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Capitol Tour Washington DC

We were going to be in Washington DC for a weekend in extension to the work week in Ashburn, Virginia. We always try to sneak in a weekend of recreation with most of our work trips if they are adjacent to one. Washington DC is the capital of the country where we are spending a year in. So it was always high on our bucket list. We wanted to spend a longer time there but various constraints resulted in us with a weekend - i.e one and a half days in the city. One of the interesting things we did there was the Capitol Tour and here is all about it.

We decided to make the most of our stay in the Capital City and researched all that we could do. The top two things that came to the radar were the White House and the Capitol Tour. These two are world-famous buildings and run the country. On further research, we realized that it was late for the White House tours which had strict permission requirements. However, we still could make it to the Capitol Tour and booked ourselves for an afternoon tour.

For a one-day plan to explore Washington DC, visit our article - Washington DC – The National Capital In One Day

How to Book a Capitol Tour?

Capitol Visitor Center conducts regular guided tours of the building and showcases the history of the building. The tours are well organized and the visitors have an option to reserve a spot in advance. The Capitol Website has a special portal to help visitors with all the information needed to explore the building. There is a section that allows booking or managing reservations for the Capitol Tour. The portal provides available slots and allows visitors to make reservations.

Visitors can also pick up the same-day passes at the visitor center during their visit. However, we would recommend booking your slot in advance even if you do it on the morning of your visit. Same-day visitors are quite big in number and hence such passes need some waiting. On the other hand, there is a separate counter for visitors with advance reservations. Thus, it is best to book in advance to save time and wait.

What is the Capitol?

Capitol is the seat of the Legislature of the United States. It is the symbol of American democracy and houses Congress. The Congress comprises two branches, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both these branches together are responsible for domestic policymaking and enacting laws that govern the United States. Congress is also the authority to declare war on another country. The founders of the country envisaged the role of the Congress to be a supervisory or oversight authority of the Government.

The foundation stone for this great building was laid in 1973 with a lot of pomp and celebration. The makers wanted it to be bigger and better than anything that the United States had. This was to show the supremacy of the Legislature in the governance of the country. The design of the building is rooted in age-old ideals that signify that the citizens can drive the creation of a government. The government should not be working on the whims and fancy of a dictator but that of those governed.

A video describing the evolution of the Capitol

What to expect on a tour

US Capitol tours last for about 90 minutes and take visitors across various sections of the building. Here is a brief overview of what you can expect during about a couple of hours you would spend within the campus.

Getting to the Capitol Visitor Center

The Capitol is well connected by public transport and falls within reach of multiple routes. You could also drive to the Capitol and find parking in one of the designated spots. However, parking is scarce and hence tough to find. If you are a tourist with limited knowledge of the city and low on time, the best option is to take a cab - Uber or Lyft. The cab would drop you right across the gates of the campus and you could stroll right into the huge forecourt.

On the pavements, you could notice the directions to the visitor center. Visitors need to proceed to the visitor center and undergo a security check. The security check is comprehensive and the staff follows the list of banned items strictly. However, there is slight relaxation for items related to babies if you are traveling with one. The entire campus is stroller friendly and accessible. So, you could relax if you have a kid in tow.

Checking in and beginning the tour

Once you clear the security, the staff would guide you to take the elevator to the first level. Here you can check into one of the counters. If you have an existing reservation, enter the lane accordingly. You can show the barcode you would have received during the booking and the staff would issue your passes. If you do not have an advance reservation, there is a queue for same-day passes too.

After checking in, visitors proceed to the opposite side of the large hall. The staff assigns specific group numbers to each visitor. We got a sheet of paper that had our group's guide name and a separate elevator pass. Elevators have a limited capacity and hence most visitors are encouraged to use stairs. We were with our kid in a stroller and hence the staff gave us the special pass. It was movie time now :) Visitors also get a set of headphones that provide the information during the tour.

We are ready for our tour

The Video - Introduction to the Capitol

The first stop on the tour is the amphitheater. Here, a short movie is shown that summarizes the history of the Capitol. It is a very informative summary of the history and importance of the Capitol and Congress in U.S. democracy. The approximately 10-minute video is a great way to start the tour to this celebration of democracy.

The Rotunda

Once the movie is over, visitors can move to the second level of the building. The staff directed us through the elevator again and we met the guide at that level. We noticed that we were in a huge room with a dome-shaped roof. The roof has artistic decoration and shows the vastness of the building. This is the central hall that separates the sections assigned to the House and the Senate. Rotunda is the venue of various ceremonial functions and events as indicated in the resolution of the concurrent list.

A number of paintings don the walls of the large hall and showcase the work of artists. The main painting at the canopy is The Apotheosis of Washington. All the paintings freeze some moments from the history of the country. The hall emphasizes the creative freedom of artists. Some of the creations are controversial but are still part of the exhibition. The history and background of some of the pictures amazed us.

The Rotunda - Events and Picture Frames

More details of the room are available at https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/capitol-rotunda

The Crypt

The Crypt is a large circular area on the first floor of the building which is lined with a number of pillars. These 40 columns support the floor of Rotunda and are in relatively raw form. Plastered with sandstone these yellow pillars represent the base of the democracy. The room has a star marked on its center. This star represents the origin of the city and the point where the city spreads from. This point also marks the start of street numbers of the city. This room also has 13 of the statues which are otherwise located in the National Statutory Hall. These statues represent the original 13 colonies of the United States.

Crypt - Pillar Foundation of the Capitol

More details of the room are available at https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/crypt

The National Statutory Hall

The National Statutory Hall is a semi-circular room with a heightened roof. This serves as the main exhibition hall and showcases statues sent from all over the country. Each state can send 2 statues to the Capitol to celebrate specific principles that the state stands for or other idols. Special events held in the room include activities honoring foreign dignitaries and presidential luncheons.

More details of the room are available at https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/national-statuary-hall

The exterior of the building

Finally, once you exit, you can spend time on the lush green lawns around the Capitol. This is also a great opportunity for you to admire the vastness of the building. Huge pillars stand tall outside of the building. At the top of the dome is the Statue of Freedom. There is a charm in the entire architecture. This is also a great spot for some pictures. Visitors can also spend some time around the Capitol exploring the Supreme Court of the US and the Capitol Library.

So, what are your thoughts about the Capitol Tour? Have you taken one or are you planning one? Tell us your experiences or questions!

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