Going into the White House was one of the highlights of our Washington DC trip. Many families are unsure how to take a White House tour. It’s not as complicated as most think! The tour is self-guided, and takes about one hour door-to-door. (In DC, ‘door-to-door’ to us means security check through exit.)
The tour takes guests through a visitor entrance on the side, through a ground floor corridor. Families see 8-10 rooms, some of which can be entered (others are roped off). Rooms include the East Room, which is used for press conferences, among other things; the Green Room, used for receptions; the Red Room, famous as the First Lady’s place of reception and meetings; and the State Dining Room. The oval-shaped Blue Room is the closest visitors come to that better-known circular-shaped room upstairs, but it’s still very cool to see these ground floor rooms that are very much still in use.
In each room, Secret Service agents are on-hand to answer any questions. Definitely take advantage of their knowledge; you can practically make this a guided tour if you ask lots of questions and listen to the answers to others’ questions. They may be reluctant to tell stories of events they’ve seen recently in each room, but will be able to say what type of events take place. At the end of the tour, you go out on the South Portico overlooking the lawn, which is fun, too.
How to book:
Booking a White House tour is not complicated; however, it does take significant planning. Here’s what you need to do:
- Six months before your trip (yes, really), start by deciding the exact day you want to tour. Go to this White House tour page to see which days of the week the building is open for tours (and if they’re even offering tours at all). You’ll need this information for the next step.
- Go to the homepage of one of your members of Congress. (If this takes a Google search of representatives, don’t feel bad…) On the homepage, there will be the option of ‘requesting a White House tour’ on the member’s contact page. Email the Congressman or woman, listing the date you want.
- A staffer of your representative will email you back with further instructions. You’ll need to submit the Social Security numbers and full names of everyone in your group.
- Wait. You’ll be notified that your tour request has been submitted fairly quickly, but you won’t know whether you got your tour until two weeks before the tour date.
- 5. When you get notice you’ve been approved for your tour, print the attached form with your reservation number.
What to expect the day of your tour:
Be at the tour start location—15th Street and Alexander Hamilton Place—15 minutes before your tour. Tours can be cancelled at a moments’ notice, so call this number the day before, to make sure your tour is planned to go as scheduled: 202-456-7041. We got there 30 minutes before our tour start time, and were glad we did; the only restrooms are a block away at the White House Visitor’s Center, so we used the extra time to make that stop.
At your tour start time, you’ll be led in a line through two security check points. At both, you’ll need to give your name and show ID (age 18 and older). Kids don’t need ID, but ours were questioned casually by the Secret Service agents. They asked their names, then singled one out (the youngest) and asked him to list his brothers’ names (also touring). It was done in a friendly way, but was clearly to ensure the kids were who I said they were.
Do not bring a backpack or even a purse on your tour. You won’t be allowed in, and there’s no place to store them. You are also not allowed any food or drink, including water bottles, nor cameras. I brought my cell phone and my wallet, and that’s it. (Cell phones are ok, but cannot be used.) Bring your confirmation number, but once we give the guards our name, they looked up our reservation and we didn’t need the paper.
Do not try to bring other people: only the people on your reservation will be permitted in, without exception. Also: don’t let your kids pet the guard dogs. The security experience is serious, but conducted in a causal way; my kids were not alarmed.
Tip: The White House tours are conducted by the National Parks Service. When in line, kids are offered a Junior Ranger booklet. We didn’t try to fill it out while on tour—there’s too much to see!—but right afterward, we took the booklet to the Visitor’s Center on the Ellipse, and earned Junior Ranger badges. It was a novelty to have a badge from the White House!
No photos are permitted inside (nor social media), so forgive the lack of photos in this post. Guess you’ll have to go yourself to know what it looks like up close!
Wondering where to stay in DC? Check out our review of Grand Hyatt Washington.
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Photo credit: Flickr commons.