Like the Mall, Arlington National Cemetery is an essential part of the itinerary for first time visitors to D.C. It is, without hyperbole, the United States’s most important burial ground. This shrine occupies approximately 624 acres on the high hills overlooking the capital from the west side of Memorial Bridge. More than 400,000 people are buried here, including veterans of all national wars, from the American Revolution to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts; Supreme Court justices; literary figures; slaves; presidents; astronauts; and assorted other national heroes. Many graves of the famous at Arlington bear nothing more than simple markers.
Upon arrival, head over to the visitor center, where you can view exhibits, pick up a detailed map, use the restrooms (there are no others until you get to Arlington House), and purchase an ANC Tours by Martz Gray Line ticket ($9 adults, $8 seniors, $4.75 children 3–11), which stops at the Kennedy gravesites, the Tomb of the Unknowns, and Arlington House. You can also purchase tickets online at www.anctours.com. Service is continuous, and the narrated commentary is informative; this is the only guided tour of the cemetery. If you’ve got plenty of stamina, consider doing part or all of the tour on foot. Remember as you go that this is a memorial frequented not just by tourists but also by those attending burial services or visiting the graves of beloved relatives and friends who are buried here.
If you’re here to visit a particular grave, you’ll be gratified to know that the cemetery now operates a free shuttle to individual gravesites. And if you’re here as a tourist, and you’ve got plenty of stamina and it’s a nice day, consider touring all or part of the cemetery on foot. Plenty of people do. I’d say it’s worth it to spring for the narrated tour, though, since the new interpretive bus tour vendor is vastly superior to the previous one. It’s a hop on, hop off tour that makes six stops on weekdays, with an additional three stops included on weekend tours, for those who so desire. All tours include stops at the gravesites of Pres. John F. Kennedy, Gen. John J. Pershing, the U.S. Coast Guard Memorial, the Memorial Amphitheater and Tomb of the Unknowns, Arlington House, and the Marine Corps Memorial. The weekend add-ons are Sections 54 and 55, the Columbarium and Niche Wall, and the 9/11 Memorial. The tour lasts an hour or more, depending on how many times you hop on and off, and how long you stay at each site. Service is continuous, and the narrated commentary is lively and informative. You can buy tickets online in advance (www.arlingtontours.com) or at the ticket counter in the Welcome Center. Tickets are $13.50 adults, $10 seniors, $6.75 children 4 to 12; military and active-duty personnel receive discounted prices and disabled and active-duty military in uniform are free (with proper ID).
Remember as you go that this is a memorial frequented not just by tourists, but also by those attending burial services or visiting the graves of beloved relatives and friends who are buried here.
Cemetery highlights include the Tomb of the Unknowns, which contains the unidentified remains of a service member from World War I in a massive, white marble sarcophagus; just west of the sarcophagus are three white marble slabs flush with the plaza, marking the graves of unknown service members from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. But the crypt for the Vietnam War service member contains no remains. In 1998 the entombed remains of the unknown soldier from Vietnam were disinterred and identified as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, whose A-37 was shot down in South Vietnam in 1962. The Blassie family buried Michael in his hometown of St. Louis. The crypt honoring the dead but unidentified Vietnam War soldiers remains empty. A 24-hour honor guard watches over the marble Tomb of the Unknowns and its companion gravesites with the changing of the guard taking place every half-hour April to September, every hour on the hour October to March, and every hour at night year-round.
Within a 20-minute walk, all uphill, from the visitor center is Arlington House (www.nps.gov/arho; tel 703/235-1530), whose structure was begun in 1802 by Martha and George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis’s daughter, Mary Anna Randolph, inherited the estate, and she and her husband, Robert E. Lee, lived here between 1831 and 1861. When Lee headed up Virginia’s army, Mary fled, and federal troops confiscated the property. An ongoing restoration was at last completed in 2013, and the house, fully furnished with Lee and Custis family artifacts, is open to the public for self-guided tours. Slave quarters and a small museum adjoin. Park rangers are on-site to answer your questions. Admission is free. It’s open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm (closed Dec 25 and Jan 1).
The view of the capital is spectacular from Arlington House’s hilltop, but just below the house, look for Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s grave at a spot that is believed to offer the best view of Washington, the city he designed.
Below Arlington House is the gravesite of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, which is a 3-acre lawn terrace paved with irregular-sized stones of Cape Cod granite, bits of grass growing between the stones. At the head of the gravesite is a 5-foot, circular fieldstone, with the Eternal Flame burning in the center. Embracing the terrace is a low crescent wall inscribed with quotations from President Kennedy’s presidency. Slate headstones mark the actual graves for President Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and two infant children. President Kennedy’s two brothers, Senators Robert Kennedy and Edward Kennedy, are buried close by. The Kennedy graves attract streams of visitors. Arrive close to 8am to contemplate the site quietly; otherwise it’s often crowded. Looking north, there’s a spectacular view of Washington.
In 1997 the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (www.womensmemorial.org; tel 800/222-2294 or 703/533-1155) was added to Arlington Cemetery to honor the more than 2.5 million women who have served in the armed forces from the American Revolution to the present. The impressive memorial lies just beyond the gated entrance to the cemetery, a 3-minute walk from the visitor center. As you approach, you see a large, circular reflecting pool, perfectly placed within the curve of the granite wall rising behind it. Arched passageways within the 226-foot-long wall lead to an upper terrace and dramatic views of Arlington National Cemetery and the monuments of Washington; an arc of large glass panels (which form the roof of the memorial hall) contains etched quotations from famous people about contributions made by servicewomen. Behind the wall and completely underground is the Education Center, housing a Hall of Honor, a gallery of exhibits tracing the history of women in the military, a theater, and a computer register of servicewomen, which visitors may access for the stories and information about 250,000 individual military women, past and present. Hours are 8am to 5pm. Stop at the reception desk for a brochure that details a self-guided tour through the memorial. The memorial is open every day except Christmas.