A trip to Washington, D.C. wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the U.S. Capitol building. The iconic white dome silhouette is one of the most famous sights in the District of Columbia.
And while this storied building is an architectural sight from the outside, it’s equally stunning on the inside.
Luckily for you, U.S. Capitol tours run as a regular operation. And, a tour of this property is easier to obtain than a tour of many other federal buildings, especially the White House.
Read on for a comprehensive guide to getting your tour of the center of U.S. government.
Note: check the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center website for virtual tours plus regular tour times and dates, and closures.
Why you should visit the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC
- Learn about the history and architecture of the US Capitol. The US Capitol is one of the most iconic buildings in the world, and it is a must-see for anyone visiting Washington, DC.
- See the House and Senate chambers. The House and Senate chambers are where the US Congress meets to debate and pass legislation.
- See the Statue of Freedom. The Statue of Freedom is a bronze statue that crowns the dome of the US Capitol. It is a symbol of American democracy.
- See the Crypt. The Crypt is a burial chamber located beneath the US Capitol. It is the final resting place of several former presidents and other notable Americans.
- Take a guided tour. Guided tours of the US Capitol are available free of charge. They are led by experienced tour guides who can provide visitors with a wealth of information about the Capitol and its history.
- Have a unique and educational experience. The US Capitol is a place where history is made, and a tour of the Capitol is a great way to learn about the American political process.
- Create lasting memories. A tour of the US Capitol is a unique and memorable experience that people of all ages will enjoy.
- Show their patriotism. The US Capitol is a symbol of American democracy, and a tour of the Capitol is a great way to show your support for the country.
History of the U.S. Capitol Building
The United States Capitol building is located in Washington D.C., and serves as the meeting place of the United States Congress.
Moving the US Capitol to Washington DC
After the Revolutionary War, the idea for a permanent meeting place for Congress was first proposed in 1790 by then-President George Washington. The location chosen for the building was a hill overlooking the Potomac River, which was then called Jenkins Hill.
Construction began in 1793, and the building was completed in 1800.
US Capitol during the War of 1812
In 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces burned the building down, destroying much of the interior. Of course, the building was reconstructed over the next several years.
Adding a Dome to the US Capitol Building
In 1850, a new dome was added to the Capitol building, designed by architect Thomas U. Walter. The dome, which is still a prominent feature of the building today and one you don’t want to miss on your tour, was made of cast iron and covered in bronze (hence the need for constant restoration).
US Capitol during the Civil War
During the Civil War, the Capitol building was used as a military hospital and barracks. The building also served as the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865.
Modernizing the U.S. Capitol
In the 20th century, the Capitol building underwent significant renovations and expansions (even today it is a rare site to see the Capitol without scaffolding on some part of the building), including the addition of several new office buildings for members of Congress.
The building was also wired for electricity and modern plumbing, and air conditioning was installed in the 1930s, much to the relief of everyone working inside, as Washington DC was built over a swamp– the humidity is stifling on summer days.
Today, the Capitol building remains an iconic symbol of American government, and continues to be the home of the United States Congress.
Booking A US Capitol Tour
How to sign up for a tour of the U.S. Capitol Building
Tours of the building can be booked through the official U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, or through your local congressperson or senator.
Tours booked through the Visitor Center will be led by a professional guide, and these groups tend to run slightly larger. On the other hand, a tour booked through a local representative will most likely be led by an intern or staffer, and will be smaller and more formal.
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Are tours of the U.S. Capitol Free?
All tours are free and usually run around 45 minutes, with a few extra minutes for questions at the end. If you’d like to ask more questions and personalize the tour towards your interests, I would recommend checking with a local representative.
Do I need a reservation to tour the U.S. Capitol?
Tours are available on a walk-in basis, although it’s highly recommend that you book your slot in advance.
You can do this by going to the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center’s website and clicking the link to “Book a Tour Yourself Online.” Follow the instructions to create an account, and then you’ll be able to book a tour by date and time, as well as make changes to your reservation.
When are tours of the U.S. Capitol?
Tours run every weekday at 9 am, 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm. Tours in Mandarin and Spanish using translation devices are also offered at 8:40 am every day. On the website, you can reserve a spot up until 9 am on the day before.
How to get a walk-up ticket to tour the U.S. Capitol
Walk-up tickets are also available at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on a first come, first serve basis. You can pick up any tickets that remain for the next available tour time, which you can check during the Visitor Center’s open hours of 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Saturday.
How to book a tour of the U.S. Capitol with you local representative?
To book through a local representative, visit the website of the senator or congressperson in your district. You can check if their site allows you to schedule a tour, or you can send an email to their official address. Include your requested tour date, as well as a few alternative dates, if sending an email.
How to get to the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
All tours start at the Visitor Center, which is located at the side of the U.S. Capitol building facing away from the National Mall.
Read our tips on How to ride the DC Metro
The closest Metro stop is Capitol South, which services the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines. From there, you’ll walk two blocks north on First Street.
The Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter stop on the Green and Yellow lines and Union Station on the Red line are also within walking distance.
Parking near the U.S. Capitol
Read our tips on the best Cheap and Free Parking in DC
Parking is an option, but finding a space could be difficult or expensive. There are a few lots in the vicinity, like one a few blocks away that charges around $5 an hour. On a good day, you can sometimes find street parking in the residential neighborhoods, located just east of the U.S. Capitol.
Prohibited Items in the U.S. Capitol Building
Other than the obvious things that won’t fly (weapons and pointy objects), any kind of food or liquid is prohibited (this can include mints and candies too).
The entrance to the Visitor Center lies below the East Front Plaza on First and East Capitol Street.
Once you arrive, you’ll descend down stairs to where the doors are nestled under the ground level. You will need to pass through a security screening checkpoint, including an X-Ray machine and a bag check.
Luckily, you can buy plenty of snacks and drinks inside, so I would just count the price of a water bottle inside as the cost of admission.
Preparing For Your U.S. Capitol Tour
When you arrive, visit the Information Desk on the lower level to your right to receive your pass. If you don’t yet have a ticket, check in at the sign on the Information Desk reading “Visitors Without Reservations.”
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U.S. Capitol Building Coat Check
There are two coat check stations located just around the corner from the security checks where you can leave any extra bags. They close 15 minutes earlier than the Visitor Center, so leave extra time if you check any items!
Wheelchair assistance and Accessibility
If you need a wheelchair, you can also pick that up from the North Coat Check. They will hold your I.D. for the duration of time that you use the wheelchair.
The Visitor Center tends to be very good about accommodating different accessibility needs, so if you have any special requests, call them up 202-224-4048.
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U.S. Capitol Audio Guides
At the information desk in Emancipation Hall, located in the middle of the lower level, listening devices and audio guides, plus brochures are available.
The listening devices, which are offered in multiple languages, have audio descriptions of any films or exhibits shown in the tour.
The brochures are available in braille and large print.
Capitol Cafe inside the U.S. Capitol
If the anti-snack rules have left you starving, you can visit the Capitol Cafe on the lower level. They offer a good selection of items at a surprisingly reasonable price, including a salad bar and hot bar serving global fare.
Personally, I love the sandwiches, so plan on spending your lunch break here. It’s one of the best places to eat near the National Mall.
What You’ll See on a U.S. Capitol tour
All tours will then kick off with the 13-minute “Out Of Many, One” film in either of two Orientation Theaters. From there, you’ll pass into the Exhibition Hall, with plenty of information on the history and legacy of the building.
Then you’ll see the Capitol Rotunda with its stunning dome, and your guide will describe the events in American history illustrated on the walls.
Next, you’ll move on to the Crypt, (named only for its crypt-like columns, I promise!) and Statuary Hall, where your tour guide will describe the many pieces of art and exhibitions on display. Finally, you will return back to the main visitor area.
Visiting the Senate and House Galleries
You’ve probably gathered at this point that the standard tour routes do not include any areas actually used by lawmakers. The Senate and House Galleries are open to the public for observation, as long as you have a gallery pass. When not in session, there is the option to enter with a pass any weekday between 9 am and 4 pm.
For the galleries, check with your local representative’s office if they are open and admitting visitors on your desired date.
Government is finicky, and unplanned closures are frequent.
How to get a pass to the Senate and House Galleries
To get a pass, you’ll need to go the route outlined above of contacting your senator or congressperson.
International visitors can check with their country’s U.S. Embassy for pass information. Or, they can obtain a pass from the Senate Appointment Desk. This can be found on the top floor, across from the coat check.
Prohibited items in the Senate and House Galleries
Notably, some items that you can bring on the standard tour of the U.S. Capitol are not allowed in the galleries. Those include cameras and video recorders, any cans or bottles, strollers, and nearly any bags, briefcases, or backpacks.
Luckily, you can safely store these in Room CVC-139 in the Visitor Center.
US Capitol Tour FAQ
How can I book a tour of the US Capitol?
You can book a tour of the US Capitol through your congressional representative or senator’s office. You can also book a tour through the Capitol Visitor Center’s website or by calling their information line.
Are children allowed on the US Capitol tour?
Absolutely! There are even activity books available to keep the kids engaged during the tour.
Are US Capitol tours free?
Yes, tours of the US Capitol are free of charge.
What will I see on a US Capitol tour?
On a US Capitol tour, you will see the Rotunda, the National Statuary Hall, and the Crypt. You will also visit the Old Supreme Court Chamber and the Old Senate Chamber.
Am I allowed to ask questions on the Capitol tour?
Yes! Questions are encouraged throughout the tour. Even the simplest question might have an answer you and the rest of your tour group never knew. We like to play “stump the tour guide,” but haven’t been successful yet.
How long does a US Capitol tour last?
The tour typically lasts about an hour.
Are there any restrictions on what I can bring with me on a US Capitol tour?
Yes, there are restrictions on what you can bring with you on a US Capitol tour. You cannot bring large bags, food or drinks, weapons, or any type of pointed objects.
Can I take photos during the tour?
Yes, you are allowed to take photos during the tour, but flash photography and tripods are not allowed. Note that you can NOT take photos or video in the Senate and House Galleries either.
Is the US Capitol accessible to visitors with disabilities?
Yes, the US Capitol is accessible to visitors with disabilities. The Capitol Visitor Center offers special accommodations for visitors with disabilities, including wheelchair-accessible tours and sign language interpretation.
What are the hours of operation for the US Capitol Visitor Center?
The hours of operation for the US Capitol Visitor Center vary depending on the season. Typically, the Visitor Center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Monday to Saturday. The Visitor Center is closed on Sundays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Can I visit the US Capitol without a tour?
Yes, you can visit the US Capitol without a tour… sort of. The Visitor Center has several exhibits and films about the history and architecture of the building, and there are also guided walking tours available.
Additional reporting by Cybele Mayes-Osterman