Arlington National Cemetery
It's an easy excursion from Old Town to the famous Arlington National Cemetery, a cherished shrine commemorating the lives given by members of the U.S. armed forces. Its seemingly endless rows of graves mark the mortal remains of the honored dead, both the known and the unknown, who served in conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the present.
Start at the visitor center (tel. 703/607-8052; www.arlingtoncemetery.org), where you can get a free map -- and if you have family buried here, find out where. Be sure to pick up a cemetery map, for it's easy to get lost in the maze of pathways. Admission to the cemetery is free. It's open daily 8am to 7pm from April through September, daily 8am to 5pm October through March, with the exceptions of Christmas and New Year's Day. You can drive here from Old Town via U.S. 1 and Va. 110, but it's easier to ride Metrorail's Blue Line from the King Street Station. Parking in the cemetery lot costs $1.25 for the first 3 hours, $2 per hour thereafter.
Next door is the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (tel. 800/222-2294 or 703/533-1155; www.womensmemorial.org), honoring all women who have served in the military. Inside, there's a computerized registry of more than 250,000 women veterans.
You can spend hours looking at gravestones here, but the one you must see is the poignant John F. Kennedy Gravesite, marked by its eternal flame. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is buried next to her first husband. His brothers, Robert F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy, are buried nearby. Looking north, you'll have a splendid view of the capital city across the river (during his presidency, Kennedy once remarked of this spot, "I could stay here forever").
For an even more spectacular view, walk up the ridge above the Kennedy graves to Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial (tel. 703/557-0613; www.nps.gov/arho), a plantation manse built by George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson by her first marriage, after his daughter married a young Virginian named Robert E. Lee. The couple lived here for 30 years before General Lee left in 1861 to join the Confederate cause. He never returned. To spite him, the federal government turned his front yard into a cemetery for slain Union soldiers. The house has been undergoing a massive renovation and may not be furnished until sometime in 2010. Call ahead to make sure it will be open on the day you plan to visit. Admission is free. The mansion is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm (closed Christmas and New Year's Day).
Beyond the mansion, America's most distinguished honor guard slowly marches before the white-marble Tomb of the Unknowns, which holds the remains of unidentified combatants slain during World War I. Unknowns from World War II and the Korean War are in the crypts on the plaza in front of it. A crypt for an unknown Vietnam veteran remains vacant since modern forensic science has identified all victims of that conflict. The changing of the guard ceremony -- an impressive ritual of rifle maneuvers, heel clicking, and military salutes -- takes place daily every half-hour April through September, every hour on the hour the rest of the year.
Adjoining the tomb is the Greek Revival outdoor Memorial Amphitheater, used for holiday services, particularly on Memorial Day when the sitting president or vice president attends.
Seeing the Cemetery by Tourmobile -- This quiet expanse of green is a walker's paradise, but you can ride around via the Tourmobile (tel. 888/868-7707 or 202/554-5100; www.tourmobile.com). Service is continuous daily from 8:30am to 4:30pm April through September, 9:30am to 4:30pm October through March. Tickets cost $7.50 for adults, $6.50 seniors, $3.75 for children 3 to 11. At the visitor center you can also purchase Tourmobile combination tickets that include major Washington, D.C., sights, allowing you to stop and reboard when you're ready. Tourmobiles also depart here for Mount Vernon .
At the Cemetery's Edges -- On the northern periphery of the cemetery, just off Va. 110 about 1 1/2 miles north of the Kennedy graves, stands the famous U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial (www.nps.gov/archive/gwmp/usmc.htm), better known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. The famous statue is based on news photographer Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of Marines raising Old Glory on Iwo Jima in February 1945. The Memorial grounds are used for military parades in summer, when there is a free shuttle from the visitor center. Call tel. 703/289-2500 for the schedule.
Adjacent to the Iwo Jima statue, the Netherlands Carillon (www.nps.gov/gwmp/nethcarillon.htm) was a gift from the people of Holland. Thousands of tulip bulbs are planted on the grounds surrounding the 127-foot-high open steel tower, creating a colorful display in spring. Carillon concerts are presented on Easter Sunday and every Saturday thereafter in April, May, and September, from 2 to 4pm. Concerts are held daily from 6 to 8pm June through August. You can climb the tower after the carillonneur performs and enjoy spectacular views of Washington.
Those three shiny spires soaring dramatically into the air south of the cemetery come from the United States Air Force Memorial (www.airforcememorial.org), on Air Force Memorial Drive at Columbia Pike (Va. 244). Evoking the "bomb burst" maneuver of the Air Force's Thunderbirds precision flying team, the 270-foot-tall stainless steel spires honor the 54,000 American airmen who have died in combat. The memorial sits on a promontory with a panoramic view over the Pentagon and D.C. beyond (I watch the July 4th fireworks over the National Mall from here). Admission is free. The memorial is open daily from 8am to 11pm. Park free across Columbia Pike.
The terrorist pilot who flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, followed Columbia Pike to his destination. Today the former parking lot at the southwest corner of the huge building is the Pentagon Memorial (www.whs.mil/memorial), in honor of those who lost their lives that day (not including the terrorists). Trees provide shade over 184 cantilevered benches, one for each victim. Those for Pentagon personnel are on one side, the crew and passengers of Flight 77 on the other. The memorial is open 24 hours daily, with staff on hand from 8am to 8pm. There is no public parking at the Pentagon, so your best bet is to walk 10 minutes from the Air Force memorial, take Metrorail to the Pentagon station, or park near the Pentagon City Metro station and walk under I-395 to the Pentagon.
A Scenic Drive Along the Potomac River
Skirting the south bank of the Potomac River for 30 miles between Mount Vernon in the south to the Capital Beltway (I-495) in the northwest, the George Washington Memorial Parkway is one of Virginia's most scenic drives. It's also a major commuter route, which means lots of traffic during rush hours. Other times, you can drive the entire route in about 45 minutes without stopping. The parkway runs through Old Town Alexandria via King Street; otherwise, it's a four-lane road with neither traffic signals nor stop signs. Also, with the exception of the peaceful Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial Grove near The Pentagon, you cannot make a left turn; accordingly, I drive it from south to north so I can pull off at designated areas beside or overlooking the river. My favorites are Gravelly Point Park, on the north side of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (jets roar just a few feet overhead as they take off and land), and at Potomac Overlook Regional Park, with a great view over Georgetown in D.C.
As noted in "Active Pursuits," you can also run, hike, or bike along part of the parkway. I enjoy hiking to a statute of the Rough Rider in the middle of Theodore Roosevelt Island, an 88-acre wooded preserve and bird sanctuary connected to the parkway by a footbridge just south of Rosslyn.
For more information, contact Headquarters, George Washington Memorial Parkway, c/o Turkey Run Park, McLean, VA 22101 (tel. 703/289-2500; fax 703/289-2598; www.nps.gov/gwmp).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.