The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
No trip to Washington, D.C. is complete without a visit to the United States Capitol. Not only is it a symbol of democracy recognized in America, and throughout the world, it is the seat of power for the U.S. government.
Today more than 3 million people visit the U.S. Capitol every year and it is easier than ever because of the Visitor Center.
Completed in 2008, the Visitor Center is a gleaming welcome to visitors from around the world. It is open from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. everyday except Sundays. It is also closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Inauguration Day.
From the center's history, its attractions and amenities, as well as some useful tips, there are a number of things that every visitor should know before visiting the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.
History of the Visitor Center
The United States Capitol Building is the place where the House of Representatives and the Senate conduct business. It is an architectural treasure as well as a home to many important pieces of American art.
Since construction on the building began in 1793, numerous sections have been added over the years. The latest addition to this famous landmark is the Visitor Center.
The Visitor Center is approximately 580,000 square feet and is located completely underground so as not to detract from the Capitol Building and the grounds.
The idea of a Visitor Center began in the 1970s and in 1991, Congress authorized funding for the design project, which was completed in 1995. The project remained in the design stage for a number of years until the ever increasing number of visitors, as well as increased security needs in the wake of the tragic loss of two U.S. Capitol security guards in 1998, prompted Congress to approve funding for the construction. Construction began in the summer of 2000, but the horrific events of September 11, 2001 prompted major design changes and increased security considerations. This meant that the project went well over the original budget and projected construction time.
The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center was officially opened on December 2, 2008, coinciding with the 145th anniversary of the date that the Statue of Freedom was placed on top of the dome.
Some of the sights on the tourClick thumbnail to view full-size
Interesting Visitor Center facts
- The Emancipation Hall was named to honor the contributions of slave laborers who helped construct the Capitol Building.
- It has been estimated that the total cost for constructing the Visitor Center exceeded 620 million dollars, well over the original projected cost of 265 million dollars.
Attractions and Amenities
Visitors should plan on spending at least two hours at the Visitor Center and there are attractions for all ages. With the exception of any gifts or food purchased, attractions at the Center are free of charge.
- Tour the Capitol Building - Tours are approximately one hour long and take visitors through historic chambers and the Capitol Building.
- Informational Film - The tour begins with a brief informational film which offers visitors a glimpse of the history of the Capitol Building.
- Visit the Exhibition Hall - With fascinating artifacts and models, the Exhibition Hall is a must-see stop for visitors. Fans of politics will enjoy testing their political knowledge with all of the interactive exhibits available.
- Emancipation Hall - Basically a waiting area, the Emancipation Hall is where visitors line up for their tours. The hall is filled with many statues of famous Americans, as well as the original plaster model of the Statue of Freedom which stands atop the Capitol dome.
- Senate and House Galleries - The Senate and House galleries are the chambers where elected officials gather. The galleries are only open to visitors at certain times. They are not part of the tour, and visitors must have a pass to gain access. Visitors can contact their local Senators or Representatives to obtain passes.
- Gift Shops - There are two gift shops on the premises.
- Full Access for People with Disabilities
Did you know...
Many visitors are unaware that the United States Capitol is not just one building. Covering an area of almost 274 acres, the Capitol includes numerous office buildings as well as the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Botanic Garden. The park-like setting was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City.
When visiting the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center there are a number of things to keep in mind.
- Plan Ahead - Tours fill up quickly so book online at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center website or through your Senator or Representative's office.
- Take an Early Tour - The center gets busier throughout the day so it is advised to take an earlier tour.
- Wear Comfortable Shoes - Tours are approximately one hour long and visitors walk down long hallways, stand for long periods of time listening to tour guides, and climb many stairs.
- Use Public Transportation - Parking is extremely limited in the area so take buses or subways.
- Be Aware of Prohibited Items - Visitors should check the prohibited items list before they arrive. Rules are strictly enforced and any items not permitted will be confiscated. An up-to-date list can be found on the Visitor Center website. *Parents should note that, among other things, liquids and food, even unopened, are not permitted. There are trash cans at the entryways so that people can throw these things away.*
For more information on the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
Worth the visit
Visitors will not be disappointed with the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. Children will take away an increased knowledge of the history of the United States and adults will come away with a renewed awe of the country.
The Visitor Center is the perfect starting point for any visit to the U.S. Capitol. For even more information about visiting, read Visiting the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
© 2012 Claudia Mitchell