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The U.S. Capitol in Washington

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tempting America with a whopping $500 prize -- a nice sum in the late 1700s -- the U.S. government held a contest for architects and laymen to design a new home for Congress. Unfortunately, all the designs were bad. But a late entry by an amateur, William Thornton, had potential, and after a team of designers heavily tweaked it, the U.S. Capitol was built -- mostly by the labor of free and enslaved African Americans. George Washington laid the cornerstone, and the building was completed in 1826.

What's special: The design was inspired by a variety of commanding buildings in Europe, notably the Pantheon and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, St. Paul's Cathedral in London and the Louvre in Paris.

One thing you didn't know: There are 365 steps leading up to the building on the west side, after the number of days in a year.

Best way to see it: Tourists can visit the inside of the Capitol on a guided tour (Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) or can tour a limited portion of the building on their own. Either way, you'll need a ticket to get in. Pick up free tickets at the Capitol Guide Service kiosk near the intersection of First Street SW and Independence Avenue. Your representative or senator may be able to provide tickets as well.

What to expect: Many visitors want passes to visit the gallery that overlooks the main congressional floor, but it's none too exciting. If you do want to see it, try to obtain free passes from your members of Congress. You'll be escorted in by congressional staff. Security is extremely tight here, so expect to be watched. Be sure to review the list of prohibited items on the Web site (see below). A multimillion-dollar visitors center is slated to open next summer on the Capitol's east front.

Where to eat: It's still law that bean soup must be served daily at the Senate Refectory. Don't expect much politico-gazing, as the cafeteria isn't a hot spot for congressmen, but it's convenient and well-priced.

More info: 202-224-3121 (main), 202-225-6827 (tour info);

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