It’s the most famous building in the United States and maybe the most recognized in the entire world. I’m going to tell you how to tour The White House in Washington D.C.
While the doors may not be wide open as they were when it first opened in 1800 – with a little work and a bit of patience (and luck) you can step inside the home of America’s presidents and the top offices of the United States of America.
Because there’s such a huge demand for a relatively small amount of availability – planning ahead is key. The White House website even notes that 6 months in advance is a good idea if you’re trying to book a tour. The minimum is 21 days.
So where do you begin? I took the White House tour back in 2014 and I’ll tell you exactly how I got in and what you’ll see and experience while you’re there.
The first thing you need to do is figure out what date(s) you’re going to be in the Washington D.C. area. Once you have your dates – you will contact the office of a Senator from your state. If you paid attention in grade school – you know that each state has two. I live in Missouri and contacted Senator Roy Blunt’s Senate office in D.C. and they took great care of me. If they offer a Capital tour while you’re speaking to them – book that, too! Both are fantastic opportunities.
The website Senate.gov can help you find your Senator’s office and contact information. A phone call is probably best but e-mail is fine, too.
After you inform your Senator – they will fill out a request and submit it to the Secret Service. You will need to know the birth date, social security number and city of birth for each person that you want to go on the tour with you. You cannot add people to the tour later on or show up with a different person, etc. Make sure you know exactly who will be coming. I happened to tour solo – which may be a good way to secure a spot as opposed to touring with a larger group. Another thought – Spring and Summer are the worst times for booking a tour as demand is through the roof. Late Fall and Winter are your best bets as travel and tourism is slower in colder months.
As your travel date closes in – you’ll receive word from your Senator’s office if you made the cut. Let’s think positive and assume you are granted a tour of The White House! You’ll receive a “ticket” (tours are free – this just has a confirmation number on it.) It’s more of a welcome letter that gives you an 800 number to call on the day of your tour to check for last minute changes, a confirmation number and a list of items you cannot bring in.
To put it simply – plan on bringing in nothing. You are allowed to bring in a cell phone, jacket and an umbrella (if it’s raining). That’s pretty much it. There are no lockers and you’ll be turned away if you have items that are not allowed. Don’t risk it. Leave your crap at the hotel and follow the rules exactly. You’re not allowed to take photos inside The White House – mainly because you can imagine the nightmare of hundreds of people all snapping photos of everything at the exact same time. They’d never be able to move tours through. Secret Service guards are watching you the entire time. Don’t think you’re clever or coy. This isn’t their first rodeo. The White House website has a list of all of the items that are prohibited.
On the day of your tour – you should arrive about 15 minutes early near the south east corner of The White House where you’ll see several agents gathered and most likely a group of other tourists as well. This is your first check point. I should also mention that there’s a cool White House visitors center withing walking distance with some really cool exhibits and a neat video about living in the White House. If you’re like me and afraid of being late – show up plenty early and hang out in the Visitor’s Center until it’s about 15 minutes prior to your tour time.
If you’re using the Metro to get to your tour – the McPherson Square stop is your best bet. It’s a 5-10 minute walk to the White House from there. If it’s your first visit to the area – you should consider reading my Easy Guide To Visiting Washington D.C. for some other tips that will save you some headaches, time and money – including a quick guide on how to use the Metro system.
Once you’re ready – there are at least three check points before you’re finally cleared to enter The White House. You’ll show your drivers license and an agent will check to make sure you’re listed on the official visitors list. You’ll do this twice. Then, you’ll enter into a small building where you’ll walk through a metal detector and put your keys, phone, etc onto a conveyer belt similar to an airport. That’s your last check point.
Here’s where it gets interesting. After that last check point, you walk through a door and down a ramp and as you look to your left — there it is! The entrance to the east wing of The White House! There’s nobody welcoming you or holding your hand – you’re just there like it’s no big deal at all. You walk up the sidewalk, open the door yourself and before you know it – you’re standing inside the most famous house in the world.
As you walk into the east wing – you’ll see giant paintings of Presidents and First ladies. Apparently, I was walking rather briskly as I heard a gentleman shout “Woah, woah woah… slow down man…. you’re in the White House!” It was a secret service agent who wasn’t scolding me – but rather reminding me that I was experiencing a once in a lifetime moment and I should be taking my time. He was right.
At the end of that first corridor you’ll see windows that show you a portion of the south lawn. During my visit – I saw one of the staff members walking President Obama’s dog around the yard. They were also setting up for the White House Christmas celebration as well – so workers were running around trying to get things in order. Every day is different at the White House – you really never know what (or who) you might see.
Now, for a bit of reality. You don’t get to tour the entire White House. Most people understand this – some people get worked up about it. Standing anywhere inside the White House is a pretty cool thing and reminding yourself of that as you walk through really makes the tour pretty awesome. You won’t see the offices or where the President lives – you’ll only see several rooms including the China room, Library and Blue room. You’ll also see the famous east wing hallway where President’s are often seen walking as they deliver famous speeches on national television. You’ll also see the state dining room which is so much smaller than it appears in photos or on TV.
Speaking of small – the entire White House is SO much smaller in person that it appears on television. Standing outside of the fence on the north side of the building I caught myself saying “This is it?” I assumed the building would be much larger. Don’t get me wrong – it’s beautiful and there’s plenty of space – it just is not as big as you’d think it would be.
One thing you’ll notice as you look at the furniture and historic pieces through the east wing – The White House is not over the top fancy. It’s an historic home and structure and the furnishings and flooring show some wear and tear. Instead of being disappointed – this actually made me happy. I like the fact that the leader of the free world lives in a place that’s beautiful but not built for a King. If you’re a believer in ghosts or haunted houses – you certainly get the feeling there are all sorts of ghosts that probably mill around this place after dark.
While it’s rolled up during tours – you will see that iconic red carpet you’ve seen on television so many times. Take a minute and walk down the hallway as far as you can after you exit the dining room and try to imagine what a President must be thinking as they walk to their podium for what’s usually a speech with bad news. It gives you goosebumps thinking about all of the President’s that have walked in the exact same spot that you’re walking.
The tour is self guided as I mentioned and it’s completely free. You can take as much time as you want although you’ll pretty much see everything in about 30 minutes or so. It’s not much but it’s so worth it.
At the conclusion of the tour, guests exit out the front door of The White House. In fact as you exit, you’ll see the now famous fence that so many idiots have jumped over lately. This is actually one area where the Secret Service allows you to take photographs. I met a nice guy from southern California who was also traveling solo – we took photos for one another to remember the occasion.
*Update: The photo policy at The White House tends to change. During our visit, there were no photos allowed, while in recent years some visitors have been allowed to take pictures. Play it safe – don’t bring a fancy camera, just your cell phone. If you can take pictures – awesome. Just be respectful of other guests and don’t treat your White House visit as a professional photo shoot. Take a quick pic for a memory and move on so others can have their chance.
After you breathe in your last bit of Presidential history – you walk down a sidewalk toward the fence and exit onto the pedestrian area where everyone is posing for pictures or protesting or just soaking it all in.
It really all comes down to your attitude as to whether you enjoy the White House tour or not. There’s certainly nothing to hate about it – but some folks will be upset they don’t get to see more. Pardon the blunt truth – but, let’s get real. ‘re going to get to just walk around the entire place. Perhaps back in the day, when fewer people were nuts – but, sadly those days are over. Besides, just standing inside The White House is such an honor and a really cool feeling.
So, do the planning, have a bit of patience and make the tour a day to remember.