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Arlington National Cemetery is a special place, solemn and heart-breaking, but beautiful and inspiring too. Many tours and school groups arrive by bus, transfer to another bus, and make a quick visit to the Tomb of the Unknown and a few famous gravesites, then experience the rest from the road.
It’s a great system for the mobility impaired and people short on time, but to really appreciate the magnitude of our nation’s heroes and loss, we recommend a long walk on the streets throughout the cemetery and a slower visit to some of the historic spots.
If you visit in Spring, you’ll enjoy beautiful blooming cherry trees and haze-free views of DC, and the paved streets are usable even after heavy rains. In summer, DC’s hot and hazy weather suggests an early morning visit.
On Memorial Day weekend you’ll find every grave decorated by the “Flags In” ceremony, and Arlington busy with families and friends visiting and honoring the fallen.
Jogging and biking (except on Meigs, Sherman, and Schley Drive) are not allowed in the cemetery, and visitors should use decorum in this solemn place. Remember that you are on hallowed ground; 320,000 men and women are buried at Arlington, all of whom served their country honorably.
Honor the Tradition, Remember the Sacrifice, Explore the History
Here are 5 ways to explore Arlington National Cemetery on a deeper level. You’ll need plenty of time and good walking shoes to complete everything on this list.
1. Watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown.
Nearly every visitor to Arlington stops at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but it is well worth your time to stay for the Changing of the Guard. The Tomb of the Unknown was created in 1921, and on Armistice Day of that year President Warren G. Harding officiated at the interment of an Unknown Soldier from World War I.
Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God
Remains of an Unknown Soldier from World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam were later interred in the tomb. The Vietnam soldier was later exhumed and identified, and it was decided that the Vietnam Unknown will remain vacant.
The Tomb of the Unknown is guarded every second of every day of the year, a silent vigil to the sacrifice of all who serve. The Changing of the Guard occurs every hour on the hour year-round, and an additional change occurs every half hour from April 1st through September 30th, when closing time is also extended from 5:00 to 7:00 PM.
The Tomb is guarded by the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, traditionally known as “The Old Guard,” the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army. Sentinels go through a rigorous selection and training process and their movements are precisely scripted.
The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat. Twenty-one was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed — the 21-gun salute.
The best place to view the Changing of the Guard is on the southern end of the steps or plaza. You’ll have a better view of the white-glove inspection of the relieving guard from that side. Visitors are asked to stand in silence throughout the change, and we were very impressed with the behavior of school groups and young children through the ceremony.
2. Visit Arlington House and the Robert E. Lee Museum to learn about the history of Lee’s family estate and how it became a cemetery.
The mansion known as Arlington House was built as a memorial to George Washington, by his adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. In 1831, George Custis’s daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married her distant cousin, Robert E. Lee, and Arlington House became the home of the Lee family for the next thirty years. The mansion sits at the top of the hill, with a beautiful view of Washington DC.
Take a walk through the house and garden, then head to the Museum to learn about the Lee family, and Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign from the US Army. Lee wrote his resignation letter the night of April 20, 1861, in his bedchamber on the second floor of Arlington House.
In 1864, the property was appropriated for use as a military cemetery, ensuring that the house would be unusable to Lee should he ever decide to return (he never did). A vault was constructed in the rose garden which holds the remains of 1,800 casualties of the Battle of Bull Run, and many other Civil War dead were buried around the house.
Visit the buildings behind Arlington House to learn about the enslaved people who built the mansion, and who lived and worked for the Lee family.
3. See the State Champion and Medal of Honor trees, and walk the streets and paths.
You’ll find beautiful trees and gardens throughout Arlington Cemetery’s 624 acres, including two State Champion Yellowwood and Empress trees (located in sections 23 and 46). Take a slow walk along Farragut and Memorial Drives to view the Medal of Honor trees, 36 historic trees that commemorate Medal of Honor recipients.
In Spring you’ll find blooming cherry trees, redbuds, and other colorful beauties. In summer the trees provide a shady break from the heat, but picnicking is not allowed in the cemetery, so keep your stops appropriate. On April 24th, you can join a free walking tour focused on the Memorial Arboretum, then plant an Arbor Day tree (register in advance to guarantee a space).
4. Locate and visit a grave with the ANC mobile app.
The cemetery is very large, with seemingly unending rows of grave markers, and it can be very difficult to navigate except to the major sites (which are marked with street signs). Fortunately, there is an excellent app which you can use to navigate, get background information, and even locate a particular grave.
Section 60, down Eisenhower Road and away from the busy areas, is where the casualties of recent conflicts like Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan are interred. It’s an especially moving place near Memorial Day when families visit their loved ones and every grave is decorated with an American flag.
The ANC Explorer app is available for both iOS and Android, and as a web app you can use to plan ahead. We used the app frequently to find routes between sites, to plan our next stop, and to locate graves of friends and relatives.
5. Take in the view from the top of the Hemicycle, then visit the Women in Military Service for America Memorial below.
Originally built as a ceremonial entrance to the cemetery, the Hemicycle retaining wall sits at the end of Memorial Drive.
Start by climbing the steps to the top of the arch, where you’ll find a roof of glass tablets, 250 feet long, inscribed with quotations by and about women who have served in defense of their country.
From the wall you can look straight down Memorial Drive to the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.
In the other direction, you’ll have views toward the Kennedy gravesite and Arlington House.
Downstairs, the Women in Military Service Memorial honors women who have served in the nation’s defense during all eras and in all services. We found the testimonials on the curved wall, and the quotes from servicewomen serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly moving.
Whether you stay all day, or only have time for a brief stop, a visit to Arlington National Cemetery is a profound experience. We highly recommend you take extra time to immerse yourself in this “wonderful, terrible” place.