The U.S. Capitol tour is free, so in terms of whether it’s worth it, the question is really whether it’s worth your time when you visit Washington, D.C. given the number of other things to do. This post will cover that, as well as tips for taking the tour (since there are a few different ways to approach it), and what you’ll see if you choose to go on the tour of the United States Capitol Building.
There are a number of ways to book the United States Capitol Building tour in advance, or you can show up on the day of via the public ‘walk-up’ line. As you can imagine, showing up on the day of without reservations is the worst approach. You’ll probably be able to get tickets (except during the busy spring break or summer seasons), but why hassle with waiting for an opening and having to get the tickets?
The ways to book the tour in advance are going through the offices of your state Representative or Senators, or reserving a spot yourself online. You can do either of these things via the internet. We highly recommend going through the office of your Senators or Representative, as when you’re contacted by a staff-person, you can also obtain gallery passes for the Senate or House of Representatives, if they’re in session.
The other big benefit of going through a Representative or Senator is that one of their interns conducts the tour, and generally these tours are more intimate. We did our tour with a large public group, but we saw the smaller groups in the rotunda and throughout other rooms. Although they went to the same places as us, it definitely looked like a better experience.
Before you start the tour, make sure to check out the Exhibition Hall in the Visitor’s Center. There are actually several fascinating displays in here, as well as a few cool statues. We actually found this area to be one of the highlights of the United States Capitol Building.
The tour itself starts with a short video. The video is okay–it’s basically a quick look at the United States’ establishment of a representative democracy, and what that government means to its people. It’s a well done video, but I can’t say it’s especially memorable.
We went with a friend who works for the White House; he had been on the tour before, and it sounded like the guides vary in quality. (A quick skimming of Yelp suggests the same.) Ours was fine, although it felt like the guide had memorized a script and was reciting that from memory. The guide wasn’t necessarily monotone or anything, but there wasn’t any real personal incite, anecdotes, or anything else. Most questions were met with speculation rather than actual answers.
The rotunda itself is amazing. Definitely the highlight of the tour, and something that must be seen in person. Regardless of the rest of the tour, it was absolutely worth it to take the tour just to stand under that rotunda. The Architect of the United States Capitol website has some interesting history. There are several statues of representatives from the 13 original colonies and some beautiful paintings. The most beautiful aspect, of course, is the inside of the rotunda. It’s probably the closest we get to Versailles in America. Be prepared to stare up a lot!
The other main area into which you go is National Statuary Hall. This was originally a location intended to display 2 statues of prominent citizens from each state. Each state was allowed this 2 statue allotment, regardless of their size or history. (Sorta like Senate.) So the result is that some states have some fairly unrecognizable folks honored in statues. In any case, there aren’t 100 statues in this room–many of them have been placed in other areas of the United States Capitol, since 100 statues would’ve made for one crowded room. Statues seemed to be the recurring motif of the tour, and a lot of time was spent discussing and looking at them. Still, it was cool to see, and fun to browse the statues that were on display. (This is also where the John Quincy Adams ‘whisper spot’ is located. Your guide will likely tell you about this popular urban legend.)
From there, the tour also went to the Crypt and a number of rooms that have been “outgrown,” including the old Supreme Court Chamber, old Congressional chambers, and outside some old (and active) offices. These areas were interesting from the perspective that they underscored how the United States has grown, and some of the history of our government, but there was neither any substance to this portion of the tour, nor were these areas all that elegant or charming. This part of the tour was sort of just a “go inside a minute, look around, hear some superficial facts, move on” type deal.
The entire process of the tour, including going through security and waiting for it to start, takes about 1.5 to 2 hours. Probably more if you go on a busy day or have to wait a while to get a standby slot. To save time, we ate in the U.S. Capitol Building cafeteria, which was nothing memorable…just a basic cafeteria. Definitely much better options in Washington, D.C.
If you’re able to visit on a day when the House of Representatives or Senate is in session, we highly recommend getting a gallery pass and sitting in for a bit. Even if neither are in session, it’s worth getting a gallery pass (the gallery closes at 4:30 p.m.) so you can go in and take a look. This–especially seeing Congress in session–is more for adults or students who might be interested in history or government. Small children will likely be bored with the experience. Note that the cameras and a whole host of other devices that are permitted inside the U.S. Capitol Building are not permitted in either gallery. (You can check them inside the building.) A full list is here
Again, the tour is free, so the question of whether it’s worth it is purely in terms of the value of your time. There’s a lot to do in Washington, D.C., so if you’re time is limited, you might wonder if this is worth it. We did this tour as well as a public tour of the White House and a private West Wing tour of the White House, and we much preferred the White House tours. By comparison, the U.S. Capitol tour felt mediocre and cursory, with too much of an emphasis on the various statues around the building, and not much else. The experience wasn’t helped by our tour guide, who wasn’t very engaging, nor was it helped by the awful headsets we were provided.
With that said, we still felt that this tour was still worthwhile. Washington, D.C. has some beautiful museums and monuments operated by the National Park Service, and while museums like the Smithsonian are world-class and not really comparable to anything else in the nation, there is only one US Capitol, so visiting it is more of a ‘distinctly Washington’ experience. It’s a beautiful building with amazing architecture and history, and seeing that alone is an incredible experience, regardless of how the tour to see it is packaged.
If you’ve done the U.S. Capitol Building tour, how would you rate it? Was your tour guide better than ours? Was it worth it to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments!