Many first-time visitors to Washington DC are surprised at how small the White House is. As the official home and office of the American president it has a prominent place in American history and popular imagination, especially Hollywood depictions. Somehow one expects it to be larger and grander. It’s dwarfed by the lavish châteaux of France, Britain’s royal palaces, or Russia’s Kremlin. But what it lacks in physical size, the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue makes up for in stature.
Unfortunately, though, the most impressive and distinctive parts of the White House are shielded from visitors. Unless you have very high-placed contacts or are there on official business you won’t get anywhere near the Oval Office or Cabinet Room, let alone the Situation Room or the upstairs residence.
In the last decade or so security has become much tighter around the White House. East Executive Avenue, which runs down the eastern side of the White House grounds used to be open to pedestrian traffic but has now been sealed off, and after a few people have recently jumped over the fence, there’s talk of installing higher fences or pushing tourists even further back. Lafayette Park, on the northern side of the building, is heavily policed 24 hours a day, as is the closed street on the southern front.
Photos of the White House
The White House is next to the National Mall; it’s just a short walk across the Ellipse.
The best way to get to the White House is by public transport. The nearest metro stops are Farrugut West (Orange and Blue lines; 0.3 miles), McPherson Square (Orange and Blue lines; 0.4 miles), Federal Triangle (Orange and Blue lines; 0.5 miles), or Metro Center (Orange, Blue, and Red lines; 0.5 miles).
The streets immediately around the White House are sealed off to motorized traffic and offer no parking or access. If you’re willing to walk several blocks there are a number of commercial parking garages in the downtown area and you might be able to find on-street parking.
White House Tours
White House have resumed, but it’s not as easy as it used to be. Contact your local Congressional representative’s office to try to get on a list, and it’s worth doing at least several months in advance–they fill up quickly. And because it’s not a top priority program, there are times when the White House Visitors Office simply closes tours.
In theory, if you’re an overseas visitor, through your country’s Washington DC embassy, but in practice you’ll find it next to impossible–it’s become harder and harder to in recent years.
You can find the White House’s official information on the tours here.
Exterior. There are only two practical vantage points to take photos of the exterior of the White House, and neither offers many opportunities for originality. On both sides you’re shooting through a fence and ever-watchful police and Secret Service restrict what you can do to get the shot. You can get physically closer to the building from the northern, or city, side of the building in front of Lafayette Park. But the more famous side, the southern side with the distinctive portico that faces the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial, has a long lawn, so you’re much further away. So on that side, you really need a telephoto lens. It’s on this southern lawn that Marine One, the presidential helicopter, lands when ferrying the president to and from Andrews Air Force Base, and when that happens the area next to the fence is cleared and tourists are shooed across the road to the Ellipse. And when the helicopter lands, it does so in such a way as to block the line of sight from the street, so your chances of catching a glimpse of the president or his family is slim.
Also, please bear in mind that the security situation around the White House is constantly changing. With a spate of fence jumpers gaining access to the ground in recent years, the trend has been to keep moving the perimeter farther out and further restrict access. So it’s entirely possible that when you arrive you might not be able to get a clear photo through the fence.
Interior. For over 40 years, the White House banned cameras on the public tours within the grounds. In July 2015 they lifted that ban. But there are still strict restrictions on the kind of gear you can take in. The official guidance is:
Permitted Items: Phones and compact still cameras with a lens no longer than 3 inches are allowed inside the White House. Photography is permitted but may not interfere with the enjoyment of other guests on the tour.
Prohibited Items: Video cameras, including any action camcorders, cameras with detachable lenses, tablets, tripods, monopods, and camera sticks are not permitted on White House Tours. Flash photography and livestreaming are not permitted while on the tour.
Washington DC Visitor Guides
If you're coming in from out of town, here are some of the most popular guidebooks that can help you make the most of your visit.
- Elise Hartman Ford
- Publisher: FrommerMedia
- Fodor's Travel Guides
- Publisher: Fodor's Travel
- DK Travel
- Publisher: DK Eyewitness Travel
- DK Travel
- Publisher: DK Eyewitness Travel
And here are some interesting options for less traditional guidesbooks if you'd like an emphasis on exploring DC on foot or diving into some of the region's rich history.
- NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
- Barbara Noe Kennedy