No trip to Washington D.C. is complete without touring the US Capitol Building. It’s the seat of American democracy, and in many ways, the beating heart of our political life.
Some of the most pivotal moments in our nation’s history happened inside the capitol’s chambers and in its footsteps. And as a perk, touring the U.S. capitol is free, so there’s no reason not to go.
Are you planning a trip to Washington, DC? If visiting the capital is on your agenda, you’ll be intrigued to learn about this historical tour.
Tours Are Free, but You Need a Ticket
Naturally, access to the building is free, but you need to book a free ticket to gain access to the touristy parts of the building.
Tours run from 8:30 AM to 3:20 PM, depending on the building’s schedule for the day. If there’s a big event happening, like the State of the Union address, then you might tours curtailed. However, tours, of course, run when Congress is in session.
You’ll seek a list of special events when you go to book your ticket.
Where do you get your tickets?
You have four options.
1. You can walk up and ask for a tour on a lark. This works well for anyone who wants to take a tour on the spot. When you arrive, be prepared to take the next tour. It’s a first-come-first-served operation, so you can’t ask for tickets later in the day.
Walking up to the building is fine, but it won’t guarantee you a slot during peak tourist season (June-August) or during the school visit season in March and April.
You can always just explore the monuments around DC if you have to wait.
2. Your other options are booking in advance. You can book directly with the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center to take a tour with a docent.
It’s the same tour you’d get if you turned up and asked for a same-day ticket.
3. If you are a U.S. resident, then you can also ask your representative or senator. Many offices are happy to take you on constituent tours that are a bit more personalized and usually smaller than the docent tours.
4. Finally, you can book through a third party. However, your tour of the capitol will still be led by a docent because private tour guides aren’t allowed in the capitol. A third party tour will usually give you a tour of the outside of the building before sending you inside for your reserved docent timeslot.
How Long Is the US Capital Building Tour?
All capitol tours start with a short video and last 60 minutes.
Is the Tour in Any Other Languages?
There are two docent-led foreign language tours every day in Mandarin (Chinese) and Spanish. Both depart at 8:40 AM, and you can’t make reservations. The number is capped at 50 visitors.
Will See You See Congress at Work?
If Congress is in session, then you can add on a pass to the galleries for the House or the Senate. You typically need a pass from your representative or senator, even when neither body is in session.
The galleries aren’t part of the U.S. capitol tour. But feel free to explore all of the museums, art, and culture surrounding this historic castle.
Don’t Forget to Book for Specific Collection Tours
If you want a more personalized tour, skip the general one that departs every 10 minutes, and look at the calendar instead. The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center runs a full program of themed tours Monday through Saturday that includes:
- Halls of the Senate Tour (45 minutes)
- Votes for Women Tour (45 minutes)
- Freedom Fighters in the Capitol Collection Tour (45 minutes)
- Family Programs (30 minutes)
These are great if you have a specific interest or if you want to bring your kids, but you’re not sure they’ll sit through the general tour. The family program changes, but in 2019, it was an exploration of Native American history with a Sacagawea coin kids’ activity.
Additionally, there are occasional “This Day in History” tours. They usually last half an hour and often include an activity or keepsake. You don’t need to book these in advance. Most leave from the Statue of Freedom in the capitol.
You can find all the latest tour information on the Special Tours and Activities page.
Or if you are looking for more things to do with your family in DC, check out the Smithsonian’s Pollinator Garden for some outdoor fun.
What Can You Bring when Touring the US Capitol Building?
As you can imagine, security is strict, and the Capitol Visitor Center is only accessible when you submit to a security search at the door.
Beyond the typical items that you expect to be banned, like weapons, mace, replica weapons, and pointed objects, you must also ensure you:
- Leave your water bottles at the hotel or empty them before arriving
- Leave any food including fruit and unopened packages at your hotel or on the bus
- Leave any non-aerosol sprays behind (unless it’s a prescription medication)
- Only carry a bag smaller than 18″ x 14″ x 8.5.”
You can bring your cell phones and cameras into the building and take pictures on tour. However, there are restrictions in the galleries. You’ll be asked to store your items when you check-in to your gallery visit.
Are you going as a group? Leave backpacks and large bags on the bus to help everyone get through security faster.
You can see the full, updated prohibited items list here.
Is the Capitol Accessible?
The U.S. capitol is wheel-chair accessible, and you can also request one from the information desk once you get inside.
If you prefer an ASL or sign language tour, you need to book in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. There are also listening devices available at the information desk.
Additionally, service animals are allowed in both the Visitor Center and on the tours.
Need to know more? Check out the Accessibility Services page for a full map of accessible pathways for the entire campus.
Are You Excited for Your Trip to Washington D.C.?
The docents and staff at the capitol are full of great information about the building’s history as well as the incredible people who have wandered the halls since the capitol opened in 1800.
They make sure that touring the U.S. capitol is easy for anyone who wants to attend. Remember, outside of peak season, all you need to do is show up! But you should also check the calendar to join in on any special events or themed activities.
There are a million things to do around the amazing city of Washington DC for residents at DARO and tourists alike.
We hope this guide to the US Capitol Building left you glowing bright with excitement and wonder for our Nations’s Capital.