Capitalizing on a Capitol Visit

Visiting Capitol Hill 

Seeing all of the views of the Inauguration today reminds me of being on Capitol Hill less than a month ago. Visiting the Capitol building and it’s neighbors the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress make a great day excursion in Washington, D.C..

Advance Preparation

It seems that the Capitol does allow walk ups, but I was originally told that I needed to get a reservation through my Congresswoman in order to enter and tour the Capitol building. I called her office and they instructed me how to apply through their website. I had to provide them days and times I was available…I could not choose the day and time. Unlike the White House, which is very difficult to get into, this reservation seemed to be easy for them to get. I made my reservation a month before my trip, but if you are going in the summer, I would recommend investigating this several months in advance.

I wish that I had understood that getting into the gallery (even when Congress is not in session) requires a SAME DAY pass. This means that before entering the Capitol (see discussion about the line below), you have to visit your Congressional representative to get a pass to the gallery (i.e., you have to go to their office that is in a separate building from the Capitol building and ask for it). That actually would have been fun to go to our Congresswoman’s office; however, once inside the Capitol, we didn’t want to leave and go through security again.

I had also assumed that when visiting the Supreme Court that I would be able to enter the courtroom. That is not the case. If court is not in session (attending a Supreme Court hearing is a whole other process that I didn’t investigate), you must wait in line (first come, first served) to attend a court lecture inside the courtroom. That is the only way they let you inside the courtroom. We arrived too late for a lecture, and I was so annoyed. This is not clear on their website, so be aware. Here is the link to the instructions and calendar for these lectures.

Getting There and Getting Inside

As with most places in Washington, D.C., we took the Metro to the Capitol and it was very easy. The walk from the Blue/Silver/Orange line to top of the Hill was a piece of cake. The visitor’s entrance to the Capitol building is not at the steps of the building. Rather, it is somewhat underground and close to the street. So, be sure to follow the signs to the visitor’s entrance; it is clearly marked.

The line for the Capitol entrance is long and slow. It was very cold outside, but thankfully, we were prepared. Depending on the time of year, this is important to think about. Also, you cannot bring any food or drink inside. It says so much on the ticket, but many people apparently did not read the ticket and were forced to scarf their nicely packed lunches before entering. I suggest you spend the cash and eat in the cafeteria inside after your tour. The food was pretty decent.

We ended up waiting in line 20-30 minutes and missed our tour time. Do not despair if this happens to you. Once you enter, go to the tour desk and follow the line instructions (“visitors with reservations”) and they will just hook you up for the next tour group. They have a group that leaves every 10 minutes. And, take a tip from me…use the restroom before the tour…it’s not easy to find one or stray once the tour gets going.

Getting into the Library of Congress is a dream if you take the tunnel FROM the Capitol. Since security is tighter in the Capitol, I don’t think we went through any security from the tunnel to the Library, and we took the water bottles we bought in the cafeteria. Beautiful. I saw people entering from the Library to the tunnel and they still had to have their bags checked. So, it seems, going to the Capitol first might be the most efficient. But since you can’t control the reservation time you are given, just roll with it. Clearly the tunnel is preferred regardless of the direction because it is easier, inside and much more fun for the kids!

Getting into the Supreme Court was fairly straight forward. No reservations were required, and it seemed that packaged food and water bottles were accepted. The line is outside, though, so be prepared for that.

Other Tips and Observations

Touring the Capitol was very interesting. The guide provides a combination of the history of the building, the history of Congress and the history of the United States…so there is something for everyone. The tour was shorter than I expected…there was a feeling of “is that it?” I would take my kids back to see Congress in session (and skip the tour…it’s only necessary once).

The Library of Congress was not originally on my list. It’s not that I don’t appreciate it’s significance, but I just didn’t have it on my radar. It is worth seeing, especially because it is so easy to get to from the Capitol. They had several exhibits there (art, artifacts, history…very interesting) and the architecture of the building is worth seeing for sure. The view of the Capitol building from the second floor is very cool. Also, (wait in line and) go upstairs to take a peek at the Main Reading Room…you’ll have flashbacks from several very cool movies at a minimum.

The Supreme Court building had an excellent exhibit on Sandra Day O’Connor when we were there, but the inside of the building itself is not that exciting. Going inside the courtroom is the main draw. AND, you must exit from the upstairs so that you can descend the outside steps (and pretend, once again, you are in a movie).

The courtroom was taunting us because we could not enter.

We had different plans that evening or otherwise I would have explored having dinner on Capitol Hill or going to Union Market or Union Station. There is so much to explore and so little time!