If you’ve never been to Washington, D.C., your mission is clear: Get thee to the National Mall and Capitol Hill. Within this roughly 2 1/2-by- 1/3-mile rectangular plot lie the lion’s share of the capital’s iconic attractions, including presidential and war memorials, the U.S. Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, most of the Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Archives.
In fact, even if you have traveled here before, you’re likely to find yourself returning to this part of town, to pick up where you left off on that long list of sites worth seeing and to visit new ones.
Beyond its iconic attractions lie the city’s charming neighborhoods, standalone museums, historic houses, and beautiful gardens; you don’t want to miss those, either. Tour national landmarks and you’ll gain a great sense of what this country is about, politically and culturally. Tour off-the-Mall attractions and neighborhoods and you’ll get a taste of the vibrant, multicultural local scene that is the real D.C. This chapter will help you do both.
Security precautions and procedures are a post-9/11 fact of life everywhere in America, but especially in the nation’s capital, thanks to the preponderance of federal structures and attractions that are open to the public. What that means for you as a visitor is that you may have to stand in line to enter a national museum (like one of the Smithsonians) or a government building (like the Library of Congress). At many tourist sites, you can expect staff to search handbags, briefcases, and backpacks, either by hand or by X-ray machine. Some sites, including the National Air and Space Museum, require you to walk past metal detectors. During the busy spring and summer seasons, you may be queuing outside as you wait your turn to pass through security. So pack your patience, but otherwise carry as little as possible, and certainly no sharp objects. Museums and public buildings rarely offer lockers for use by visitors.
Call Ahead and Check Online
Here’s a crucial piece of advice: Call ahead or check the websites of the places you plan to tour each day before you set out. Many of Washington’s government buildings, museums, memorials, and monuments are open to the general public daily, year-round—except when they’re not.
Because buildings like the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the White House are offices as well as tourist destinations, the business of the day always poses the potential for closing one of those sites, or at least sections, to sightseers. There’s also the matter of maintenance. The steady stream of visitors to Washington’s attractions necessitates ongoing caretaking, which may require closing an entire landmark, or part of it, to the public, or changing the hours of operation or procedures for visiting. Washington’s famous museums, grand halls, and public gardens sometimes double as settings for press conferences, galas, special exhibits, festivals, and even movie sets. You might arrive at, say, the National Air and Space Museum on a Sunday afternoon, only to find some of its galleries off-limits because a movie shoot is underway. (Have you seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, by the way? Yep, the real Air and Space museum makes an appearance.) To avoid frustration and disappointment, call ahead or check online for up-to-the-minute information.
The U.S. Capitol and flanking Senate and House office buildings dominate this residential neighborhood of tree-lined streets, 19th-century town houses, and pubs and casual eateries. Across the street from the Capitol lie the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress; close by are the smaller but still engrossing Folger Shakespeare Library, the Sewall-Belmont House, and Eastern Market. A bit farther away is Union Station, doing triple duty as historical attraction, shopping mall, and transportation hub. But the neighborhood itself is a pleasure. Explore.
The Capitol GOVERNMENT BUILDING -- In Washington, D.C., one catches sight of the Capitol all around town. That’s no accident: When planner Pierre L’Enfant laid out the capital in 1791, he purposely placed “Congress House” upon this bluff, overlooking the city. Its importance, and the importance of Congress, is meant to be unmistakable. Incontrovertible, too, is the fact that a tour of this iconic American symbol is a necessary stop on any first-time tour of D.C. When you visit here, you understand, in a very visceral way, just what it means to govern a country democratically. The fights and compromises, the din of differing opinions, the necessity of creating “one from the many” (e pluribus unum), without trampling on the rights of that one. It’s a powerful experience. And the ideals of the Congress are not just expressed in the debates on the floor of the House and Senate (though you should try to hear those if you can), but in its masterful architecture, as well as within the many historical works of art and artifacts displayed within the massive building. For 135 years it sheltered not only both houses of Congress, but also the Supreme Court and, for 97 years, the Library of Congress.
Before entering the Capitol, stand back to admire the Capitol dome, from its base up to the pedestal of the “Statue of Freedom,” the 19-foot, 6-inch bronze female figure at its crown. In 2016, the 9-million-pound cast iron Capitol dome’s exterior looks better than ever as it is newly restored, with 1,300 cracks sealed, and scores of finials, rosettes and other decorative ornaments recast.
The hour-long guided tour starts in the Capitol Visitor Center, where you’ll watch a 13-minute orientation film, then takes you to the Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, down to the Crypt, and back to the Visitor Center. Here’s some of what you’ll see:
The Rotunda—a huge 96-foot-wide circular hall capped by a 180-foot-high dome—is the hub of the Capitol. In 2015, a doughnut canopy embraces the interior of the dome, to protect people from stray pieces of plaster or other materials related to the restoration work underway on the dome’s exterior. The doughnut hole allows visitors to view the masterpiece, The Apotheosis of Washington, in the eye of the dome. The dome was completed, at Lincoln’s direction, while the Civil War was being fought: “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on,” said Lincoln. Eleven presidents have lain in state here, with former President Gerald Ford, in 2006, being the most recent; when Kennedy’s casket was displayed, the line of mourners stretched 40 blocks. On rare occasions, someone other than a president, military hero, or member of Congress receives this posthumous recognition. In October 2005, Congress paid tribute to Rosa Parks by allowing her body to lie in state here, the first woman to be so honored. (Parks was the black woman who in 1955 refused to relinquish her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, thereby helping to spark the civil rights movement. On February 27, 2013, Congress further honored Parks by adding a full-sized statue of the civil rights hero to National Statuary Hall. The statue is located in Statuary Hall, but is not part of the state collection.
Embracing the Rotunda walls are eight immense oil paintings commemorating great moments in American history, such as the presentation of the Declaration of Independence and the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. As mentioned above, inside the now-canopied inner dome of the Rotunda is an allegorical fresco masterpiece by Constantino Brumidi, The Apotheosis of Washington, a symbolic portrayal of George Washington surrounded by Roman gods and goddesses watching over the progress of the nation. Brumidi was known as the “Michelangelo of the Capitol” for the many works he created throughout the building. (Take another look at the fresco and find the woman directly below Washington; the triumphant Armed Freedom figure is said to be modeled after Lola Germon, a beautiful young actress with whom the 60-year-old Brumidi conceived a child.) Beneath those painted figures is a trompe l’oeil frieze depicting major developments in the life of America, from Columbus’s landing in 1492 to the birth of the aviation age in 1903. Don’t miss the sculptures in the Rotunda, including: a pensive Abraham Lincoln; a dignified Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; a ponderous trinity of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott; a bronze statue of President Ronald Reagan, looking characteristically genial; and a likeness in granite of President Gerald Ford.
The National Statuary Hall was originally the chamber of the House of Representatives; in 1864 it became Statuary Hall, and the states were invited to send two statues each of native sons and daughters to the hall. There are 100 state-represented statues in all, New Mexico completing the original collection with its contribution in 2005 of Po’Pay, a Pueblo Indian, who in 1680 led a revolt against the Spanish that helped to save Pueblo culture. States do have the prerogative to replace statues with new choices, which is what Iowa did in 2014, swapping out the 1910 choice of U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior James Harlan for Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, known as the “father of the Green Revolution” for his work to increase food production and eliminate world hunger. Because of space constraints, only 35 statues or so reside in the Hall, with the figures of six presidents displayed in the Rotunda, 24 statues placed in the Visitor Center, and the remaining 26 standing in the Crypt and throughout the corridors of the Capitol. Statues include Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero who founded the state of Vermont, and Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton—not the 20th-century artist famous for his rambunctious murals, but his namesake and uncle, who was one of the first two senators from Missouri and whose antislavery stance in 1850 cost him his Senate seat. Nine women are represented, including Alabama-born Helen Keller and Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress.
As of June 19, 2013, the District of Columbia now has a statue representing it: a full-sized bronze depiction of abolitionist Frederick Douglass stands in Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center. Congress has yet to recognize the District as its own state, but at least granted its constituents this representation!
The Crypt of the Capitol lies directly below the Rotunda and is used mainly as an exhibit space for the Statuary Hall collection.
In slow seasons, usually fall and winter, your public tour may include a visit to the Old Supreme Court Chamber, which has been restored to its mid-19th-century appearance. The Supreme Court met here from 1810 to 1860. Busts of the first four chief justices are on display—John Marshall, John Rutledge, John Jay, and Oliver Ellsworth—and so are some of their desks, believed to have been purchased in the 1830s. The justices handed down a number of noteworthy decisions here, including Dred Scott v. Sandford, which denied the citizenship of blacks, whether slaves or free, and in so doing precipitated the Civil War.
You will not see them on your tour, but the south and north wings of the Capitol hold the House and Senate chambers, respectively. The House of Representatives chamber is the setting for the president’s annual State of the Union addresses.
A note on the area right outside the building: Immediately surrounding the Capitol itself are 59 acres of beautifully kept grounds, originally landscaped in 1892 by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also planned New York City’s Central Park. Stroll these winding paths and admire the flower plantings and memorial trees.
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