No visit to Washington, D.C. would be complete without a stop at the center of American government. Located on Jenkins Hill, the tallest hill in the federal core of the city, the Capitol Building is the origin point of D.C.’s grid of streets. Here, senators and representatives develop, debate, and vote on upward of 12,000 bills in every two-year legislative session. Get to know the stunning architecture of this grand American building.
In this guide, we will discuss:
• The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
• Touring the Capitol Building
• Capitol architecture
• The Senate and House Chambers
The Capitol Visitor Center
The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is the main public entrance to the building. This enormous, two-story facility is found underneath the Capitol Building and can be reached from the plaza on the east side of the building or via a tunnel from the Library of Congress.
Just like at the White House, you will need to go through security to enter, so check the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center website for a list of allowed and prohibited items before you go. You may carry your camera or smartphone everywhere in the building except the visitors’ galleries of the House and Senate chambers; you will be asked to check them at the gallery doors.
Touring the Capitol Building
After passing through security, all visitors are welcome to visit the gift shops, café, and exhibition galleries of the Visitor Center. To enter the Capitol itself, you will need to book a free tour. There are a couple of ways to do this.
Many visitors obtain a same-day entry pass on the lower level of the Visitor Center. However, it is strongly recommended that you book in advance, especially if you are with a large group. You can book either through the Visitor Center website or through your senator’s or representative’s office. The tour will be fundamentally the same either way, but if you book through one of the offices, it might be targeted more toward your state’s history.
The Capitol Rotunda
At the center of the building, beneath its iconic dome, is the Capitol Rotunda. This room was completed in 1824, during Charles Bulfinch’s tenure as architect of the Capitol.
It is 96 feet in diameter and 180 feet high. It is, and always has been, a ceremonial space. Most notably, it is where distinguished Americans lie in state or lie in honor after their deaths. These have included 11 U.S. Presidents and such figures as Pierre L’Enfant, General John J. Pershing, General Douglas MacArthur, Rosa Parks, Senator Daniel Inouye, and Senator John McCain.
The room is filled with remarkable works of art. The eight, large oil paintings—each about 12 feet high by 18 feet wide—depict important events in colonial and early American history. Four of them were commissioned by Congress in 1817. The artist is John Trumbull. The other four paintings are by John Vanderlyn, William Powell, John Chapman, and Robert Weir, and were added in the 1840s and 1850s.
The most famous of these images is probably Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence. It is widely reproduced. Above the paintings are a series of relief sculptures depicting famous explorers and scenes from colonial history.
The Capitol Dome
The typical Capitol tour does not include entry to the dome itself. Dome tours can only be arranged by your senator, your representative, or their chief of staff. The arranger must accompany you on the tour, which means these tours are fairly hard to come by. A member of Congress may take up to seven people on a tour.
Dome tours are also not for the faint of heart. Reaching the highest accessible area means climbing hundreds of steps on narrow, twisting, sometimes spiral staircases. First, you will be taken between the outer dome and the inner dome.
From there, the route leads you back inside to the gallery of windows and columns halfway up the dome. From here, you can get spectacular views of both the paintings in the Rotunda and the city outside. There is also a walkway on this level on the exterior of the dome, but it is usually not visited on tours.
Keep going up, and you will reach the oculus gallery, which provides a view of the Rotunda floor below. Finally, weather permitting, you may be taken to the small circular balcony between the dome and the Statue of Freedom, where you will get an incomparable 360‑degree view of the city.
If visiting the dome is not possible, a scale model of the dome found in the Visitor Center will give you the experience in miniature.
The National Statuary Hall
To the south of the Rotunda is the National Statuary Hall, also known as the Old Hall of the House. The House of Representatives met in this chamber from 1819 to 1857.
In 1864, it was converted into a permanent art gallery, and each state was invited to contribute two statues of its distinguished citizens. During the 20th century, the hall began running out of space. Today, 35 statues are in the hall. The rest are spread throughout the building and the Visitor Center.
The Old Senate Chamber
On the opposite side of the Rotunda is the Old Senate Chamber. It was occupied by the Senate until 1859, when it moved to its present, larger chamber. From 1860 to 1935, it was the home of the United States Supreme Court.
Unlike the House chamber, this room has been restored to its 19th‑century appearance. Today, this room is primarily used for educational reenactments.
In the Senate wing, you will also find the stunning Brumidi Corridors. Constantino Brumidi based his design for these five hallways on Raphael’s paintings in the Vatican loggias. Here, you will find images from classical mythology side‑by‑side with figures from American history, plus countless flowers, fruits, and animals.
The hallways on the House side are known as the Cox Corridors. Although they resemble the Brumidi Corridors somewhat in style, their paintings are much more recent. Authorized by Congress in 1971, they were created by Allyn Cox, who had originally been hired to restore and complete some of Brumidi’s work in the Rotunda. Among the notable images here are a scene of George Washington laying the Capitol cornerstone and a view of the Smithsonian Castle as it appeared in 1855.
Also on the house side is the less elaborate but no less dramatic Hall of Columns. It is 100 feet long and lined with 28 marble Corinthian columns that echo the columns on the building’s exterior. The elaborately decorated ceiling is made of cast iron and is part of the support system for the Statuary Hall above it.
Directly beneath the Rotunda is a circular room called the Crypt. Despite the name, there are no burials here. It eases traffic flow between the north and south wings, like a highway roundabout.
The Senate and House Chambers
The Senate and House Chambers are where bills become law. These chambers are not part of the standard Capitol tour; you have to request to see them separately. I strongly suggest that you do so, especially if Congress is in session.
The Senate and House Chambers are at the center of the north and south wings, respectively, surrounded by offices and meeting rooms. When it is time for your tour, you will access them through special entrances in the Visitor Center that lead to the galleries. From here, you will have a bird’s‑eye view of the chamber floors.
The two chambers look very much alike. The main difference is that the House’s chamber is larger because it needs to accommodate more than four times as many members as the Senate’s.
The representatives’ desks are fanned out around the area called the well. In the well is a rostrum with three tiers. The speaker’s podium is on the middle tier, and the speaker’s chair is on the top tier. The seats around the speaker are occupied by various clerks and the sergeant at arms.
The Democratic members sit on the left side of the room (to the Speaker’s right), and Republicans sit on the right side of the room (to the Speaker’s left). Independents sit with whichever party they caucus with.
Some of the objects in this room are quite old. For example, take the mace—the staff topped with a silver globe and eagle, displayed on the left side of the rostrum. It consists of 13 rods of ebony wood (representing the 13 original colonies).
The sergeant at arms carries the mace in to the chamber every morning to mark the start of the day. If the House is in session, the mace sits in a green marble stand at the speaker’s right hand. When the House is in committee, it is in a wooden stand near the sergeant at arms. During the State of the Union address, it is placed out of sight. This particular mace has been in use since 1841.
The Senate Chamber is smaller but otherwise similar to the House. It features a marble rostrum instead of wood.
If you are interested in adding a tour of the House and Senate Chambers to your Capitol visit, you can call the Visitor Center in advance to find out if the galleries are open to tourists and what is on the legislative agenda that day.
Other Sites at the Capitol
Either before or after your tour, make sure to spend some time in the Exhibition Hall of the Visitor Center. Here, you will find information about the building, the people who have served here, and the entire legislative process.
Weather permitting, you may want to take a stroll around the Capitol grounds. The original grounds are enclosed in the stone wall at the base of Capitol Hill and include 58 acres originally landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York’s Central Park. The full complex today includes more than 270 acres of parkland and the U.S. Botanic Garden.
You might also take a walk through the neighborhood surrounding the Capitol. Appropriately called the Capitol Hill Historic District, it is full of 19th‑century row houses—some of D.C.’s oldest residential architecture.
Capitol Hill is also a permanently fashionable neighborhood, popular with D.C. power brokers and congressional interns alike. As such, there is always great dining and shopping to be had here.