in the admission price.

If you’re taking a midweek tour, consider the fabulous Tour and Tea program, which costs $30 per person (including admission) and is offered on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays starting at 1:30 PM. It includes a 75-minute tour of the cathedral, followed by a traditional English tea service, with scones and sandwiches, in the Pilgrim Observation Gallery. Reservations and payment in advance are required. See the Cathedral website for more information.


3101 Wisconsin Ave NW
Washington, D.C.
Northwest D.C.
Tenleytown-American University (1.5 miles)

Mon-Fri 10am-5:30pm; Sat 10am-4:30pm; Sun 1pm-4pm
Open until 8:30pm Tue, Thu from mid-June - late August

Free for worship, prayer, and spiritual visits
Secular visits $11 adults; $7 children ages 5-17; $6 seniors, students, military