Watching the sunrise is not just for errant hikers. In fact, what better way to experience a picturesque city like Washington, DC than in the quiet of a golden morning? Lucky for you, the capital has a hilly landscape with plenty of high-up perches for a true bird eye view.
Whether you’re looking for a striking reflection of the rising sun over the Potomac or the backdrop for your award-winning Washington Monument shot, these DC sunrise spots are guaranteed to make your morning special.
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When does the sunrise in DC?
Like most daily events, the sun always rises in Washington, DC, and it always sets. However, depending on the time of year, you may have to get up earlier to see it.
In summer, the sun may rise as early as 5:30am, while in winter months, you can sleep in a bit more until about 7:30am.
Just remember, you want to be in your spot well before sunrise to catch that magic light as it hits the horizon or monuments. You will also want to scout out your spot at one of the more popular locations that draw amateur and professional photographers alike.
Drumroll for the ultimate sunrise spot: the Lincoln Memorial. Out of all of DC’s many hilly outlooks, the image of the sun breaking onto Lincoln’s statue is the one that goes on the postcards. Both the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial are slightly raised in altitude above the rest of the Mall, but the Lincoln Memorial is designed for a perfect eastward outlook.
From the steps of the memorial, you’ll be witness to golden light striking the reflecting pool as the sun travels up the length of the Washington Monument.
Bring your camera; the sight of this sunrise in DC will be one to remember.
There’s a reason DCers who don’t want to brave the National Mall to watch July 4th fireworks gather at the National Cathedral: it offers one of the most stunning vantage points to see the city.
What could be more beautiful than watching new light break over the city’s panorama?
For the full view, I recommend walking around to the green patch just Southwest of the cathedral so that the structure doesn’t block your view. Bring a blanket and breakfast and settle onto the grass for a natural show.
Iwo Jima Memorial
From its vantage point across the Potomac, the Iwo Jima Memorial offers a striking and unique view of the sunrise. Set atop a hill overlooking the Theodore Roosevelt and Arlington Memorial Bridges, the iconic statue will give you a clear sightline to both the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, with the classic silhouette of the US Capitol Building in the background.
The circular plaza surrounding gives a view from all angles, making it a top contender for your best vacation photoshoot.
One look at a map of Hains Point’s perfect location at the tip of East Potomac Park and you’ll see why its sunrise views stand out. From this spot, you can truly see the open sky from any direction, with notable views of the National War College’s stately silhouette and the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in the distance.
Thanks to a few well placed picnic tables, you’ll have front row seats, so bring coffee and a bag of bagels and settle in for the show.
Air Force Memorial
With its strange and evocative shape, the Air Force Memorial will give you one of the most stunning sunrise views in the city. You may have seen its wavy trio of columns while driving along the western side of the Potomac.
For a sunrise you won’t forget, set up camp on the green spaces to the sides of the memorial, or peek out from around the metal structure itself. You’ll be greeted with a jaw dropping view of the morning’s horizon worthy of Monet.
Yet another gorgeous view of the Potomac, Vance Field is perfect for an early morning stroll followed by a sunrise show. It also lies on the popular Mount Vernon trail, an easy cycling distance away from Columbia Island, or even Georgetown or Alexandria for those who want a workout.
For those who prefer to drive, there is a parking lot on site.
Both Vance Field and nearby Gravelly Point offer clear views of the skyline, so try both spots to find what gives you the best picture.
Next door to the Iwo Jima Memorial is the Netherlands Carillon, where you’ll find the same clear cut view of the new sun over DC. From its vantage point, the three unmistakable shapes of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and US Capitol pop out in stark detail down the same sightline.
Depending on the season, you may catch a cluster of brightly colored tulips worthy of Amsterdam on the hillside next to you.
Cardozo Elementary School
Here’s a local tip you won’t find in your DC guidebook: Cardozo Elementary School is one of the best places to see the whole city. This unassuming high school near Howard University is no storied national monument, but its overlook of DC’s horizon is unparalleled.
Park on one of the nearby streets and sneak around to the south side of the building overlooking the football field to see the layout of the city stretch out at your feet.
Merchant Marine Memorial
Don’t sell this valuable sunrise spot short just because it doesn’t have the same altitude as some of its competitors. The Merchant Marine Memorial waterside spot gives it the perfect outlook over the Potomac with the Washington Memorial as its centerpiece.
The grassy knoll on the east side of the memorial is an ideal vantage point to see DC’s skyline, framed with romantic willow trees on either side.
Even better: the whole of Columbia Island is highly bike accessible: why not warm up with an early bike ride on the way to your sunrise show?
Meridian Hill Park
Tucked away between 16th and 15th Streets just a few blocks from popular spot Adams Morgan, this park is a favorite local spot to catch some mid day air, not to mention the impromptu yoga classes and drum circles that pop up during the summer. Its south side also provides a stunning view of the city from a balcony-like plateau.
Stand next to the Joan of Arc memorial, and the city will spread out like a map through the park’s greenery.
Don’t forget the Lincoln Memorial’s understated neighbor, the Tidal Basin next to the Jefferson Memorial. You may have seen the unforgettable pictures captured here during DC’s famed cherry blossom season.
A stroll around the basin in the early morning also offers a stunning 360 degree view of the sunrise.
The Washington Monument stands out on one side, while the serene colonnaded shape of the Jefferson Memorial sits on the other: all that’s left is to choose your preferred vantage point.
There’s enough to see in Arlington Cemetery to make at least a half day trip, but if you’re after sunrise views, the Arlington House, also known as the Robert E. Lee Memorial, should be your first destination.
Set on a hill above the rest of the cemetery, this architecturally classic building and flag pole flying in front provides a sweeping view of the Cemetery and DC’s iconic monuments beyond.
No matter the season, the natural colors are the highlight: serene crisp reds and oranges in the fall, soft pink cherry blossoms in the spring.
This classic viewpoint is already breathtaking in the daytime, so it’s no surprise that its sunrise offerings are just as spectacular. From its position straddling DC and Virginia, Taft Bridge offers high-up views of the Potomac, Watergate, the Kennedy Center, and Georgetown on the other side.
A favorite of local cyclists, the bridge connects the Mount Vernon Trail running along one side and Georgetown’s cozy cafes on the other.
For a true DC experience, park on the Virginia side in Rosslyn, catch the sunrise, and end with a coffee at Kafe Leopold or a doughnut at District Doughnut in Georgetown.
George Washington Masonic National Memorial
Ever heard of the other Washington Memorial? For those in Virginia or willing to drive down the river, the Masonic National Memorial is a hidden gem.
Set atop a hill next to King Street, this elevated spot is like a theater designed for optimal sunrise viewing. If you have driven around the area, you’ve probably already set eyes on the majestic stone tower that rises from the center of the temple.
Just climbing to the top of the steps in front of the temple’s front will give you an unbeatable outlook of old town Alexandria and Maryland’s coast beyond.
Western Ridge Trail
This spot doesn’t come with a definite address for prime sunrise observation, but a trip to Rock Creek Park early in the morning won’t disappoint. Drive towards the Park’s Horse Arena on Ridge Road Northwest and park in the camping spots nearby. You should see the Western Ridge Trail running next to the road.
If you follow the trail southeast as it descends down the mountain, you’ll be met with spectacular views of the beautiful greenery of the park with the city splayed out in the distance.
Rock Creek Park has a few fire grates in the vicinity, so feel free to take a few marshmallows for roasting or warm your hands in front of a fire.