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The political junkie’s guide to Washington DC

By: Maxine Sheppard

November 14, 2019

Marine One departing the South Lawn © Flickr Creative Commons/Public Domain

Marine One departing the South Lawn © Flickr Creative Commons/Public Domain

For political junkies and history buffs, no other city on our route map compares to Washington DC

From the dawn of American democracy to the modern-day era of scandal and spin, the nation’s capital has always lured the politically curious to its compact confines. And with an election looming in less than 12 months, things are about to heat up.

Few periods 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 during an election year – like 2020 – 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 remain plenty of worthwhile ways for the average citizen to immerse themselves in the political process. If you’re planning a politically inspired visit to the nation’s capital next year, we’ve rounded up the most significant sites and guided tours below.

The United States Capitol

United States Capitol Building © John Brighenti/Flickr Creative Commons

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 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 hard-fought efforts 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.

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

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States © John Brighenti/Flickr Creative Commons

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, 1 First Street NE, Washington, DC 20543

The National Archives

The National Archives, home to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States © Jon Cutrer/Flickr Creative Commons

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 Presidents 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. Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote is running from now until 2021 in honour of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which provided women with equal voting rights to men

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

The Pentagon

The Pentagon © Wiyre Media/Flickr Creative Commons

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 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 at least two weeks in advance.

[The FBI Headquarters are also open for self-guided tours, though sadly not to visiting Brits. Interested parties – who must be either US citizens or Green Card holders – can find out more at the FBI Experience website.]

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

For more political intrigue and spin, don’t miss the fantastic Newseum – a museum dedicated to the history of journalistic endeavour – before it closes for good on 31 December 2019, or the recently re-opened International Spy Museum in L’Enfant Plaza. And of course, the majestic monuments and war memorials along the National Mall are a must-see, as detailed in our favourite free things to do in Washington DC.

The White House © Flickr Creative Commons/Public Domain

Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight from London Heathrow to Washington Dulles Airport.

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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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