While most travelers seek out Washington, D.C., for their American history fix, Arlington, Virginia, is home to monuments and historical attractions that can easily stand on their own. History is celebrated and honored throughout the county, from the spectacular Air Force Memorial to the iconic Arlington National Cemetery.
Known for its long and varied history, Arlington was founded in 1801 and named after General Robert E. Lee’s family home in Virginia. Experiencing rapid growth throughout the 19th century, Arlington played an essential role during the American Civil War as the site for significant battles, including the Battle of Arlington Mill. Today, Arlington is a vibrant and diverse community with more than 200,000 residents and over 150 monuments and memorials.
So, where do you begin? Here are five significant historic sites you must visit while exploring Arlington County.
Arlington National Cemetery
Considered one of the most sacred sites in America, the Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 men and women who have served the country, and other notable figures, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft. The cemetery is known for its iconic and poignant white rows of headstones spread across the green and other memorable sites on the property, from the Arlington House to the site of Freedman’s Village. You can’t help but feel a sense of peace as you explore the expansive grounds that honor the county’s rich history.
The Arlington House is the first memorial dedicated to George Washington and the former residence of General Robert E. Lee and his family. This Greek Revival-style mansion constructed in 1803-1818 recently received a round of renovations, restoring it to its former glory. Visitors can take a self-guided or guided tour of the mansion, which features Robert E. Lee’s office, the family parlor, numerous exhibits and furniture from that time period.
Near Arlington House is the former site of Freedman’s Village. Established in 1863 as a self-sufficient community for formerly enslaved people, the village provided its residents with jobs, housing, education, and medical care. Today, visitors can learn about the site’s history on guided tours.
One of the most meaningful attractions at Arlington National Cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This monument is the site and grave of three unknown American service members. It honors the collective brave men and women who have died serving the country, yet bodies were never recovered or identified. Sentinels from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) stand guard 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ensuring that these fallen heroes are remembered.
National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial
The National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial pays tribute to the 184 lives lost when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The memorial features a grove of 184 benches, each inscribed with the victim’s name, arranged chronologically according to age, from just 3 to 71 years old. At night, the benches light up among the trees in a breathtaking display. In addition, a free audio tour features interviews with family members, survivors, and first responders. You’ll experience the events of that fateful day through the personal stories of those who were there.
Air Force Memorial
Located just minutes from downtown Arlington, the Air Force Memorial pays tribute to the men and women who have served in the United States Air Force, both past and present. The memorial features three stainless steel spires that soar skyward, reaching over 400 feet above sea level. The spires are arranged in a triangle, symbolizing fighter jets flying in formation. Visit the memorial at sunset when the spires illuminate the night sky.
In addition to the spires, the memorial features sculptures and architectural designs such as the Glass Contemplation Wall, a stand-alone, glazed panel with meditative inscriptions. It symbolizes the presence of those fallen airmen. The site features similar elements, including a Runway to Glory at the entrance, a bronze Honor Guard statue created by renowned sculptor Zenos Frudakis, and two granite inscription walls at either end of the main lawn.
U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial
The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial is a national monument dedicated to the Marines who have died in combat since 1775. The memorial depicts the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945, by U.S. Marines during World War II. Standing against a powerful backdrop featuring the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol Building, the bronze statue is one of the largest in the world.
Visitors can enjoy the Sunset Parades in the summer – a one-hour production by the U.S. Marine Corps on Tuesday evenings. Bring a lawn chair and experience rousing musical interludes and performances by the United States Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and the Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon.
Military Women’s Memorial
Located at the gates of Arlington National Cemetery, The Military Women’s Memorial honors the service of women in the United States Armed Forces, both past and present. Recently celebrating its 25th anniversary, the memorial opened in 1997 and features multiple areas to explore. Tour the Hall of Honor, dedicated to the women who have lost their lives while in service, been captured as prisoners of war, or received the Nation’s highest honors. Find solace at the Court of Valor’s reflecting pool, equipped with a 200-jet fountain designed to represent the sound of women’s voices. On the upper terrace, see breathtaking views of well-known landmarks, including Arlington National Cemetery, the Washington Monument, and the signature arc of glass tablets that run the length of the exhibit gallery.
The beating heart of the memorial is the Register. Here, you can learn about the history of women’s service through a collection of stories. Browse the interactive database where you can look up the names, service details and accolades of more than 300,000 servicewomen registered at the memorial.
Bonus Site: The Pentagon
You can’t create a list of must-see historical sites without including The Pentagon. Home to the United States Department of Defense, The Pentagon offers U.S. citizens limited guided tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays that consist of the history of the four branches of government, indoor displays, and the September 11 Memorial Chapel. Tours must be booked two weeks in advance and require clearance, so plan accordingly.