It’s not easy to see Washington, D.C., from on high. No building is allowed to be taller than the dome of the Capitol, and no flights are allowed over the city– Congress doesn’t care if a plane falls out of the sky on your house, but it won’t allow it on theirs. Aerial views are not easy to come by, but they can be found. The most famous, and one of the worst, is the view from the top of the Washington, D.C. Monument. The problem with this view, aside from crowds and long waits, is that the widows are very small and the location is poor. Skip the Monument and do some of the better alternatives.
If you are flying to Washington, D.C. use National Airport (DCA) which is on the banks of the Potomac River. Arrivals and departures approach by flying over the river, and the approach from the north goes right over the Lincoln Memorial with a memorable view of the White House, The Mall, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, and the Capitol. I like the night view of the illuminated buildings, but first timers should probably try for daylight to see it all. For arrivals, sit on the left side of the plane facing the pilot. Depart sitting on the right.
The Old Post Office Building Bell Tower is not as high as the Washington, D.C. Memorial but its better location about midway along the Mall, bigger widows, and lack of crowds makes it a top choice.
The cafeteria in the Hubert H Humphry Building at the end of the Mall nearest the Capitol at Independence Ave & SW is on the top floor. There is a roof terrace on the sides facing the Mall and the Smithsonian Museums and the Rayburn House Office Building. This is the only aerial view of this end of official Washington, D.C., and it’s a good one. Have lunch there too if you can score one of the few outdoor tables.
The observation deck in the Bell Tower of the Washington National Cathedral is the highest view point in the city, but it is a good ways out from the Mall, limiting the view. The last good high view point is from the CNN Studios across the Potomac in near Rossyln, VA. Higher than any place downtown, CNN has a good long view of the Mall area from not too far away.