Widely considered the most beautiful building in America when first constructed at the end of the 19th century, the Library of Congress’s centerpiece Thomas Jefferson Building remains a looker in the 21st century. The Jefferson also holds the lion’s share of visitor attractions and services, from tours to shopping to a coffee shop. Its sisters, the John Adams and the James Madison buildings, are lacking in the looks department, but primarily serve vital Library business purposes; the Madison Building holds more dining options open to the public and stages the Library’s film and book talk events here.
The Jefferson Building’s architecture is Italian Renaissance, marked by marble arches, columns, busts, and fountains. Its interior holds the remarkable domed Main Reading Room, which you can gaze upon from an overlook, but not enter without registering for a library card; and the Great Hall and arcaded galleries, whose every surface is covered with murals, stencils, paintings, and other gorgeous embellishments.
And though you won’t see more than a hint of its collection, the Library holds upwards of 162 million books, manuscripts, recordings, maps, photographs, and assorted other historical items. You may tour on your own, but why not join a group tour? Docents offer free, one-hour guided tours Monday through Saturday on the half-hour starting at 10:30am. No reservations needed. The tour covers the history, art, and architecture of the Library, and takes you through the public areas, with pauses at current and ongoing exhibitions, which include a display of artifacts related to comedian Bob Hope’s role in both politics and entertainment, and the exhibit of rare maps, documents, prints, and other items that elucidate the theme “Exploring the Early Americas.”
Be sure to review the Library of Congress’s calendar for performances by poets, musicians, and others in the arts. Also keep in mind that, like other federal buildings in the capital, including the Smithsonian museums, the Capitol, and the White House, you must pass through security before entering any of the Library of Congress buildings.
Metro: Union Station on the Red Line or Capitol South on the Silver, Blue, and Orange Lines.