Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is America’s sacred resting place for those who died in service to their country. First used as a burial place in 1864 during the American Civil War, Arlington’s rolling hills are the final resting place of more than 400,000 veterans and their dependents. Participants in all of the major wars fought by United States troops are buried at Arlington. Two U.S. presidents are also buried here, and numerous events and people are memorialized.
The sprawling cemetery covers more than 620 acres and is maintained by the National Park Service. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so you will want to plan your visit before you arrive. That way you can include those sections that most interest you.
Read on to learn more about Arlington National Cemetery and all it offers to inspire visitors to its hallowed grounds.
1. Arlington House Was Once A Memorial To George Washington
Before this green plot of land was a cemetery, it was the home of George Washington’s family. The Arlington House that still today holds pride of place on a hilltop was built for Washington’s step-grandchildren. George Washington Parke Custis commissioned the home in 1818 as a residence and also as a memorial to the man and military hero he loved.
The Greek revival-style mansion housed a collection of George Washington’s heirlooms, including furniture, portraits, and china. The only child of the Custis family, Mary, grew up here and married Robert E. Lee in 1831. The couple lived at the Arlington House until the Civil War broke out in May of 1861.
The house is currently closed to tourists while under a lengthy renovation. But you can sit on the steps of the front porch in the shadows of the columns and take in the amazing view across the river to the Washington Mall. If you plan to spend the day at Arlington, pack a light lunch. Head for these steps and settle in for a time of refreshment with an unmatched view.
2. It’s A Former Union Army Camp
The Lee family abandoned their home when Robert E. Lee left for the war. The U.S. Army then occupied the estate due to its ideal location on high ground across from the nation’s capital. The Union troops also built forts on the grounds, which are known today as Fort Myer and Fort McPherson. You can visit the location of Fort McPherson today by going to Section 11 of Arlington.
3. It Was Once Home To A Freedman’s Village
During the American Civil War, in 1863, Freedman’s Village was founded on Arlington’s property. The village supported thousands of individuals fleeing slavery in the South. The community grew to house 1,500 people and offered land to farm, a hospital, churches, schools, and a home for the elderly. It closed in 1900.
4. The Tomb Of The Unknown Soldier Will Move You
A highlight of any visit to Arlington is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This iconic memorial of white marble stands on a hilltop and features carved Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. The inscription reads: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” Under the marble is the grave of a soldier who fought in World War I.
The memorial, dedicated in 1921, is guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Military guards consider this such a privilege that they commit to living for this duty for two years. They are required to memorize the locations of more than 300 graves in Arlington and know the history of the military cemetery.
5. Time Your Visit To Attend The Changing Of The Guard
The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier takes place every half hour from April through September and every hour during the remaining months. As you watch the sentinels as they prepare to change, note that each sentinel marches exactly 21 steps down the black mat behind the tomb. Then the sentinel turns, faces east for 21 seconds, then turns and faces north for 21 seconds. After that, the sentinel takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. This is because the number 21 represents the highest military honor (such as in a 21-gun salute).
Waiting for the ceremony, I was in the midst of a noisy crowd of people, including students socializing. The moment the ceremony began, everyone attending went completely silent out of respect. It’s a sobering experience you will always remember.
While the Unknown Soldier from World War I is the focus of the ceremony, look to the west to see the white marble slabs that mark the crypts for the Unknown Soldiers from World War II and the Korean War.
6. It’s Home To President John F. Kennedy’s Gravesite
Be sure your Arlington plans include a short visit to the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy. The eternal flame memorializes the president and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The story is that shortly before his untimely death, President Kennedy visited Arlington and stood here below the Arlington House. As he looked out over the Potomac River, he remarked that he could stay there forever. When he was killed, his family requested that this be his final resting place.
More than 16 million people have visited the Kennedy gravesite. Other members of the family -- including Robert Kennedy, Edward Kennedy, and Joseph Kennedy -- are buried nearby. You can find their graves using this map.
7. The Monuments And Memorials Cover A Large Portion Of U.S. History
Before you go, read through the extensive list of monuments and memorials at Arlington. You may want to choose a few to put at the top of your list. The monuments cover U.S. history from the Civil War to the present. For example, you can find the Nurses Memorial, the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, and the Beirut Barracks Memorial. I sought out the Battle of the Bulge Memorial because I was planning to visit the battle sites in Bastogne.
8. The Memorial Arboretum Is A Place Of Beauty
The Memorial Arboretum of Arlington National Cemetery features ornamental plants and beautiful trees. The arboretum encompasses many acres of Arlington, decorating the landscape with gardens and trees planted in memory of the veterans. As you wander, you may come upon a section of stately trees or colorful plants that gives a sense of peace to the burial ground.
Arlington was designated an arboretum in 2014 on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Not only does Arlington contain more than 500 plant species, but it also participates in tree science and conservation.
9. Tram Tours Are Available
While visiting Arlington, save yourself the walking and ride the tram. Tram tours leave every hour from the welcome center at the entrance to Arlington. The tour currently goes to two stops: Memorial Avenue and the Kennedy gravesite. You will hear a historical interpretation as you ride. Check the website for the latest information on times and prices.
Pro Tip: I enjoyed the tram tour, and I also ended up walking to sections of Arlington where the tram doesn’t go. Feel free to get a lift from the tram but also to explore on your own.
10. A Map Will Be Helpful
As you are planning your visit, look at a map of Arlington to see where you want to go first and what route you will take. If you have a morning -- or even an entire day -- you will not be able to see all of Arlington. So use this official map to help you prioritize your time. You can print this map and take it along or save it to your smartphone.
11. The ANC Explorer App Is Chock-Full Of Information
Download the ANC Explorer app before your visit to have maps and information at your fingertips. Not only will you be able to quickly locate a particular gravesite, but you will be able to find the nearest restroom or check the time for the next Changing of the Guard ceremony. You can also browse the sections on the monuments and memorials or notable graves that most interest you.
A visit to Arlington National Cemetery will leave you with much to think about. Life and death and devotion are honored here. It’s a privilege to walk these paths in the presence of both famous and everyday heroes.