Having lived in Washington, DC for nearly ten years it’s fair to say that I’ve chased sunrise photos across the city and back. DC is the perfect city for it – with its abundance of open spaces, low-rise buildings and highly photogenic monuments and memorials. For this latest post I’ve decided to share my lessons about some of the best spots across the DC area in the hope that I can bless you with some valuable additional minutes in bed when you inevitably have to wake up at ‘pre-Starbucks opening hours’ to stake out that prime position.
Sunrise at the Iwo Jima Memorial
The Marine Corps Memorial (otherwise known as the Iwo Jima Statue) commemorates marines that have died in battle since 1775 and is designed to recreate a famous photo taken of a group of marines raising the US flag at Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima Island (about 650km south of Tokyo) during WWII. The statue itself is sat up on a hill in Rosslyn, Virginia overlooking downtown DC and its silhouette provides the perfect foreground for a sunrise photo when the weather conditions are clear!
Getting There: The memorial is technically in Virginia, but for those of you who know DC that really doesn’t mean all that much. Rosslyn is on the DC Metro System and the Metro opens at 5am Monday through Friday and at 7am on the weekends. So, depending on the time of year you’re visiting there’s a strong chance you’ll be able to catch the Metro to get to Roslyn. If not, then to get from downtown to Roslyn is a fairly cheap taxi or Uber fare (and if you’re staying in Georgetown then you could actually just walk across the Francis Scott Key bridge to get to Rosslyn). The memorial itself is in the middle of US Marine Memorial Circle which is a green space just off of North Meade Street.
Where to Stand: This is the easy part! Simply set up your tripod directly in front of the memorial. The sun will rise over DC which is directly behind the memorial. By positioning yourself carefully you should be able to get the memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, The Washington Monument and the US Capitol Building all in the same shot and to the left of the statue (as you can see above). It really is a stunning view when the weather conditions are right!
Take a torch: If you happen to have one (I realise that might be a slightly weird thing to have on a city vacation). The lighting in the park isn’t that fantastic in the darker hours which, whilst making the lighting better for your photo, doesn’t provide enough ambient light to actually see the controls on your camera!
After Sunrise: You can continue your walk through the park heading towards Arlington National Cemetery (opens at 8am) through the Ord and Wetzel Gate. You’ll pass the Netherlands Carillon (also more commonly referred to as the Dutch Carillon), which is a bell tower and was a gift to the US from the Netherlands for their help in WWII. From Arlington National Cemetery, head towards DC by crossing the Potomac River via the Arlington Memorial Bridge and you can finish up your morning walk at the Lincoln Memorial (a total walk time of about an hour or 2 miles).
Sunrise around the Tidal Basin
The Tidal Basin is far more picturesque than it might sound; especially if I describe it as a part man-made reservoir to flush out the Washington Channel. In fact it’s actually a tourist highlight for anyone visiting DC; especially during the Annual Cherry Blossom Festival. With an abundance of memorials surrounding the basin and with the Washington Monument as a backdrop, the Basin is a perfect spot to catch a sunrise over the glistening water.
Getting There: The closest Metro station to the Tidal Basin is Smithsonian (although if you’re coming in on the Yellow or Green Lines then you could get off at L’Enfant Plaza rather than transfer). From Smithsonian it’s an easy 10 minute walk from the National Mall (which, despite what some tourists think, is not a shopping center but the long strip of green space in the center of DC along which most of the Smithsonian Museums are located). The good news is that the National Parks Services has put up signs in recent years that direct you to the FDR, MLK and Jefferson Memorials which are all located around the Basin; so just follow those!
Where to Stand: I most often find that the best spot for sunrise is located between the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial directly on the path that follows all the way around the basin edge (just off of West Basin Drive if you happen to be driving there). The sun rises from behind the Washington Monument, so by standing in this position you get a Tidal Basin foreground, Washington Monument mid-ground and sunrise background!
Time of Year: The sunrise at the Tidal Basin is pretty spectacular year-round, but if you want that extra special picture then my advice would be to go during peak bloom of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The annual National Cherry Blossom festival celebrates the donation of 3,000 cherry blossom trees by the mayor of Tokyo. Over the course of about a month (from mid-March to mid-April) there are a whole host of events across town including a parade, fireworks and daily performances from local and international artists. Just make sure you keep up to date on the ‘Bloom Watch’ Website or you’ll run the risk of missing the stars of the show!
What to See: Once you’re done taking photos then there are 4 different memorials around the basin that are well worth a visit before the majority of the crowds arrive. The largest of those (and easiest to spot) is the Jefferson Memorial on the far side of the basin. The second is one of my personal favourites – the FDR Memorial, which traces Roosevelt’s terms in office across 7.5 acres of outdoor art installation. The third, and the newest (finished in 2011), is the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. The MLK Memorial is probably the closest to where you’ll be taking sunrise photos, so my advice is to head here first as the pinkish hue of the sunrise looks great on the white stone of the memorial. The final one of the four is the George Mason Memorial which commemorates one of America’s lesser-known founding fathers and thus results in it getting much less foot traffic than the other three.
If you happen to live in the DC area then it would be great to learn more about your favourite sunrise photos in DC. Feel free to share them in the comments section below!