Your focus will probably be on the beautiful flowers, but there are several monuments and memorials around the Tidal Basin that are well worth seeing. Some are obvious–it's hard to miss the big three–the Jefferson Memorial, MLK Memorial, or FDR Memorial. But there are also some smaller and less well-known ones that are interesting.
So here's a quick guide to the monuments you might come across as you wander around admiring the cherry blossoms.
It's also easy to use this as the basis of your own walking tour. All of the monuments are free and open 24 hours, and you'll walk past or through most of them if you walk the circuit of the Tidal Basin (about 1.8 miles around). A couple are set back a little from the Tidal Basin itself but still very close. Alternatively, National Park Service rangers offer free walking tours around the Tidal Basin. They routinely offer tours at 12pm and 4pm; there are more frequent ones during cherry blossom season, including night-time lantern walks. Check the signs at the MLK Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, or the temporary Cherry Blossom Welcome Center in the Maine Ave parking lot (next to the paddle boats)
Something interesting to bear in mind as you wander around is that nearly everywhere you go you're walking on reclaimed land that used to be in the middle of the Potomac. Dredging in the late 19th century created the large island that stretches from the Jefferson Memorial on one end to Hains Point on the other. It also added land to the end of the National Mall that the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments now sit on. The waterline used to run along what is now Constitution Avenue to right near the White House and Washington Monument.
If you're at the Tidal Basin there's no way to miss it. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is the oldest and the most imposing of the monuments around the Tidal Basin, and you can see it from nearly any spot around the water's edge. It was completed in the mid-1940s to honor Thomas Jefferson, one of the most important and best-known of America's Founding Fathers.
The monument consists of a large dome–modeled after Jefferson's own architectural flare–under which sits a large statue of Jefferson himself. The walls around him are inscribed with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence.
Fun Fact #1: The Jefferson Memorial is actually on an island. One way or another you'll have to cross a bridge to get there.
Fun Fact #2: Some cherry trees had to be relocated to make way for building the Jefferson Memorial. It was highly controversial at the time, and even resulted in some remarkable newspaper photos of women in furs chaining themselves to the cherry trees in protest (you can see the photo here).
You can find more on the Jefferson Memorial here.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
The FDR Memorial is actually quite large, in that it has a large footprint of 7.5 acres, but it is low to the ground and hidden amongst the trees. It's dedicated to America's 32nd president (1933-45) and also features aspects of his era such as World War II and the Great Depression and also his wife, Eleanor, an accomplished global citizen in her own right.
It's relatively new and was opened in 1997. As you wander through the memorial it is divided into four outdoor “rooms,” each one dedicated to one of Roosevelt's four presidential terms (the constitution was amended in 1947, after Roosevelt's term, to limit presidents to two terms). There are water features, statues, inscribed quotes, and lots of cherry blossoms.
Fun Fact: Roosevelt himself was very specific about what kind of memorial he would like to commemorate his contributions, and this memorial has nothing at all in common with those wishes. The original FDR Memorial, which is in keeping with his instructions, is a very simple and modest stone slab that sits next to the National Archives building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Another Fun Fact: There's actually yet another Roosevelt Memorial not too far away, but that one is dedicated to FDR's cousin, Theodore. He's better known as Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president.
You can find more about the FDR Memorial here.
Martin Luther King Jr Memorial
This is the newest of the monuments near the Tidal Basin and was opened in 2011. It's dedicated to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.
It's spread over a 4-acre site, but the most striking aspect of it is a large statue of MLK in the middle that is carved out of what the artist called the Mountain of Hope. He's gazing out over the Tidal Basin in the direction of the Jefferson Memorial.
The plaza surrounding it is filled with quotations from Dr. King. And there are also many cherry blossoms, including some that date back to the original planting in 1912.
Fun Fact: The official address of the memorial is 1964 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC. The street number 1964 was chosen as a nod to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Another Fun Fact: The MLK Memorial stands on a line between the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 during the March on Washington (and there's a plaque on the steps to commemorate it).
You can find more about the MLK Memorial here.
The Washington Monument isn't actually on the Tidal Basin, but because you can see it from nearly all the way around the Tidal Basin, and it is so vividly reflected when the water is still, it's basically an honorary member of the Tidal Basin monuments.
Fun Fact: It's normally possible to go to the top of the Washington Monument for some spectacular views over the National Mall, Potomac River, and downtown Washington DC. But for now it's closed at least until 2018 as the elevator system get a much-needed overhaul.
You can find out more about the Washington Monument here.
Pagoda is one of those words that are applied in English (though often not in their native languages) to anything from a small person-sized pillar to a massive complex of buildings in a temple. This one is definitely on the small end of the scale and is easy to miss.
It's located on the southern end of the FDR Memorial next to the waterline, right amongst the trees. It dates back to around 1600 and was gifted to Washington DC by the mayor of Yokohama in 1957 to commemorate 100 years of US-Japanese relations.
Fun Fact: It's made of 3,800 pounds of granite and arrived in five crates. But it didn't include any instructions on how to reassemble it. Area experts from the Library of Congress and elsewhere were eventually able to put it together.
I have more about the Japanese Pagoda here.
Further around the Tidal Basin, on the northern side between the MLK Memorial and Kutz Bridge, is a Japanese granite lantern that also dates back to the 17th century (ca. 1651). It was put in place here in 1954 after originally standing for nearly 300 years in the grounds of a temple in Tokyo.
It was gifted to the people of the United States by the Governor of Tokyo in 1954 to mark the centenary of US-Japanese trade relations. Since 1954, the lighting of the Japanese lantern has been a key ceremonial moment of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, with the lighting handled by an Embassy of Japan Cherry Blossom princesses (ie. usually a daughter of one of the diplomats).
The area immediately around it received a much-needed upgrade a few years ago.
I have more on the Japanese Lantern here.
George Mason Memorial
Not far from the Jefferson Memorial is the George Mason Memorial. It commemorates George Mason, a Virginia plantation owner, reluctant public servant, and author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document that helped inspire the American Declaration of Independence, and attendee at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
The statue and gazebo are fairly recent–dating to 2002–but the gardens and fountain actually date back to 1905.
Fun Fact: George Washington regarded George Mason as a mentor, and Thomas Jefferson called him “the wisest man of his generation.”
Photography Tip: If you arrive a bit early for the cherry blossoms, there are some beautiful tulip magnolias (saucer magnolias) at the George Mason Memorial that flower a week or two ahead of the cherry blossoms and make a great backdrop for photos.
I have more about the George Mason Memorial here.
Commodore John Paul Jones Memorial
If you walk from the Washington Monument to the Tidal Basin, you'll pass by the Commodore John Paul Jones Memorial. It is actually right next to the Tidal Basin, but it's next to a small inlet behind Kutz Bridge that is a little out of the way.
It commemorates Revolutionary War naval hero Commodore John Paul Jones who is sometimes credited as the Father of the American Navy.
The memorial was completed in 1912. Its centerpiece is a bronze statue of Jones with a decidedly determined stance and gaze. He's surrounded by an large marble pedestal with various military and naval symbols as well as small fountains (for the naval theme). One notable inscription memorializes his words: “Surrender? I have not yet begin to fight!”
Fun Fact: His exploits during the Revolutionary War are what made him famous in American history, but John Paul Jones later joined the Imperial Russian Navy where he eventually attained the rank of rear admiral. And he managed all that before dying at only 45 years of age.
I have more on the Commodore John Paul Jones Memorial here.
Just Off the Tidal Basin
There are several other monuments just a little removed from the Tidal Basin that you might walk past on your way.
World War I Memorial
The World War I Memorial is across the street from the MLK Memorial. It's dedicated to the 26,000 or so Washingtonians who served in World War I and is sometimes referred to as the DC War Memorial. It's the only city-centric monument on the National Mall–the others are national monuments. It was dedicated on Remembrance Day 1931, on the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month.
It was neglected for a long time, but a few years ago it finally got some attention and was completely renovated, as were the lawns around it. It also happens to be one of only three places within the National Mall National Park where weddings are allowed, so don't be surprised if you see a wedding ceremony taking place there.
Fun Fact: Inscribed on its base are the names of the Washingtonians who died in the war, and unusually for the time, it includes the names of all Washingtonians who died, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.
I have more about the World War I Memorial here.
Cuban Friendship Urn
This one is a bit obscure and is very easy to miss, but if you park at the lots under the 14th Street Bridge you'll walk straight past it, probably without noticing it. It's close to the George Mason Memorial.
It's not very big, and it's stuck in the corner of a parking lot, but it has an interesting story.
The urn is carved out of what was originally one of the columns making up the Maine Monument in Maine Square in Havana, Cuba. That monument was dedicated to the victims of the battleship USS Maine, which was sunk in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. Three quarters of her crew perished, a total of 266 Americans. And it became a crucial episode leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish–American War two months later.
The original Havana memorial was destroyed by a hurricane in 1926. The Cubans salvaged some of the ruins, carved the urn, and presented it to President Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
I have more about the Cuban Friendship Urn here.
John Ericsson Memorial
If you drive along Independence Avenue or walk from the Lincoln Memorial or Arlington Memorial Bridge, you'll go right by the John Ericsson Memorial. It sits in the middle of a small traffic island on the corner of West Potomac Park at the intersection of Ohio Drive and Independence Avenue.
Ericsson is hardly a household name, but he made some important contributions that had a big impact on the course of the Civil War and naval engineering thereafter.
Ericsson was the designer of the USS Monitor, the ugly but very effective iron-clad floating tank that finally neutralized the South's naval advantage. Less dramatically but with an even more lasting impact, Ericsson also invented a workable system for a stern-mounted propeller, a technological breakthrough that had profound influence on just about any powered boat that has come since.
I have more about the John Ericsson Memorial here.