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Visiting the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Claudia enjoys traveling and sharing her travel tips with readers.

The United States Capitol

The United States Capitol

U.S. Capitol Travel Guide

If you are planning a visit to Washington, D.C., one of the most important stops you should make is a visit to the U.S. Capitol. The seat of power in the city and a symbol of democracy, the United States Capitol is one of the most important and recognizable landmarks in the world.

Thinking it is only one building, most first-time visitors are unaware of the scale of the U.S. Capitol, and are surprised to learn how large the area really is. They may not realize the numerous sights there are to see and because of this, some visitors may not be prepared for their day, which can lead to disappointment. The good news is that the U.S. Capitol is very easy to visit.

Keep scrolling to find out how you and your family can avoid any pitfalls and enjoy an educational and fun-filled day with some:

  • Information about the layout of the Capitol grounds
  • History of the U.S. Capitol
  • Planning suggestions and tips

Capitol Grounds

The U.S. Capitol is an area that makes up approximately 274 acres of land in Washington, D.C. and includes the following buildings:

  • U.S. Capitol Building
  • Russell Senate Office Building
  • Dirksen Senate Office Building
  • Hart Senate Office Building
  • U.S. Supreme Court
  • Jefferson Building: Library of Congress
  • Adams Building: Library of Congress
  • Madison Building: Library of Congress
  • Cannon House Office Building
  • Longworth House Office Building
  • Rayburn House Office Building
  • Ford House Office Building
  • U.S. Botanic Garden
  • Capitol Visitor Center

Other points of interest on the grounds include:

  • Bartholdi Fountain
  • Capitol Reflecting Pool
  • Various Hardscapes
  • Various Monuments
  • Robert A. Taft Memorial and Carillon
  • Senate Fountain
  • Summerhouse

While many of these areas are open to the public, with some even providing tours, many are not. Check with the U.S. Capitol website for more information regarding the various landmarks.

Pioneers of the women's suffrage movement monument in the U.S. Capitol Building.

Pioneers of the women's suffrage movement monument in the U.S. Capitol Building.

Brief History of the U.S. Capitol

Designed in 1874 by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the U.S. Capitol grounds were originally chosen in 1791 by the designer of Washington, D.C., Pierre L'Enfant, and approved by President George Washington. The sight was primarily chosen because it sits on a hill overlooking the city.

The land was originally occupied by Manahoac and Monacan tribes until it was owned by Daniel Carroll of Duddington. When the federal government acquired it from him, the land was still overgrown and considered wilderness. One area that was particularly swampy is where the U.S. Botanic Garden now resides. Over the years, the land was cleared for a more formal Capitol grounds area.

The cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol Building was laid in 1793. The building was designed by architect James Hoban who began and saw the completion of the first phase of the project, which was finished in 1813. In August of 1814, British troops set fire to the building, which was luckily extinguished before the entire building burned down.

Reconstruction began in 1815 and continued with a succession of architects and builders. Over the years numerous additions and changes were made. The original dome was replaced with a cast-iron one and the Statue of Freedom was installed on the top of the dome in 1863. It was during this time that construction came to a halt because of the Civil War. The building was temporarily used as barracks and a hospital.

In the late 1800s and very early 1900s, modernization continued and more areas were added.

From 1903 until 1970, mainly interior and exterior repairs and upgrades were made to the building. From 1970 until the present day, there have been, and continue to be, major preservation projects and additions to the grounds. The grandest of these additions is the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which opened in 2008.

The United State Capitol Building

The United State Capitol Building

Planning Suggestions and Tips

There are so many things to see and do when visiting the U.S. Capitol and you don't want to miss a thing, so make sure that you spend some time planning your visit.

  • The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is a must-see stop. The free tour and exhibits will take approximately 2 hours.
  • Unless you are only going to visit the Capitol Building, plan to spend one day at the U.S. Capitol. Remember that there are many areas that you will be able to visit.
  • Make tour reservations ahead of time and take the tour of the U.S. Capitol building in the morning. It gets busier as the day progresses. Remember to check out tours of the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court lectures. While some attractions require reservations, others do not.
  • While making tour reservations is easily done online, you can also contact your Senator or Representative for tours. Getting tour passes this way sometimes gets you access to other areas not available on the regular tours.
  • Don't miss the beautifully landscaped grounds and the U.S. Botanic Garden. It is an easy walk from the Capitol Building and a change of pace from all of the monuments and history you will be seeing.
  • Take public transportation when visiting. There is very little parking in the area, and any parking that is available fills up quickly.
  • Many items are prohibited when visiting the various areas of the U.S. Capitol. Check the website before you visit to make sure you don't bring prohibited items. They will be confiscated upon entry. Even things like liquid and food are not permitted. This is difficult for parents with children, but there is a nice cafeteria in the Visitor Center.
  • Restrooms are available are various locations.
  • Wear comfortable footwear. You will be walking a lot. Strollers are permitted and there is access for people with disabilities.
The United States Capitol Building

The United States Capitol Building


Don't Miss It

Make time to visit the United States Capitol when traveling to Washington D.C. Filled with incredible history and beautiful sights, it is not to be missed. You'll come away in awe, knowing that you have visited one of the most important sights in the world.

© 2012 Claudia Porter