If you’re planning a trip to Washington DC, no doubt there are a few top tourist spots that you want to tick off your list. One of them is probably to do a tour of the White House. Unfortunately, visiting the White House is not as straightforward as you might hope and it may not be possible at all to tour the White House as a tourist.
Luckily the U.S Capitol welcomes tourists from all over the world and it’s pretty easy to plan your visit! Of course they have ramped up security since the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021 but it’s still open to the public and visitors are most welcome. Be sure to read what items are prohibited before you arrive, to avoid delays at the security check – or to avoid not being able to enter at all.
What is the Capitol and is it worth visiting?
The Capitol is the symbol of the American government and its people. It’s the meeting place of the U.S. Congress and a working office. Construction began in 1793 and has evolved and expanded over the years. Today it consists of The Congress, The House of Representatives and The Senate.
It’s such an important part of history – both past and current – and is definitely worth visiting to learn more about the U.S. government and American democracy. In addition to this, it is also home to an impressive collection of American art.
How much does it cost to visit the U.S. Capitol?
You’ll be delighted to know, especially if you’re on a budget, that a tour of the U.S Capitol is completely free!
How to book tickets for your free tour
You don’t need a reservation to tour the Capitol but they are recommended as they get very busy and you may need to wait for spaces to become available. You can book your preferred date and time on the Visit the Capitol website. There are two separate queues – one for pre-booked tickets and one for people without reservations. Even though the pre-booked ticket line seemed very long when we joined it, it moved pretty quickly.
When is the U.S. Capitol open?
The Capitol Visitor Center is open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, Monday to Friday. Note that there are no tours over the weekends. The Capitol also closes over certain holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, so be sure to check before you plan to visit.
Are the Capitol tours only in English?
At the moment, the tours are all in English apart from daily tours at 8:40 am which are in Mandarin and Spanish. The guides use a translation device for the headsets. If you wish to join one of these tours you will need to email three days in advance for reservations. Note that these tours are limited to 50 visitors at a time.
There are ‘follow-along’ handouts available in a number of languages, including Arabic, German, Hindi, Russian, Italian, Korean and more.
How accessible is the U.S. Capitol?
The Capitol is accessible and there are staff available to help with accessibility needs. Take a look at their website for the range of accessibility services that they offer. For example, they provide shuttle buses, visitors can borrow a wheelchair, there are audio described tours and brochures in large print and Braille.
What areas in the U.S. Capitol can you visit?
Every tour starts at one of the two orientation theaters, where you watch a 13 minute film which explains how the new form of government was formed, the vital role that Congress plays and also some history about the building itself. After the film, visitors join lines where they are given headsets and allocated a tour guide.
The first stop on the tour is the crypt, which is a stunning oval room with forty Aquia Creek sandstone columns supporting the floor above.
Inside the Crypt are 13 statues from the National Statuary Hall Collection, which represent the 13 original colonies. There is also a Magna Carta replica.
After the crypt, the tour moves upstairs to The Rotunda, which is a stunning, circular, domed room that sits in the centre of the Capitol. Work on the Rotunda started in 1818 and was completed in 1824. In the mid-1800s there was an extension built and a new, high dome was authorised.
The beautiful frieze that can be seen along the walls was started in 1877 by Constantino Brumidi, however he died the following year. Filippo Costaggini was then commissioned to complete the eight remaining American history scenes using Brumidi’s sketches. When the frieze was completed in 1889, they discovered a gap of over 31 feet remained! Sixty-fives years later, the frieze was finally completed by Allyn Cox in 1953.
The stunning frieze within the eye of the dome itself was painted in 1865 by Brumidi, an Italian who had painted in the Vatican in Rome. The painting is titled Apotheosis of Washington and depicts a seated George Washington rising to the heavens. He is flanked by female figures who represent Liberty and Victory, and they are surrounded by six groups of figures. It’s really a breathtaking work of art.
National Statuary Hall
After the Rotunda, you’re guided past the Speaker of the House’s office to the National Statuary Hall, which is built in the shape of an amphitheater. This room is also one of the earliest examples of Greek revival architecture in America.
States are invited to submit a statue of a prominent person from their State to be displayed in the hall. It’s one of the most popular rooms in the Capitol and continues to be used for ceremonial occasions. It’s also played host to historical inaugurations, when it was known as The Hall of the House, such as Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.
Perhaps not that surprising is the lack of women represented currently. I think I counted three, including aviator Amelia Earhart and activist Rosa Parks. However, looking through the brochure afterwards, there did seem to be more women represented than I thought.
Getting to the Capitol
There are three metro stops in walking distance to the Capitol:
- Union Station (red line)
- Capitol South (blue line)
- Federal Center (blue line)
If you’re travelling by car, note that there is limited public parking near the Capitol. The nearest place to park is by Union Station. If you’re travelling by bicycle, there are bike racks near the entrance to the Capitol Visitor Center on First Street SE and NE.
Once you’ve completed your visit, I highly recommend a walk down the iconic National Mall towards the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
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