When Washington Monument tickets are sold out, National Park Service employees often direct visitors to the Old Post Office Tower, which is not only free but which has views that are just as stunning. At 315 feet tall, the Old Post Office Building’s tower is, excluding radio towers, the third-tallest structure in Washington, D.C. From the observation deck, visitors can see the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, National Mall, and the Potomac River.
The tower is part of the Old Post Office Building, which since 2022 has housed the elegant Waldorf Astoria hotel. Its history, however, has not always been so refined. Completed in 1899 and the size of an entire city block, the Old Post Office was hated almost immediately for being dark and leaky. For years it served as the city’s main post office and then as an office building, while water damage spread and mold grew. The building was nearly torn down in the 1930s, but politicians felt they wouldn’t be forgiven for demolishing a functional, if shabby, building at the height of the Great Depression. In the 1970s and 80s, it was finally refurbished to its original intended glory at the cost of millions of dollars. After a few decades as federal offices, the Old Post Office Building was converted into a hotel.
The building’s bell tower has an eventful history of its own. The clock in the tower originally kept time via a mechanical process involving a heavy weight attached to a cable. In 1956, that cable snapped, sending the weight crashing through two floors below, where it narrowly missed a man who had gotten up from his desk moments before. (The clock is now electric.) The tower eventually fell into disarray. By the time renovations began in 1977, it was filled with pigeon droppings.
Since 1983, the tower has been home to the Bells of Congress, replicas of bells in Westminster Abbey that were donated to commemorate America’s Bicentennial. The bells ring once a week on Thursday evenings, as well as on special occasions. (The bells are intentionally not rung during office hours, to avoid annoying one specific person with an office just across the street: the IRS commissioner.)
Tours of the tower’s 270-foot-high observation deck are run by the National Park Service. Inside the tower, you can see the ropes that ring the Bells of Congress, the interior workings of the clock, and an exhibit about the Old Post Office Building’s history.
Know Before You Go
Free tours of the Old Post Office Tower are offered year-round between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. with no reservations needed. The tower entrance is located around the block from the hotel entrance and cannot be directly accessed via the Waldorf Astoria lobby. The elevator and tower are wheelchair accessible. Be advised that capacity on the observation deck is limited to 24 people, so there may be a short wait.