The Political Junkie’s Guide to Washington DC

By: Maxine Sheppard

November 5, 2012

Few moments in global politics are as gripping and pivotal as the run-up to a US election. Politics permeates every aspect of life in Washington, DC, but in the week that America goes to the polls the all-consuming fervour hits fever-pitch.


While getting a pass for a White House tour is sadly no longer an option for visiting Brits (a temporary state of affairs, we hope), there are still plenty of worthwhile ways for the average citizen to immerse themselves in the political process. We’ve outlined a few of the most significant sites and tours below…


The United States Capitol


Learn about the process by which Congress makes laws, declares war, approves presidential appointments and raises public money on a free tour of the United States Capitol. Inside what is one of the world’s most recognisable seats of power, you will visit the Crypt of the Capitol, the Rotunda, and the National Statuary Hall while learning about America’s struggle to establish the world’s first truly representative democracy. Separate passes are required to tour the galleries of the Senate and House of Representatives Chambers, which are open to visitors whenever either legislative body is in session. International visitors should inquire about gallery passes at the House and Senate Appointment Desks on the upper level of the Capitol Visitor Center.


Although there are a limited number of same-day tour passes available at the Capitol Visitor Centre each day, you must book your United States Capitol tour in advance of your trip to guarantee a space.


The United States Capitol © Phil Roeder The United States Capitol © Phil Roeder

Capitol Building, intersection of East Capitol Street NE and 1st Street NE, Washington, DC 20515

The Supreme Court


The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and comprises the Chief Justice of the United States and a number of Associate Justices as set by Congress, currently fixed at eight. Only the President can nominate Justices, and appointments are made with the consent and advice of the Senate. Once appointed, Justices remain in their positions for life, unless they resign, retire, or are impeached.


Surprisingly, given the importance of its role as a branch of government, the Supreme Court did not have its own building until 1935, after previously meeting in the ‘Old Senate Chamber’ in the Capitol Building. It was the former President Taft – who was Chief Justice at the time – who persuaded Congress to authorise the construction of a permanent home for the court, though he never lived to see it completed. Today, you can visit the classical Corinthian-style building on a self-guided tour and, if in session, even attend Courtroom oral arguments on a first-come, first-served basis.


The Supreme Court © FaceMePLS The Supreme Court © FaceMePLS


The Supreme Court, 1 First Street NE, Washington, DC 20543

The National Archives

The National Archives is the ultimate destination for United States history buffs. On display inside this building are the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the U.S Constitution, which are housed in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.


Within the Public Vaults – the permanent exhibit of the National Archives Experience – are original records and documents, from fascinating letters to the President, to the telegrams of Abraham Lincoln and the handwritten letters of George Washington. The Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery displays temporary exhibitions on matters of political significance. On the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis has just opened and runs until February 2013.


The National Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20408

The Pentagon


The United States Department of Defense headquarters are located in Arlington County, Virginia. The five-sided Pentagon is the world’s largest office building, with its own subway station, 16 car parks, 200 acres of lawns and some 17.5 miles of corridors; a virtual city employing roughly 23,000 civilian and military personnel.


Explore the mission of the Department of Defense and its service branches, and see noteworthy displays highlighting significant moments in US military history on a guided tour, which lasts approximately 90 minutes. British citizens no longer need to arrange this via the British Embassy, and can now book directly with the Pentagon Tours website. Tours are free but must be reserved in advance.


The Pentagon © gregwest98 The Pentagon © gregwest98

The Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia. Take Metrorail to the Pentagon stop.

For more political intrigue and spin, check out our previous feature on the fantastic Newseum – a museum dedicated to the history of journalistic endeavour. And don’t forget to make time for all the extremely affecting monuments and war memorials along the National Mall, as detailed in our post on how to see Washington DC for free. Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight from London Heathrow to Washington Dulles Airport.

Header shot © evilthomthai


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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