The White House is recognized around the world. Home of the President of the United States, it’s the closest thing the US has to an official castle. But unless you’re a princess, visiting is not a ball. Is the effort worth the reward?
When I decided to take the kids to the Nation’s Capital, I knew I had to try. In my mind, visiting Washington DC and not going to the White House would be like going to Paris and not going to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Entrance to the White House. No photo taking is allowed inside
White House History
President George Washington oversaw the construction of the White House more than two centuries ago, but he is the only President who never lived in it. President Thomas Jefferson was the first president to allow tours, and with the exception of wartime, the house has remained open to the public ever since. There are 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators. The White House, named in 1901 but President Theodore Roosevelt, requires 570 gallons of paint to cover its outside surface.
But seeing the outside is the easy part. You want to get inside. There are five things you need to know to make it happen.
Request a Tour in Advance
Requests can be submitted up to six months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance. Tours are first come, first served, so the earlier the better. Requests must be submitted through one’s Member of Congress. That’s typically as easy as an email to your US Senator or Representative.
If you are not a US citizen, contact your embassy in Washington, DC for assistance in submitting a tour request. You will need to provide social security numbers for everyone who wants to go on the tour. Kids included.
All White House Tours are free, but there is a catch. There’s no way to know when you’ll find out if you’ve been granted a tour. I found out my family had been approved a little less than a month before our approved tour date. I have friends who were notified just days before.
Is the waiting game the end of the world? No. But it makes planning a little more complicated and what can happen, and did happen to us, is you wind up with tours scheduled at the same time. More on how we got extremely lucky later.
Bring Almost Nothing with You
The White House will not let you bring anything inside except car keys, wallets, jackets and umbrellas and cell phones (including those with cameras). If you use your cell phone in the White House is may be confiscated by the US Secret Service. No cameras. No diaper bags. No strollers. No snacks for the kids.
The Secret Service can and will take any personal items. You’ll go through three separate security checks, so they’ve got plenty of opportunity to rid you of any unnecessary items. There are no lockers to store bags and other prohibited items.
I’ve heard stories of visitors using lockers at some Smithsonian museums, which the museum frowns upon. In addition many of the White House tours take place first thing in the morning, before most museums are open. The only locker option I could find was Tiburon Lockers at Union Station. That means taking the Metro (redline) to Union Station, dropping off your bags and then getting back on the Metro or taking a cab to the White House. It is about a 40-minute walk from Union Station to the White House.
Bottom line, make it easy on yourself. Leave everything in your hotel room, and go back for it later. You just might be surprised by what you can live without. We left everything in our room, and never went back for it.
Be ready to show some government issued form of identification like a driver’s license or passport as you go through the various checkpoints. If you are not a US citizen you will need your passport.
Kids from the US do not need identification, but the security guards may ask you or your children some basic questions like where you live and how old you are. Not that you have any reason to fib about your age, but keep in mind, before your tour request was approved, the Secret Service checked you out.
Though the security guards are serious about what they do, they are friendly and in our case very forgiving. As I mentioned in my So Many Kid-Friendly Tours in Washington DC, So Little Time post we had to make a choice between the Bureau of Printing and Engraving Tour or the White House. The tours began just 15 minutes apart from each other, and money won the first round.
But when we finished the BEP tour and I looked at my watch I wondered if we could push our luck. We were already 10 minutes late for the White House, but it was only about a 10 to 15 minute walk away so we decided to go for it. We arrived at the first security checkpoint at just after 9am, 30 minutes late.
“You’re fine,” the guard said, and after checking our identification and a quick chat with the girls we were on our way. A little travel luck goes a long way.
Junior Ranger Guide
Chances are your kids will be handed a Junior Ranger Guide before you even have a chance to ask for one, but make sure they get one. The guide is chock full of interesting tidbits about what you see as you make your way through the White House room by room.
The famous full-length portrait of George Washington survived the British burning of the White House in 1814 because First Lady Dolley Madison had her staff break the frame and remove the canvas as they were evacuating. Who knew? It’s a good guide, whether you have kids or not.
What You’ll See
Your visit to the White House if a self-guided tour. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but there are guards everywhere if you have questions. Plan on a half hour to 45 minutes to see everything, which honestly isn’t much, but I’m still glad we went.
The tour is limited to a small number of rooms, but entertaining. There is a great photo collection featuring everything from famous happenings at the White House to pictures of presidential pets. Did you know President Coolidge and his wife had a pet raccoon? Look for the picture of Rebecca the raccoon snuggling up on the First Lady’s lap. With every First Lady comes a new china pattern. Look for your favorite design and the Steinway piano played by many presidents and famous musicians, including Richard Nixon and Stevie Wonder.
As you walk through the house, you can’t help but notice all of the area rugs rolled up, so not to be worn by the constant flow of visitors. For some reason it really struck me. I asked the guard if they actually unroll the carpet every night. His response, changed the whole way I approached the tour.
“You’re looking at this like it’s a museum,” he said. He went on to remind me the White House is the President’s house. Home to a husband, wife and two kids. It’s a home that like many others opens its doors to visitors, just in this case a lot of them.
It’s a glimpse of what life is like in America’s castle. I bet rolling up the carpet saves a lot of vacuuming. I’m all for that.
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