May 17, 2016

Washington, D.C. Vacation: Tours

Left: The Capitol Visitor Center; Right: S and I in the FBI courtyard.

As you're about to read, I wasn't very impressed with the tours we took. I think the word 'tour' needs to be reassessed in these situations because, in my opinion, most of these were not real tours. That said, we made the arrangements through our representative at the House and I was very pleased with the process. We were unable to get the White House tour I requested, but through no fault of the office. Each office has a staffer who sets up tours and other things for guests so that they can more easily see their nation's capital.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Tour: I've wanted to visit the FBI for as long as I can remember. The FBI suspended their tours after 9/11 and only just started doing them again in 2014. I'm unsure what I was expecting, but I'd been hoping for something more than we got. Sadly, it was basically a tour of a museum.

Our guide was from the financial department and did a wonderful job. He told us he'd applied to be a special agent and I hope he gets the call soon - he was very passionate about his job and the FBI. If you've been to the Newseum, you've seen pretty much everything in the FBI Education Center. They get a lot of their materials from the Newseum, but the style is in need of an update, including more recent information, artifacts, and case profiles. Our guide said they were attempting to update everything and get the word out that they were doing tours again as a way of recruiting new interest in working for the FBI. The most interesting thing we saw was the shooting range. I think it would be nice if they could include a conference room, some sort of training materials, etc. Anything to make it less of a museum and more of an actual tour. 

Capitol Visitor Center: Going on a tour of the Capitol through the Visitor Center is the only way you can see the Capitol. We organized our tour through our district House representative. We went to their office before our tour to pick up our passes to the Capitol galleries and the staff there was gracious enough to guide us to the Capitol through the underground tunnel system. We went through a much shorter security line than the one above ground and got in in a breeze. Our guide was funny and gave us lots of great information. The rotund was under construction inside and out, so that was a bummer because it was all tented in plastic and scaffolding. 

House of Representative & Senate Galleries: I was so glad our representative's office was able to get us tickets to the galleries...only to be quite disappointed in the process and visit. There were no posted instructions about what you needed to do to visit the galleries - only signs directing you to them. After speaking to no less than 5 people who all told us different things, we finally figured it out.

To visit the House, you must check in all of your electronics, keys, umbrellas, etc. in a security office on the second floor of the Capitol. They give you a ticket to come pick them up when you're done. If you visit the House first, you can leave your things there and then go to the Senate. However, if you go to the Senate first, they take all of your belongings on the third floor where the galleries are, but will not keep them while you visit the House. You have to go back down to the second floor and go through the House security. It's quite a hair-brained process, and security people were not being nice about explaining it. A simple sign at the entrance to the galleries explaining the security process would be very helpful. Anyway, I'd recommend going to the House security room first, then visit the House, followed by the Senate.

The biggest let down was actually visiting the galleries. No one tells you what to expect or what will happen when you go in. Here's what will happen though: nothing. You're allowed inside and you just sit there. There is no guide, no information, nothing. I could see a picture of these galleries online - I wanted to learn something! We ended up sitting there and listening to a guide a middle school group had brought in with them in the Senate gallery and a Hill staffer who brought her family and explained everything to them in the House gallery. We sat in the Senate for 15 minutes thinking someone was going to talk to the group in there, but when I finally got up to ask the security guard, all he did was roll his eyes at me and tell me it was just a viewing opportunity. What a bummer.

The Library of Congress Reading Room. Look at all the books under the arches!

Library of Congress: I thought I'd end on a good note because I love, love, love the Library of Congress! This is SO worth a visit. I've been before, but did not catch a tour the first time. Our tour guide was a very enthusiastic older man. He brought along photo books to demonstrate things he was talking about. We stuck with him for about an hour before we branched off to look around on our own. It looked like the other tour guides had finished their tours already, but even when we left our original guide was still touring the same group! The LoC is so beautiful and such a regal building. Don't miss the special exhibit wings and the reading room "tour," which is really just a chance to see the room through plexiglass, but it's so awe-inspiring. All those books!

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