18 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Arlington National Cemetery

by Pam @ East by Midwest
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Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for over 400,000 service members and their families. Those who served the United States are both honored and remembered here. Pristine rows of white grave markers, stately military ceremonies, and solemn processionals remind us of the sacrifices made in service to country.

As a resident of the Washington, DC area, I drive by Arlington National Cemetery almost every day. When you see something every day, it can be easy to overlook. But that isn’t the case with Arlington National Cemetery. Every day, its white markers draw my attention and remind me of the costs necessary to uphold the ideals of my country.

No matter where you call home, I recommend that you pay Arlington National Cemetery a visit. It will leave a lasting impression on you.

Read my tips below to help you prepare for your visit to Arlington National Cemetery. But first – here is a short video of Arlington National Cemetery to help get you excited for your trip:

1. How did Arlington National Cemetery begin?

The Arlington estate is the ancestral home of George Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. After Custis’ death, the title passed to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, who was married to Robert E. Lee.

When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, Union soldiers seized the estate. The estate’s hill-top location gave the Union a strategic vantage point.

Robert E. Lee never owned the Arlington estate. But ranking members of the U.S. Army never wanted Lee or his family to return to the estate after the war. To prevent the Lee family’s return, Arlington estate was transformed into a cemetery. The first military burial took place in May 1864.

2. Do I need permission to visit Arlington National Cemetery?

You don’t need permission to visit Arlington National Cemetery. Anyone who wants to pay their respects may visit. You don’t need to know someone who is buried there or have some kind of connection to the military.

3. When can I visit?

The cemetery is open 365 days a year. During April to September, the cemetery is open from 8AM to 7PM. For the rest of the year, the cemetery is open from 8AM to 5PM.

The cemetery requires a lot of walking and has very little shade, so I recommend going in the spring or fall.

I also recommend going first thing in the morning, before the large tour groups arrive. If you arrive much later than 8AM, be prepared to share the cemetery with large crowds (as you can see in my video above!).

4. Are tours offered?

Arlington National Cemetery offers a guided shuttle tour of the cemetery. Although you don’t have to take the tour to see the cemetery, I highly recommend it. You can book advance tickets here.

The tour operators are very knowledgable. They provide pieces of information and point out interesting areas that you wouldn’t know or see otherwise. In addition, the cemetery is quite large. The shuttle tour provides a way to see more of the cemetery than you may have time to see on foot.

5. Do I need to book advance reservations?

You don’t need reservations or tickets to visit the cemetery. Entrance is free and you can walk around without booking any tours.

If you’d like to take the guided shuttle tour of the cemetery, you can book tickets in advance here. I’ve always purchased my tickets at the visitor center in-person when I’ve visited the cemetery.

6. How much does it cost to visit Arlington National Cemetery?

If you drive, parking is $6. If you elect to take the guided shuttle tour (which I highly recommend!), the ticket is $15 for adults, $11 for seniors, $7.25 for kids 4-12, and free for kids under 4. There is a discount for military personnel and veterans.

Aside from your transportation costs and the optional shuttle tour, there are no other costs to visit Arlington National Cemetery.

7. How long should I plan for my visit?

I recommend planning for at least four hours for your visit. The shuttle tour is hop-on-hop-off. If you stay on the shuttle without getting off, the tour is less than an hour. However, I encourage you to get off at most stops and walk around the area. There are many aspects of the cemetery that can’t be experienced while staying on the shuttle.

The Changing of the Guard occurs every half hour April through September and every hour for the rest of the year. You’ll want to allow time to see this ceremony. (More on this below.)

8. How do I get there?

Arlington National Cemetery is located in Arlington County, Virginia. If you’re coming from Washington, DC, the cemetery is located on the other side of Memorial Bridge, just across the Potomac River.

If you’re visiting the National Mall, the cemetery is walkable from the Lincoln Memorial. You can also rent a bike or scooter by the Lincoln Memorial to get there a little faster (and with a lot less effort!).

If you’re coming from farther away, Arlington National Cemetery has its own Metro stop on the Blue Line.

The cemetery has ample parking. But I wouldn’t recommend driving there. To get to Arlington National Cemetery, you have to pass through some really confusing intersections and traffic circles. I’ve driven those roads for more than ten years and still find it confusing. I recommend relying on one of the transportation methods above or grabbing a cab/Uber/Lyft to get you there.

9. What should I wear?

Plan on wearing attire that both considers the weather and is respectful of the cemetery you are visiting.

There is very little shade at Arlington National Cemetery and you should plan on doing a lot of walking (even if you’re taking the shuttle tour).

Wear comfortable shoes and breathable clothing. Plan on wearing a hat and frequently apply sunscreen (no matter what time of the year you visit).

10. Are there any restrictions on what I can bring?

For the most part, there aren’t any significant restrictions regarding what you can bring into the cemetery. You can’t bring any weapons (explosives, firearms, knives), narcotics, fireworks, or alcohol. (All things that you likely won’t have with you anyway.)

The cemetery also doesn’t allow bicycles into the cemetery and doesn’t allow pets. Service animals are permitted.

There are no lockers on site or places to store luggage, so leave any big, bulky bags at your hotel/Airbnb.

11. Are food and beverages available for purchase?

You won’t find any food or beverages on sale at Arlington National Cemetery. But the good news is that you can bring your own snacks and beverages into the cemetery with you. (See below for items that I recommend bringing with you.)

12. What should I bring?

Because there isn’t any food or drinks for purchase on-site, plan on bringing some light snacks and a refillable water bottle. You’re allowed to bring a filled water bottle into the cemetery, so fill up your water bottle at your hotel/Airbnb before you head for the cemetery.

I recommend bringing an umbrella for protection against both the sun and the rain. You should also bring a small backpack or purse, but leave any big, bulky bags at home.

Finally, stop by a grocery store or gift shop on the way to the cemetery and pick up some flowers. You can lay the flowers on a grave to honor the sacrifices of those who served.

13. How do I find a grave?

Arlington National Cemetery has an app that will help you to locate graves in the cemetery. You can download the app here.

I didn’t have the greatest luck using the app. It quit on me a few times when I recently visited the cemetery. I’m sure they’ll continue to improve the app, so it might work perfectly during your visit.

As a back-up plan, I’d recommend stopping at the visitor center information desk when you first enter the cemetery. The people at the desk are very helpful and can tell you where to find a specific grave.

14. What is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Changing of the Guard?

The Tomb of the Unknown Solider contains the remains of an unidentified American soldier from World War I. Although there are sadly additional unknown soldiers, this particular soldier is honored on behalf of his fellow unidentified soldiers.

West of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, there are crypts to honor unknown soldiers from World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Members of the U.S. Army’s Old Guard act as sentinels to watch over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb is guarded by these sentinels 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, regardless of the weather conditions.

Guards change every 30 minutes during April through the end of September and are changed every hour the rest of the year. This is called the “Changing of the Guard”. It is a solemn, highly ceremonial event that you should make time to see when visiting the cemetery.

The location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a stop on the shuttle tour. If you’re walking through the cemetery without the shuttle tour, there are clear directional signs to follow.

15. Can I visit Arlington House?

The home built by George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington’s step-grandson, still stands on the Arlington estate. Arlington House is temporarily closed while undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration.

16. Where is John F. Kennedy buried?

John F. Kennedy is buried at the bottom of the hill below Arlington House. It is the first stop on the shuttle tour.

17. When do funerals occur?

Arlington National Cemetery is an active cemetery. Funerals are conducted Monday through Saturday.

18. What special events are held at the cemetery?

There are many special events held at the cemetery to honor those who have served and sacrificed. These events may restrict access to certain parts of the cemetery during all or a portion of the day.

I recommend checking Arlington National Cemetery’s website and again at the visitor center information desk when you arrive to confirm whether there are any special events that day and how they will impact your visit.

On U.S. holidays such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day, expect there to be special events that draw a crowd to the cemetery.

On Easter, there is a sunrise service at Arlington National Cemetery. If you’re in town during Easter, I highly recommend attending this service. It’s a beautiful way to start the holiday morning.

In December, usually on the second Saturday of the month, Wreaths Across America lays more than 200,000 wreaths on graves at Arlington National Cemetery. If you’re interested in volunteering for this event, you can find out more at the Wreaths Across America website.

I hope you found these tips helpful for planning your trip to Arlington National Cemetery. It is a beautiful tribute to those who served and sacrificed.

Arlington National Cemetery is a tribute to those who served and sacrificed for the United States. These tips will help you prepare for your visit. #arlington #arlingtoncemetery #arlingtonnationalcemetery #washingtondc #travel #bucketlist #wanderlust #usa #america #virginia

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