One of the most prominent buildings on Washington, DC’s National Mall is the US Capitol, and with good reason. It is the home of our Congress, the legislative body of the US government made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. It has been destroyed by fire and rebuilt, with construction continuing even through the Civil War to remind Americans that our nation and democracy will always continue, even through the worst of times. No visit to very accessible Washington, DC is complete without a visit to and a tour of the fully wheelchair accessible US Capitol. Here’s how to make the most of your time in this historic building.
Making a Tour Reservation
Visiting the US Capitol is free, and so are the tours. Same-day passes are available at the Information Desks located on the lower level of the Visitor Center. During spring, summer and some holiday periods, the availability of same-day tour passes may be limited. There may be a wait to acquire passes. Please plan accordingly and arrive early, if possible.
However, I HIGHLY recommend reserving a tour date and time in advance. This is very easy to do. Technically, you can reserve a tour through your Representative or Senator’s office, but it’s much easier to do it online. CLICK HERE for the US Capitol website, specifically the page for booking your tour.
First you will need to create an account, then verify your email address. After that, just choose the date and time when you wish to take your tour. After you have completed this step, you will receive a voucher with a barcode and tour guidelines by email. THIS IS NOT YOUR TICKET. Read it very carefully, as it will outline various security measures, as well as what time you need to show up prior to your tour. Depending on the time of year, this can be either 30 minutes or 45 minutes prior to your tour start time.
Arriving for Your Tour
The first thing you need to do is visit the US Capitol information desk on the Lower Level to exchange your voucher for your tour ticket. This is below ground level, and there is an elevator on the east side of the US Capitol to get you there, about 100 yards east of the steps. You will emerge from the elevator at the bottom of the stairway where visitors are lining up for their turn to enter. It’s possible the guards could make you wait your turn, but I was ushered in right away.
Before entering the Capitol Visitor Center, all visitors are screened by a magnetometer and all items that are permitted inside the building are screened by an x-ray device. The following items are strictly prohibited in the Capitol, including the Capitol Visitor Center:
- Liquid, including water (I was allowed water in case I needed to take medication)
- Food or beverages of any kind, including fruit and unopened packaged food
- Aerosol containers
- Non-aerosol spray (Prescriptions for medical needs are permitted.)
- Any pointed object, e.g. knitting needles and letter openers (Pens and pencils are permitted.)
- Any bag larger than 18″ wide x 14″ high x 8.5″ deep
- Electric stun guns, martial arts weapons or devices
- Guns, replica guns, ammunition, and fireworks
- Knives of any size
- Mace and pepper spray
- Razors and box cutters
Please note that the U.S. Capitol Police are authorized to make exceptions if a prohibited item is determined to be necessary and required to serve child care, medical or other special needs. If you have questions, please call the Office of Congressional Accessibility Services at 202.224.4048. You are allowed to take photos and video everywhere except for the House and Senate galleries (more on that in a bit).
After you go through security, there will be an elevator directly ahead and slightly to the right. Take this elevator to the lower level and get in line for the information desk. Here, you will exchange your voucher for your tour ticket. They will give you a sticker to put on your shirt, then you will be asked to wait in the center of the lower level to start your tour with a 13-minute movie. If you are in a wheelchair, the incredibly kind and helpful guides will escort you to the front of the line.
Taking Your Tour
The US Capitol is a stunning building that makes you feel like you are inside a palace or museum. However, it is also a place of government business, and you may be visiting while Congress is in session. There are some rules of etiquette that Capitol staff ask visitors to follow:
- As a courtesy to those around you, please silence your cell phone or other electronic devices during the orientation film and while touring the Capitol.
- Use your quiet voice when walking through the Capitol and exploring the Capitol Visitor Center’s Exhibition Hall.
- Please DO NOT TOUCH art objects including sculptures, statues, walls, and cases. The oils and acids even in clean hands can cause irreparable damage to works of art.
- Refrain from leaning on the walls or using the walls, display cases, or pedestals for note-taking.
- Do not sit on displays or sculptures for picture-taking.
- Do not block doorways or aisles or sit on stairs or floors. Seating is provided throughout the buildings.
- Stay together as a group. Be attentive to your guide’s instructions at all times and especially when moving from one area to another in the Capitol. Watch your step, always use handrails when on the stairs, and use escalators with caution.
- Respect any areas that are roped off.
- Please don’t run, push, shove, or take any other actions that may endanger other visitors or the works of art and the items in the Exhibition Hall.
The first thing you will do on your tour is stop in a theater to watch a 13-minute film on the history of the US Capitol building. Wheelchair users will be escorted in first and taken to an elevator to the top level of the theater. After the film is over, you will emerge through double doors right behind you to meet your guide and receive your headsets. This is so you can hear your tour guide better. Then you will line up in a lane until everyone has their headsets ready. Please note that you will separate from your group a couple of times in order to use the elevator. There are friendly members of the staff in red jackets everywhere, so you will never get lost.
The first place you will visit is the Crypt. This center section of the building was completed in 1827 under the direction of the third Architect of the Capitol, Charles Bulfinch (who also designed the Massachusetts state capitol building). The star in the center of the floor denotes the point from which the streets in Washington are laid out and numbered. Located in the Crypt are 13 statues from the National Statuary Hall Collection, representing the 13 original colonies, and the Magna Carta replica and display.
Your second stop on the tour is the famous — and absolutely stunning — Capitol Rotunda. This is a large, domed, circular room 96 feet in diameter and 180 feet in height located in the center of the United States Capitol on the second floor. The Rotunda is used for important ceremonial events as authorized by concurrent resolution, such as the lying in state of eminent citizens and the dedication of works of art. The Rotunda canopy features the painting entitled The Apotheosis of Washington, and the walls of the Rotunda hold historic paintings and a frescoed band, or “frieze,” depicting significant events in American history.
Your third and final stop will be the National Statuary Hall. This room in the Capitol Building is built in the shape of an ancient amphitheater and is one of the earliest examples of Greek revival architecture in America. This chamber is the second built for the House of Representatives in this location. Unfortunately, the smooth, curved ceiling promoted annoying echoes, making it difficult to conduct business. In 1850, a new Hall was authorized, and the House moved into its present chamber in the new House wing in 1857. In 1864, Congress invited each state to contribute two statues of prominent citizens for permanent display in the room, which was renamed National Statuary Hall.
Visiting the House and Senate Galleries
You do not visit the House and Senate galleries as part of your US Capitol tour. In fact, I thought I would not be able to do this because you need to obtain gallery passes directly from your Senator or Representative’s office. Or, so I thought. You can actually obtain gallery passes on the day of your visit.
Your tour will and exactly where it started. You can ask someone in a red jacket for directions, but basically, just roll to the opposite side of the Upper Level (around two corners) to visit the House Appointment Desk and the Senate Appointment Desk. The latter will ask you the name of one of your state senators, then give you a green Senate gallery pass. The former won’t ask you anything, and will then give you a white House gallery pass.
To reach each gallery, just follow the signs hanging from the ceiling to locate the elevator that will take you to the gallery entrances on Level 3. The process for visiting each gallery is quite different, despite the fact that they are both located in the same building. Here’s the list of prohibited items:
- Battery-operated electronic devices (medical devices are permitted)
- Cans and bottles
- Creams, lotions or perfume
- Packages, briefcases, backpacks or suitcases
- Video recorders or any type of recording device
When you visit the House chamber, you will have to turn in your bags and all electronic devices. They will give you a claim badge to take with you, then turn in to get your items back. You will then go down a long hallway and be escorted through a doorway to a wheelchair accessible balcony. From there, you have an amazing view of the entire chamber. Depending on the date of your visit, the House may be in session, and you are allowed to view the proceedings.
When the House of Representatives is not in session, visitors with passes are admitted to the Gallery from 9 a.m. to no later than 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. The last entry into the Gallery may be earlier than 4 p.m. based on demand. Visitors are advised to arrive prior to 4 p.m. for the best opportunity to view the Gallery. The House Gallery is closed on holidays and is subject to unplanned, temporary closures when the House is out of session.
When you visit the Senate chamber, you won’t have to check in any of your belongings. However, you will have to go through a second security inspection. I was given a handy informative booklet with tons of information about Senate history and proceedings, as well as a seating map for the chamber. You will then be escorted to an accessible balcony to overlook the smaller Senate chamber. Again, if the Senate is in session, you will be allowed to view the proceedings.
The Senate Gallery is open during scheduled recesses of one week or more, and visitors are admitted to the gallery from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., Monday through Friday. On recess days, the Gallery closes at 4:30 p.m. The Senate Gallery is closed on weekends and holidays (unless the Senate is in session) and during any recess or adjournment of less than one week. For information on whether the Senate Gallery is open, please call 202.224.0057.
After Your US Capitol Tour
After you finish your tour and a visit to the Congressional galleries, you can have a bite to eat at the café on the lower level, or you can do some souvenir shopping at one of the shops on the upper level. I also highly recommend taking the connecting tunnel to the Library of Congress across the street. By taking the tunnel, you don’t have to go through security again at the Library. In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful building in Washington, DC, and well worth a visit. The Supreme Court building is also just to the north of the Library of Congress. Both buildings are fully wheelchair accessible.