The U.S. Capitol

US Capitol 2

The Capitol Dome, with Freedom (the statue) on top

Visits to the Capitol can either be planned ahead, or done spur of the moment. I’ve done both. The ones I planned ahead for were a lot more personalized and less chaotic, but the spur of the moment visits have been fun too. However you decide to do it, you must go on a tour to see the building. There are three ways to get on a tour:

1) If you have enough time before your visit, contact the office of one of your State Senators or Representatives. Here is the contact information for your senator or representative: Senators–, Representatives– You set up your tour of the Capitol directly through their offices. These are nice, small groups actually led by someone from their office. In fact one time there were just three of us—two of my daughters and me—in the group. Going through their office, you can also get a pass to see either the House or the Senate Gallery (where the Congress and Senate meet). Another bonus for setting up your tour with your Senator or Congressman is the tour starts at their office and you can avoid the sometimes, long line just to get into the Capitol Visitors’ Center.

2) You can book a tour yourself ahead of time online here: Print out your reservation confirmation and bring it with you. With it, you can get your tour passes once you arrive at the Capitol; go to the line that says, “Visitors with Reservations”. This tour, unlike the tour through your Senator or Representative’s office, will be in a large group going through the building, and without access to either the House or Senate Gallery.

3) Your third option is to just show up at the Capitol and get tickets on a first come, first served basis. Go to the Visitors’ Center and get into the line that says, “Visitors without Reservations”. I have never been turned away. In fact one time I asked if there was ever a problem getting tickets the day of and was told that a family or small group can usually always get in.

All tours of the Capitol begin with a 13-minute movie. If your tour is through your Senator or Representative’s office, they will wait for you during the movie and then continue with you on the tour after the movie. Otherwise, after the movie, you are divided into groups and given headphones through which you can hear your guide speaking to you. The tour basically includes three rooms: the Crypt, the Rotunda and National Statuary Hall, and can last up to an hour.

With any of the three options above, you can also get passes if you want to see the House or Senate Gallery too. You either stop by your State or Representative’s office (no reservation needed) and pick up the Gallery passes before your tour. Use the links above to find their office location—make sure you know the building they are in and the floor they are on. The Senator and Representative offices are not in the Capitol. The Representative offices are in the buildings to the right of the Capitol as you face the Capitol from the Mall and quite convenient to the Capitol. If you’re not going on a tour through their office, and would like to visit one of the Galleries, just go by their office first, and pick up a free Gallery pass. It’s super easy, and they always have them. (Senate office buildings are located on Constitution Ave north of the Capitol).

To see if any part of Congress is in session, you just have to look at the Capitol. If the Senate is in session, a flag will be flying over the north wing. (Left side of Capitol if on the Mall.) If the House of Representatives is in session a flag will be flying over the south wing. (Right side of Capitol if on the Mall.)

I usually go on the tour first, and then visit one of the Galleries.

On the tour, there is a lot of standing, so it can be tiring. My favorite parts are the Rotunda, and the whispering gallery—in the National Statuary Hall. Although the Capitol isn’t super kid friendly, I think they are trying to make it more so. They have recently come out with a My Capitol booklet, which is designed for kids 11 and up which helps them explore the Exhibition Hall in the Visitors’ Center and the grounds outside the Capitol. I really like the book and will take anything to help my kids to be more interested in a museum.

I find that anything I learn ahead of time and share with my kids makes them so much more interested in visiting the place. Any prep ahead of time makes a huge difference during the visit. Here are some interesting facts about the Capitol:

Here’s a website that tells of some ghost stories involving the Capitol. My kids would be fascinated by some of these stories, making the Capitol a more interesting place for them to visit.

Any other questions? Here are some FAQ’s:


Enjoy your visit!

US Capitol Rotunda Dome

Looking up in the Rotunda, inside the Capitol Dome

National Statuary Hall-US Capitol

Inside National Statuary Hall

The U.S. Supreme Court

courtroom at the Supreme Court

The view you get peeking into the Courtroom

An important thing to note is that the Supreme Court is only open on weekdays (not on weekends like many of the other sites in DC), but it’s well worth a visit if you can fit it in.

When you enter on the ground floor, there are exhibits highlighting the construction of the Supreme Court building. Although very interesting, my kids usually quickly skim by these exhibits—so if that’s the case for you, too, keep everyone moving straight back to the end of the hall to watch the movie in one of the two theatres. It’s a 24-minute film (running continuously in the two theatres) that gives you a great overview of what the Justices do and how the judicial process works. I really like how the movie features all of the Justices, helping you become more familiar with them.

Before you watch the movie though, check your watch. If the time is close to the half hour (9:30, 10:30, etc.), I’d first head up to catch the Courtroom Lecture held one floor up in the Courtroom—the only one in the building—where the Supreme Court meets. Attending the lecture is the only way to actually get into the room where the Supreme Court meets. Otherwise, you can only peek in through the door.

The lecture lasts a half hour, and I always find it very interesting. My kids have not always found that to be the case. So you have to evaluate if your kids can sit through a half hour of talking so you can all go inside this amazing room where so much living history is happening. Every time we’ve gone, we’ve attended the lecture because I hope that the solemnity and grandeur of the Courtroom will impress my children, and then when the lecture is over, I discuss what I thought was interesting with them.

Currently they are working on an activity page or pamphlet geared for kids to explore the Supreme Court better. I can’t wait to see it—they said it should be out by Fall or Winter of 2014—so ask at the visitor desk.

Old Post Office Pavilion

Old Post Office Pavilion 1 DC

Old Post Office Pavilion Tower

The Washington Monument is a great place to get a view of the city, but you have to plan ahead and get tickets to go up. When we’re downtown and feel like taking in the city from up above (and we haven’t planned ahead), we head to the Old Post Office Pavilion. There, in the tower, you get a great view of the city, from big open-air windows. The Pavilion, located in The Old Post Office building, is located less than a block from the Mall behind the Natural History Museum. The entrance is on Pennsylvania Ave. Interestingly, the National Park Service runs the tower portion of the building.

Once inside, you first go up a glass elevator, located in one of the corners on the first floor, which takes you part way. Then you transfer to another elevator to take you to the top. On our last visit, we learned that you can take the stairs up the final couple of levels, instead of the second elevator, if you’re adventurous. We’re a stair-taking kind of family (at least some of us) so that was all we needed to hear. The race between stairs and elevator was on! I can’t remember who won, only that I was worn out. (Why does it seem like no matter how much I exercise, stairs still leave me huffing and puffing?)

But back to the Pavilion, at the top you have a great, open-air view. The openings are big, and the breeze feels great on a hot day—not so great on a cold day. It never seems to be very crowded, which is so nice in a city with a lot of people.

One thing to note is that the Pavilion closes at 5:00 pm during the fall, winter and spring. We learned about this the hard way!

Here’s a link to their hours and other info: