How to Tour the US Capitol Building

This post is how to get tickets to tour the United States Capitol Building, including how to get gallery passes to watch the Senate and the House of Representatives in action. 


Find out more about the darker side of Capitol Hill on our Capitol Hill Scandals tour!

 


TICKETS TO TOUR THE U.S CAPITOL BUILDING 

Taking a tour of the Capitol Building requires a ticket, which is free but reservations are the only way to guarantee a spot (well, there’s our tour as well).  

We recommend that you book up to 3 months in advance if you are planning to visit during the peak Spring/Summer touring months.  

Tours run every 10 minutes from 8:30 am – 3:20 pm, but this schedule can be changed for any of a number of reasons.

There are 4 options to get tickets:


(Option 1) – Take a tour with a Capitol Visitor Center docent.  

These tours are staffed by professional tour guides, who have extensive knowledge of the building. These tours are more formal than the next selection.  

Guests are organized in groups of 20 and listen to their guide through headsets. Book here.


(Option 2) – Book a tour through the offices of your representative or senators.  

This option offers tours that are staffed by office personnel, usually interns.

The advantage here is that the groups are usually smaller, sometimes just your family. Also, your guide is likely to be from your area or state, and it’s always interesting to hear about their life on “the Hill”.  

This option may give you the chance to meet your representative or senator.  

One potential drawback is that your guide may be pretty fresh and not as knowledgeable as the docents. We think this option is worth a try. Book here.


(Option 3) – Walk up.  

We do not recommend doing this during March, April as well as the peak summer months. All other times are likely to be OK.  

The advantage here is that you have more flexibility when you decide to take the tour.  

Walk-up tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis and are given out only for the next tour time slot, so you won’t be able to grab tickets for later in the day.


(Option 4) – Join us on our Capitol Hill Tour.

This is our walking tour of the Capitol Building campus that visits the Library of Congress and ends with timed tickets for a tour with a docent of the Capitol Visitor Center. 


Capitol Visitor Center Hours:

The Capitol Visitor Center is open Monday – Saturday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

There are occasions that the building is closed for special events or security reasons! These sometimes happen on short notice.

 


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PLAN YOUR VISIT

In this section, we cover what to expect during your visit with tips on how much time you will need (below), how to get to the visitor center, parking, security, and dining options.

Depending on what you want to see, expect to spend at least 90 minutes to get through security and complete the tour and an additional 30 – 60 minutes to visit one of the voting chambers. 

Add an additional 30 – 60 minutes if you want to spend some time in Emancipation Hall (see highlights).

The Capitol Building is adjacent to both the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, and many visitors choose to visit all three at the same time and we recommend this as well.

But plan 3 – 5 hours in total to do so. You can easily spend 60 – 90 minutes at the Library and another 60 minutes at the Supreme Court.  


How to Get to the Capitol Visitor Center

The Capitol Visitor Center entrance is on the east front of the Capitol, which is the side opposite the National Mall. Click here for directions to the visitor center.  

 

Capitol Building Metro Stations

 

There are two Metro stations that are close to the Capitol, Union Station Metro, which is serviced by the red line as well as the Capitol South Metro, which services the orange, blue and silver lines.

If you are new to the DC Metro, then read our how-to guide to DC’s subway.


Tour Bus:

All the major hop-on, hop-off and shuttle tour bus companies make stops at the U.S. Capitol Building.  

Due to security restrictions, all tour buses must drop passengers off on the West Front (National Mall side) of the building.

Visitors then must walk up Capitol Hill for 8-10 minutes to reach the visitor center.  

There are motorized golf carts to take those who need assistance to get up the hill. Use this map for directions from the West Front drop off.  

Be sure to read our post on choosing the best bus tour in DC.


Parking:

There is no parking around the Capitol Building. In fact, unless you’re in a taxi or your personal car – you won’t be able to drive up there at all. Coaches and large vans are not allowed near the entrance and must drop-off and pick-up guests on the west (National Mall) side of the building.  

You can find 2-hour on-street parking in the residential area around East Capitol and 2nd St NE/SE, but you more likely than not will spend some time finding parking.

A more reasonable option is to park at Union Station. However, if you plan to visit Smithsonian Museums as well, then there are some parking garages south of the Capitol, in the Federal Center SW area. Here, you wi

SpotHero is a popular service in DC that makes finding parking a whole lot easier. They allow you to view which parking garages will be accessible and book a guaranteed space near where you’re headed. Pretty simple.

 


Security Check 

Security at the Capitol Building is pretty tight and similar to airport security (though you won’t have to take off your shoes).

You will need to go through a metal detector and there are many items that are not allowed into the building:

  • Any food or beverage including water, and including anything bottled or unopened.
  • Any pointed object, including knitting needles.
  • Bag larger than 18 inches wide and 8.5 inches deep.
  • Mace or pepper spray, razors, box cutters.
  • Any weapon of any kind, even army knives as well as replicas/toys.
  • Any liquids, gels, sprays, aerosols – like lotions, makeup, sunscreen.

You may bring in mobile phones, wallets, and cameras. While strollers are permitted in the Capitol Visitor Center, they are not in the House or Senate galleries. There are subject to additional screening at the entrance as well.


Food Court

While you may not run into any congresspeople in the Visitor Center Restaurant, you may overhear some lobbyists, and it is a surprisingly good place to grab a bite to eat if you arrive early for your tour (or after).

It’s located on the lower level of Emancipation Hall, just to the side of the ticket desks.

They have a broad range of meals and snacks ranging from pizza to roast turkey to sushi.

We’re particularly fans of their breakfast sandwiches if you’re visiting in the morning, and the giant cookies are the perfect afternoon pick-me-up.

Here’s a link to the menu.  They have received 4 of 5 stars on TripAdvisor.

 


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CAPITOL TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

Exhibition Hall and Visitor Center Gallery


Exhibition Hall will be closing in March 2019 for renovations. It will reopen in 2021.


Once you get through security, you’ll find yourself in the beautiful Capitol Visitor Center.

This is where you’ll pick up your tickets if you’re taking a tour of the Capitol, but there are lots of things to check out before the tour even begins.

 

 

The beautiful, light-filled lower level is named Emancipation Hall, in remembrance of the slave labor that went into constructing the Capitol building and the United States as a whole.

Around Emancipation Hall you’ll see many statues ranging from a native Hawaiian king to an astronaut. These are overflow from Statuary Hall which you’ll generally see on the Capitol tour, and we discuss a few paragraphs down.

There are two gift shops on the upper level – North and South. There was a congressional order passed that everything sold in these gift shops must be made in America.

In the center of Emancipation Hall is a 19.5-foot (6 m) Statue of Freedom, the original plaster model of the allegorical figure that sits atop the Capitol dome.

She is perfect to scale, and this allows you to get up close and notice the incredible detail put into the work.

Our favorite detail is the eagle’s head that sits atop her helmet and is adorned with a Native American headdress.

Just behind the statue of Freedom is the Exhibition Hall. In this small museum, called Out of Many One, you can learn both about the history of the U.S. Congress and its work and the construction of the Capitol Building.

Highlights here include an 11 foot (3.5 m) tall model of the Capitol Dome, which you are encouraged to touch, and live feeds of the House and the Senate when they are in session.


The Crypt

It may seem odd to have a crypt in the middle of what is basically a government office building, but there are no actual remains interred here.

 

 

In some of the original plans of the Capitol, it was thought that George Washington and his wife Martha might be buried here.

But the first president wished to be put to rest at his home in Virginia, Mount Vernon, where he remains to this day.

The Crypt does still carry great importance, as it marks the center of Washington, D.C. Around the room are 13 statues, important individuals from the 13 original colonies. 


Old Supreme Court

The judicial branch of the United States government met in this room from 1810 to 1860, when it then moved to the Old Senate Chamber which is also often included on the tour.

Generally, you enter the robing room, where the Supreme Court Justices once all donned their black robes together before entering the court.

 

Old Supreme Court Room US Capitol

 

At the back of the room are Justice’s desks, some of which are original to the 19th century and were actually used by the Justices when the Supreme Court occupied this chamber.  

One of the most remarkable aspects of the room is the vaulted ceiling designed by Benjamin Latrobe which was inspired by medieval engineering techniques and resembles an umbrella.


The Rotunda

The heart of the building and undoubtedly the most iconic aspect of the Capitol Building is the Rotunda.

It is where honored citizens have laid in state, including Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Rosa Parks, and most recently, Billy Graham. 

 

 

In the original design of William Thornton’s, the rotunda was intended to be a simple dome modeled after the Pantheon in Rome.

However, when the building was expanded in the mid-1800s, it was clear that the dome needed to be enlarged as well, and construction of the massive wedding cake style dome was begun.

Around the inside of the Rotunda are many pieces of art depicting important figures and events in American history.

At the center, there is the fresco the Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi. It shows George Washington sitting in the heavens, flanked by the goddesses Liberty and Victory, and surrounded by 13 maidens representing the original 13 colonies.

Lower down the dome is a ring of friezes depicting American history from the landing of Columbus to the birth of aviation.

There are also many statues around the Rotunda, including one of Abraham Lincoln by Vinnie Ream, the first woman artist who received a commission from the American government.


Statuary Hall

Like so many rooms in the Capitol, Statuary Hall is heavily influenced by ancient Greek architecture, drawing parallels between the origin of democracy and its rebirth in America.

Originally this room was intended to be a chamber for the House of Representatives. However, the curved ceiling created strange acoustics, with whisper spots where someone speaking softly could be heard many yards away.

It was distracting during sessions, and many of the members didn’t like the idea of rivals hearing their secrets, so the House relocated.

 

 

For many years, it was debated what to do with the room, until it was decided to dedicate it as space for states to honor their most eminent citizens.

Each state is invited to send two statues of their choosing in either marble or bronze, depicting people who have made a significant contribution to the history of that state.

Originally, all statues were placed in Statuary Hall, however as more and more states began sending their statues, the hall became was severely overcrowded.

Statues had to be placed behind each other, in some places 3 statues deep, and there were worries that the floor could not hold the huge weight.

Today the statues are scattered throughout the Capitol building as well as being in the hall.


Old Senate Chamber

Since the country used to be much smaller, the Capitol building was as well. This is actually the third chamber that the Senate has met in.

The first had to be abandoned after just 6 years because it was crumbling and rotting, and the second was burned down by the British during the War of 1812. Finally, the Senate convened here for 40 years.

In 1859 the Senate moved to its fourth and current chamber, and the Supreme Court moved in until it got its own building in 1935 (which you could also tour).

The Old Senate Chamber is richly decorated in crimson and gold and was inspired, like so much of Washington DC, by buildings in Paris.

 


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HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES GALLERY PASSES

To visit the House of Representatives Gallery, which is where members of the House debate and take their votes, contact your representative or senator to obtain passes.

International visitors may inquire at the House of Representative’s appointment desk on the upper level of the Capitol Visitors Center.

These passes are not timed and can be used at any time during that year.

 

 


Hours:

The House Gallery is open to visitors whenever the House of Representatives is in session (see schedule) until adjournment for that day.  

It is also “usually” open whenever the House is in recess, from 9:00 am until 4:15 pm, Mondays through Fridays.

You will have to go through additional security and leave all belongings outside of the gallery in storage containers. You can bring in a pen and paper, but that is about it!  Absolutely no photography.

PRO TIP: You will need an additional 30 – 60 minutes to visit either of the legislative galleries. If time is short, then we recommend visiting the House Gallery.  

It is here that the President of the United States delivers his annual State of the Union Address and you are more likely to see action on the floor.

 


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SENATE GALLERY PASSES

To visit the Senate Gallery, which is where members of the U.S. Senate debate and take their votes, contact your representative or senator to obtain passes.

International visitors may inquire at the Senate appointment desk on the upper level of the Capitol Visitors Center.

These passes are not timed and can be used at any time during that year.

 

U.S. Senate Gallery Passes

 

Hours:

Open to visitors whenever the Senate is in session, from 30 minutes before the Senate convenes (see schedule) until adjournment for that day, which is usually 4:15 pm.  

It is also regularly open whenever the Senate is in recess for 1 week or more. When in recess, visitors are permitted to view the gallery from 9:00 am until 4:30 pm, Mondays through Fridays.  

There is no access on Saturdays unless the Senate is in session.  You could also call the Senate to confirm if the gallery is open at 202.224.0057.

You will have to go through additional security for either and leave all belongings outside of the gallery in storage containers. You can bring in a pen and paper and that is about it!  Absolutely no photography.

 


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Related Posts

Consider our guided tour of Capitol Hill, which includes tickets to tour the U.S. Capitol Building.

 

About the author

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with three published books about the city. She has traveled extensively and lived in London, UK where she attended University College London for a Masters in History and in Seoul, South Korea where she taught English. While her family is now based in DC, she still explores the world. Her two children (both under the age of 3) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts. She has been a part of the Free Tours by Foot team since 2011.

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