If you’re visiting Washington, DC, take a tour of the U.S. Capitol, not only for its historic and civic importance, but also for its exquisite art and architecture. Take the steps or elevator down to the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center located on the east side of building facing the Supreme Court. This massive, underground complex serves as the entry point for public tours. It also contains a restaurant, gift shops and a museum. Get more information about planning a visit here or learn about the mobile apps here.
Upon entering the building, you will go through an airport-like security screening. Be sure to read the strict security guidelines here before you arrive so that you’re not carrying items that will get you turned away. For example, my camera backpack is too large and there is no baggage check at the entrance, so I have to carry a smaller bag when I visit the Capitol. You do not need a tour pass to enter and walk around the Capitol Visitor Center, but you do have to go through security.
To take a tour of the Capitol, you’ll need a free, timed tour pass. You can reserve them in advance here or pick them up on a walk-in basis at the Capitol Visitor Center in Emancipation Hall. During heavy tourist seasons, such as summer and spring break, or if you’re coming with a large group, you should consider booking in advance. It can be quite crowded. If you come at an off-peak time, such as weekdays in the fall or winter, you’re more likely to get a walk-in tour with a reasonable wait time. Whichever option you choose, helpful human guides inside the building will point you to the correct waiting line. If you have little ones who like to roam, you might want to consider waiting until they are older to take the tour, when they can handle large crowds and tight security.
Unless you have special access, you have to take a guided tour. There is not a self-guided tour option beyond the Capitol Visitor Center for the general public. During the times I visited, the tour went like this:
At your designated tour pass time, you’ll be grouped with about 15 people and assigned a tour guide. You’ll enter a theater to watch a short movie called “Out of Many, One” about the Capitol’s architectural and legislative history. It’s quite inspiring. Upon exiting the movie, your tour guide will give you a listening device, which allows them to talk to your group without shouting over crowds and noise. During busy times, there are multiple tours going on simultaneously.
Typically, the tour guide will take you to three parts of the building, not necessarily in this order:
The Crypt. It’s the lower level directly underneath the Rotunda (or, the dome). The star etched in the middle of the floor marks the intersection of the four quadrants that divide Washington, DC – NE, NW, SE, SW. The crypt was originally intended to be the tomb of George Washington, but in accordance with his will, Washington’s ancestors prevented removal of his remains from his home at Mount Vernon.
National Statuary Hall. This was the chamber for the House of Representatives before the new House wing was completed in 1857. Designed by architect Henry Latrobe in Greek revival style, this ornate, semicircular room, though hailed for its beauty and grandeur, was not designed for practicality. Congressmen immediately complained about the poor acoustics. The smooth, curved ceiling created strange echos and carried private conversations across the room. There were no political secrets kept in here!
Today, the chamber houses the bulk of the National Statuary Hall Collection – a special collection of marble and bronze statues donated by each state of up to two of its noteworthy, deceased citizens. For example, steamboat inventor Robert Fulton represents Pennsylvania. Statesman and orator Daniel Webster represents New Hampshire. The current list of statues is here, or on the mobile app here. You’ll also find some of the collection in the Visitor Center, the Crypt, the Rotunda and the Hall of Columns. Even if you’ve never visited the Capitol, this room may look familiar. Members of Congress often do TV news interviews in here.
The Rotunda. This is the inside of the U.S. Capitol’s magnificent, cast iron dome. You’ll be in awe of the architecture, statues and paintings. Look up to see George Washington staring down at you from his lofty perch on the dome’s canopy. He is the central figure in artist Constantino Brumidi‘s incredible fresco The Apotheosis of Washington. Brumidi also designed The Frieze of American History, the monochromatic fresco that forms a band around the Rotunda. He was in the process of painting it when he died in 1880. It was later completed by artists Filippo Costaggini and Allyn Cox.
Eight 12’x18′ paintings decorate the lower portion of the dome. Revolutionary War artist John Trumbull painted four of the eight, including the most famous one in the collection titled Declaration of Independence. You can read more about the art and architecture of the Rotunda here.
After you tour the three parts of the Capitol, you’ll return to the Visitor Center. Enjoy the restaurant, gift shops, and Exhibition Hall. Or find out about other specialty tours. Here’s a helpful video with more information about taking the tour.
Check out the specialty tours and programs offered at the U.S. Capitol here. If you’ve become a Brumidi fan after seeing his work in the Rotunda, take the “Halls of the Senate” tour to see more.
With special passes, you can visit the House and Senate galleries, or watch Congress in session. This is not part of the Capitol Tour. Learn how to obtain passes here.
NOTE: EXHIBITION HALL IS CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS UNTIL 2021
If you have time before or after your tour, visit the Exhibition Hall located behind the huge, plaster Statue of Freedom. You cannot take photos in here. This small museum contains some wonderful artifacts and exhibits related to the history of Congress and the Capitol building. For instance, inside a dark cove is the Lincoln Catafalque, the platform where assassinated President Abraham Lincoln’s casket was placed while he lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Also take the time to walk around Emancipation Hall to see more statues from the National Statuary Hall Collection. Not all of them could fit in the main Hall. See the statue of Helen Keller representing Alabama, and Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert representing Colorado. Visit the gift shop as well. I recommend picking up a copy of the We, the People Guidebook, now on its 17th edition, produced by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
Also in the Visitor Center is a tunnel leading to the Library of Congress, a shortcut that allows you to bypass the security check at the Library. It’s a time saver on a crowded day, and will spare you from waiting outside in the security check line in the often unpleasant DC weather.
After you tour the inside of the U.S. Capitol, go for a stroll on the Capitol Grounds. Enjoy the beautiful, winding paths, historic monuments and memorials, and the other unique architectural details that enhance the landscape. You’ll be glad you did!
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