With my Art Weekend in D.C., I decided to extend by a day so I could do my own tour of D.C. in a short time. I had never visited the iconic buildings of Washington, D.C. – the Capitol, Supreme Court or the White House. For this trip, the White House was under construction and tours need to be requested months in advance. I only had a week’s notice to work with so I took a chance on the U.S. Capitol tour.
Requesting a Tour of the U.S. Capitol Building
If you are a U.S. resident, you can request tour tickets through a member of Congress or the House of Representatives. I went online with my local representative, Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, and filled out the tour request form. A staff member emailed me the next day to confirm that he reserved my space on the U.S. Capitol tour for 10:10 a.m. as he saw on the form that my train home was at 3:30 p.m. Attached to the email was my ticket to present at the tour desk when I arrived at the U.S. Capitol.
Note: There are often same day passes if you want to try your luck (not recommended during summer or school holidays). International visitors can book US Capitol tour requests online.
Arriving at the U.S. Capitol tour
The entrance is behind the U.S. Capitol building as noted on the ticket. I put the U.S. Capitol Tour in my Uber request so that the driver dropped me off in the closest location to the entrance as it was raining the day of my visit. I walked toward the building down the ramp to the entrance. Lucky for me with the rain, there was no line outside waiting. I walked into the building to the airport security type screening and breezed through. I walked toward the stairs to walk down to the tour desk to trade my ticket in for a tour pass. As I was early, there was space on the 9:40 a.m. tour so the staff member asked if I wanted to join that tour, I said yes and she printed out my tour sticker to wear and directed me to my line.
The U.S. Capitol Tour – Movie Theatre Introduction
I waited only a few minutes as the doors to the theatre opened and our group entered. I would guess we had about 40 people in our group and we were told to walk to the top of the theatre and fill in the last rows first and all seats across. We were then presented a movie “Out of One, Many” about America and the work of the U.S. Capitol – the Senate and House of Representatives. In that theatre, it was easy to forget about the politics and drama that are currently ongoing and see what the original intent was, how the U.S. should work together for the people. In that theatre, there was hope, a renewed sense of American spirit. Then the lights came up and we were directed to leave at the top of the theatre to get our headsets and line up. Our guide, Mike, walked the line to make sure we could all hear him narrate the tour.
The Guided Tour of the US Capitol
As the group walked forward toward the small set of escalators, Mike provided background of the building and the tour. We would visit three rooms on the tour – the Crypt, the Rotunda and Statuary Hall.
The U.S. Capitol Tour – Crypt
When we arrived in the crypt, a small room underneath the Rotunda above, which connects the Senate and the House, we were one of four groups to fill the small space, leaving the center open for employee traffic. The many columns are base points for the Rotunda above.
The compass stone on the floor is surrounded by ropes is said to be the center of Washington, D.C. In the circular room, there are thirteen statues representing the original colonies. From Pennsylvania, my home state, a statue of Muhlenberg is represented.
The U.S. Capitol Rotunda
Wow! As you walked into the Rotunda, it’s hard not to be impressed by the soaring domed ceiling, the impressive paintings and the statues in the room. The U.S. Capitol building was more interesting with each room and corridor.
It was like being in a large museum on a tour. The groups were now larger, about eight large groups and a good number of smaller private tours led by Senate and House staff for special guests. If you look closely at the top of the dome, you realize that a select few (7 people per tour, 8 tours a day = 56 special guests) get to go up there! Need to contact your local rep to see what you need to do to get on that tour. On this day, I wasn’t special, just a normal tourist.
The paintings nearest to our group were one of the earliest founders of the United States of America – the marriage of Pocahontas to John Smith. Many statues encircled the Rotunda, some which are gifts and will remain (i.e. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), others are chosen by each states. Each state can choose two statues to represent them and are located throughout the U.S. Capitol – the Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, the Crypt, Hall of Columns (not visited on tour) and the Visitor Center area.
The sheer vastness of the Capitol Rotunda is said to fit the Statue of Liberty and still not touch the top (I couldn’t confirm this but trust the guide when he said it). It’s quite a surprising room full of paintings, statues, architectural wonder (curved sandstone walls) and unique details that a good zoom can capture. What I thought was carvings of the Wright Brothers is actually a painting! What a surprise. The Rotunda was built in many parts over many years and you can see the architectural differences throughout.
National Statuary Hall Visit on the U.S. Capitol Tour
We would leave the Capitol Rotunda and move to a smaller room with many state statues. This room has a special acoustic feature – our guide went to the far end to whisper and without our headsets on we could hear him. The sound feature was reminiscent of amphitheaters I’ve visited in Greece. This room felt crowded and a bit hot with the tour groups but we weren’t here too long. The Greek revival architecture was interesting to see in the building.
While a few statues you have heard of representing your state or from your study of U.S. history, one statue was of a man we hadn’t heard of but really all should know. This man, John Gorrie, was a physician, scientist and inventor. He represents the state of Florida as he invented air conditioning. In Philly, we have awful heat & humidity with summer days exceeding 100 degrees so “thank you” to Florida for honoring this resident who has helped so many folks stay cool. Also in the hall are a few women – Illinois has Frances Lord who championed women’s rights and is the first woman statue while Rosa Parks was commissioned.
Common Areas of the U.S. Capitol Tour
When we left Statuary Hall, our last room to visit on the Capitol Tour, we were led back down the escalator to return our headsets and exit past (not through) the gift shop.
Back on the ground floor, there is a large cafeteria open to the public and a special exhibit (that didn’t allow photos – boo!). The special exhibit “Out of One, Many” was quite interesting to tour and could take at least an hour to view and interact with the exhibits. As I was on a time crunch, I did a quick spin through before I left to walk the inner corridor through to the Library of Congress. I was fascinated by the unique sculptures in the U.S. Capitol Tour Visitor Center area representing the various states.
Final Thoughts – Touring the U.S. Capitol
The free tour of the U.S. Capitol was really interesting and only an hour so easy to do. If you want to visit either chamber of the Senate or House, you need an additional pass to do that. I didn’t have time to walk across the street to my Senator/Reps office for a pass that day. The new tour area of the U.S. Capitol is very nice experience and set up to minimize stress and waits. I’d definitely recommend the tour to give you a bit of hope for our future as you see the greats of our past who helped shape our country and the sheer willpower of the people to create and fight for our democracy (as crazy as it may be somedays).