The U.S. Capitol is a must-see sight on any visit to Washington, DC. It’s the seat of our government with a history dating back to the earliest days of our country. Plus it’s still a working office building where the laws of our country are decided.
Once the swampy marshland along the Potomac was determined to be the new site of the United States’ capital city in 1790, plans for a grand home for the government were made. In 1793, President George Washington laid the cornerstone of what would become the U.S. Capitol. Designed by Dr. William Thornton with assistance from architects Benjamin Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch, the Capitol was built on Jenkins Hill with a planned public garden (the Mall) sweeping from its base to the Potomac. To learn more about Pierre L’Enfant’s master plan for the city, see this link.
After years of questionable construction, the building was finally ready for Congress in November of 1800. The unfinished, cramped building housed both the Senate and House chambers along with the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. It took years for the Capitol to expand, eventually separating into two wings for the Senate and House connected by a wooden walkway where a dome was planned.
When the British burned the Capitol in 1814, not only did we lose our seat of government; the books of the Library of Congress burned as well. The exterior walls survived but were heavily damaged, and the interior was completely destroyed.
In 1819, the reconstructed Capitol was ready for Congress, and by 1826, the center building joining the two wings was completed with a copper dome. The House of Representatives met in a grand room with strange acoustics (today’s National Statuary Hall) while the Senate met in a small room (now called the Old Senate Chamber). However with the United States adding new states, quarters grew tight and expansion plans were made. The House moved into its current wing in 1857 and the Senate moved in 1859.
Once the new wings were constructed, however, the center dome looked too squat so construction began on a new, bigger dome. The Civil War interrupted its construction for a while, but President Lincoln was determined to show the strength of the Union by continuing its construction during the horrific Civil War when parts of the Capitol were turned into a hospital.
The current dome was completed by the end of 1863 with the Statue of Freedom ensconced on its top. Other extensions and renovations occurred over the years to make this a grand building that is the centerpiece of our democracy. A visitor center was built underneath the east front in 2008 to allow more people to experience the building in a safe and imaginative way.
No trip to Washington, DC is complete without seeing the interior of the U.S. Capitol. Your kids who have studied civics and government will be in awe of walking its hallowed halls. It may even inspire them to come back to the Capitol as an intern during college like it did me! I spent every summer in DC working for my Congresswoman in various jobs, including giving tours of the Capitol. Now when I visit, I miss my all-access badge that allowed me to take people to really cool spots from history or into the galleries. Tell your government-loving kids that it’s possible to work here!
The new visitor center makes it very easy to visit the Capitol. Located on the east front, you’ll walk down a set of stairs to enter the visitor center/museum. After going through security screening, you’ll enter the vast Emancipation Hall.
This is where you can pick up tickets for your prescheduled tour or see if there are any available (I highly recommend securing tickets in advance here). If you can’t get a ticket for a tour, you can still visit the museum in the visitor center but you will not be able to go into the Capitol itself. You can also book the Capitol’s specialty tours, including one on women’s voting. To visit the actual House and Senate galleries, contact your representative or senator.
At your designated tour time, you’ll line up to enter the theater to watch “Out of Many, One,” a 13-minute film about the history of the U.S. Capitol and its role in today’s government. Upon its completion, you’ll exit at the top of the theater and will be assigned a tour guide. The guided tour uses headsets so you can hear your tour guide in the busy Capitol.
The tour begins in the Capitol’s crypt, the room directly below the Rotunda. This room has statues and also marks the center of the Capitol (and of the original plan for Washington, DC). Directly underneath the marble star in the middle of the room lies the tomb that was built for President George Washington. However, since this part of the building wasn’t completed until 1827 (28 years after Washington died), he was never buried here and remains at Mount Vernon in nearby Virginia. The tomb is now empty and used to hold the catafalque for state funerals (it’s now located in the Capitol museum). Note the chisel marks still embedded in the marble columns.
Your tour will then walk up the imposing marble stairs (note the indentations in the marble and imagine how many figures from history have trod these same steps!) to the piece de resistance of the Capitol – the Rotunda. This is the room you most associate with the Capitol and is the beating heart of the building and our country. Completed by 1824, it contains paintings of important American scenes from history, including well-known paintings about the American Revolution by John Trumbull.
It also contains the presidential statues and others of significant importance. The newest statue is Truman; my favorite is Abraham Lincoln (near the one of his general and future president, Ulysses S. Grant).
I also love the women’s suffragist statue and its placement in the Rotunda. When I worked here, it was in the crypt!
Be sure to look up to the Capitol dome. See if your child can spot George Washington in the center fresco by Brumidi.
The frescoed frieze in a ribbon around the dome looks to be 3D but it’s not! It has scenes from American history and took almost 80 years to complete! See if your kids can name the events from American history depicted.
Just think of the amazing Americans who have laid in state in this very room. From Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy, Jr. to Rosa Parks, this honor is granted to only a few.
Your tour will then take you into the National Statuary Hall, which used to be the House of Representatives. This is a room chock full of history! Imagine the floor covered in dirty carpets with ground-in tobacco stains, desks crammed in every nook and corner, flickering candlelight, and ladies observing from the balcony. This room hosted many of the important debates from our nation’s history and was where many of the early presidential inaugurations took place. The room has strange acoustics, making speeches near impossible to hear, so ask your tour guide about the whispering gallery near the marker for John Quincy Adams’ desk.
Now the hall is filled with statues. Each state is allowed two statues in the Capitol and many are located in this room. Statues can be changed if a state decides to do so after ten years. Some of the most interesting ones are Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, and Chief Standing Bear.
Your guide will lead you back out (don’t miss sneaking a peek at the Speaker’s office as you pass by!). If it’s not a busy season, the tour may also include a visit to the Old Senate Chamber (one of the most atmospheric spots!) and the Old Supreme Court Chamber. I was sad that we didn’t get to see them on our latest trip!
When you get back to the visitor center, be sure to spend some time in the museum. It has lots of great information and artifacts. I especially liked the different models of what the Capitol looked like over the years.
Don’t miss the original Lincoln catafalque on display.
With kids, you’ll want to visit the Democracy Lab where they can participate in hands-on learning. My young teen loved giving a speech to Congress!
Spend time looking at the statues in Emancipation Hall. I love the statue of King Kamehameha I – it was in Statuary Hall when I worked here and I always thought its gold bird feather robe was so neat! Your kids will also like the Helen Keller statue.
Don’t miss the gift shops and the cafe (look at these adorable desserts!).
If you have timed entry tickets to the Library of Congress, you can access it via an underground tunnel here.
As you walk up the stairs, take in the soaring view of the Capitol dome. It’s the perfect picture spot!
Notice the House and Senate office buildings on the adjacent streets (my old office was in the Cannon building). Your kids will love hearing about the tunnels and subways that take the Representatives and Senators back and forth for votes!
A visit to the Capitol is a must-do on any family trip to Washington, DC. The new visitor center has made this tour so easy and accessible!
- Cost: free
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 1.5 – 2 hours
- Gifts shops located on upper level and online
- Transportation: The Capitol is easily accessible from the Metro. Use the Capitol South station on the blue/orange line and walk two blocks to the visitor center. There’s a stop for the Capitol on the Old Town Trolley tour and DC Circulator bus as well. It’s a short walk from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum or Union Station.
- Dining options: I really like eating at the Capitol cafe. There are also various restaurants if you walk down Pennsylvania Avenue (behind the Library of Congress).
- Nearby hotels: See my DC guide for my recommendations. If you want to stay close to the Capitol, check out the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill or the Kimpton George.
- Nearby attractions include: Library of Congress, US Botanical Garden, and Smithsonian museums along the National Mall
Books to Read:
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