Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns

More than 300,000 soldiers from every U.S. military conflict are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
More than 300,000 soldiers from every U.S. military conflict are buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Photo © Jim Voorhies, licensed Creative Commons Attribution & Share Alike.
Map of Arlington County and Vicinity
Arlington County and Vicinity

The most famous cemetery in the nation is Arlington National Cemetery (1 Memorial Dr., 877/907-8585, Apr.-Sept. daily 8am-7pm, Oct.-Mar. daily 8am-5pm, free). The cemetery is a sprawling 200-acre burial site where more than 300,000 soldiers from every U.S. military conflict are buried. The uniform, white tombstones form an orderly quilt across the rolling green fields of the cemetery and are meticulously maintained. Called “Our Nation’s Most Sacred Shrine,” as the resting place for many generations of our nation’s heroes, the cemetery grows daily. On average, more than two dozen funerals are held each weekday. In 1948, a group of women formed the first Arlington Ladies, a volunteer group attending services for all veterans and dedicated to ensuring that no member of the armed forces is ever buried alone.

A welcome center marks the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery and is always open when the cemetery is. Maps, grave locations, guidebooks, and other information on the cemetery can be obtained at the center, and there are restrooms and a bookstore.

Interpretive bus tours of the cemetery depart continuously from the welcome center. Tickets can be purchased at the center for $8.75.

Private cars are not allowed in the cemetery except by special permission, but parking is available off Memorial Drive in a paid parking garage ($1.75 for the first three hours, then $2.50 per hour). Please remember that this is not a park but an active cemetery.

There are several key sights within Arlington National Cemetery that are well worth a visit.

The first and the best known is the Tomb of the Unknowns. The Tomb of the Unknowns is located in the middle of the cemetery and has a flat-faced form with relieved corners. The sides are also relieved with neoclassical pilasters. The tomb houses the remains of unidentified American soldiers from World Wars I and II and the Korean Conflict. Remains of a Vietnam War soldier were also housed in the tomb until they were identified in 1998 through DNA testing and relocated. That crypt remains empty but serves as a symbol.

The Medal of Honor was presented to each of the interned soldiers and these medals, along with the U.S. flags that draped their caskets, are displayed to the rear of the tomb in the Memorial Amphitheater. The tomb is guarded around the clock by the 3rd U.S. Infantry, and the changing of the guard is a popular tourist attraction. Guard changes occur every 30 minutes during the summer and every hour during winter.

Another popular sight at Arlington National Cemetery is the Women’s Memorial, an elegant semicircular retaining wall built of stone at the main entrance to the cemetery. This is the only national memorial honoring American servicewomen. The memorial is open to the public every day except Christmas Day.

A short walk uphill from the Women’s Memorial is the eternal flame and burial site of John F. Kennedy. This is one of the most visited graves in the cemetery. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is buried next to him, and Robert F. Kennedy was laid to rest nearby in a grave marked at his request with only a single white wooden cross and excerpts from two of his civil rights speeches.

One final sight to visit while in Arlington National Cemetery is the Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial (321 Sherman Dr., Fort Myer, 703/235-1530, daily Sept.-Mar. 9:30am-4:30pm, Apr.-May 9am-5pm, June-Labor Day 9am-5:30pm, closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1, free). This former home of George Washington Parke Custis, whose daughter married Robert E. Lee, is actually a national park and maintained by the National Park Service. The Greek revival-style mansion sits on land that was once part of a 1,100-acre plantation where the Lee family lived for three decades before the Civil War. Expect to see period furnishings inside the home and to learn the interesting story of how the home was lost by the family during the Civil War. The site is the highest in Arlington National Cemetery and offers terrific views of Washington DC. The house is open for self-guided tours and a 10-minute walk from the cemetery welcome center.

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