With so much changing as Washington DC slowly reopens due to COVID-19, we are trying to keep all information updated. Note that opening hours, ticketing policies and procedures may vary. For the most up to date information, check the location’s individual website.
All federal buildings, including the US Capitol, are closed to the public, however, you can still 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. Tours can last between 60-90 minutes long.
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.
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:
One way to visit the U.S. Capitol Building without a tour is to stop in at The Capitol Visitor Center, which 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 3 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the host of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All
With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 25 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 3) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.