Why Visit the US Capitol Building?
This is where EVERYTHING happens. Lawmakers from all over the USA meet here to debate and decide the future of this country; a superpower of the world. From Australia, we watch Congress on TV and visiting the US Capitol Building is your chance to be in the room where it happens. If politics isn’t your thing, then at the very least visit to see the incredible architecture and history captured in this building that is over 200 years old.
Getting to the US Capitol Building
The Capitol Building is located atop Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall, the opposite end to the Lincoln Memorial and reflecting pool. Since most people are likely to stay around Downtown (i.e. near the White House) or even further away, like me, up in Dupont Circle, getting to the US Capitol can be a bit of a pain.
From the White House, the stroll along the National Mall is quite lovely, but will take you over 35 minutes to get to the building, so if you’re short on time when visiting the US Capitol, this isn’t the option for you.
Public Transport – Bus & Metro
Washington DC is full of regular buses and a great metro system. For this trip, I’d recommend the number 32 bus as you’ll find it cheaper and quicker than the Metro. For comparison, the 32 bus will take around 15 mins and cost $2, whereas either the blue Metro lines will take around 30 mins and cost from $2-$6 per trip depending on whether it is at a peak time or not.
To catch the bus, hop on the 32 from H Street & Madison Place NW and ride it all the way to Independence Ave. Alternatively, get the blue Metro line from McPherson Square Station and hop off at Federal Center SW.
Hop On/Hop Off Bus
If you’re in DC for a couple of days and want to get around to see as many notable structures as possible, then you might want to consider a hop on/hop off bus tour. There are a few companies running these around the city and they usually stop at all the monuments, memorials and, of course, the US Capitol Building. I found this really helpful as I had limited time to get between the monuments and the tour company also offered a complimentary night tour for every two day pass sold!
Ridesharing is alive and well and readily available in Washington DC. Uber and Lyft are the big two and a trip will take around 20 mins from Dupont Circle to the US Capitol Building(depending on traffic of course). An Uber Pool or Lyft Shared will set you back around $8 and a private car will be more like $10.
(Side Note: both Uber and Lyft are super handy apps to have downloaded when travelling in the USA, so I would recommend you grab both and just go with whichever app is offering cheaper prices).
Getting Tickets for the US Capitol Tour
In my mind, this is an absolute must when visiting the US Capitol building. It costs nothing to book in for a US Capitol tour and that way, you’ll be able to cement your spot for the day of your choice. I got super lucky and managed to scrape in the day prior, but I’d recommend booking in as soon as you’ve locked in your Washington DC dates to avoid missing out.
Bookings are available up to 90 days in advance. The tour takes you through all the main draw cards of the building: the Crypt, the Rotunda and the National Statutory hall (pictured above). Booking online is easiest either way, but if you are a US national, you can also contact your representatives or senators to arrange a tour. As a foreigner, the online booking system is the only option to pre-book your spot.
Tickets on the Day
Tours of the US Capitol are totally free, but can be hard to come by in busy periods. If you’re visiting the US Capitol wanting to take a tour on the same day, then expect to be patient and wait or, worst case scenario, be turned away. If it comes to it and you miss out, you’ll still be able to eat at the restaurant and wander the temporary exhibits. You’ll also be able to visit Congress or the Senate (with a separate pass you can collect on the day) if you so desire.
Watching Congress when visiting the US Capitol Building
If you want to really be in the room where it all happens, then a visit to sit in the galleries in Congress or the Senate is the place to be in the Capitol. Whilst it might not be for everyone, I found it utterly fascinating to be sitting watching laws being debated, especially since I was there on the morning of a pretty major vote in Congress. It was also the day before the Cohen testimony started, so the place was buzzing.
To get a pass to sit in the galleries in either of Congress or the Senate, you’ll need to either visit your local representative or for foreigners like me, pay a visit to the House and Senate appointment desks in the Capitol Visitor Center. To obtain a pass, you’ll need to present your Passport or a valid form of ID and then proceed to security screening. Be prepared to surrender all electronics – no phones, Fitbits, Apple Watches or the like allowed.
Plan your visit to the US Capitol Building
Visiting the US Capitol building can be a little overwhelming. There’s so much history and there’s so much activity here that there is a lot to take in. The US Capitol tour is a great way to see the building and cover the major sights and the tour kicks off with an awesome 15 minute film that gives great insight into this bedrock of American democracy.
If your time in Washington DC is limited, then beware, because it is very easy to get caught up watching Congress for the best part of the day if there’s some interesting topics on the agenda. I only had two days in DC, so I had to cut myself off around 1.30pm in order to go and see a few other things around the city.
The US Capitol Building is a symbol of the freedom and democracy this country once fought for. It stands out against the Washington DC skyline, it’s white dome the pinnacle of the city’s architecture.
A visit here is to really get a feel for the engine room that runs the United States of America. I may not always agree with the decisions made in this building or who holds the balance of power, but nevertheless, the Capitol is a reminder that Americans everywhere are free to speak up, to disagree, to debate and to vote for their futures. It’s powerful.
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