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. The importance of the Capitol and of Congress is meant to be unmistakable.
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; see below), but in its masterful architecture, as well as within the many historical works of art and artifacts displayed within the massive building.
More recently, this iconic American symbol has endured a series of trying events. The building closed to visitors in early 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. Then, on January 6, 2021, a riot broke out here as a mob attacked the Capitol trying to overturn the election of President Joe Biden. The building was vandalized, and violence erupted, resulting in the deaths of five people. This event delayed the reopening of the building to the public.
Now that it has reopened, it remains the fact that a tour of this iconic American symbol is a necessary stop on any first-time tour of D.C.
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. The Capitol dome weighs 9 million pounds, roughly the same as 20 Statues of Liberty.
The 45-minute guided tour starts in the Capitol Visitor Center, where you’ll watch a 13-minute orientation film, then takes you to the Crypt, the Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, 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. 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. Thirteen presidents have lain in state here, with former president George H. W. Bush, in 2018, the most recent; when John F. Kennedy’s casket was displayed, the line of mourners stretched 40 blocks. It’s an honor bestowed on only 32 people in 169 years, among them Congressman John L. Lewis and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, both in 2020. On rare occasions, someone other than a president, military hero, or member of Congress receives posthumous recognition. In 2021, U.S. Capitol Police Officers Brian Sicknick and William Evans, who were killed in the line of duty, were honored. In 2018, the Reverend Billy Graham lay in honor in the Capitol. And in October 2005, Congress paid tribute to civil rights legend Rosa Parks by allowing her body to lie in honor here, different from lying in state.
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. Inside the 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. 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 George Washington; a pensive Abraham Lincoln (sculpted from 1866 to 1871 by Vinnie Reams, the first woman artist to receive a government commission); a dignified Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; a ponderous trinity of suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott; and a bronze statue of President Ronald Reagan, looking characteristically genial.
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. There are 100 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 Florida did in 2018, authorizing the replacement of the state’s 1922 choice of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith with that of civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. (Bethune was born and lived in Florida; she also worked for a while in Washington, D.C., where she founded the National Council of Negro Women and advised President Roosevelt.
Because of space constraints, only 38 statues reside in the Hall, with the figures of seven presidents displayed in the Rotunda (the Rotunda holds three other presidents’ statues, which are not part of the Statuary Hall Collection), 24 statues placed in the Visitor Center, and the remaining 34 standing in the Crypt (directly below the Rotunda), the Hall of Columns (directly beneath the Hall of the House of Representatives), 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, one of the first two senators from Missouri and whose antislavery stance in 1850 cost him his Senate seat. Counting Mary McLeod Bethune (see above), 10 women are represented, including Alabama-born Helen Keller and Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress. The District of Columbia was finally allowed a statue in 2013: It added a full-sized bronze depiction of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who 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!
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. The justices handed down a number of noteworthy decisions here, including in 1857 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 a tour, but the south and north wings of the Capitol hold the House and Senate chambers, respectively. You must obtain a pass from the office of your senator or representative to visit these galleries. (See below for info on watching Senate and House sessions.). The House of Representatives chamber is the setting for the president’s annual State of the Union address.
The enormous, 4,000-person-capacity Capitol Visitor Center (where the tours start) is underground, which means that as you approach the East Front of the Capitol, you won’t actually see it. Look for signs and the sloping sets of steps on each side of the Capitol’s central section, leading down to the center’s entrances. Once inside you’ll pass through security screening and then enter the two-level chamber.
Most visitors find it works best to explore the center after touring the Capitol. You can admire the 24 Statuary Hall statues scattered throughout and tour Exhibition Hall, a mini-museum of historic documents; check out interactive kiosks that take you on virtual tours of the Capitol, filling you in on history, art, and architecture; and view exhibits that explain the legislative process, including some for children. Emancipation Hall is the large central chamber where you line up for tours; this is also where you’ll find the 26 restrooms and 530-seat restaurant and two gift shops.
The visitor center is open Monday through Saturday year-round from 8:30am to 3:30pm, closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Inauguration Day. It may also be closed for special events such as the State of the Union.
A note on the area right outside the building: Immediately surrounding the Capitol itself are 59 acres of beautifully kept grounds, originally landscaped in 1874 by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also planned NYC’s Central Park. The Capitol sometimes offers tours of the grounds in spring.
Procedures for Touring the Capitol: Tours of the Capitol are free and take place year-round, Monday through Saturday between 8:50am and 3:20pm. Capitol Guide Service guides lead the hour-long, general public tours, which can include as few as one or two people or as many as 40 or 50, depending on the season. These guides—often historians in their own right—are repositories of American lore, traditions, anecdotes, and, of course, actual fact. Got a question? Ask away. These guides know their stuff.
You and everyone in your party must have a timed pass, which you can order online at www.visitthecapitol.gov. During peak spring and summer sessions, you should order tickets at least 2 weeks in advance. Same-day passes are also available daily from the “visitors without reservations” walkup line near the information desks on the lower level of the visitor center—even during peak times, the guides seem somehow to accommodate the crowds, so always try for a tour, even if the online system indicates that no passes are available. You can also contact your representative or senator in Congress and request constituent tours, which are usually limited to groups of 15 and conducted by congressional staff, who may take you to notable places in the Capitol beyond those seen on the public tour. Nevertheless, we recommend sticking with the regular Capitol Guide tour, since the guides are more experienced and knowledgeable.
The Capitol has quite a list of items it prohibits; you can read the list online at www.visitthecapitol.gov (and also make sure there that the Capitol will be open when you visit). Items ranging from large bags of any kind to food and drink are prohibited; leave everything you can back at the hotel.
The Capitol Guide Service also offers topical tours, on a variety of subjects. Recent offerings included tours of the Brumidi corridors and tours that focused on civil-rights freedom fighters represented in the Capitol collections.
Procedures for Visiting the House Gallery or Senate Gallery: Both the Senate and House galleries are open to visitors whenever either body is in session ★-★★★, so do try to sit in. (The experience receives a range of star ratings because a visit can prove fascinating or deadly boring, depending on whether a debate is underway and how lively it is.) Otherwise the Senate Gallery is open to visitors during scheduled recesses of 1 week or more, Monday to Friday 9am to 4:15pm, and the House Gallery is open to visitors Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm. Children 5 and under are not allowed in the Senate gallery. You can obtain visitor passes at the offices of your representative and senators, or in the case of District of Columbia and Puerto Rico residents, from the office of your delegate to Congress. To find out your member’s office location, go online at www.house.gov or www.senate.gov or call tel. 202/225-3121. You must have a separate pass for each gallery. Once obtained, the passes are good through the remainder of the Congress. Note: International visitors can obtain both House and Senate gallery passes by presenting a passport or a valid driver’s license with photo ID to staff at the House and Senate appointments desks on the upper level of the visitor center.
The main, staffed offices of congressional representatives and delegates are in House buildings on the south (Independence Ave.) side of the Capitol; senators’ main, staffed offices are located in Senate buildings on the north (Constitution Ave.) side. You should be able to pick up passes to both the Senate and House galleries in one place, at either your representative’s office or one of your senators’ offices. Visit the website of the Architect of the Capitol, the Visitor Center website or call your senator’s or congressperson’s office for more exact information about obtaining passes to the House and Senate galleries.
Tip: You’ll know that the House and/or the Senate is in session if you see flags flying over their respective wings of the Capitol (Remember: House, south side; Senate, north side), or you can visit their websites, www.house.gov and www.senate.gov, for schedules of bill debates in the House and Senate, committee markups, and links to your Senate or House representative’s page.