The Steps of Northwest DC
If you’ve been to DC, you’ve probably climbed the steps of the city’s most recognizable monuments: the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, The Capitol. But DC also has lesser-known public steps, tucked away in the residential areas of Northwest, that are worth seeing.
With the exception of a broad flat plain extending north from the Potomac River to around U Street, DC is a city of hills. In the leafy neighborhoods north and west of Downtown there can be found a number of public steps built into these hillsides, connecting streets of different elevations. . Some of these steps, like the Spanish steps or the ones in Meridian Hill Park, are works of art designed by landscape architects, while others, like the Lamont Steps in Mount Pleasant, serve more “pedestrian” purposes. To come up with this list, I racked my brain of all the steps I’ve seen around this area of NW DC, and scanned Google Maps to find others I hadn’t been to before.
Spanish Steps – Kalorama (S Street and 22nd St NW)
This dual staircase, known now as the Spanish Steps, is my favorite in DC. In fact, we even had our engagement pictures taken here! Located in a quiet corner of the Kalorama, this series of steps and terraces lead up from Decatur Place to S Street NW along the path of 22nd St NW. The well-shaded steps also feature a fountain between the upper stairs below a waterspout in the shape of a lion’s face. There is little street traffic near the steps, so the sound of the trickling water is noticeable, making this a relaxing spot for a quick respite from the DC grind.
Meridian Hill Park – Columbia Heights ( 16th and U St NW)
This beautiful park, occupying the side of a long hill leading up from U Street NW to Columbia Heights, has several long steps. While there are many shorter steps in the lower end of the park, the ones that make the cut here are the four Italian Renaissance ones leading up from the lower end of the park to the upper part. The two in the middle frame a long cascading waterfall containing 11 pools, all of which pour water into a large fountain at the base. The two outer staircases run a straight path up the sides of the park, bordered by neatly manicured hedges on one side and a waist-high wall on the other. All four staircases are great for running.
Exorcist Steps – Georgetown (36th and M St)
These steep steps, made famous by the movie The Exorcist, cut a path up 36th Street and connect M Street with N Street. They are a little spooky, but I don’t know if they feel that way because the steps were used as a setting for a scary movie or if there is something inherently unsettling about the site itself. Is it the seclusion? I don’t think so—there are other steps in DC that are even more secluded. I think it’s because the stairs are enshrouded in shadow, even during the day; the walls on either side are tower you. As you descend the stairs, listening to the sound of your footsteps transforming into faint echoes, you can’t help but feeling you are sliding down into a deep pit, with little chance of escape. Go up the opposite way; you end up bending forward like a Mayan climbing a pyramid, head bowed, ready for the executioner.
River Steps – Lincoln Memorial and Ohio Drive SW
These are the “Rocky Steps” of DC. I can’t think of a time when these steps were not occupied by at least one-person jogging up them, or down them carefully so as not to fall into traffic along Ohio Drive SW. The view from the top is excellent—you can see across the Potomac at Arlington Cemetery and over to Rossyln. Behind you is the Lincoln Memorial to give you a bit of patriotic motivation as you do you bound up the stairs.
Lanier Steps – Adams Morgan (Lanier Place and Quarry Road NW)
Standing on Quarry Road in Adams Morgan, it’s easy to miss this two-level staircase, which tumbles down the hillside onto Lanier Place below. It must be owned by the city, as it occupies a valuable piece of real estate in a nice section of the city. I imagine the steps provide a great shortcut for residents of the neighborhood.
Lamont Stairs – Mt. Pleasant (Lamont Street NW and 19th ST NW)
These stairs, in the residential section of Mount Pleasant, are nothing to write home about, but they stand out because of their length. If you look at a map, it’s almost as if the city planners forgot to add a street here. The steps are essentially an extension of Lamont Street—hence the name.
Normanstone steps – Kalorama (Normanstone Lane and Woodland Dr NW)
I had some trouble finding these. I read about them on a website but there were no pictures, so I drove around in the maze of streets that is this area of Kalorama and eventually stumbled upon them after a few wrong turns. The steps are an extension of Normanstone Lane, and they make their way up a short but steep hillside to 29th Street. I regret not walking up the stairs though; according to Google Street View there is a nice little park at the top.
Georgetown University steps – (N St and 37th St NW)
These steps are on the southeastern edge of Georgetown University, disqualifying them from the public category, but I wanted to include these as well. As far as steps go, they’re pretty impressive, The three flights scale the hillside in in a zigzag pattern, ushering the pedestrian up to a level of Healy Lawn and the beautiful Healy building, whose towers are a recognizable feature of DC’s skyline.
Special thanks to Ollie for tagging along
Map of the Steps