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Themed Tours in Washington D.C.

Political Washington

Oh, the intrigue… the drama… the repressed yawns among members of Congress as they fight to stay awake during marathon legislative sessions on Capitol Hill. Exciting or not, Washington is pure politics, 24/7. If you live here, there's no escape from the manoeuvrings of the elected officials, and the press corps that hounds them. In Washington, don a (decent if not great) business suit, tuck The Economist into your bag and wear your most winning (if not most sincere) grin.

Start: Metro to Capitol South or Union Station.

US Capitol Building

Viewed from the wide avenues that radiate towards and away from it, the Capitol is almost palatial in its grandeur, on the highest point between the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Connected to the White House by a grand diagonal avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue), the Capitol was part of architect Pierre L'Enfant's plan to embody the separation of powers in the capital grid and architecture, when he laid the city out in 1791. The Capitol complex includes the Capitol, the House and Senate Office Buildings, the US Botanic Garden, the Capitol Grounds, the Library of Congress buildings and the Supreme Court Building. Among the Capitol's most impressive features are the cast-iron dome, the rotunda, the old Senate and Supreme Court chambers, the Brumidi Corridors and the National Statuary Hall. When you tour the building, you'll see interior embellishments that include richly patterned and coloured floor tiles, the vaulted and ornately decorated corridors on the first floor of the Senate wing, and the fluted white marble pillars lining the Hall of Columns, plus hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and other artworks, including 4,664 square-foot (433 sq m) fresco The Apotheosis of Washington. To take a 30-minute tour of the US Capitol Building, head to the kiosk on the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds, on 1st and Independence streets SW, across from the Botanic Gardens. Tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, beginning at 9am each morning. One free timed-entry pass is valid for one person only. And remember — food, beverages (even sealed plastic bottles), large bags and pointed objects are prohibited on these tours.

Where: East end of The Mall (entrance on E. Capitol and 1st sts. NW).

Telephone: +1 202 225 6827

Opening Hours: Mon-Sat, 1st tour at 9.30am, and last at 3.20pm. Closed Sun, 1 Jan, Thanksgiving and 25 Dec.

Metro: Capitol South or Union Station

Websites: Architect of the Capitol Website, US House of Representatives Capitol Website, US Senate Website

The Monocle

Want to catch a member of Congress wolfing down crab cakes and stiff drinks? Head to this tasty mainstay, which attracts loads of Hill staffers and their prominent bosses for lunch and dinner. Expect white tablecloths but a fairly relaxed vibe.

Where: 107 D St. NE.

Telephone: +1 202 546 4488

Opening Hours: Mon–Fri 11.30am–11pm.

Cost: Main course $12-$25

Metro: Capitol South

Website: The Monocle Website

The Supreme Court

This legal chamber is where the buck stops when it comes to determining the liberties of Americans. The chamber of the highest court in the land has been restored to its mid-19th-century appearance, and it's where the nine justices who are appointed for life terms preside and cast their votes. It's worth visiting, if only to see for yourself how justice prevails — or sometimes doesn't. The Court convenes on the first Monday in October and stays in session until it has heard all of its cases and handed down its decisions. It hears oral arguments the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the first two weeks of each month. Visitors can listen to the arguments on short tours, or they can watch the entire day's proceedings. Note: If you are a legal eagle or Court TV fanatic bent on spending the whole day here, arrive by 8.30am to queue up early; seating is first-come, first-served.

Where: 1st and E. Capitol sts. NW.

Telephone: +1 202 479 3000

Admission: Free

Opening Hours: Mon–Fri 9am–4.30pm, except federal holidays. Queues can be long; be prepared to wait for up to 1 hour.

Metro: Capitol South or Union Station.

Website: Supreme Court Website

The FBI

The highest level of American law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is headquartered on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 9th and 10th streets in the J Edgar Hoover Building. While it once offered public tours, they have recently been suspended until further notice, due to 'extensive renovations'. But that shouldn't stop you from buying an FBI sweatshirt from a street vendor, and telling the kids back home you toured it anyway.

Website: FBI Website

International Spy Museum

Spy City Café

James Bond, eat your heart out. This place makes your ‘high-tech' gadgetry seem, well, quaint. Tour the real deal, the first American museum dedicated to the art of espionage. Learn about Soviet double agents, attend a revolving itinerary of expert lectures, view the spy treasures from Hollywood films, play spy games, and do other super-cool, super-sneaky stuff.

Where: 800 F St. NW.

Telephone: +1 866 779 6873 or 202 393 7798

Opening Hours: Hours change monthly; see website for details.

Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown.

Website: Spy Museum Website

Spy City Café is the perfect lunch spot for Spy Museum visitors. Salads, soups, sandwiches and pizzas, plus photos of spy sites in Washington — the spying capital of the world.

Where: 9th and F sts.

Telephone: +1 202 654 0995

Opening Hours: Mon–Fri 8am–7pm; Sat–Sun 9am–7pm. 

Cost: $5.95-$7.25.

Website: City Café Website

The White House

President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, were the first tenants back in 1800, and every subsequent US president and his wife have lived here since. The White House has seen its share of drama over the years: it endured a fire set by invading British troops in 1812; survived another blaze in 1929 during Harry S Truman's presidency; lived down President Clinton's Oval Office shenanigans in the late 1990s; and even served as a backdrop for the Aaron Sorkin series, The West Wing, taking drama to an Emmy-winning and literal level. If you wish to tour its legendary rooms — from the elegant reception area of the Blue Room, to the Yellow Oval Room, where state guests are entertained before or after official luncheons — you must do so in a group of ten or more. You must also make an official request and submit it through your member of Congress. These self-guided tours are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis and need to be made at least one month in advance of your visit. Tours 7:30am to 11am Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30am to 12pm Fridays, and 7:30am to 1pm Saturdays, except federal holidays. To enhance your visit, stop by the White House Visitor Center, to view exhibitions on the architecture, furnishings, events and social history of America's First Address.

Where: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Telephone: +1 202 456 7041 (24-hour information hotline).

Opening Hours: Visitor Center: daily 7.30am–4pm, except federal holidays.

Cost: Free.

Metro: Federal Triangle and MacPherson Square.

Website: White House Website

Post Pub

The Washington Post — immortalized by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's dogged reporting on the Watergate scandal — at once exposes and greases the political machinery of the capital. Stop by the downtown spot where legions of ink-stained scribes come to slam a beer after a hard day fact-checking the latest innuendo, accusation or blatant lie issued by one of the fearless leaders.

Where: 1422 L St. NW (15th St.).

Telephone: +1 202 628 2111

Opening Hours: Mon-Thurs 11.30am-midnight; Fri 11.30am-1am; Sat 11.30am-midnight.

Cost: Main course $7.95

Metro: McPherson Square or Farragut North.

The Watergate

Remember when the Watergate Hotel was synonymous only with Nixon, botched burglaries, and Woodward and Bernstein? Now, when you walk by this Washington legend, you can't help but think of another salacious scandal that found its hub here: The adjacent Watergate condo complex is where Monica Lewinsky hid for nine months from a stalking press corps after news broke of her affair with President Bill Clinton. She left the residence in October 1998, leaving a note of apology for her neighbours.

Where: Hotel: 2650 Virginia Ave. NW; Monica's condo complex: 700 New Hampshire Ave. NW.

Metro: Foggy Bottom.

The CIA

Created in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency is shrouded in mystery and speculation. This is another Washington institution that lives as much in people's imaginations as it does in its dual headquarters, in McLean and Langley, Virginia. Its agents are involved in everything from nuclear proliferation, to counter-terrorism, to organized crime (and, some may wonder and worry, who knows what else). Tours are not offered to the public for security reasons. You can take either a virtual tour of the CIA Museum, which holds a declassified, permanent collection of artefacts and photographs of historic espionage tools, or a virtual tour of the CIA itself — what they'll show you, anyway — at the official website.

Website: CIA Website

The Pentagon

The headquarters for the Department of Defense is one of the world's largest office buildings, holding approximately 25,000 government workers, both military and civilian. Perhaps only the White House figures as much in the collective consciousness as this bastion, mythologized in Hollywood movies and scarred — if not destroyed — on the tragic day of September 11, 2001, when a hijacked airliner ripped into its west side, killing 125 workers and 64 passengers. The building smouldered for days. But, incredibly, the gash in its wall was rebuilt within six months and new offices were constructed by the first anniversary of the attack. For this reason alone, many Americans want to tour the building and pay their respects; if you are among them, you'll need to reserve a group tour at least two weeks (and a maximum of three months) in advance of your visit date.

Where: Off I-395.

Telephone: +1 703 697 1776

Cost: Free. To submit your tour request, go to website. 

Metro: Pentagon

Website: Pentagon Website

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