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As the capital of the United States, Washington D.C. is an important city where all decisions regarding the future of the country are decided.
For anyone visiting the city who has a passion for politics, visiting the place where it all happens is a must on any Washington itinerary.
The United States Capitol building is not only an important political center but an iconic monument in DC. Its Renaissance-inspired architecture and recognizable dome can be seen for miles along The National Mall.
But visiting the U.S. Capitol isn’t as simple as just rocking up.
Because it’s still a working office building, entry for tourism is at a limited capacity each day. Fortunately, it’s still free!
If you’re thinking of visiting the U.S. Capitol building but not sure how to do it, or what there is to see, this guide will tell you everything you need to know.
About the U.S. Capitol Building
The U.S. Capitol Building is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, and it has a long and storied history.
It’s the place where the Senate and House of Representatives come together to debate, deliberate, and decide on political issues and enact laws.
The building was first designed by William Thornton, and its construction was completed in 1793. The building has been extended by several architects over the years and even set on fire in 1814 by the British, to which much of the original building was destroyed and rebuilt.
The Capitol has been the site of many important events in American history, such as the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Today, the Capitol is home to the U.S. Congress, and it remains an important symbol of American democracy.
Is the U.S. Capitol worth visiting?
US Capitol Building
The U.S. Capitol is one of the most iconic and monumental buildings in Washington DC.
As well as being a historic building filled with architectural beauty and priceless artwork, it also houses an interactive Exhibition Hall where you can learn a lot about the history of American politics and the legislature.
Most people who visit say they enjoy the experience and learn a lot, so it’s definitely worth visiting if you’re interested in learning about American politics.
Unfortunately, thanks to the January 6th storming of the Capitol, our girls were excited to visit Capitol Hill just so they could see where it all happened. (They definitely were NOT in approval of what happened!)
As we’re also planning to become US citizens, and they learn so much about the branches of government in school, I know this would be a great Washington attraction with kids.
I really enjoyed the tour and were glad we fit it into our 3-day DC Holiday trip. I wish I knew in advance about visiting the House and Senate galleries as I would have loved to have seen them – especially in session.
How to Visit the U.S. Capitol Building
The U.S. Capitol is one of the top things to do in Washington DC and should be at the top of any Washington itinerary.
To visit, you must make a reservation and book a tour, even if you just want to see the Exhibition Hall. This is because the number of people entering the building is limited each day. (If you don’t mind long lines, there are limited same-day tickets available – but I wouldn’t risk it)
The tours and entrance are free to all visitors.
If you want to visit the House and Senate galleries or watch Congress in session, you must book this beforehand by reaching out to your local Congressman.
What do you see on the U.S. Capitol tour?
A guided tour of the US Capitol starts with an informative 13-minute film called “Out of Many, One,” which shares the history of this building and branch of government.
From there, the 45 tour takes you through the historic areas of the Capitol, such as the Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, and Crypt. You do not visit the Senate and House Galleries on the free tour, this requires a separate pass to visit.
Our tour in The Crypt
The Crypt is located beneath the Rotunda and was completed in 1827. This vaulted space isn’t actually a crypt, it’s just named this because it resembles crypts seen in churches and tombs.
It was originally built to support the Rotunda (with its 40 neoclassical Doric columns) and for Washington’s tomb, but he was buried in Mt Vernon.
The columned room features 13 statues from the National Statuary Hall Collection. Each of the statues represents the 13 original colonies. You can also see a compass stone on the floor, which marks the central most point of the building.
Inside the Crypt you also have a Magna Carta replica on display.
Rotunda under the dome
The Rotunda is the room that most people want to visit when entering the U.S. State Capitol.
The Rotunda was built in 1824 and has a neo-classical style, similar to The Pantheon in Rome. The space is used for ceremonial events and features many incredible works of art and statues.
It’s so big, the Statue of Liberty could fit inside of it.
Standing under the Domed Capitol
The Frieze of American History
The painted ceiling of the dome is quite beautiful with George Washington rising to the heaves with liberty and victory on his left and right. In the center are the words E Pluribus Unum, which means “Out of One Many” the traditional motto of the United States.
It took Italian Greek painter, Constantino Brumidi, 11 months to paint the fresco.
Another beautiful part of the Rotunda is the The Frieze of American History. It’s painted panorama depicting significant events in American history beginning with America’s history from the landing of Columbus and ending with the Wright’s Brother’s First in Flight in the Outer Banks.
National Statuary Hall
The National Statuary Hall, or the Old Hall of the House, is the main exhibition space for the National Statuary Hall Collection. It resembles a Roman Amphitheatre and is lined with statues.
It was once where House of Representatives met until 1857 when they moved to new chambers as it became too small and dirty. So dirty that Charles Dickens said he’d only pick up something off the floor if he had a gloved hand.
The National Statuary Hall Collection holds statues donated by each of the United States, portraying notable persons in the histories of the respective states.
Each state is allowed to send two statues to the Capitol, and they can be swapped out. It was good to see some elements of diversity with the statues with notable women, Native Americans and Black Americans represented, but I still feel this could improve somewhat.
Not all statues donated are in this room but spread throughout the Capitol Building. Several of which we saw in the Crypt and Rotunda.
The space is still used for ceremonial events today.
Specialty Tours of the U.S. Capitol Building
If you’ve already done the free tour of the U.S. Capitol Building, then you might enjoy some of the specialty tours.
The Halls of Senate Tour
The Halls of Senate Tour takes place every Monday-Friday at 11.00 am and 2.00 pm and takes visitors high above the Rotunda and inside the Capitol Dome.
Here you can see works from Italian American artist Constantino Brumidi, who painted the “Apotheosis of George Washington” on the inside of the dome.
He also painted some of the building’s corridors and committee rooms. You can see more of his work in the Senate Wing on this short 30-minute tour.
Votes For Women Tour
If you’re interested in learning about women’s rights in America, then the Votes for Women Tour is a short one-hour tour that takes you on a journey through the work of women who fought for women’s rights.
You can learn about influential women such as Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to Ida B. Wells, Alice Paul, and Inez Milholland as you wander through the Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, and Emancipation Hall.
This tour takes place Monday to Friday at 12.00 pm.
Indigenous Peoples In Capitol Art Tour
Another short one-hour tour is the Indigenous Peoples in Capitol Art tour, which takes you around to see The Capitol’s art collection that specially represents the indigenous people and how they have grown throughout the generations.
This tour takes place every Monday to Friday at 1.00 pm.
Heroes Of Civil Rights Tour
If you’re interested in learning more about the civil rights movement that ended slavery, then this is the tour to take. It tells the story of the extraordinary lives of people who shaped the path that ended slavery.
The tour passes through the Emancipation Hall and the Old Senate Chamber. It lasts for one hour and takes place every Monday to Friday at 3.00 pm.
How to Watch Congress in Session (Senate and House Galleries)
If you want to visit the Senate and House Galleries, you can do so when either body is in session.
Visiting this part of the U.S. Capitol Building is a bit of a pain for tourists.
You first need to get a reservation to enter the Visitor Center, and then queue for entry to the House of Representatives Gallery line located on the South Side of the Capitol.
If you want to enter the Senate Gallery, you must queue for entry on the North side of the Capitol.
If you’re travelling from outside the USA, you must queue at the South Side to get a special international visitor’s pass.
What to See in The Exhibition Hall and Galleries
As well as touring the building, you can also visit the Exhibition Hall which is accessed through the Visitors Center.
This is a museum full of interactive exhibits that tell the history of Congress and the U.S. Capitol.
You can learn about the development of the 12 major pieces of legislation, have a go at passing legislation, view the table from President Lincoln’s second inauguration, and take a virtual tour of the building.
We had a quick look at this before our tour. We ran out of time both before and after for a good look. The exhibitions are well worth allowing time for.
Emancipation Hall & Statue of Freedom
Statue of Freedom on the Dome
Statue of Freedom inside the Capitol
The Emancipation Hall is part of the Capitol Visitor Center and is where everybody gathers while waiting for their tour to start. It was named to recognize the contributions of the enslaved laborers who helped build the U.S. Capitol.
There are more statues in here from the National Statue Collection
A possible highlight of your US Capitol tour will be seeing the plaster model of the Statue of Freedom, which is what is at the very top of the US Capitol dome.
Before doing this tour, I didn’t even know there was as symbolic statue at the top of the dome.
Opening Hours and Entrance Fee
The Capitol Visitor Center is open from 9.00 am until 3:30 pm, Monday to Friday. It is closed on weekends, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Inauguration Day.
The great news is it’s free to enter the Exhibition Hall and all tours of the U.S. State Capitol are free.
However, you need to book at least six months in advance as they limit the number of visitors to just 50 per day.
Guided tours are conducted in English, but brochures are offered for those who don’t speak English so they can follow along with the brochure. You can book tours in Mandarin and Spanish at 8:40 am.
NOTE: You can do a paid guided tour of the Capitol Building and Library of Congress. It also includes a stop at the Supreme Court and the ability to relax as your guide shares the history and insider information. You also then won’t need to worry about reserving tickets in advance or waiting on long lines as your entry is included in the tour. Book your spot here.
Tips for Visiting the United States Capitol Building
Before you rush off and book your tour, there are just a few things you need to be aware of before you visit the State Capitol Building in Washington D.C. For example…
Familiarize yourself with the list of prohibited items you cannot bring with you. Such as any food and drink, including a water bottle or any liquid, even if it’s a small bottle of water. There is a storage area where you can keep your belongings, but it will save you time if you know what you can and cannot take.
Dress politely. The Capitol Building is a working building and it is required to dress respectfully when visiting.
Be quiet at all times. You are asked to use a quiet voice when talking with others and put your phone on silent mode, especially when taking a tour.
Don’t touch the artwork. The oils and bacteria on your fingers can destroy the paintings.
Don’t wander off or go behind the rope. They will likely arrest you for this, and that’s one sure way to ruin a trip!
Book your tour in advance. It’s usual for tours to fill up since there are only 50 spots per day, so book as early as you possibly can to avoid disappointment.
FAQs About Visiting the U.S. Capitol
Here’s what people usually ask us about visiting the U.S. State Capitol Building…
Can you just walk into the Capitol in Washington, DC?
People can visit the U.S. State Capitol via the Visitor Center, which is the entrance to the Exhibition Hall where you can learn about the U.S. legislature history. From here, you can also take tours. It is closed on Sundays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Inauguration Day.
How long does it take to tour the Capitol Building?
The tour usually takes around 90 minutes from start to finish.
Can I visit the Capitol without reservation?
You must have a reservation to enter the Visitor Center and to do the tour.
Where is the entrance to the U.S. Capitol Building?
The entrance is located underground on the east side of the Capitol Building, located on First Street and East Capitol Street. This is where you’ll find the Visitor Center and Exhibition Hall, and where you start the tour.
Before You Go
View from Capitol Grounds
So there you have it, this is everything you need to know about visiting the U.S. State Capitol. We hope you found this guide useful and helped you plan your visit.
Before you go, make sure you reserve your ticket in advance or you won’t be allowed to enter. It can really ruin a trip when you turn up somewhere and get denied at the entrance, so be sure to plan ahead.
Don’t forget to wander around the grounds of the Capitol as well. There are beautiful views from all angles, and each side looks completely different.
Where to Stay in Washington DC
When choosing accommodation for Washington DC, it’s best to look for a hotel within walking distance to the National Mall. Especially, if your stay is short and it’s most focused on the popular DC attractions in this area. If traveling a little further out, you’ll also want accommodation close to a Metro station. Parking is at a premium in DC, so we don’t recommend driving around.
Here are some hotel recommendations from us:
We stayed at The Madison Hotel on 15th street only a couple of blocks away from the White House. We could walk everywhere – Georgetown was even a 3-minute walk from our hotel. The room was comfortable but most important of all, was the convenient location. Book your stay here.
The Duo Nomad Hostel is a great budget accommodation option for those wanting to stay in the city.
Previously, we’ve stayed at The Hilton Garden Inn in the Georgetown area / west end of downtown when we visited the White House , which met all our needs as a tourist AND business traveler.
I also love the look of the Kimpton Banneker – it’s our favorite hotel brand and within walking distance to the National Mall. You will have amenity fees at this hotel, however, so will need to factor that into your budget.
Click here if looking for vacation rentals.
More Travel tips for Washington DC
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