Although a popular place to visit, Arlington National Cemetery is left off of many tourists’ itineraries when visiting Washington DC and its historic sights along the National Mall. A cemetery, after all, doesn’t sound like a fun place to spend your vacation. But visiting Arlington National Cemetery is immensely important, both for the history it contains and the reminder about the sacrifices made by so many.
Getting To Arlington National Cemetery
By far, the easiest way to get to Arlington National Cemetery (like all of Washington D.C.’s mall area) is the Metro. The cemetery has its own stop on the Blue Line, called Arlington Cemetery. This line also travels to other Mall attractions like the White House, Smithsonian and Capitol for ease of touring the city. The Arlington Cemetery station exit deposits visitors right outside of the cemetery’s main entrance. Visitors planning to arrive at the cemetery by Metro should be aware that the Pentagon is two stops away from Arlington cemetery on the Blue Line, so trains will be crowded during morning and evening rush hour.
For those already at the Mall (or wanting to get there) who are willing to walk a bit, Arlington National Cemetery is only a .4 mile walk across the Arlington Memorial Bridge from the Lincoln Memorial. Along the way, pedestrians are treated to views of the monuments along the river, and the sight of low-flying planes buzzing the bridge as they fly up the river on their way to nearby Reagan National Airport. (The bridge is under construction until 2021 – check that it will be open to pedestrian traffic on the dates of your visit before planning to use this route!)
The large stone edifice of the Women in Military Service memorial marks the main entrance to the cemetery for those arriving by car. The parking garage is to the left as you enter this driveway. The visitor’s center is also just to the left outside this photo.
Note in the above photo, with Arlington House perched high up above the memorial, stark evidence of how hilly the cemetery is!
Need to know for visiting Arlington National Cemetery:
Address: Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA 22211
Metro: Arlington Cemetery (Blue Line)
Parking: Garage entrance on Memorial Avenue. $2/hour fee. Take ticket from dispenser when entering garage. Use kiosk in visitor center to pay via cash or credit card when leaving cemetery (you’ll have 20 minutes to exit garage after paying).
Hours: 8am-7pm (April-September); 8am-5pm (October-March)
Security: Arlington National Cemetery has recently started to implement security screening for visitors. The following items are prohibited from being taken in the cemetery: explosives, firearms, knives (with blades more than 4″ in length), narcotics, fireworks, and alcohol. The cemetery also recommends that all visitors carry federally-approved identification (such as a REAL ID compliant driver’s license or a passport).
Disability Access: Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery with a valid disabled parking pass may ride the interpretive bus in the cemetery for free (along with one companion). Also, the cemetery provides free shuttle service to family and friends wishing to visit specific grave sites. These services can be obtained upon request in the welcome center.
Visitor Rules: Arlington National Cemetery is an active cemetery, still conducting an average of at least a dozen graveside services per day, six days per week, in the newer sections of the cemetery. Proper decorum is expected to be observed. Families visiting grave sites should be given space and left undisturbed (and not photographed). Animals (other than working service animals) are not allowed in the cemetery. Bicycles and joggers are also not allowed in the cemetery.
App: Arlington National Cemetery has an app available for iPhone and Google phones called ANC Explorer. Use to locate gravesites and navigate the cemetery.
Do not assume because you have graves to visit with numerically close section numbers that those graves are physically close to each other. Because of the way the cemetery has been repeated expanded over the years in search of more burial space, sections with sequential numbers may not be in close proximity. (For instance, section 47 and section 49 are on opposite ends of the cemetery.) Check your map thoroughly and plan a route before setting out if you are walking!
Tours: For those who do not wish to walk the cemetery on their own, an interpretive bus tour is available that visits the major sites in the cemetery (Kennedy graves, Tomb of the Unknown, Arlington House, etc). For more information visit the Arlington National Cemetery tours website.
For more information (such as holiday hours) visit the Arlington National Cemetery website.
Inside Arlington Cemetery:
I began my personal visit to the cemetery several years ago (accompanied by a friend) walking through some of its newest sections. It is here that I learned my first lesson about visiting Arlington – it’s bigger than you probably think it is. Those trees are way further away than they look!
Hiking through the wide open expanses with no trees on a nearly 100 degree day led me to my second lesson about visiting Arlington: carry water with you. By the time we found a drinking fountain at the Amphitheater, I was actually afraid I was going to faint! (It’s unclear if liquids are allowed through the new security procedures, but bottled water is available for purchase at the Welcome Center or carry an empty water bottle and fill it at the water fountains in the Welcome Center.)
Most tourists don’t venture into these newer sections of the cemetery. We, like the other people we encountered in them, were there to look for a specific grave. In my case, I was looking for the grave of my mother’s late partner. His cremains are buried in a niche wall that extends around the outside edge of the cemetery. We easily located the grave with the location provided at the visitor center, and I paid my respects.
Because these areas of the cemetery are active, we did encounter other people visiting graves – and even a funeral procession. Please, as we did, give these grieving people a wide berth to respect their privacy.
You know you are transitioning to the older area of the cemetery when you pass through the McClellan gate, named for the 4th Commanding General of the U.S. Army General George B. McClellan. This gate was originally the main entrance to the cemetery in the 1800’s, but is now deep inside the cemetery thanks to multiple expansions of the burial grounds.
The older areas of the cemetery are more filled with large old trees so there is more shade – very welcome on a hot, airless day.
As we walked towards the amphitheater, through section after section, the enormity of the weight of Arlington – and the sacrifice it represents – began to sink in. We were truly in the heart of the cemetery, and every direction I looked was nothing but row upon row of graves to the horizon.
Once we were at the Memorial Amphitheater, we were back in the area frequented by tourists and school groups. We encountered crowds, which were non-existent in the newer sections, and started to have to watch out for the trolley tours as we walked on the roads.
Before we departed the amphitheater, we watched the ceremony on the plaza next to it at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Most of the large crowd was silently respectful of the moving ceremony. (Most.) I am not sharing photographs of the Tomb of the Unknowns ceremony as I put my camera away out of respect while I observed.
In the immediate area around the Memorial Amphitheater, there are groups of memorials to significant events: the Columbia and Challenger space shuttle disasters, the Iran hostage rescue mission, and the U.S.S. Monitor, among others. I spent a few extra moments to pay my respects especially to the Challenger and Columbia astronauts, whose loss are moments of my life I will never forget.
The walk from the Memorial Amphitheater to the Kennedy family graves was very uphill. As we walked up and down the rolling hills on our way to the high point, we got peeks through the trees of the rows of graves stretching to the horizon.
One hill brought us a vista of the Pentagon, sitting next to the cemetery as if watching over its heroes and former leaders, with the rows and rows of white stones a cautionary reminder of the cost of war.
These older sections of the cemetery also provide viewpoints across the river to the monuments along the mall, like this view of the Jefferson Memorial. (The soaring tower of the Washington Monument can be seen from many areas of the cemetery.)
On a plaza nearly at the top of the hill, a buzz of activity told us we’d found the Kennedy graves. It was impossible to get near the center of the viewing area for the graves due to the huge pressing crowd.
Between the crowds, the money thrown on RFK’s grave, and the haze making the eternal flame barely visible…our visit to the Kennedy graves was not the best experience. I’d love to go back again when it was less crowded, for a more peaceful and respectful experience.
Due to the heat, we decided to leave the cemetery after that instead of continuing on to Arlington House. Please let me know in the comments if you think it is worth visiting that part of the cemetery next time!
All in all, it was an exhausting experience walking Arlington National Cemetery in the heat. But if you have the ability (and the weather is reasonable) I cannot recommend enough the experience of getting away from the crowds in the cemetery to truly have time and space to reflect and appreciate the enormity of what the place represents.