St. Peter and St. Paul

The church's formal name is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The north tower (on the left), is in honor of St. Peter, and the south tower is in honor of St. Paul. (Mike Holtzclaw, Daily Press / July 21, 2006)

A visit to the Washington National Cathedral will make you feel very small.

Not just in a spiritual sense, though devout Christians might well experience that sort of personal humility. But standing in the cathedral's nave, you can't help but feel physically diminutive.

The ceilings are 102 feet high, and the cathedral's exterior is almost as long as two football fields. "Did you know," volunteer Charles Wells offers, "that if you laid the Washington Monument on its side, it would fit inside the center aisle?"

Nothing brings home the sheer size of the cathedral quite like the round stained glass window on the church's north side, one of three "rose windows" in the nave. Standing on the floor below, you gaze up and marvel at the lovely colors as the sunlight streams through. From this vantage point, the window's size doesn't make an impression. Then the tour guide informs you that the window is actually 26 feet in diameter, and that the seemingly small image of Jesus Christ at its center is actually 6 feet tall. That's when you whisper, "Wow" and stare at the window in amazement.

Yes, the National Cathedral - formally, it's the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul - is the second-largest church in the United States (after St. John's in New York) and the sixth-largest in the world. The top of the central tower, at 676 feet above sea level, is considered the highest point in Washington.

But if the cathedral was only about its size, it would be little more than a curiosity.

Take an hour-long guided tour, led by one of more than 1,000 volunteers who staff the cathedral, and you'll receive fascinating lessons in theology, architecture, art and American history.

Woodrow Wilson is interred here, the only U.S. president buried in the nation's capital. So are Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Their tomb is marked by a plaque engraved in English and, beneath that, in Braille letters whose colors have been rubbed smooth by years of loving fingers.

The church's 215 stained glass windows include depictions of Bible scenes - Old Testament in the main part of the nave, Gospels of the New Testament up front by the choir. There are also scenes commemorating U.S. history. In the War Memorial Chapel, one of nine smaller chapels within the cathedral, stained glass images recall the Battle of Midway and the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. Adjacent to this chapel is the Children's Chapel, done to the scale of a 6-year-old as a special place to mourn those who died young.

Like the stunning stained glass, the cathedral's tapestries represent a painstaking attention to detail that creates a breathtaking image.

The artwork - beginning with the sculptures of Adam above the front door - is designed to tell the story of humankind, from creation to redemption.

After the guided tour, visitors are left to explore on their own - a self-guided tour with handouts pointing you to different parts of the church, or perhaps to the seventh-story observation gallery for a panoramic view of the city.

But most of all, you just find yourself looking at the cathedral, both inside and out. It is a house of God, but you are amazed by works of beauty that were created by human hands.

Getting there

Take I-64 West and turn onto I-295 North at exit 200. Go about 14 miles, then merge onto I-95 North (it's a left exit) toward D.C. As you reach Washington, take exit 170B onto I-495 North. Follow 495, crossing over the American Legion Bridge, into Maryland and take the Bethesda exit onto Wisconsin Avenue. The cathedral - you'll see its towers long before you get there - is about seven miles ahead on your left, at the intersection of Wisconsin and Massachusetts.

Metro: Visitors who are familiar with D.C.'s public transportation can simply drive to Northern Virginia and take the Metro rail into Washington.

Parking: A garage is under construction, but until it is completed (probably late this year), on-site parking is limited, but spots can often be found on South Road and Pilgrim Street alongside the cathedral. (Parking is more plentiful during the summer, when school is out of session.)

From the Peninsula: Starting from downtown Newport News, it's about 175 miles each way. If you catch a break on traffic, you can get to the cathedral in a little over three hours. But be forewarned: D.C. commuter traffic is brutal in the afternoon and can easily add two hours to your return trip. If you don't mind getting home a little late, consider staying in D.C. for an early dinner to allow the traffic to thin out a bit before you head back.

Information: or 202-537-6200.