Arlington Cemetery Tour: What to See, When to Go
Arlington National Cemetery stands in marked contrast to Virginia’s other popular attractions such as Virginia Beach or Kings Dominion Amusement Park.
It is a place of great quiet despite the thousands of people who walk among the gravestones and memorials in a single day and the three million who visit in a single year.
There is no shouting, no having fun, no music, splashing or frantic roller coaster rides throughout the 624 acres containing the 400,000 graves.
An Arlington cemetery tour is a time to reflect on America’s history and the millions of lives that have been lost in wars both in the United States and throughout the world.
It also is a time to note the many men and women who lived a full life in public service and received an honorable place for their burial.
Arlington attracts millions of people every year who pay respect to loved ones buried there or who simply want to see a vast, beautiful and remarkable cemetery.
Starting a Tour
Visitors who come on a weekend can expect to compete with a flood of cars and tour buses that pour into the cemetery parking lots on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.
Anyone who visits during the summer should plan on arriving as early as possible after it opens at 8 a.m. daily, 365 days of the year, to avoid the heat and avoid waiting in line for a place to park.
Visitors who stay at nearby hotels may want to take the Metro, which has a station right by the cemetery.
It is a short walk from the parking lots to the visitor center on Memorial Avenue, where maps of the cemetery and other information are freely available.
Just beyond the visitor center, choose to walk through the cemetery independently or take a guided tour.
Most people and families choose to walk, although a decent walking tour will take two to four hours and require at least moderate physical health.
A commercial trolley service with interpretive guides also is available. The main trolley stop is located just beyond the visitor center and easy to spot. Tickets for the general public are $12 for adults, $6 for children ages 4 to 12 and free for children under 4 (at the time of this writing).
Discounts are available for veterans, seniors and military personnel. Tours last 45-60 minutes and may benefit visitors on a tight schedule.
Highlights of the Tour
Some of the famous graves at the cemetery include President John F. Kennedy and his family; his brothers, Attorney General Robert and Senator Edward Kennedy; and President William H. Taft.
The graves of other prominent national figures range from 12 Supreme Court justices to astronauts, explorers, doctors, senators and cabinet secretaries.
Graves of famous military leaders and heroes include Omar Bradley, William F. “Bull” Halsey, Alexander M. Haig Jr., John J. Pershing, and Audie Murphy.
The cemetery also is famous for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the ritual changing of the guard every hour on the hour from Oct. 1 to March 30 and every half hour from April 1 to Sept. 30.
Events at the tomb also include special ceremonies, such as a laying of a wreath to honor Korean War veterans.
Tips for the Tour: Kennedy Gravesites
A map from the visitor center is essential in seeing the most important parts of the cemetery with the least amount of walking.
The cemetery is laid out with a series of names roads. Once outside of the visitor center, look straight ahead and up a bit for the thickly columned Arlington House, a hilltop mansion with a tall flagpost and an American flag at the top. The John F. Kennedy grave site lies near the bottom of that hill.
Take the nearest road in that direction until reaching section 45, which contains the graves of all four Kennedy brothers.
The John F. Kennedy gravesite contains an “Eternal Flame” that burns from the center of a five-foot circular stone at the head of the grave. It faces a series of granite etchings with lines from some of his most famous speeches.
Tips for the Tour: Arlington House, Tanner Amphitheater
After visiting the Kennedy site, circle to the left on Sheridan Drive and either go right up the hill to Arlington House or left and down to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
While walking toward that point, note the three gravestones that sit tightly side by side on the right that contain the remains of Robert McNamara, President Johnson’s secretary of defense during the Vietnam War; Gordon Mansfield, deputy secretary of Veteran Affairs and winner of the Distinguished Service Cross; and the recently deceased Frank Lautenberg, one of the longest serving U.S. senators. Behind them on this hill lies hundreds of gravesites of military generals and admirals.
Arlington House is a quick visit. It was built on an 1,100-acre estate as a memorial to George Washington by his adopted grandson. The estate became Arlington National Cemetery at the end of the Civil War.
The grave of famed Civil War general Philip Sheridan lies in front and to the right with a photographic view of the Washington Monument in the distance.
A short walk behind Arlington House takes one to a quiet and photographic at the Tanner Amphitheater. It was built in 1873 and served as the location of Memorial Day services until 1920 when the much-larger Memorial Amphitheater was built.
Tips for the Tour: Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Now head due south along Wilson Drive several hundred yards to reach Memorial Amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The stark white marble of the amphitheater is the location of three major annual ceremonies honoring U.S. military personnel on Easter, Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
Circle to the front of the amphitheater for the changing of the guard. On busy days, plan to arrive in time to get the best possible views because the crowd may be thick enough to prevent children from seeing the activity.
Before or after the ritual, visitors may want to see the Memorial Display Room located between the amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It houses plaques and other tributes that honor the four service members interred at the Tomb. A small chapel is located underneath the amphitheater stage.
Walking tourists will find that attending just these highlights will take anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours depending on how much time they spent taking photographs, relaxing in the shade from the hot sun or visiting any other monuments or memorials that are scattered throughout the grounds. Viewing additional graves and monuments will add one to two hours more.
Even though the cemetery is 624 acres, most of it consists of hundreds of thousands of simple white gravestones in long, orderly rows that mark the highest sacrifice of U.S. military personnel.
When to Go
Arlington is an arboretum with more than 8,600 exotic and native trees, according to the cemetery's office Web site.
The abundant trees provide plenty of shade during hot weather, but climbing up and down the hills outside of the shade during 90-degree heat in the summer can be taxing.
If going in the summer, arrive as soon as possible after the cemetery opens at 8 a.m. on the weekends to take advantage of cooler temperatures. Arrive a little later during the week to avoid D.C. rush hour traffic. Crowds are smaller at that time of day. Attendance is lighter on weekdays than weekends.
Spring and fall are good times to go because of cooler temperatures and flowers in bloom. The average high temperature in Washington D.C. from June through August is in the mid to upper 80s Fahrenheit, according to historical data from the U.S. National Weather Service.
The average highs in May and September reaches the mid to upper 70s Fahrenheit, while the highs peak in the mid 60s during April and October.
Arlington Location Map
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