Updated on December 27, 2016.
Visiting the White House is doable but takes some advance planning: Up to six months and at least 21 days before you want to take a tour, contact your congressman to book a slot; you’ll need to present a -government-issued photo ID for every guest on the tour over the age of 17.
Tours are self-guided and are available from 7:30 to 11:30 am Tuesday through Thursday and 7:30 to 1:30 on Friday and Saturday, excluding federal holidays. You won’t get to see the West Wing, but tours go through the East Room, where you can see the portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison saved from a fire in 1814, among other things. Security guards are often keen to offer information and fun facts, and the nearby White House Visitor Center (15th and E Sts., NW) has information and exhibits about the history of the building. 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW; 202-456-7041.
Touring the Capitol is easier, but it still takes a little extra effort. You can book tour slots online as late as the day before, and a small number of same-day tickets may be available at a “Public Walkup” line in Emancipation Hall. It’s recommended that you arrive at the Visitor Center early.
Tours begin with a short film about the history of the building and the institution of Congress.
After that, you’ll get to see the grand central rotunda, adorned with an 1865 fresco called “The Apotheosis of Washington,” as well as statues of Lincoln, Jefferson, and more. The House and Senate galleries are open to visitors, but you’ll need to arrange a pass ahead of time through your senator or representative. Tickets aren’t required for the Visitor Center itself, a 580,000-square-foot, $600-million space that includes an exhibition hall, a cafeteria, and two gift shops. Closed Sunday. First and E. Capitol Sts., NE; 202-226-8000.
Advance tickets aren’t necessary to hear an oral argument at the Supreme Court, but it does pay to get there early. There are usually two lines outside for visitors: one for an entire hearing (seating begins at 9:30 am) and one for a quick three-minute glimpse (beginning at 10), Monday through Wednesday when the court is in session. Information and a schedule are available on the Supreme Court’s website, and the building stays open until 4:30.
If the court isn’t in session, you can still tour the building (which was designed by Cass Gilbert and finished in 1935) and attend a courtroom lecture, view a film about the court, and visit the cafeteria and gift shop. The building also hosts rotating exhibitions from time to time. Sadly, no visitors are permitted to the “highest court in the land”—the indoor basketball court on the top floor. Closed Saturday, Sunday, and federal holidays. 1 First St., NE; 202-479-3000.
This article appears in Washingtonian’s Welcome Guide.