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U.S. Capitol, Capitol Hill

District of Columbia, United States, North America: U.S. Capitol Building and reflecting pool, Washington, D.C.
First Street and East Capitol Street N.E.
Washington , D.C.
Tel: 202 226 8000
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Once upon a time, in order to see the legislative branch in action or how Congress was divvying up your tax dollars, you had to wait outdoors for hours with no bathrooms, seating areas, or restaurants in sight. But with the 2008 opening of the Capitol Visitors Center, touring Congress has become an of-the-people, for-the-people experience. In addition to providing restrooms, coat checks, and a family-friendly cafeteria, the center allows you to reserve tour times online or by phone (you still need to contact your senator or representative to attend a session of Congress—see below). More significantly, the new center provides visitors with a historical context for the tour they're about to embark on. The main gathering place, Emancipation Hall, pays homage to the role that slaves played in building the Capitol, whose soaring dome is visible through the hall's skylights. The neighboring exhibition space has interactive computer stations, a touchable 11-foot model of the Capitol dome, TVs with live feeds from both chambers of Congress, and a rotating collection of historical artifacts and documents.

The guided tours of the Capitol itself start with a surprisingly moving 15-minute film, Out of Many, One, that traces the establishment of the U.S. government, explains the role of Congress, and depicts the construction of the Capitol. The tour, which takes about an hour, goes through the lobby rotunda, the National Statuary Room, and a crypt built for Martha and George Washington (it was never used—the couple is buried at Mount Vernon). U.S. citizens can view a session from the gallery only if they get passes from their senators or members of congress. Foreign tourists can obtain a pass by presenting their passports at the Visitors Center.

A word of warning: You will not be allowed to bring food, drink, weapons, aerosol cans, sharp objects, or pepper spray into the Visitors Center or the Capitol itself. Electronic devices, cameras, recording devices, creams, lotions, and strollers are prohibited for those viewing sessions of the House or Senate. (Items can be checked.)

Open Mondays through Saturdays 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. Passes required for most tours, but a limited number are available for walk-ups.

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