President’s Park (White House) | WHITE HOUSE TOUR

Diagram of room visited on the White House Tour (click to enlarge)

Diagram of room visited on the White House Tour (click to enlarge)

GETTING INTO THE WHITE HOUSE

Tours of the White House are given on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 7:30 AM to 11:30 AM, and on Fridays and Saturdays from 7:30 AM to 1:30 PM. Tickets are required, and you must get these through your congressman’s office if you are an American citizen, and from your embassy in Washington, D. C., if you are a foreign citizen. See the How to Get White House Tour Tickets web page here on National Park Planner for more information.

You are requested to arrive fifteen minutes prior to your tour, but this is far from necessary because nothing happens until the Secret Service starts letting people in…at tour time. In fact, you don’t even have to be on time to get in, so don’t panic if you are running late. I was told by a park Ranger that you can enter at any time after your scheduled tour time up until the White House closes for the day to tourists. Keep in mind that tours can be cut short on any given day due to security issues, so if you are too lazy to get out of bed for your 7:30 AM tour, figuring that you can just show up at 10 AM, if tours stop at 9 o’clock that day for some reason, you are out of luck. Furthermore, before heading downtown for your tour call (202) 456-7041 up to 24 hours in advance to make sure that tours are still being held.

If you are interested in taking photos inside the White House, I suggest getting at the very end of the line, or even arriving a few minutes late. Tours run every half hour with 100-150 people per group, so at the start of the tour the place is so packed you can barely move around. There is no time limit to the tour, so you can stay inside the White House until it closes. For good photos, you need to let everyone ahead of you clear out of the rooms. Keep in mind that if you wait around too long that another 150 people are going to show up behind you. I was trying to get a photo of a china cabinet without anyone standing in front of it, but finally gave up. At the time, I didn’t know you could stay as long as you wanted—I learned this after the tour—otherwise I would have waited for everyone to move on ahead.

China cabinet in the Visitor entrance corridor

China cabinet in the Visitor entrance corridor

The Visitor Entrance for the White House Tour is at the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue near the Sherman Monument. Restrooms are located at the nearby Ellipse Visitor Pavilion, which opens at 7:30 AM. There are no restrooms open to tourists inside the White House. (There are restrooms in the nearby White House Visitor Center, but you must go through a security checkpoint to enter.)

Tour Map (click to enlarge)

Tour Map (click to enlarge)

If you get a spot on a tour, you will receive an email from your congressman or embassy that lists your tour date and time, directions to the visitor entrance, and a list of what you can and cannot bring with you. You do not need this piece of paper to get in, though most everyone brings it with them. If you are a U. S. citizen 18-years-old or older, all you need is a government issued photo ID (driver’s license, passport, etc). Tell the guard who you are, show your ID, and if your name is on the list (exactly as it is on your ID), you’re in like Flynn. Those under 18 just have to verify their name and date of birth, so make sure your young children know when they were born. Foreign visitors of any age must present a passport. There are two ID checkpoints, so keep your ID handy. You must also submit to a standard security screening: metal detector, items out of pocket, etc.

WHAT TO BRING

Visitors can take photos with cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras with lenses that do not protrude more than three inches—no cameras with detachable lenses, tablet computers, and no selfie-sticks. No video can be taken, and you cannot use your phone for texting or calling. Aside from your phone or small camera, you can bring an umbrella if it does not have a metal tip, your wallet, car keys, and any necessary medical items. That’s it. No purses, satchels, or backpacks. No strollers. No food or drink.

If you are coming to Washington for the day with any prohibited items, you need to do research on where you can find a locker, because there are no storage facilities at the White House. I heard that there is a pay-by-the-hour bag check service at Union Station that is very expensive. Expect to leave your bags for at least two hours and possibly three. There are lockers at the Smithsonian museums, but they don’t open until 10 AM. Furthermore, the lockers are for museum patrons only, so go see the museum for a few minutes and then leave. There are so many people in those places that I doubt they can keep track of people and their lockers.

Another option, if you are with somebody other than a child, is to go on the tour one at a time. As mentioned, you do not have to enter the White House at your given tour time, so one person can go in while the other waits outside and holds the non-permitted items. When the first person comes out, the second person goes in.

INSIDE THE WHITE HOUSE

A tour of the White House includes rooms on the ground level and first floor (aka the State Floor). The second and third floors where the president lives are not part of the tour, nor are any offices in the East and West Wings. The tour is self-guided. There are very few information panels available, but there are Secret Service agents on duty in each room who can answer your questions.

Guide tells about the Green Room on the State Floor

Guide tells about the Green Room on the State Floor

I really wish the tours were guided, or at least that visitors were provided with an audio tour device like at Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. In the chaos of the large group and the lack of some sort of narration, you get caught up in looking at the paintings, the furniture, and the decorations—you get caught up in the White House as a building. It never sets in that you are standing in a room where Thomas Jefferson once dined. Or where Abraham Lincoln once walked. Or where Elvis once gave a performance. There is no one to remind you of such things. Yes, the agents can answer questions, but only if you ask them.

If you want to get technical, no President prior to 1948 (Harry Truman) ever physically walked on the floors in the current White House. In 1948, the White House was in such poor shape that it was completely gutted. Not a single piece of original interior floor or wall remains. In fact, it was debated to just tear down the entire house and build a new one, but it was decided to leave the exterior walls and renovate the interior back to the original design as closely as possible. Though many changes were made—most undoing recent renovations and returning the house to how it looked in the early 1800s—the general layout of the rooms remained the same. Fixtures, mantels, and some paneling were saved and reinstalled, but most everything else was new.

Photo by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service. Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

Photo by Abbie Rowe, National Park Service. Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

For those who have toured other private mansions in the United States, such as the Biltmore House, Vanderbilt Mansion, Hermitage, etc., the thrill of coming to the White House is coming to the White House. Yes, the rooms and their decorations and furniture are impressive, but no more so than any other historical mansion you may have visited. The White House is not Versailles or Buckingham Palace—those are places that no matter how many mansions you’ve been in, your jaw drops upon entering each room. The White House is a much more humble stately home, for when it was built, the United States was just starting out and did not have the financial resources to build a palace, nor would one have been desired. Still, at nearly 100,000 square feet it is one of the Top Five largest homes in the United States. The largest, the Biltmore Mansion, has 135,000 square feet. (The aforementioned palaces, Versailles and Buckingham, have 720,000 and 828,000 square feet respectively.)

Room histories and photos can be found on the following web pages:

GROUND FLOOR ROOMS

STATE FLOOR ROOMS

Watch the White House in 3D for a tour of the outside of the White House.


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Last updated on April 29, 2020
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