National Archives

National Archives

The National Archives

On a snow day a couple of weeks ago, Natalie and I were watching the movie, National Treasure. I love how that movie gets you excited about visiting historical places—and as Natalie and I were watching it, it brought back memories of many trips to Philadelphia and Boston—but also trips to the National Archives. It inspired us and gave us the perfect reason to go back for another visit to the Archives.

Visiting the Archives in the winter is a lot easier than at other times of the year. In fact, that’s probably true for most of the more popular museums in DC. When you pass the Archives in the spring, summer and fall, you often see a line coming out the door. I am speaking from experience (our last visit was in the early summer) that you can wait in line about an hour or even more to get inside.

Line to get into Archives

The line to get into the National Archives in the early summer

But in the winter, you can often just walk right into the building—no line at all.

Line at National Archives

The line in the winter to get into the Archives

No line

See–no line all the way to the door!

If the best time for you to visit the Archives is in the spring, summer or early fall—there is a better way than just waiting in line! Go to this website:, and reserve tickets for entrance to the Archives. Each ticket is $1.50, but well worth the saved time. If you reserve tickets ahead of time, you get to enter in through a different door, and avoid the looooooonnnng line. That’s really all the reservation does for you, but that is a huge bonus.

The line to get into the Archives during the early summer if you reserve your ticket ahead of time.  Compare to the picture of the other line from early summer for those without reservations...

The line to get into the Archives during the early summer if you reserve your ticket ahead of time. Compare to the picture of the other line from early summer for those without reservations…

If you visit the Archives first thing in the morning, my suggestion would be to head right up to the Rotunda on the second floor (that’s where the important documents such as the Declaration of Independence are kept) before the rest of the crowds do. You enter the building on the ground level, so head up one level to the upper level and try to beat the rush. If you arrive a little later in the day, no need to rush to the Rotunda—the crowds are already there.

Inside the Archives

There is no photography allowed in the National Archives–so this is the closest we could get inside on one of the stairways

If you arrive a little later, instead start out with the short movie to get an overview of the Archives. (The movie is shown on the lower level and only shown on weekdays—no weekend viewings) After the movie, head up to the Rotunda to see the main attraction of the National Archives—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

I find that our family tends to get more into things and enjoy them more if we are challenged a little bit—the Archives is no exception. So when you are in the Rotunda, here are some questions of things to look for and make your trip more meaningful.

1. As you enter the room, there is a large mural on the left upper wall. Look at the cloud in the picture. Does it look like a person you recognize? Who does it look like?
2. Do you know how many states were needed to ratify the Constitution? (Bonus Question: Which Article tells you the answer to that?)
3. How many states actually signed the Constitution?
4. How many states were in existence at the time?
5. Which state(s) didn’t sign the Constitution?
6. The name of one of the states is misspelled in the Constitution. Which one is it? (Remember in olden days, an “s” was written as an “f”, so that isn’t a misspelling)
7. How does each document start out? On what date was each of three documents written?
8. How many Bill of Rights were originally proposed to the states to be ratified?
9. How many Bill of Rights were ratified?
10. Which of the original Bill of Rights was never ratified?
(All the answers are at the bottom of my post, but don’t peek until you have tried to answer them.)

After getting your fill of the Rotunda, visit the Public Vaults, which contain displays of the different types of documents that are contained in the National Archives–original letters, documents, photos and records. Also make sure you take a look at the Magna Carta, which is in the exhibit on the ground level right after you pass through security. Check out this visitors’ guide for more help in planning your visit:

There’s lots to see at the Archives—but don’t let it overwhelm you. At least go and see the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, and then decide from there how much, if any more, you want to see. I love the National Archives. I love looking at the documents that made our country the great country it is. And I love instilling that love in others—especially my kids. So head over there and enjoy a great history lesson!

National Archives

A view of the Archives from across the street


1. Abraham Lincoln
2. 9 states (Article 7 tells you that)
3. 12 states signed
4. There were 13 states at the time
5. Rhode Island didn’t sign
6. Pennsylvania
7. When in the course of human events… (July 4, 1776), We the people of the United States… (September 1787), The Conventions of a number of the States (March 4, 1789)
8. 12 original Bill of Rights
9. 10 were ratified at that time (numbers 3-12), then one was ratified in 1992 (number 2)
10. Number 1 was never ratified

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