The White House Garden Tour: D.C.’s Best-Kept Secret

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District of Columbia United States
dc 3

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.

Is there a more iconic address in the entire U.S.?  Personally, I’d be hard-pressed to name one.  The White House is the symbol of Washington, D.C. and is one of the most-Instagrammed spots in the United States.  Don’t worry, when I first moved to D.C., I was guilty of this tourist cliche many times.  What can I say?  The White House is a gorgeous piece of architecture in a city otherwise obsessed with the 1970’s cement-block aesthetic.  (I’m unfortunately looking at you, J. Edgar Hoover FBI building.)

Did you know that the White House is the only private home of a Head of State open to the public for free tours?  On the surface, this seems exciting.  Who wouldn’t want to glance inside Obama’s pad?  However, visiting requires a rather hefty preparation process that includes writing to one’s Member of Congress or Embassy weeks or months in advance,.  Even with the proper planning and permission, your tour may be unexpectedly cancelled at last minute.

The White HouseThe stress of trying to visit the White House makes a tour seem incredibly unappealing, especially for those in a time crunch.  As someone who has lived in D.C. for two and a half years, I’m the first to argue that D.C. has much better attractions than the White House.  Sure, it’s a fun building to admire from the street, but I, like many locals, have never been inside.

Shortly after Kevin and I met, he asked me if I was interested in accompanying him to the White House Garden Tour.  No ridiculous application process to my state representative, whomever that might be?  No exhaustive security process?  Count me in.

Wait…what garden tour?

I later learned that twice a year, the White House hosts a two-day, weekend tour of its gardens on a first-come-first-serve basis.  The tours are open to the public; if you happen to be in town during one of the tours, simply make your way to the the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion near 15th and E Streets NW to wait in line for your timed ticket.  Tickets are timed and limited, so be sure to arrive early (check online to learn what time the National Parks Service will start distributing the tickets) so you can ensure entry at an hour convenient to you.  Kevin and I arrived thirty minutes before the ticket window opened and we were able to obtain tickets close to our desired tour time.  There are many bakeries and coffee shops in the adjacent streets if you need to kill time between picking up your ticket and beginning your tour.

Full disclosure: from a purely botanical standpoint, the gardens are a disappointment.  In the days leading up to our visit, I had pictured grand gazebos and vine-covered arches.  Little did I know, the tour would simply permit us to explore the large swath of grass visible when scoping out the back side of the White House.   Now, there are some lovely plots of colorful flowers, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say the gardens themselves are spectacular.

White House Gardens

For me, the highlight was a world-class view of the Oval Office.  Kevin first noticed the rooms’ peculiar shape and we asked a nearby guard if we were, in fact, looking at the outside of the Oval Office.  He subtly nodded yes, and Kevin and I became ecstatic.  Interestingly, we were the only visitors who seemed to understand what we were looking at!  We weren’t permitted to stand any closer, but I thought our view to be a rather unique one – so many films, photographs, and documentaries show the interior of the President’s famed work space, but rarely is the exterior featured.

Oval Office Exterior

Another highlight on the tour was the chance to admire Sasha and Malia’s playground; even though the First Daughters are probably past the age where they would use this particular piece of equipment, I still found it to be a memorable stop.  As I studied the enviable wooden playground, I was reminded how young the girls were when their father first took office in 2008.  They are both now young women, and to see such a staple of American childhood – the backyard swing set – in this formal, important setting helped humanize the First Family.

Sasha and Malia's Playground

The much-touted vegetable garden, while large and aesthetically pleasing, looks more impressive in photographs than in person.  The central role the garden played in the self-guided tour (in a way, it was advertised to be the hit attraction) felt gimmicky.  It’s obvious to visitors that the garden is professionally maintained and planned – there’s no way any American with a gardening hobby could mimic this monstrosity in the backyard.  Healthy eating, of course, is Ms. Obama’s preferred cause to champion, and viewing her massive veggie garden made me question, not for the first time, how unattainable her ideals may be for those without hired help, or, at the very least, a disposable income.  (As one of my professors in graduate school liked to say, “Always, always question.”  That advice stuck with me, especially when I’m traveling.)  Gardening enthusiasts, however, will probably squeal with excitement.

Michelle Obama Veggie Garden

Don’t miss a chance to check out the podium the President uses to address the nation during outdoor press conferences!  One of the best parts about living in, or even visiting, Washington, D.C. is the opportunity to admire icons and monuments in person that we grew up seeing on the television screen.

Presidential Podium

Visitor Tips:

  • There are two tours each year: one in the spring and one in autumn.  The spring tour typically takes place in late April, while the autumn tour is held sometime in mid-October.  Tours are held on a Saturday and Sunday, and the final dates are usually released a few weeks before the tour weekend and can be found on the White House’s official website.
  • You can only obtain tickets for same-day entry.  For example, you can’t wait in line at the ticket window on Saturday and then join a tour on Sunday.  Tickets are also, as I mentioned, timed, meaning that you must join the tour printed on your ticket.  (For example, if your ticket is for the 2:00 p.m. tour, you must return
    to the White House around 1:30).
  • The tour is child-friendly, but each child will need his or her own ticket to enter the gardens, so don’t forget about the little ones when picking up your ticket!
  • The tour is ADA-accessible, as the grounds are relatively flat and there are plenty of opportunities to sit down and rest.  If you have difficultly standing for long periods of time, waiting in line for your ticket may prove to be a problem.  Unfortunately, I don’t recall if there are benches available for those who are waiting.
  • You will have to go through basic metal detectors, like you would at most of the Smithsonian museums in D.C.  Be sure your pockets are metal-free so you don’t hold up the line or get pulled aside for additional screening.
  • The tour is self-guided, so be sure to look for the plaques in front of each stop that explain what you’re looking at.  If you’re hard of seeing or simply want more information, I found, for once, the security personnel to be incredibly friendly and eager to share their knowledge, so don’t be afraid to ask.

White House Garden Tour

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