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Navigating the history & heritage of Arlington

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg on the Virginia city's beautiful sights, historic villages and breathtaking memorials.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

What do Presidents William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy have in common, along with 16 astronauts,  Robert Peary (who discovered the North Pole), Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thurgood Marshall and Chief Justice Earl Warren? And more than 300,000 other Americans?

They are all in their final resting place, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia — right across the bridge from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Each year, thousands of visitors pay their respects to the men and women buried here, who include casualties of the Revolutionary War, Beirut and Grenada, Operation “Just Cause” in Panama, the Persian Gulf War and other military engagements.

While it may be hard — at first thought — to think of a cemetery as a tourist destination, the 600 acres of Arlington represent much more than simply a burial ground. It is an iconic American destination where we pay tribute to our own heroic icons.

Arlington Cemetery, as you might suspect, has its own very special history. At the west entrance you can see one of the more poignant elements of Arlington: the phrase “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country”).

Then there is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers/Tomb of the Unknowns. It’s on top of the hill, with a view of the city. It remains one of the most popular sites in the cemetery, and contains the remains of unknown American soldiers from WWI, WWII and Korea. (The remains of an unknown soldier from Vietnam were there until 1998. They subsequently identified the soldier; he was later buried in Missouri, and now the crypt lies empty.)

But it is not alone. Since April 6, 1948, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been guarded 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, rain or shine. You’ve probably seen the guards, or the Sentinels for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, doing the very precise rituals — it takes six months to a year to train to be a sentinel, and only about 10 to 15 percent of applicants pass. The training includes memorizing verbatim 17 pages of information about the history of the tomb, who is buried there, etc. The sentinels also need to learn each precise marching step and rifle position.

Then there are the buglers. One of the signature trademarks of Arlington is that each burial/memorial service has live buglers, not recorded music. Buglers at the National Cemetery are an elite group. They are drawn from the premier Washington bands of the Army, Navy and Air Force. It’s the equivalent of getting into a symphony orchestra — most are conservatory graduates, most have a master’s degree, and many have doctorates.

Of particular interest is Freedman's Village. This is located in Section 17, a southern section of the cemetery, and was land that was given to more than 1,100 freed slaves in 1863 to be a “model village.” However, they were turned out in 1890, when the government bought back the land for the memorial. Today there are 3,800 grave markers of residents of Freedman's Village during and after the Civil War.

Arlington is almost as much a museum as it is a burial ground. The Women in Military Service memorial is just outside the Ceremonial Entrance Gates. The exhibit hall has both permanent and temporary collections, each of which honor women’s contributions to our military defense. There are photographs of women from the American Revolution to today, diaries, letters, service documents, military items, uniforms, recordings of bands and recruiting films.

You can find permanent exhibits on World War II and the Korean War. Rotating exhibits this year include the 50th Anniversary of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, the Women's Memorial Dedication and the 25th Anniversary of Women in the Chaplain Corps.

Near the cemetery is the Air Force Memorial, between the cemetery and the Pentagon. This memorial honors the more than 54,000 Air Force members who have died in combat, and also commemorates previous organizations such as the Aeronautical Division, U.S. Signal Corps; the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps; and the U.S. Army Air Corps.

Visiting Arlington requires a little planning. Not surprisingly, the busiest days are on Easter, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Approximately 5,000 visitors attend each of the memorial services that take place on these days in the Memorial Amphitheater. Easter Sunrise Service starts at 6 a.m., while Memorial Day and Veterans Day services start at 11 a.m.  Before Memorial Day is big with school bus tours.

Perhaps the best time to visit is in late September or in October, with fewer crowds. And you can also see Arlington by the tour-mobile, a trolley that winds around the cemetery. But if you’re looking for a quiet moment, away from the crowds, then within 200 feet of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier you’ll find some lovely, quiet and shady areas. And that’s where the real beauty and serenity of Arlington surrounds you. Try — if you can — to go very early in the morning or very late in the afternoon. That’s when the light bathes the cemetery in the most special aura — as you stand there, on the hill overlooking the graves of America’s heroes, and acknowledge and honor, in your own way, such a large part of American history.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on Visit his Web site at .