One of the most beautiful buildings in the nation, or “handsomest,” as President Roosevelt once said, is the Pennsylvania State Capital Building in Harrisburg.
A phenomenal site from the outside, topped with a dome modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the inside of the capital building is even more spectacular. Italian marble staircases, gold-leafed archways, stained glass windows, and Renaissance worthy murals made us feel as if we were transported back to Europe.
It’s an exciting place to tour and it’s completely free. If the Pennsylvania State Capital Building isn’t already on your must-see list, we are going to inspire you to add it.
Let’s start out with where to stay when visiting Harrisburg.
There are plenty of chain brands in and around the city; however, if you’re looking for something with a bit of character, let us introduce you to two fantastic choices.
- The City House B&B is only a 10-minute walk away from the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. However, it only has four rooms. With its good food, good value, free private parking, and central location, it books out quickly.
- The Manor on Front Street is a magnificently restored historic stack-stoned building now made into a bed & breakfast. It’s a little further along the river, but also includes free parking. With only six suites, it also books out quickly.
How to Tour the Pennsylvania State Capital Building
There are two ways to tour the Pennsylvania State Capital.
- Free 30-minute guided tours usually run every half hour Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. On the weekends and most holidays, tours run at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., & 3:00 p.m. Though they do close on some holidays, like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Usually, group size is limited to 80 people (during Covid it has been set to 40 people).
- Self-guided tours are only available on the weekdays, so the weekdays are the best time to go. Check in at the information desk to grab a self-guided brochure.
We recommend doing both. It’s the only way to see all the open public spaces.
Start your visit with the guided tour to get your bearings. This will give you access to a chamber you can’t go without a key. However, the tour doesn’t go everywhere, so you’ll want to explore on your own afterwards.
If you visit in spring, book your tour as early as possible (up to a year in advance). This is because it’s school field trip season and the capital is a popular place for field-trips.
Outside of spring, on a weekday, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting on a tour at last minute.
It’s important to note. To enter the Pennsylvania State Capital, you will need to go through security. Plan to arrive 15 minutes early for your tour just in case there is a line.
What Can I See on a Guided Tour?
Guided tours start in the Main Capitol Rotunda. The tour guide will explain the history of the building and point out some very interesting details around the room.
Next, you’ll head upstairs. However, what you see on the tour really depends on what government bodies are in session.
On my first trip, the tour only visited the Senate Chamber, as both the House and Supreme Court were in session. However, on our most recent trip, none of the government was in session, so the tour visited three magnificent rooms.
In our opinion, this is the most beautiful room in public view. Every inch of the room is elaborately decorated, and you get a great view of it from the upstairs public gallery.
With so many details it’s hard to take them all in. However, the guides do a fantastic job explaining the paintings and pointing out some of the details you would likely miss.
For example, if you look at the lights, you’ll notice Xs in the center of the globe. This isn’t a special light bulb, but rather the diamond cut in the glass itself.
This is where the House of Representatives meet. As it needs to seat all 203 members, it’s huge!
Like the Senate Chamber, the House Chamber is covered in gold leaf, topped by elaborate murals, and surrounded with stunning stained-glass windows.
Supreme Court Chambers
Hidden behind lock and key are the chambers of the Supreme Court. Dimly lit, the chamber glows from the stunning stained-glass dome above the room. Apparently, this dome is not visible from the outside. The only way to see it is from inside the chamber.
You can only view this room with a tour, but while it is not in session. It’s worth checking the Supreme Court calendar to make sure court will not be in session during your visit.
What Can I See on a Self-Guided Tour?
With a self-guided tour of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building, you can visit both the Senate and House chambers, even if they are in session. However, gallery seating is first-come, first-served.
You can also visit the Governor’s Reception Room, the Senate Library, and the museum.
Before wandering around by yourself, we recommend downloading the PA Capitol App to your phone. It is free and full of information on each of the rooms. It even includes videos and maps on each area of the building.
Governor's Reception Room
The guided tour doesn’t stop in the Governor’s Reception Room, but you quietly can.
The room is surrounded in wood walls and has two fireplaces. The large golden lamp posts in the corners, make quite the impression. However, it’s the painted murals that caught our attention most.
Painted by Violet Oakley, around 1902, the murals tell the story of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania. The series is called, The Founding of the State of Liberty Spiritual. Oakley even traveled to England to do research for the paintings.
This small room deserves a quick peak. In addition to the cabinets of large reference books, there’s a small exhibit worth reading through.
After you’ve finished your tour, head downstairs to the small museum. There are a lot of interactive games aimed at children, but there are a few fun photo opportunities, including in front of the giant Lego “Commonwealth” statue (aka the lady on top of the PA Capital Building).
There are even a few nostalgic displays for those who grew up in the US. Anyone else remember Bill from School House Rock? Yup, maybe showing my age a little.
Outside the Pennsylvania Capital Building
Before leaving be sure to go out the east exit to get a fantastic view of the fountain and State Street Bridge. We thought the west side was stunning, until we saw this.
Depending on the day you visit, you may not be able to re-enter from the east entrance. Though it’s worth walking around the building for the gorgeous views.
Where to Eat in Harrisburg
- The Pennsylvania State Capital Building has a cafeteria onsite, not far from the little museum. I ate there the first time I visited. Though it has a limited menu, the food isn’t bad.
- On this trip we tried Alicia’s Deli Restaurant for lunch. They mostly do burgers and sandwiches. Everything was good and the facilities were really clean.