I am almost embarrassed to admit that in the 16+ years I have lived on Capitol Hill — within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol — I had never actually been inside the building that houses Congress, one of the most iconic attractions not just in the city, but in our country, until this past weekend.
Yes, I am guilty of the local’s neglect, that subconscious presumption that a place is readily accessible and not going away, so I’d get there “any day now.” In this case, any day turned into many years, and a Capitol tour sat patiently at the top of my Must Do List longer than it took me to live in four houses, work for three different companies, and have two kids. Maybe I silently justified it because I’d been on the Capitol grounds countless times. Our family has played and picnicked on the lawn, enjoyed many concerts on the steps, even whizzed down its snowy slope during the Snowmageddon sledding permit. I’ve run, biked, and strolled up and down the paths traversing the Hill. I’ve witnessed and joined rallies, protests, marches, and celebrations there. I even used to get close enough to peer in the windows, thanks to the accessibility the public used to enjoy pre-9/11.
But until last Saturday, I’d never been inside. To throw in a bit of irony, we hadn’t even planned to visit the Capitol when we finally did — you’d think a little fanfare would be in order to make up for the neglect — but it was actually a spur of the moment idea as our family was on a morning stroll to Eastern Market. “Let’s check out the Capitol Visitor Center,” I suggested. And at the time, I thought that was all we’d do. Who knew it would be so easy to take a tour, too?
And so with that spontaneous decision, we made our way to the Capitol — Owen on bike, Sasha in the stroller, and Levi and I on foot. As soon as we got down the ramp to the Visitor Center entrance on the east side of the building, two Capitol Police let us know that we could lock up the bike at a rack just at the top of the ramp on First Street. Strollers are fine to bring in, but make sure any kids’ drinks are in sippy cups or baby bottles, as no other drinks are allowed. Tickets are not required to enter the Visitors Center (but you do need to sign up for timed tours after you’re inside).
Once past security and in the building, we headed straight for a balcony where we could take in Emancipation Hall below us. The space is quite remarkable, with a plaster model of the Statue of Freedom (a replica of the figure on the Capitol dome) as the room’s central focus and statues of other prominent Americans in marble and bronze on the perimeter. Low black fountains in the east corners delight little ones, and if you’ve got some loose change, they’ll enjoy throwing coins into the water.
Capitol staff, who are readily available in red vests to help visitors, noticed our stroller and directed us to an elevator. On the floor of the main hall, we got a closer look at the statues, both kids finding them fascinating. Beyond Emancipation Hall to the west is Exhibition Hall, where guests can check out historic documents and artifacts, a touchable model of the Capitol dome, and many other displays that offer historical information and cool facts about the Capitol building.
Back in Emancipation Hall, we literally walked right up to the ticket counter — there were no lines at all — and asked about a tour. We received stick-on passes at no charge and were told to line up for a tour, which would take place within minutes. (Note: This was our experience on a random Saturday; I have no idea if it’s always this easy to get on a tour. If any one has insight about this, please share in the comments.)
The tour began in an orientation theater with a viewing of “Out of Many, One,” a 13-minute film that offers a quick history lesson of the establishment of Congress and Washington, DC, as the nation’s capitol, as well as insight on the construction of the Capitol building itself. From there our group moved to The Rotunda, a room considerably more impressive, though smaller, than it looks on television. Oversized statues and busts commemorate U.S. presidents, large paintings depicting significant historic events line the lower walls, and intricate carvings are etched in the sandstone above them. But the best view is overhead, into the Rotunda dome. From the fresco painting on the ceiling 180 feet above to the elaborate designs and arched windows adorning the dome to the frescoed frieze meant to look like three dimensional carvings, it is a magnificent work of art that all ages can appreciate. The kids were just as mesmerized by the overhead view as us adults.
Next on the tour was the National Statuary Hall, another grand chamber displaying 38 statues contributed by U.S. States along the perimeter of the room. Several people on the tour asked to see their state’s statue for a photo op, and our tour guide swiftly demonstrated her knowledge of the building by quickly pointing out all of them. She also showed us how the acoustics of the room work and relayed the story of how John Quincy Adams would eavesdrop on conversations (though it’s apparently just a story and not true). We gathered around a plaque marking where his desk sat as our guide spoke from across the room; we could hear her clearly even though she spoke in a low voice.
From there, we headed to the Old Supreme Court Chamber for a quick pass through and photo ops and then the Capitol Crypt, which does not actually entomb any bodies as the name implies. But the room is still fascinating with 13 statues representing the 13 original colonies, perfectly preserved stonework, and solid Doric columns that were initially built to support the Rotunda.
That ended our tour, all of which took about an hour, perfect for our little visitors. And to answer the question that many surely have about seeing Congress at work: Yes, you can see Congress when they are in session, and it is possible to get tickets day-of. The tour guides explain that it’s as easy as walking across the street to your Senator or state Representative’s office and requesting tickets (you can also contact them in advance).
Unfortunately, Congress was not in session when we visited, so a new Must Do has moved to the top of my list — right after the White House. Maybe in another 16 years, I’ll finally cross them off, too.