Looking for a Cheap, Fun Vacation? Here’s a Capital Idea

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Summer is here, and with it, the eternal question: Where to take the family vacation? My son is a teenager, so over the years, we’ve run the gamut – theme parks, museums, even island getaways. Last month, we decided to try something different that was a lot more fun and frugal than it sounds: Visiting our state capital and seeing where our laws are made.

Every state has one, most have interesting stories, and nearly all want visitors. So you can often get a lot of gavel-banging for your buck. My son and I had a great time, and I didn’t spend a fortune. Here’s how and why…

Location, location, location

While there’s the occasional Boston or Denver, most state capitals are not the most populous, or most popular, cities in their respective state. Most are lesser-known cities like Frankfort (Kentucky) or Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) or Jefferson City (Missouri). Or in my case, Lansing, Michigan – home of the Lugnuts minor league baseball team and little else besides the seat of state government.

That immediately gives state capitals a “road less traveled” cachet. And those small cities have cheaper hotels – especially in the summer, when legislatures aren’t in session.

Free tours

Most capitols offer free guided tours, typically every hour on weekdays. But be warned: Most are closed on the weekends. And when your capitol is closed, the surrounding area might be empty as well. So plan your trip accordingly.

Simply search for “state capitol tours,” and you’ll get results for almost every state. For example, from Wisconsin to Georgia to my home state of Michigan. (You might also run across some unofficial takes on things, such as this diatribe about the difficulty discerning between “capital” and “capitol”.)

Laws and sausages

There’s an old expression, “Laws are like sausages – it is best not to see them being made.” Maybe, but it sure is fun.

In our case, we know one of our state representatives and his legislative director, and they took us around to show us the sights. But even if you don’t know your rep, simply email or call their office – if you’re over 18, you’re a voter. Most are happy to meet with constituents, and you may even get some additional perks. Our friend took time on the floor to introduce us and ask us to stand, and the entire state House looked up our way and applauded. It was odd, surreal, gratifying, and humbling. And fun.

We observed from the gallery above while the state House was in session, and then the same at the slightly stuffier state senate. You get a palpable sense of history and of history being made. It was fascinating seeing the legislators actually vote on a bill and learning the different rules for voting.

For example, in the senate, they have 60 seconds to vote before voting is closed, while in the House it’s open-ended. It’s one thing to read that in a book, but to see it in action in front of you – the lights changing colors as the legislators vote and the clock counting down the time in the corner – is intriguing and engrossing.

Our tour included the House Appropriations Room, and the central dome soaring high above us. Our experience was not unusual. Most state capitols are historically significant. Many, like Michigan’s, are on the National Historical Register. In Hartford, Conn., you could visit the Hall of Flags, where flags carried into battle by Connecticut soldiers are displayed. In the rotunda of the capitol in Raleigh, N.C., you’ll see a copy of sculptor Antonio Canova’s original statue of George Washington, which had been displayed in the original state House from 1820-1831. Canova sought to honor and even glorify Washington by depicting him in a Roman general’s uniform with tunic, tightly-fitting body armor, and short cape fastened at the shoulder.

California has gone the extra step of actually making its state capitol a museum. It thus serves as both the seat of government and a fully-functioning museum, one with the added benefit of being free.

Here are some other fun facts:

  • Michigan’s capitol is 267 feet tall from the ground to the top of the dome’s finial.
  • The roof of the Washington’s capitol in Olympia has 144 solar panels – the largest array of solar panels on a capitol in the United States.
  • Shiniest dome: Many are gilded with gold, such as that of the capitol in Georgia. Originally constructed of terracotta and covered with tin, it’s now gilded with two layers of native gold.
  • The grounds of the Wisconsin capitol feature 15 flowerbeds containing over 25,000 annual plants. The grounds are also home to 154 trees, of which there are 30 different varieties.
  • Louisiana’s is the tallest at 450 feet tall with 34 floors.
  • The capitol in Little Rock, Ark., was built as a replica of the United States capitol and has been used in many movies as a stand-in.

For information on what your state capital and capitol have to offer, the easiest route is to go online and either Google the information you want or check out the city’s tourist and visitor’s bureau. They will be able to provide you not only with the requisite information on the building and hours but also accommodations, restaurants, and other attractions. Like the Lugnuts.

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