The basics: Tourists flock to the Archives for a glimpse of the Charters of Freedom, a.k.a. the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, so don’t leave this visit to chance. To avoid being one of those frustrated-looking folks waiting in an hour-long general admission line at Ninth Street and Constitution Avenue, make a reservation for a guided tour or a timed-entry ticket by phone or online (877-444-6777, www.archives.gov/nae/visit/reserved-visits.html) up to six months in advance (a $1.50 surcharge applies to each ticket). That way you’ll be able to enter through the special events door at Seventh Street and Constitution Avenue (you must arrive 10 minutes early for security screening).
The Archives also is home to a wealth of other information, which you can even start exploring before your visit at www.digitalvaults.org.
Insider tip: Marvin Pinkert, director of the National Archives Experience, strongly recommends taking time to explore the public vaults to the left and right of the building’s rotunda, where original documents are rotated in six-month increments. One of his favorites, which is on display through August, is a July 16, 1792, from George Washington in which he complains about being tired of sitting for portraits. “Even after he writes this letter, the request came from a fellow Mason [William Joseph Williams], so he felt obliged to sit for the portrait,” Pinkert says. “Then we have an image of the portrait. If you wanted to see someone who looked like they never wanted to sit for a portrait again, you’ve got to see this image.”
The collections: The centerpiece of the facility is the Rotunda, a large space that holds the Charters of Freedom. Lines to get into this part of the building can be up to an hour long, so be prepared to wait.
"Public Vaults," a permanent exhibition, uses interactive technology to show more than 1,000 letters, photographs, documents, maps, drawings and audio and visual clips. The display changes periodically, but objects on view have included the iconic photograph of Nixon and Elvis and a letter from a child to Ronald Reagan, requesting disaster relief funds to help clean up his room.
Programs: In its 275-seat William G. McGowan Theater, the museum hosts panel discussions with scholars and screens films relating to historical topics. The Archives also offers free screenings of the Academy Award-nominated films before the award ceremony.
Extras: An introductory video in the William G. McGowan Theater introduces visitors to the Archives experience. A shop and cafe are open Monday through Friday.
Directions/parking: Parking is scarce, but the closest Metro stop is Archives-Navy Memorial (Green and Yellow lines). A D.C. Circulator bus stop is also nearby.
(Updated March 16, 2012)