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If you’re hoping to see the White House during your Washington, D.C., trip, you’re not alone. Over a million people tour the White House, also known as President’s Park, each year.

Planning Your White House Visit

Planning a trip to Washington, D.C., can seem, at first, overwhelming. There are so many things to see and do, and if you’re visiting for a few days, there is no way you’re going to see everything. You’ll have to decide what your priorities are, and then the true planning begins. Most attractions in D.C., though often free, have ticket and reservation requirements, and keeping track of everything can be daunting.

If you’ve decided to try for a tour of the White House, you’ll have some steps to complete. And even if you complete the steps correctly, you’re not guaranteed a tour. Even if you get that confirmation and all seems like a go, your tour can be canceled. My advice is that you complete the process with a “we’ll see what happens” attitude. If you get the tour, wonderful! But if you don’t, there are plenty of other awesome experiences in D.C. You can also plan to stop at the White House Visitor Center even if you don’t get a tour.

Tours in the Past

Though it was Jeff and Kristin’s first trip to D.C., I’ve been lucky enough to tour the White House two previous types. When I was about 5 years old, I took a road trip with extended family that included a visit to the White House. At that time in the early 1980s, you could contact a representative or senator for a private tour. My grandmother did just that. I don’t remember a lot, but I recall that a woman took as through the White House room by room and discussed various items and features of the room.

When I was 16 years old, my immediate family to a trip to D.C., and at that time in the early 1990s, you could simply show up the day you wanted to take a tour and get a time for one. It was a public tour, much like what is offered now. The difference was back then, there were no background checks. We walked up, waited for our turn on some metal bleachers, and then went inside. I think we had to go through metal detectors and have our bags checked.

Getting a White House Tour

Since 9/11, things have changed. Now you’ll need to apply for a tour.

The first time we applied for a White House tour a few years ago, we weren’t granted one. We ended up scrapping that trip and planned something else–in the opposite direction, though not because we didn’t get a White House tour.

Then last year, we planned a trip that had us driving down the east coast. Washington, D.C. ended up being our endpoint before we started heading west toward Missouri again. During planning, I discovered that you can apply for the tour no earlier than 90 days before your travel date and at least three weeks in advance. When our window opened, I applied through a Missouri congressman. You can start your planning process through this link.

When you click on your congressperson or senator, you’ll be directed to their websites. You’ll need to look for a link to apply for the tour. The representative I used had a specific place to click for tours that took me to the application form.

You can also apply for a personal tour of the U.S. Capitol and an FBI tour using the same form. We also applied for the capitol, and we got confirmation of that tour within a couple of days. We didn’t get confirmation for the White House until we were already on our trip, so if you don’t hear from the White House right away, don’t lose hope.

We got an email about two days before we planned to be in Washington, D.C., that we were confirmed for our tour. It took a little last-minute arranging since the morning of our tour, we were still in Baltimore. We left bright and early and made it to D.C. a couple of hours before our tour time. Since we were “homeless” before we could check into our Airbnb, we paid for parking at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. We wanted to make sure we could make our tour, so we didn’t want to waste time searching for parking.

As it turned out, we had plenty of time, so we made a quick stop at the White House Visitor Center.

The White House Visitor Center

The White House Visitor Center is worth a stop, especially if you don’t get a tour. Realize that you’ll need to go through security, but you won’t need a ticket or reservation. It’s also free!

White House Visitor Center

The building, the historic Baldrige Hall, is simply stunning.

White House Visitor Center

You’ll see some artifacts, learn more about the history of the building, and have the opportunity to watch a film on the White House.

White House Visitor Center

Some of the exhibits are fun and interactive.

White House Visitor Center

The visitor center isn’t huge, and it won’t take you very long to check it out. There is also a gift shop. It was a nice introduction to our tour.

White House Visitor Center

Arriving at The White House

After our visitor center stop, we still had about 15 minutes before our tour. We decided to walk over to the tour entrance to see if they would let us in early.  They did!

The first thing we walked past after going into the gate is the William Tecumseh Sherman statue.

William Tecumseh Sherman Statue near White House

You’ll wind around to a security checkpoint where you’ll need your I.D. It’s worth noting that you’re not allowed to have a bag. If you’re out and about all day, that can be tricky. We were able to leave everything except what we needed for the tour in the car, but if you’re doing public transportation from your hotel, you definitely want to be aware that you will be restricted in what you can bring inside. The White House website lists what you can and can’t bring in.

The Tour Begins

I’ve included a couple of links that show the maps of the tour.

2D Map of the White House Tour Path

3D Diagram of the White House Tour Path

After you make it through the security checkpoints, you will enter the East Wing of the White House. The tour is about 45 minutes long and self-guided, though there are Secret Service personnel in various rooms who will answer questions.

White House Tour

The tour begins on the ground floor. The tour does include some stairs, and I don’t recall an elevator in view, but the website says the tour is accessible and to notify a Secret Service member if you require assistance.

View of South Portico

Strangely, this is the only picture I have of the iconic front of the White House. We never made our way to this side to get a shot during our entire visit.

South Portico Viewing White House

The grounds are lovely, of course, and we were curious to see if we could catch any of the daily happenings around the White House. The president’s schedule is published online, and you can see it here. During our visit, we had some Marine One sightings overhead which we could confirm with his schedule.

South Portico Viewing White House

Below are vehicles we believed were for the White House Press Corp. We thought the president had just returned from somewhere just before our tour.

View of the South Portico White House

Family Theater

When the tour begins, you’ll see some iconic rooms. You won’t be able to enter the rooms on the ground floor, but you can take a peek inside.

Below is the White House Family Theater. I didn’t remember seeing this room before, and upon further investigation, I discovered that the theater became part of the tour in 2017 by an order from First Lady Melania Trump.

Family Theater White House

Nearby, paintings of some First Ladies adorned the walls around a small shopping area selling exclusive souvenirs for those who tour the White House. We purchased a Christmas ornament and a magnet, of course.

Below is First Lady Caroline Harrison.

White House Tour

It’s great to see our history in artwork. I’ve only included a sampling; if I’d included every portrait I saw, I’m sure this post would seem to scroll forever. Below is First Lady Michelle Obama.

White House Tour

Vermeil Room

The Vermeil Room, also known as the Gold Room, is named for the vermeil collection displayed there. Since I wasn’t familiar with what vermeil was, I did some reading and discovered that vermeil, in this case, is silver tableware that has been covered in gold, similar to gold plating, but thicker. It can also refer to vases or jewelry.

Several First Lady portraits also hang in this room. This room is sometimes used as a ladies’ sitting room during formal events. Note the portrait of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the background.

Vermeil Room White House

China Room

The China Room has been displaying presidential china since 1917. First Lady Grace Coolidge’s portrait hangs here.

China Room White House

Apparently, nearly every presidency has something in this room, whether china or glassware. There is so much history represented in the White House.

Library

Becoming a library in 1935, this ground-floor space is often used for meetings or less formal gatherings. Beginning in 1961, books and papers continue to be housed here to reflect American ideals. It looks like a cozy place to read and ponder.

Library White House

After glimpsing at the library, we headed upstairs to see the more formal rooms on the White House tour.

East Room

The East Room has had its share of historic moments. Seven presidents have lain in state here after their deaths. Originally known as the Public Audience Room, this space was designed for balls, entertainment, weddings, and funerals.

East Room White House

This is a nice room for a photo op! There wasn’t a lot of furniture in this room, but there are some amazing details to check out. The famous Steinway piano was in the White House entrance area during our visit.

East Room White House

All the White House fireplaces are gorgeous, and the East Room is no exception.

It’s easy to imagine formal events happening in this room. It’s pretty cool to visit a place with so much history. Apparently, Abigail Adams and her staff hung the laundry to dry in this room when President and Mrs. Adams, the first family to occupy the White House, known at the time as the Executive Mansion, Presidential Mansion, or sometimes, even the President’s Palace, moved in.

This room was still unfinished when the fire during the War of 1812 happened, and it was still unfinished years later when the Marquis de Lafayette visited in 1824 during the Monroe administration. Finally, during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the room was decorated and furnished.

As with all of the State Floor rooms, the East Room was redecorated in 1882 during the Arthur administration. President Arthur believed the White House was not suited for the Gilded Age; he upped the ante in the White House when it came to grandeur and modern conveniences. He retained Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany & Co.’s Charles Lewis Tiffany, to design the renovations.

East Room White House

As you walk through the East Room, you can catch a glimpse of the Cross Hall that bypasses the Green Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, and the State Dining Room. The people in the picture below are posing under the Presidential Seal. After touring the State Dining Room, you get a chance to take this picture with your party.

I love how they roll the carpet up for the tours during the day.

White House Tour Cross Hall

This famous painting of President Washington hanging in the East Room is one of Gilbert Stuart’s replicas. This painting has been in the White House collection longer than any other, due to Dolley Madison’s famous rescue of the portrait during the fire.

East Room White House

After walking through the East Room, the tour continues through the Green Room.

Green Room

There are two paths as you walk through the Green Room, the Blue Room, and the Red Room. As you tour, you’ll choose one of the paths. Your pictures will probably have people in them from the path across from you. Secret Service personnel should be standing behind the rope to answer your questions.

Originally, this room was imagined as a dining room; however, the room has had many other uses over the years. President Jefferson was the first to make any mention of a green color, noting that the floor covering was green. President Monroe was the first to add the green silk to the walls and give the room its name making it the first room to be referred to by color.

In 1962, Mrs. Kennedy had the silk coverings on the wall restored during her famous renovation, a process with the end goal of displaying pieces of American history for the public to see, making the White House a true museum of the country and presidency.

Green Room White House

The Green Room is officially one of the three White House parlors. Over the years, this room has been used as a sitting room and a place to play cards. Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s son, was embalmed in this room after he died in the White House. President Jefferson used the room as a dining room.

During state dinners at the White House, this room may be used to serve guests during cocktail hour before the arrival of the President, First Lady, and their honored guests.

Most of the furniture in the room, made by Duncan Phyfe, is from the Thomas Sheraton era of influence on American interior design in the early 1800s, also known as Federal style.

There are also some pretty amazing portraits hanging in this room. Below is Edith Roosevelt, wife of President Theodore Roosevelt. Also note the beautiful detail in the fireplace below it. This mantle was originally in the State Dining Room.

Green Room White House

The chandeliers in the White House are stunning.

Green Room White House

Here are more paintings in the Green Room. The top one is Henry Owassa Tanner’s Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City. Tanner was the first African American to have a painting become part of the White House collection.

Below that painting is Ferdinand Richardt’s Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Green Room White House

The Green Room is also home to the bust of Benjamin Franklin by the Sevres National Porcelain Manufactory in France.

Green Room White House

The Sheffield coffee urn below belonged to John and Abigail Adams. John famously gave up tea in pre-revolution Boston and switched to coffee. Incidentally, John and Abigail used the room as a bedroom during their residence.

The candlesticks on either side were John and Dolley Madison’s.

Adams Coffee Urn Green Room White House

Here is a closer view of the lamps. Beautiful!

Green Room White House

We also couldn’t resist looking out the window. I love the views from the White House. If you lived here, how surreal would it be to see those amazing landmarks every day?

Washington Monument

The Green Room is connected to the next room on the tour–the Blue Room.

Blue Room

The Blue Room in the White House is one of the three parlors. Historically, this room has been used for receptions and is open during state dinners along with the Green Room and the Red Room.

What makes the Blue Room unique out of the three is that it is oval-shaped. We are familiar with the rounded exterior of the South Portico. The Blue Room is within that rounded section of the White House on the state floor. Below the Blue Room is the Diplomat Reception Room, and above it sits a room known as the Yellow Oval Room. Neither of these spaces is on the tour.

Interestingly, this room has had moments in the past in which the decor was green or red. Blue was first introduced under President Van Buren’s administration.

Like the other rooms in the White House, the Blue Room is beautifully decorated and full of history. President Cleveland was married in the Blue Room in 1886. The official White House Christmas tree is displayed in the Blue Room over the holidays. Many official receptions have been held here, and President Eisenhower’s granddaughter was christened in the Blue Room.

Below is Rembrandt Peale’s painting of President Jefferson.

Blue Room White House

And here is George P.A. Healy’s portrait of President Tyler. Below the painting is the Monroe sofa.

Blue Room White House

The furniture in the Blue Room includes the chairs commissioned by President Monroe from Russel and La Farge.

Blue Room White House

Below is John Trumbull’s portrait of President John Adams. I like that Jefferson and Adams are in the same room.

Blue Room White House

In the background below, President Monroe’s portrait hangs in the room that he furnished. President Monroe also purchased the bronze clock on the mantel. The clock features Hannibal of Carthage.

Blue Room White House

President Monroe also purchased the marble-top table in the picture below.

Blue Room White House

Above the table hangs this gorgeous chandelier from France. Apparently, this chandelier prompted a renovation of the structure of the White House under President Truman. On a day that First Lady Bess Truman had guests in the Blue Room, the chandelier nearly fell while President Truman took a bath upstairs. The entire White House was fortified internally after the incident.

Blue Room White House

Here is Anders Leonard Zorn’s painting of President Taft.

Blue Room White House

The Red Room is the next room on the tour.

Red Room

The Red Room has also served many purposes over the years, and like the color rooms, it hasn’t always been the color it’s now named for.

Early on, this room was a waiting room for those visiting the president. First Lady Dolley Madison held her Wednesday night receptions in this room, though at the time, it was decorated in yellow. After the White House fire during the War of 1812, President Monroe wanted to make the rooms on the State Floor grander. This resulted in the Red Room’s French Empire style.

For a time, this room was known as the Washington parlor because the portrait of Washington, which is now in the East Room, hung here. Under the Polk administration, the decor changed from yellow to red and green and was then referred to as the Red Room.

Louis Comfort Tiffany also redecorated this room under President Arthur. During this time, the walls were painted red, sealing this room’s fate.

The French Empire chandelier below has thirty-six lights.

Red Room, White House

The French Empire chandelier below has thirty-six lights. You can also see the Gilbert Stuart Dolley Madison portrait above the door in the background.

Red Room White House

In 1877, President Hayes secretly took the Oath of Office in the Red Room. The presidential race against Samuel J. Tilden had been rough, so he was sworn in quietly a day early to ensure a smooth transition of power. As was traditionally expected, he took the oath again in public at the capitol.

Though officially it’s one of the State Floor parlors. the Red Room has also been used for informal entertaining and as a music room. Often, presidential families entertained their guests here.

Below is Henry Inman’s portrait of Angelica Van Buren, President Van Buren’s daughter-in-law who served as the White House hostess during his presidency.

Red Room, White House

An American Empire sofa is below.

Red Room, White House

And here is another. Note the fish-shaped legs on this one.

Red Room, White House

The mantel in the picture below was moved into the Red Room under President Theodore Roosevelt, just as the mantel in the Green Room. It was originally in the State Dining Room.

Red Room, White House

And here is the view from the Red Room. You know we had to look. You can also see the stairs leading to the Blue Room, making it an ideal reception room in years past.

View From White House

State Dining Room

The State Dining Room is the formal dining area in the White House. It currently seats 140 people, but the room used to be much smaller. As with the other rooms on the State Floor, this room has served different purposes in its early years. President John Adams used the room as a waiting area and dining room. President Jefferson used the area as an office and a place for Cabinet meetings. President Madison was the first president to designate the space as the State Dining Room.

Over the years, the need for a larger dining room became apparent as more people were invited to state dinners as the nation grew. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the renovation that, at the time, included hanging mounted game heads throughout the room.

Before the room was enlarged, two Italian marble mantels stood at either end of the room. These were moved to the Green and Red Room and replaced with the current fireplace and mantel in the middle of the room on the west wall. This mantel was known as the Buffalo Mantel.

State Dining Room White House

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the fireplace inscribed with a blessing from President John Adams at the end of World War II. Adams had said to his wife Abigail, “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”

President Truman would take this mantel for his presidential library, so the Kennedy renovation created a replica.

Below is George P.A. Healy’s portrait of President Lincoln. It was not initially selected for display in the White House when it was painted. Robert Lincoln, President Lincoln’s son, purchased the painting. It was then passed down to his daughter, Mary Lincoln Isham, who bequeathed it to the White House so long as it would be displayed.

State Dining Room White House

During the President Truman renovation, the brown paneled walls installed during the Theodore Roosevelt administration were painted light green.  Under First Lady Jacqueline Kenndy, the renovation effort sought more to restore the room, as had been the hope for the other State Floor rooms. The walls were painted white and the silver in the room was regilded.

Recent presidencies have refurbished the walls in various shades of white.

State Dining Room White House

The eagle pedestal tables are from President Theodore Roosevelt’s renovation.

State Dining Room White House

Cross Hall and Entrance Hall

After viewing the State Dining Room, a line often forms as visitors enter the Cross Hall and have the opportunity to get their party’s picture under the Presidential Seal. The Cross Hall bypasses the Green, Blue, and Red Rooms if one desired to not walk through each of those connected rooms. It connects the State Dining Room to the East Room. You can also access the Green, Blue, and Red Rooms individually via the Cross Hall.

In fact, when you pose in front of the seal, you’re posing in front of the entrance to the Blue Room. That’s why it makes perfect sense that this room used to be used as a reception area for visitors to the White House.

Cross Hall White House

The Cross Hall and Entrance Hall have been part of events hosted in the White House. President Reagan danced with Princess Diana in the Cross Hall in 1985. Presidents and their honored guests have been photographed walking through the Cross Hall after descending the Grand Staircase. When President Obama gave his speech on Osama bin Laden’s death, the Cross Hall was in the background though the president was technically just inside the East Room.

From 1882-1902, a stained glass screen existed between the columns. Presidential portraits were displayed behind the glass. It was also an effort to create a warm place in the space.

The more recent presidential portraits are displayed in the Cross Hall and Entrance Hall. Below is Aaron Shikler’s portrait of President Kennedy.

Cross Hall White House

This bust of President Washington sits in a niche built during President Jefferson’s presidency that used to house a cast-iron stove. President Lincoln’s bust sits in another niche. built at the same time. This was President Jefferson’s attempt to heat the space.

Cross Hall White House

Here is Robert McCurdy’s portrait of President Obama.

Cross Hall White House

The details in the Cross Hall are amazing. Below, the Marquis de Lafayette presides over a door in the Cross Hall.

Cross Hall White House

Theodore Steinway presented this Steinway piano to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. This piano is one of two official White House pianos, the other being another Steinway that is handpainted and on display in the Smithsonian.

This piano currently is in the Cross Hall, but it has often been displayed in the East Room. Though these pianos are the official pianos, many presidents have brought their pianos and other musical instruments with them while they and their families lived in the White House.

The eagle legs are reminiscent of the eagle-based tables in the State Dining Room.

Cross Hall White House

Here is the side view of the Grand Staircase. When I think of the Grand Staircase, I think of its portrayals in movies, like The American President. If you’re not familiar, Michael Douglas and Annette Benning descend “this” staircase to attend a state dinner.

Also note that behind the Steinway on the mantle is the Minerva Clock. Purchased by President Monroe, this clock has been sighted in various rooms in the White House over the years.

Below is the John Howard Sanden portrait of President George W. Bush.

Cross Hall White House

At the end of the tour, you have the opportunity for your party to get a picture under the Presidential Seal. The way it’s done is that the party behind you takes your phone and snaps the picture for you. The White House personnel don’t do it. You’re kind of at the mercy of whoever is in line behind you. Ours wasn’t perfect, but after a bit of cropping, it turned out okay.

Cross Hall White House

You can skip the line for the picture if you wish, but really, why would you? Maybe if you have a reservation somewhere else? I don’t know. It seems like it would be a unique shot to have since not everyone gets the opportunity.

After your photo, it’s time to exit the tour and the White House. You’ll exit through the Entrance Hall and out the north entrance. During the Jefferson administration, the Entrance Hall displayed items from the Lewis and Clark expedition.

It’s kind of sad that the public doesn’t get to see some famous rooms, like the Lincoln bedroom or the Queen’s bedroom. Only an invitation to stay the night at the White House will grant you access there. Or perhaps a special tour. Maybe someday…

North entrance of the White House

As you leave, you can still take in the details.

White House, North Entrance

Though your tour of the White House is finished, don’t forget to glance backward every once in a while and take in the view.

White House, North Entrance

And even if you can’t get a tour of the White House, it’s worth a stop to grab a picture.

The White House

Later that night, we took a nighttime monuments tour, and we got this night picture.

White House, North Entrance

If you’re hoping to secure a White House tour during your Washington, D.C., visit, I hope you’re successful! A visit to the White House is certainly a highlight to any D.C. visit. I hope I’ve given you a glimpse into what a White House public tour entails.

I know I haven’t done justice to all the details and history; there are entire books on the subject! But I hope this small taste will inspire you to learn more and plan your own White House visit.

Sources:

Crombie, David. “The White House Pianos.” WORLD PIANO NEWS, World Piano News, 31 Oct. 2017, www.worldpianonews.com/historical/white-house-piano/. Accessed 15 May 2024.

“Presidential Portraits.” WHHA (En-US), 2017, www.whitehousehistory.org/galleries/presidential-portraits. Accessed 14 May 2024.

“Welcome to the White House.” Archives.gov, 2001, georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/index.html. Accessed 14 May 2024.

“White House Historical Association.” WHHA (En-US), 2019, www.whitehousehistory.org/. Accessed 14 May 2024.

The White House
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3 Comments

  1. On our last visit to Washington we were not able to visit the White House. But your post shows why we need to consider it for a return visit. But good to know that getting a reservation won’t guarantee a visit. An interesting walk through history. Although I wonder how easy it is for Canadian visitors?

    • Stacey Reply

      You bring up a good point. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, you’ll need to contact your embassy. And I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard that those tours aren’t being granted at the moment. I could be wrong, and things change all the time. I would definitely ask!

  2. Lisa Manderino Reply

    I lived in DC for a year and have visited multiple times and was never able to get a white house tour!!!! Last time I applied 5 months in advance and still couldn’t get one! It is one my list!

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