Arlington National Cemetery is a United States military cemetery located just outside of Washington DC. It’s the final resting place of men and women that served the nation, with 15 to 20 burials per day (except on Sunday). We joined a free walking tour of Arlington Cemetery with DC by Foot to get a proper understanding of this huge cemetery and its rich history.
Arlington National Cemetery – Practical Information
Arlington National Cemetery is situated across from Lincoln Memorial, on the other side of the Potomac River. The 624 acres of rolling green hills of the cemetery are dotted with over 400,000 graves, each of them marked by white headstones. An impressive sight, making you fall silent for a moment.
The Arlington National Cemetery Welcome Center
Should you decide to visit Arlington Cemetery on your own, best stop by the Welcome Center first. You can pick up a map here, learn about the history of the cemetery through the exhibits on display, or simply make use of their toilets and water fountains. Just like the cemetery itself, it’s open 365 days a year, from 8:00 to 19:00 from April to September and 8:00 to 17:00 from October to March.
Getting to Arlington National Cemetery
Depending on the tour you join or don’t join, you have to get to Arlington Cemetery yourself. If you don’t have a car, you can take a cab or an Uber, or go for the cheaper and greener option that’s called public transport.
First, if you do have a car, there’s plenty of space to park it at the Arlington National Cemetery Parking. It’s right at the Welcome Center, and as you might have guessed, it’s not free. Parking your car here while visiting Arlington Cemetery will cost you $2 per hour.
We however opted for public transport, taking the Metrorail's Blue Line to the Arlington National Cemetery Metro Station. A SmarTrip card is the easiest way to use public transport in Washington DC. We bought one for $10 per person, which includes $8 fare value. A one-way trip from McPherson Square Metro Station to Arlington National Cemetery Metro Station takes 10 minutes, costing $2 per person.
A similar, but more touristy option is a Hop-on Hop-off bus. You know, those open-top sightseeing busses you see in every big city. We never tried it, but it sure has its advantages: you can hop on and off at every major landmark or tourist attraction and enjoy onboard entertainment. Obviously it’s more expensive than public transport, but you can scour the web for deals.
What’s DC by Foot?
DC by Foot is group of guides giving free walking tours of Washington DC. Well, they’re actually tip-based walking tours. So yes, it can be free for greedy people, but most of us will pay the guide what we think the tour was worth. That’s an incentive for the guide to do his very best, as his pay depends on it.
DC by Foot wants to offer tours for every budget. With other tour companies you’ll be charged $20 to $25 for a similar tour, but with DC by Foot you can pay what you can afford. To give you an idea, we paid $30 for the two of us. Do note that the walking tour of Arlington Cemetery during Memorial Day Weekend was for charity.
Now how does the paying part work in practice? At the end of the tour, your guide will gently bring up the word “money”, emphasising you can pay whatever you think his tour was worth. Then everyone will go thank the guide personally, shaking his hand and handing over the money. Simple as that!
Check out the DC by Foot website for more information on the different tours, their itineraries and schedules.
Our Free Walking Tour of Arlington Cemetery with DC by Foot
The walking tour of Arlington Cemetery is one of two free walking tours we did with DC by Foot. It was recommended by Kris, the guide at our first tour. Coincidentally he was our guide again at Arlington National Cemetery. Great, because he’s an passionate storyteller, who knows a lot of interesting facts. You can see how he enjoys telling us fascinating anecdotes.
We happened to do this tour during Memorial Day Weekend, when small American flags are placed at every single headstone on Arlington Cemetery. It’s an over 60 year old tradition, carried out almost like a ceremony, with every soldier placing those flags in sync. They do that every year on the Thursday before Memorial Day.
Kris started our walking tour by describing the cemetery and its vibe in 3 words: valour, sacrifice, and detail. Throughout the tour he pointed out things, told us stories and mentioned traditions that confirmed these words.
The walking tour of Arlington Cemetery took us along notable graves and different monuments and memorials. We visited the gravesite of John F. Kennedy, with an eternal flame burning since his funeral in November 1963, and stopped at Audie Murphy's grave. By the end of Word War II he was the US’ most decorated soldier, before he even reached the age of 21. He received no less than 28 medals, including one from Belgium, our home country.
We also visited the USS Maine Mast Memorial, the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial, the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial, and the Iran Rescue Mission (Operation Desert I) Memorial. All accompanied by facts and stories told by Kris, our guide.
Did you know? At the current rate of 15 to 20 burials per day, there’s only enough room on Arlington Cemetery until 2060.
History of Arlington National Cemetery
Before Arlington National Cemetery was a military cemetery, the estate belonged to George Washington Parks Custis, step-grandson of George Washington. He built Arlington House to commemorate George Washington, using part of it to store memorabilia and part of it as his home.
After his death, his daughter Mary Anna and her husband U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Robert E. Lee left the property during the Civil War. Federal troops started using the land as a camp and headquarters. When the Washington DC cemeteries were flooded with fatalities of the Civil War, 200 acres of the Arlington estate were repurposed as a military cemetery.
During our walking tour of Arlington Cemetery we walked up to Arlington House, also known as the Custis-Lee Mansion. From there you have a nice view over Washington DC. You can also see The Pentagon from here, with one corner adjoining the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.
The Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorates the service of all unknown US soldiers killed in any war. It is a big white marble sarcophagus placed above the grave of the Unknown Soldier of World War I.
Before the tomb are 3 white marble slabs marking the graves of the unknowns of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The graves of unknown soldiers of other wars are spread over the cemetery, because the official tomb was not yet in place at the time.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded day and night, through every heat wave and snow storm. It’s considered an honor to be part of the Tomb Guard and only the best of the volunteers get selected. When on duty, they continuously repeat the following cycle: march 21 steps, halt 21 seconds facing east, turn to face the north halting another 21 seconds. Why 21? A 21-gun salute is the highest military honor.
Every hour on the hour you can watch the Changing of the Guard. From April 1 to September 30 it’s even every half hour. The ceremony has an incredible attention to detail. Everything must be immaculate.
The best spot to watch the Changing of the Guard is on the right when facing the tomb with the Memorial Amphitheatre in your back. That’s where they’ll do the ceremonial inspection of the soldier that will take over the guard.
A Walking Tour of Arlington Cemetery – Practical Information
The walking tour of Arlington Cemetery takes about 3 to 4 hours, walking up- and downhill over stairs, paved, and unpaved paths. Bring water and a snack, especially when it’s a very hot day like when we visited. You can fill your water bottle throughout the tour at the blue taps, these contain drinking water. On one occasion during the tour there was time to use the bathroom.
The free walking tour of Arlington Cemetery with DC by Foot was very interesting. There’s a lot to be seen on this impressive military cemetery and having a passionate guide show you around telling facts and anecdotes is definitely a plus.
Have you joined a free walking tour of Arlington Cemetery with DC by Foot? Or did you maybe explored Arlington Cemetery on your own? We’d love to read about your experience in the comments!
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