A tour of the U.S. Capitol should be obligatory for everyone coming to the nation's capital. More than any other Washington landmark, it embodies the United State's past, present, and future. To further enrich the goosebump-raising experience of glimpsing its hallowed halls and history, I hereby make the following recommendations.
- Contact your senator or congressional representative to reserve space on a free staff-led tour (15 or fewer participants). Not sure who your reps are? I'll keep your secret. You'll find an alphabetical list at www.visitthecapitol.gov. The tour is appropriate for children 10 and older. If you're turned down, don't pout. You may join a larger group tour by signing up at the same website. Bottom line: You must reserve in advance. The Capitol used to be a casual, drop-in place. The rules changed after 9-11.
- Prepare by reading some back story. If you're unable to pick up a book or surf the Web before leaving home, you'll find relevant books in most Smithsonian museum gift shops, stand-alone souvenir shops, and nearby bookstores, like B. Dalton Bookseller in Union Station (tel. 202/289-1750), or Barnes and Noble, a few blocks from the Mall at 555 12th St. NW (between E and F streets) (tel. 202/347-0176).
- Dress for success, in this case, to gain entry. Bags larger than 14" wide by 13" high by 4" deep are prohibited. All bags, regardless of size, are searched. Check the website for a list of prohibited articles. www.visitthecapitol.gov.
- Do not drive to the Capitol as parking is scarce and the streets confound those of us who've been here since John and Abigail moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. If you insist, park in the multi-level garage at Union Station with access from Massachusetts Avenue, NE (ramp on East side of Union Station) or H Street NE. (tel. 202/898-1950; www.unionstationdc.com). From there, it's a 10-15 minute walk. Parking for 5-12 hours will set you back $17 (spring-summer 2009). On your way in or out, grab a snack or meal at Union Station, rich with dining choices.
- The Metro stations closest to the Capitol are Capitol South and Federal Center (stops on the Blue and Orange lines), and Union Station (Red line).
- If you're hoofing it from a museum or memorial on the Mall, head for the gargantuan scoop of ice cream (the Capitol dome crowned by the statue of Freedom). Anchoring the east end of the National Mall, the building's boundaries are Constitution Avenue to the north, Independence Avenue to the south; First Street (NE and SE) to the East, First Street (NW and SW) to the West. Yes, it's confusing. Thank Pierre L'Enfant. And always carry a map.
- To avoid the largest crowds, visit first thing in the morning. Some say the quietest time is between noon and 1pm. I wouldn't know, that's my chow time. We agree on this: The busiest times are weekends, major holidays, Spring Break, and late June through mid-August. Take note: Things are relatively quiet in late August as Congress is on break and many families are at the other mall buying school supplies.
- Enter at the glitzy, controversial Visitor Center which opened in December 2008. It took only 8 years and $621 million to complete. (What they hey: A million bucks is the new dime.) The addition turned the once beautiful East Front into a department store entrance, but nobody asked my opinion. Gain entry below the Capitol's East Plaza, between Constitution and Independence Avenues. The V.C. is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m and tours are given between 8:50a.m. and 3:20p.m., Monday through Saturday. No action here on Sundays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, and Inauguration Day (January 20 every fourth year; next one is Jan. 20, 2013).
- Take time to explore the statuary, fountains, trees and grounds. With younger children this may be the highlight of their visit.
- Before moving on, walk to the West Front and photograph the Reflecting Pool and Mall across to the Lincoln Memorial.
Beth Rubin is the author of Frommer's Washington, D.C. With Kids. Visiting the U.S. Capitol is one of her favorite D.C. experiences.