U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center & Tour

Touring the Capitol is something every child in the DC area should do, but is often relegated to the category of “another day” or for when the kids are a little older. However, with no reservation, same-day tours available the, Capitol Visitor’s Center makes dropping in for learning and fun easy and stress-free. My family decided to make the trip on a rainy Saturday with our two and five year olds and found it to be a very positive experience.

The tour opens with a 13 minute film explaining the history of representative democracy and giving a brief history of the Capitol. Tours are then taken to the Crypt of the Capitol, where I learned George and Martha Washington were to be interred, although they never made it over and remain at Mount Vernon.

Tours are then taken to the magnificent Rotunda. My son and daughter were both fascinated with the scale of the room and the detailed paintings. The next stop on the tour is National Statuary Hall, which was the original House Gallery. In addition to hearing the history of the room, children are treated to a lesson in acoustics and discover with their own voices that the room was a terrible place for Congress to meet since anything said on one side of the room can be heard clear across the other side. My tour group was also taken to the room where the Supreme Court originally met, although we were told that tours are not always taken there.

Immediately outside the Visitor’s Center is Emancipation Hall. Emancipation Hall and National Statuary Hall combined contain 100 statutes — two from each state. The statutes are a good opportunity to teach children about important figures from their home state. If you live in D.C. be aware that there are not currently any statues from D.C., although recent legislation has made it possible for Frederick Douglas’ statue to make the trip over to the Capitol soon along with statutes from other territories. Since the Capitol did not have any statutes to show my children from where they live, I sought out statutes from my home state.

The Capitol Visitor’s Center also has an Exhibition Hall which can be visited before or after your Capitol Tour. Be sure to ask for the My Capitol activity guide for children. Although designed for children 11 and up, the guide also contains some useful information for younger children as well. At the entrance to Exhibition Hall is an 11-foot model of the Capitol that children can touch. Children can also peer into the model’s many windows to see a miniature version of the Rotunda as it looks during different hours of day and night.

One feature of the Exhibition Center my children particularly enjoyed was viewing several scale models of Capitol Hill to see how the land developed from a wide open, rural landscape into the bustling home of government it is today. In additional to the Capitol, children may recognize other buildings in the models, including the Botanic Gardens. The Exhibition Center also has two small theaters showing short films about Congress, several historical documents including the text of John F. Kennedy’s speech to Congress vowing to put a man on the moon, and a virtual tour of the Capitol that gives visitors a look into many of the Capitol’s rooms that are closed to the public.

The opportunities for learning on a trip to the Capitol are endless. Even my very young children asked questions about how government functioned during and after our visit. Older children can get more out of the experience by doing a little bit of research into their representatives before their visit.

Every tour member is given a headset and small receiver to wear during the tour. These can be helpful, but my children and I did not wear then and did not have a problem hearing our tour guide so it should not be a problem if your child would rather not wear a headset.

Note that the House and Senate Galleries are not part of the Capitol Tour. However, if you visit at a time when they are open, you can obtain passes from your Representative or Senators. The Senate and House Galleries are not open for tours on weekends. From 9am to 4:15pm weekdays the House Gallery is open when the House is not in session and the Senate Gallery is open during planned recesses of a week or more.

The main entrance to the U.S. Capitol, is located beneath the East Front plaza of the U.S. Capitol at First Street and East Capitol Street, SW. Free tickets for guided tours are available Monday through Saturday and can be booked in advance online or obtained the same day at the information desk on the lower level of the Visitor’s Center. Tours are offered from 8:20am through 3:20pm and last approximately one hour. The Capitol Visitor’s Center occasional offers kid-friendly special events which can be found online.

The Capitol is stroller-friendly and tour guides will direct you to elevators as needed. However, be aware that strollers are not permitted in the House and Senate galleries, nor are backpacks or cameras. Strollers can also be left at the coat checks after entering the Visitor’s Center.

Not surprisingly, you must go through a security check upon entering. No food or drink, including packaged food and water, is allowed to be brought into the Capitol or the Visitor’s center and these will be confiscated by security if you have them with you. The Visitor’s Center does have a restaurant where you can purchase food, including kid-friendly options like pizza and there are water fountains.

Union Station, located within walking distance, offers a myriad of eating options as well. There are metered spots available near the Capitol but these can be scarce during the week. The closest metro stops are Union Station, Capitol South, and Federal Center, SW.

If the Capitol alone is not a big enough draw for you on its own, it can easily be added onto a trip to the National Postal Museum or the U.S. Botanic Garden, both within walking distance.

The seat of government is in your backyard — go see it first-hand and learn more!

Photo by Jamie Davis Smith

Photo of author

OK Editorial Team

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