You finally made it to Washington, D.C., and you intend to make the most out of it. Your list of to do’s include tackling as many Smithsonian museums as possible, visiting the major memorials and monuments and touring the iconic buildings that represent the three branches of the United States government. Here are some local tips for visiting the Capitol, the home of the legislative branch of the US government.
If you ask a Washingtonian, he or she will likely tell you that the District’s most famous building isn’t the White House (which I’ll write more about later) nor the towering Washington Monument, (which is technically a structure and not a building), but rather the U.S. Capitol, the sprawling home of the Senate and House of Representatives. Its glistening white dome can be seen for miles on a bright and clear day and its emblematic steps have been welcoming U.S. presidents and many other change makers for centuries. It’s where the guiding principles of this country are born and where they are voted to become law. It also happens to be one of the hottest tickets in Washington, so in order to get in and witness the grandeur of American democracy, you’ll need to plan ahead.
Local Tips for Visiting the United States Capitol
Local Tips for Visiting the Capitol #1: Do Your Research
The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) has a user-friendly website that allows you to book advance or same day tours. In addition to the general tours open to everyone, U.S. residents also have the option of a more in depth and more personal tour by requesting a booking through their senator or congressman’s offices (there are links on the website for these as well.) Those requests however will need to be made in advance, usually requiring at least two weeks’ notice.
The general tour of the U.S. Capitol lasts around 30-40 minutes depending on the guide. It includes a visit to the crypt, a stop in the main rotunda to gaze at the magnificent dome, and usually ends at the National Statuary Hall where you’ll likely see a demonstration of the hidden sound vacuum that prompted Congress to move their chambers to its current location. Sometimes tour guides will also take groups to the chapel or to see the old Supreme Court chamber in addition to the major attractions. There’s no fee required but it does have strict security guidelines, which include bag checks, metal detectors, and a long list of prohibited items that include food and water.
Local Tips for Visiting the Capitol #2: Two Birds in One Swoop
Combine your Capitol tour with a visit to the Library of Congress. The largest library in the world contains an astounding 36 million books, 121 million maps, manuscripts, photographs, films, audio and video recordings and is to many locals, the most underrated attraction in Washington, D.C. The equally impressive Thomas Jefferson Building sits just right across the street AND more importantly, provides a cloakroom where you can check in your belongings so you won’t be forced to throw any food or water away. There’s also an underground passage from the library to the CVC (useful particularly during inclement weather situations) filled with artwork from American artists.
Local Tips for Visiting the Capitol #3: Don’t Miss the Senate and House Galleries
Make sure you take some time to visit the Senate and House galleries to watch the legislative bodies in action. You’ll be able to hear bills introduce on either floors and if you opt for the House gallery, you can say that you’ve been in the exact same location of every U.S. President since Woodrow Wilson. These two areas of the Capitol are not part of the general tour and require separate tickets for entry. The galleries are open to citizens, residents, and international visitors.
Local Tips for Visiting the Capitol #4: Explore the Grounds
Most people only get to explore the western side of the Capitol grounds since that’s where the entrance to the CVC reside, however, there’s plenty more to see including a carillon dedicated to Robert A. Taft, son of former president William Howard Taft, a monument dedicated to Ulysses S. Grant, and a red-bricked hexagonal space dubbed “Summerhouse” built specifically as a place for visitors to have a rest.
The U.S. Capitol is just one of the many historic sights to see while visiting and staying in Washington, D.C. To get the most out of your visit to the “Hill”, walk around the neighborhood and try some of the nearby eateries like Rose’s Luxury on Barracks Row, where you might even rub shoulders with a congressman or two.