As 2019 draws to a close, we are ending the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the first legislative representative assembly in the New World. This legislative body, Virginia’s General Assembly, began in 1619 in Jamestown and now meets at the Virginia Capitol in Richmond. The Capitol is a wonderful place to take your kids to learn about history, government, and the very beginnings of our country.
The Capitol is located on a large hill in downtown Richmond. In 2007, the Capitol opened an extensive underground visitor center, and this is where you should begin your tour.
This center was built underground so as not to interfere with the vision designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1785. As you enter, inquire at the desk about the next guided tour. You can also opt for a self-guided tour, which is best if you have little ones with short attention spans! If you take the guided tour, you will learn more about the building’s history and hear fascinating stories about the Capitol so I recommended taking the guided tour if your children are 8 and up. The building is stroller-friendly, and you will find elevators to help with all of the stairs.
Note that tours may be a bit challenging during the legislative session, which is typically January – March. Tours are still conducted but you may not get to see every room. However you will get a chance to experience the busy legislators taking care of the Commonwealth’s business!
After going through security, you will make your way past the gift shop and a few exhibits, including a permanent exhibit on Jefferson’s design and a temporary exhibit on the suffrage movement.
You will then make your way to the impressive statue of Thomas Jefferson. Your children will love posing here!
Your guide will escort you up the stairs and into the Capitol. I was fascinated by the pictures on the outer wall as you walk into the Capitol. These pictures show you what the Capitol looked like before the additions, steps, and the visitor center were built. It is neat to see the building without the front stairs and the wings, which were added in 1906.
As you make your way through the basement of the Capitol, your guide will talk to you about the design and functionality of the Capitol and can show you where many of the scenes from the movie, “Lincoln,” were filmed. Your guide can also talk with you about the Capitol serving as both the Capitol of the Confederacy and the State Capitol of Virginia during the Civil War.
The first floor is where you will spend most of your time. Your guide will take you to the Old Senate Chamber where you can see portraits of Pocahontas and John Smith.
Don’t miss the painting about the Battle of Yorktown. My son and I enjoyed trying to figure out which of the soldiers was Alexander Hamilton!
The room opposite the Old Senate Chamber is the Jefferson room, where you can see the original model of the Capitol that Jefferson sent from France to ensure that his architectural drawings were followed.
The main room of the Capitol is the rotunda, where the original statue of George Washington is found. This statue by Houdon is the only one of George Washington to be made using his exact measurements and likeness.
The rotunda also contains busts of the remaining 7 Presidents born in Virginia: Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson. There is also a bust of the Marquis de Lafayette, which has faced President Washington for over 230 years! Lafayette himself visited the Capitol in 1824.
The last historical room to see on the tour is the Old House Chamber, which has the most history of any rooms at the Capitol. This room is where Chief Justice John Marshall conducted the treason trial of Vice President Aaron Burr, just a few short years after his deadly duel with Hamilton.
This room is also where Virignia voted to secede from the Union and where Gen. Robert E. Lee offered his military services to Virginia, both in April of 1861.
This room was also the site of the Capitol disaster, where the floor above caved into the chamber during a heavily attended trial, killing over 60 people.
The room now holds the ceremonial mace, which is still used, and many statues of well-known Virginians. It was interesting to learn more about these men, particularly one who was the President of another country – Sam Houston.
If the General Assembly is not in session, your guide will take you to see one of the wings added in 1906, where the current House of Delegates and Senate now meet. Be sure to note the interesting memorial to Nathaniel Bacon behind the speaker’s chair in the House chamber.
If the General Assembly is in session, you can line up to observe the debates and votes from the visitor balconies in each chamber. This is located on the 2nd floor.
Also on the 2nd floor is the gallery of governor portraits. My son enjoyed walking around this gallery and picking out the governors that he knew.
To leave the Capitol, you will have to head back downstairs to go out through the Visitor Center. Don’t miss the excellent gift shop where you can purchase souvenirs, including a commemorative ornament for the 400th anniversary of representative government.
Leaving the Capitol building does not end your visit! The Capitol grounds contain many statues of importance, and I encourage you to explore these with your children. Don’t miss the newly installed Voices from the Garden: Virginia Women’s Monument. The first of its kind in the country, you can learn more about the women featured here. More statues will be added over the next few years.
You also will want to see the Mantle: Virginia Indian Tribute and the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, which is the statue closest to the Executive Mansion.
The George Washington Equestrian Monument towers over Capitol Square and was the location of Jefferson Davis’ swearing in as President of the Confederacy.
Don’t miss the many historical buildings that surround Capitol Square. You can tour the Executive Mansion and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. You can also see the U.S. Courthouse, directly across Bank Street from the Capitol, which housed the offices of the Confederate government during the Civil War.
With over 200 years of history, the Virginia Capitol has been the site of many important historical events. While it is still a busy seat of government, it can definitely be a kid-friendly destination and one that they will always remember.
- Cost: free
- Self-guided tour and grounds: all ages
- Guided tour: ages 8 and up
- Tour time:
- Self-guided tour: 30 minutes
- Guided tour: 1 hour
- Grounds: 30 minutes
- Gift shop located in Visitor Center
- Parking: There is a pay garage for use by visitors at Bank and 9th Streets.
- Public Transportation: The Capitol is accessible on the GRTC PULSE bus line, at the Government Center stop.
- Dining options nearby: Meriwether’s Cafe is onsite near the Jefferson statue. Other family-friendly options nearby are Jojo’s Pizza, Potbelly Sandwiches, and Pop’s Market on Grace.
- Nearby attractions include: Virginia’s Executive Mansion (the oldest continually used governor’s mansion in America), St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (where Jefferson Davis learned of Lee’s retreat), John Marshall House, Library of Virginia, and The Valentine
Books to read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
Have you visited the Capitol? What was your child’s favorite statue? Comment below!