9 tips to guide your visit to Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery is located across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.. Within its 624 acres, over 14,000 veterans who have been killed in our nation’s conflicts are buried, beginning with the Civil War. This is also where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located as well as the gravesite of John F. Kennedy.
The first time I visited Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., was when my Uncle Ara Mooradian, MIA in the Korean War, received a memorial service in 2004 with full military honors – horse-drawn caisson, soldiers on horses, 21-gun salute, Missing Man Formation, the whole deal. Nothing short of impressive and very moving. Particularly for my mom, Ara’s younger sister, who had waited 53 years for this.
Every time I am in D.C., I head over to Arlington to visit Uncle Ara’s headstone, on a short hillside, off Porter Drive, in Section MF. I have a tie to Arlington that may be different than many, but that doesn’t mean your visit to Arlington National Cemetery will be any less memorable.
Even without a personal connection, Arlington is definitely a must-see in D.C. and well worth the time. Rows upon rows of tens of thousands of identical white markers across 624 acres slaps you in the face about the reality of war. And this is only a mere portion of what our country and its families, my family, have given. Uncle Ara, the bombardier on his B-29, never returned from his bombing mission over North Korea that fateful day in October 1951, although a number of his crew members were returned after the war. I’m sure there is a story like his behind every single one of those 400,000 headstones rolling over the hills of the perfect green lawns at Arlington.
Here are 9 tips for your visit to Arlington National Cemetery:
- Access is super easy, but wear your walking shoes. The Metrorail’s blue line stops at Arlington, but that’s pretty loosely put. From the station to Arlington National Cemetery Visitors Center is “only” about a 10th of a mile but you have to maneuver the Metrorail station first, get over an overpass and down a long road. And it feels much longer. If somebody with you is not so able, you’ll want to get a taxi. Find maps and other info here at the WMATA site.
HITT Tip: With transport from central D.C. to Arlington National Cemetery, touring and back, you will likely need a good chunk of a day, or at least 4 hours and as much as five or perhaps six. The Metrorail from town, for example, will take approximately 35-50 minutes depending on your origin.
- Bring water or any kind of snack you may need. There are no services, no snacks, no sales of food or beverages. It is a military cemetery and a museum and pretty isolated (no corner markets), so be sure to have whatever you need. On the grounds themselves, only water is allowed.
- In the summer, which is when many will visit, it can be very hot. I cannot stress that enough. Very hot. And the walk from the metro is treeless. The walk in the cemetery has a few spots of shade but little breeze. Take hats, sunscreen and be prepared to rest here and there.
- Watch out for the mosquitoes! Depending on the time of day, time of year, temperatures or the watering schedule, you may find yourself being eaten alive. One year I took a journal and planned to sit on the hillside next to Uncle Ara’s gravestone and write. That didn’t happen. My face, ankles, arms and any exposed part of my body was devoured. I had to run for it. Take repellent.
- The Visitors Center at Arlington National Cemetery is air-conditioned and has bathrooms, neither of which you will find elsewhere on the grounds. Use and enjoy.
HITT Tip: Don’t forget to pay attention to rules for visitors. They are strict. This is a military cemetery, not Disneyland.
- Take the time in the Arlington National Cemetery Visitors Center to grab a map, book a tour, look up a relative on the kiosk and print the information there (if you did not do that at home first), and read the historical displays about the cemetery prior to your visit on the grounds. Find out about other memorials and things to see there by clicking here.
- To take a tour or not: Depends on your personal preferences. Hop-on hop-off group tours available too.
HITT Tip: If you have a disabled person in your group, the cemetery does offer some special access and services. Click here to see that. In addition, as of January 2015, the cemetery has offered a free shuttle service if you are there to visit a specific grave. Check-in at the welcome desk for details.
- Take a shuttle or not: It’s “only” about .8-.9 miles to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the Visitors Center (one of the most popular destinations), where everyone wants to go for the Changing of the Guard, but it does feel like a long way. You can always walk out (free) and then grab a tour shuttle back (return trips have in the past been free for all). Depends on your preferences and abilities of course.
- Speaking of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery: Give yourself plenty of time to get there and plan on getting there in advance, too, since it is often quite crowded, especially on weekends, holidays or in the summer. If you don’t feel the need to stand RIGHT there, try watching it from the steps leading up from Roosevelt Drive, which includes a great long view up the stairs leading to the tomb and the soldiers. Or, if you’d like to see the guards coming and going, try positioning yourself at the side where they come and go. Impressive too although you won’t have a close-up view of the actual changing.
Do not try to squeeze in a visit to Arlington. It won’t work out well. So take your time and then tag in what you feel like afterward. And if you have a grave to visit, buy flowers before you get to Arlington, where nothing like this is available.
HITT Tip: Want to fill out your day to the Arlington area? Take the Metrorail one stop farther to the Pentagon and walk around the side to the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. Up for more walking? Then keep going up the hill to the spectacular Air Force Memorial. And check out our story on “Six things to do in Washington, D.C., that many don’t but should.” And if you find your way to the National Mall, be sure to check out the Korean War Memorial and its Wall of Remembrance, which has Ara’s name on it.
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