The buildings housing the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the U.S. government remain among the most visited sites in Washington. All three -- the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court -- are stunning to behold and experience, and offer fascinating lessons in American history and government. Although these landmarks are not as freely open to the public as they were before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all three do allow tours.
The Capitol Visitor Center
The enormous, 4,000-person-capacity Capitol Visitor Center is underground, which means that as you approach the East Front of the Capitol, you won’t actually see it. But look for signs and the sloping sets of steps on either 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.
If you have time before or after your tour, you’ll find plenty to do here. (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, which is a mini-museum of historic document displays; check out interactive kiosks that take you on virtual tours of the Capitol, filling you in on history, art, and architecture; and marvel at exhibits that explain the legislative process. 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.
The visitor center is open Monday through Saturday year-round from 8:30am to 4:30pm, but closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Inauguration Day.
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. Here I must sing the praises of these guides, who are often historians in their own right, 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. But same-day passes are also available daily from the “public walk-up” near the information desks on the lower level of the visitor center—in limited supply during peak times, but plentiful at off-peak times, particularly in January and February. You can also contact your representative or senator in Congress and request passes for 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 general public tour. No matter what, call tel 202/225-6827 in advance of your visit; that way you’ll know for sure whether the Capitol is open.
The Capitol has quite a list of items it prohibits; you can read the list online at www.visitthecapitol.gov or listen to a recitation by calling the phone number above. 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 other special tours and talks on an ongoing basis, though the specific topics might change. Recent offerings included tours of the Brumidi corridors and tours that focused on the Capitol and Congress during the Civil War. Look online or ask at the visitor center information desk for details about these presentations.
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 one week or more, Monday to Friday 9am to 4:15pm, and the House Gallery is open to visitors year-round Monday to Friday 9am to 4:15pm. 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 and follow the links to find information for your congressional representative or your senators, or call tel 202/225-3121 to speak to a Capitol operator. 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, near the main entrance.
The main, staffed offices of congressional representatives and delegates are in House buildings on the south (Independence Avenue) side of the Capitol; senators’ main, staffed offices are located in Senate buildings on the north (Constitution Avenue) 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 Architect of the Capitol’s website, www.aoc.gov, the visitor center website, www.visitthecapitol.gov, or call your senator’s or congressperson’s office for more exact information about obtaining passes to the House and Senate galleries.
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 an in-depth education on the legislative process; schedules of bill debates in the House and Senate, committee markups, and meetings; and links to your Senate or House representative’s page.
Capitol and Capitol Visitor Center: E. Capitol St. (at 1st St. NW). www.visitthecapitol.gov, www.aoc.gov, www.house.gov, www.senate.gov. tel 202/225-6827 (recording), 202/593-1768 (Capitol Guide Service Office), or 202/225-3121 (Capitol operator). Free admission. Year-round Mon–Sat 8:30am–4:30pm (first tour at 8:50am, last tour at 3:20pm). Closed for tours Sun and Jan 1, Thanksgiving, Dec 25, and Inauguration Day. Parking at Union Station or on neighborhood streets. Metro: Union Station (Massachusetts Ave. exit) or Capitol South, then walk to the Capitol Visitor Center, located on the East Front of the Capitol.
How to Arrange a White House tour
White House tours are available to the general public year-round from 7:30 to 11:30am Tuesday through Thursday and 7:30am to 1:30pm Friday and Saturday, and at other times as well, depending on the president’s schedule. If the president is out of town, it’s possible that more tours will be allowed past the usual cutoff time. Tours are self-guided, and most people take no more than an hour to go through. You must have a reservation to tour the White House. At least 21 days and as far as 6 months in advance of your trip, call one of your senators’ or your representative’s office with the names of the people in your group and ask for a specific tour date. The tour coordinator consults with the White House on availability and, if your date is available, contacts you to obtain the names, birth dates, Social Security numbers (for those 14 and over), and other information for each of the people in your party. The Secret Service reviews the information and clears you for the tour, putting the names of the people in your group on a confirmed reservation list; you’ll receive a confirmation number and the date and time of your tour well in advance of your trip. (Note: International visitors should contact their embassy for help in submitting a tour request.)
On the day of your tour, call tel 202/456-7041 to make sure the White House is still open to the public that day. Then off you go, to the south side of East Executive Avenue, near the Southeast Gate of the White House, with valid, government-issued photo IDs whose information exactly matches that which you provided to your congressional member’s office. Everyone in your party who is 18 or older must have an ID. Be sure to arrive about 15 minutes before your scheduled tour time.
Do not bring the following prohibited items: backpacks, book bags, handbags, or purses; food and beverages; strollers; cameras; video recorders or any type of recording device; tobacco products; personal grooming items, from cosmetics to hairbrushes; any pointed objects, whether a pen or a knitting needle; aerosol containers; guns; ammunition; fireworks; electric stun guns; maces; martial arts weapons/devices; or knives of any kind. Cellphones are okay, but not to be used as cameras. The White House does not have a coat-check facility, so there is no place for you to leave your belongings while you go on the tour. There are no public restrooms or telephones in the White House, and photos and videotaping are prohibited. Best advice: Leave everything but your wallet back at the hotel.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.