The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington National Cemetery are bucket list worthy adventures that bridge our connections to American history, loved ones, and even sacrifice. During our two week family road trip along the East Coast of the U.S. we stopped off at Washington D.C.
My daughter and I had visited when she was younger, my son had never been there, and they were both old enough now to understand and appreciate the historical value. Maybe it’s because so many of our relatives fought in the wars, but there’s a deep connection to the formality and honor of a soldier’s life. Whether or not I support war, I still value the sacrifice a soldier makes to protect his family, country and beliefs and I hope it has made an impression on my children to appreciate and respect the cost of war and service.
We highly recommend you make the Welcome Center your first stop. It is right at the cemetery entrance. This is your stop for: maps, exhibits, information services (including grave locations), the bookstore/gift shop, water fountains and restrooms. There is a screening process to enter, so check out the “do’s and dont’s”… website
We visited at the end of June and it was hot. Arlington is hilly and spread out (624 acres), so be prepared for a trek. We definitely suggest you plan out your visit and take a map and water bottle with you. There’s lots of shade to be found, but the hilly distances between the areas of special interest may be taxing on small children, seniors, and anyone not suited for hiking. They have a free shuttle and even tour services to make your visit easier, so plan ahead. Arlington National Cemetery has a park-like atmosphere, but make no mistake–this is a memorial. There’s no picnicking, recreational activities, or noise allowed.
The Unknown Soldier’s Tomb stands on a hill overlooking Washington D.C. It’s a beautiful view and a peaceful setting. It’s no wonder people would often picnic here, some even sitting on the tomb itself (!!), until they began posting guards in 1925.
“The white marble sarcophagus has a flat-faced form and is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic pilasters, or columns, set into the surface. Sculpted into the east panel which faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. The six wreaths, three sculpted on each side, represent the six major campaigns of World War I. Inscribed on the back of the Tomb are the words: Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God“- taken directly from the website
On Memorial Day in 1921 four unknown soldiers from World War I were exhumed from cemeteries in France. One of the these four soldiers was picked at random for internment at Arlington. The remaining unknown soldiers were interred in the Meuse Argonne Cemetery in France. The Tomb (sarcophagus) rests above the grave of the Unknown Soldier of WWI in Arlington National Cemetery.
Unknown soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam are also represented next to the sarcophagus, marked with white marble slabs flush with the plaza.
The remains of the Vietnam Unknown were exhumed in 1998 and identified based on mitochondrial DNA testing. It was decided that the crypt containing his remains would remain vacant and the crypt cover was replaced with one that has the inscription “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”
The Changing of the Guard ritual is worth scheduling into your visit. It’s easy to plan since the ritual occurs every hour on the hour from October 1st to March 31st. During the summer months, an additional Changing of the Guard is added on the half hour (April 1st to September 30th). The ceremony is about eight minutes long. Some interesting facts about the ritual (taken directly from the website):
- “The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process.”
- “After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.”
- “Twenty-one was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed — the 21-gun salute.”
The Tomb rests behind the Memorial Ampitheater , which conducts annual memorial services for military organizations and annual services on Easter, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. The Ampitheater is spectacular. Don’t miss exploring inside. The ornate and grandiose design suggests the importance and intensity of the ceremonies conducted here. Even as an empty theater, you can feel how special the ceremonies are for the friends and family of the celebrated. Technically, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is part of the Memorial Ampitheater.
Touring the Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery is beautiful. You will enjoy the walks as you visit the areas that interest you. Our focus was the Unknown Soldier, but we had to check out JFK’s grave site since we were there. He is buried alongside his first lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and two of his children, Patrick and Arabella. John Fitzgerald Kennedy is one of only two presidents buried at Arlington. The other is William Howard Taft. The Eternal Flame burns at the head of Kennedy’s grave.
Some Interesting Facts
- Every gravesite has been photographed and documented. You can locate the gravesite by using the cemetery’s web-based application or downloading their app, ANC Explorer: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Map/ANCExplorer.aspx
- Many notable people from varied backgrounds are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Here’s a few:
- Joe Louis, Boxing’s Heavyweight Champion of the World
- Adolphus W. Greeley, founder of the National Geographic Society
- Thurgood Marshall, first African-American justice appointed to the Supreme Court, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and argued numerous cases, including Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, winning 29 of 32 cases he argued to the Supreme Court!
- John Herschel Glen Jr., first American to orbit the Earth (among many other firsts)
- An average of 25 burials are performed each day!
- This is the final resting place for over 400,000 men and women
- A flag is placed on each and every tombstone, monument and columbarium row for Memorial Day. The same is done during the winter holiday season with wreaths.
- There are 300 different varieties of trees totaling about 8500 trees.
- Open: 365 days a year
- 8am-7pm (April-September), 8am-5pm (October-March)
- Phone: 877-907-8585
- Address: Arlington National Cemetary, Arlington, VA 22211
- Entrance Fee: None
- Free Shuttle Available
- The cemetery does not provide wheelchairs or strollers, bring your own if needed.
- Tours – Welcome Center ticket booth, shuttle stops, and their website
- Parking Fees:
- $2 per hour for cars
- $8 per hour for commercial vehicles
- Rules– check out the full list, but here’s the most popular…
- no pets allowed other than service or military work dog
- No recreational activities- picnic, running, bikes, roller skates, etc
- No food or drink, only bottled water is allowed
- Visitor Screening Process- website
Family Adventure Rating ❤️❤️❤️❤️
Cost– If you’re within driving distance, this is a super low cost adventure. Travel and parking are your only costs. You could spend a few dollars in the gift shop for bottled water, postcards, or a book. (Don’t forget to stamp your National Passports Book—that’s free.)
Parking & Transportation– There is parking at Arlington and mass transit will get you close. If you’re visiting Washington D.C., you can also look into local tours that will bring you to the cemetery by tour bus.
The cemetery is on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Metrorail System and Metrobus. Both stops are a short walk to the gates of Arlington. View Public Transportation
Note: The Metropolitan Bridge may have delays from lane closures. The bridge is under construction from March through the Fall of 2019.
Location– This is the perfect location for this special cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This area is enriched with history and historical significance.
Day Trip or Overnight– If you’re passing through or close enough for a day trip, then this is an easy half-day trip. However, this is a great area to plan an overnight stay. There are plenty of hotels and other options. Our suggestion is to spend a night at a hotel inside D.C. so you can walk to the National Mall area. There are plenty of food options, but plan ahead because they’re generally grouped a few blocks away from the National Mall.
Experience– This was a terrific experience for our family. I was really glad to spend the day with my kids doing something so interesting and out of the ordinary. The monuments, memorials, and grave sites all generated really great discussions between us. This was a different kind of learning for my teen and college age “kids.”
Combination– There is an insane amount if things you can do in this immediate area. We visited the National Mall—Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, World War II Memorial, The White House, and the National Museum of Natural History. We barely scratched the surface during our short trip! There’s so much more to see. Next time we hope to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Spy Museum in addition to many other great options. On our way out of Arlington, we hopped on Skyline Drive to continue our road trip heading south. (Check out our road trip posts from Georgia, North Carolina and Florida—see below.)