15 top experiences in Arlington, Virginia

Destinations

Just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC, Arlington is famous for being the home of Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon. But this densely populated county – oddly, it’s not officially considered a city – has many more sights to see.

Come here to dine, admire art, play ice hockey, explore the drug realm (legally), see a play in an award-winning venue and even walk in nature with some of the most iconic views around. Arlington is much more than you think. Here are 15 amazing ways to experience it.

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Be awed by the Iwo Jima Memorial

Pulitzer Prize–winning photographer Joe Rosenthal captured the moment six Marines installed the US flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima during one of the most hard-fought battles in World War II. His soul-stirring photo became the inspiration for the Iwo Jima Memorial – the nickname for the US Marine Corps Memorial – rising atop a knoll overlooking the National Mall.

It’s powerful and poignant, its flag proudly flying 24/7 by executive decree. On summer evenings, the Marine Corps sunset parade, a musical extravaganza of marching and drums and bugles, takes place. Nearby, the Netherlands Carillon, a gift of the Dutch, offers live summer concerts, and automated concerts at other times. The grassy grounds offer an awe-inspiring perspective over the National Mall, a popular fireworks-watching spot on the Fourth of July.

You’re right on the flight path of landing and departing planes at Arlington’s Gravelly Point Park © Bill Chizek / Shutterstock

Spot planes at Gravelly Point Park

At Gravelly Point Park, near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, airplanes come in for a landing just over your head, so close you can feel the roar of the engines reverberate throughout your body as you study their underbellies. You’re right on the flight path of landing and departing planes.

Locals swarm to this small, wide-open park for the informal aviation show, bringing picnics, kids and dogs. It’s a circus of activity, with runners and bikers zipping past on the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail, while the sweeping views to the east take in DC’s monuments rising across the Potomac River. You can only reach the park from the northbound side of George Washington Memorial Parkway.

See a play and have dinner in Shirlington 

You don’t have to go to the Kennedy Center to see star-filled shows in the DC area. The Tony Award–winning Signature Theatre in Arlington is an under-the-radar regional theater seating only 300 people tops. But it’s a theatrical powerhouse that not only produces Broadway-caliber shows, it’s hosted 59 world-premiere works since its founding in 1989.

You’ll find classics and new productions, established stars and emerging talents. It’s the cultural anchor of the urban village of Shirlington, a lively neighborhood of mostly restaurants, a handful of shops and a movie theater.

Changing of the Guard ceremony at Arlington Cemetery at the Grave of the Unknown Soldier
At Arlington National Cemetery, don’t miss the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier © BrianScantlebury / Getty Images

Visit hallowed ground at Arlington National Cemetery

Nearly 400,000 stark-white tombstones undulate along the rolling green hills of 639-acre Arlington National Cemetery. Only the most esteemed soldiers, representing every conflict since the Revolutionary War, are buried in this most somber of destinations – the qualifications are stringent.

The welcome center has exhibits, and this is where you can pick up the shuttle that accesses specific sites, or you can walk. (Warning: it’s hilly!) Don’t miss the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and John F Kennedy’s gravesite, marked by an eternal flame.

The land, originally belonging to Robert E Lee, was confiscated by the Union after he fled to join the Confederacy. Sitting atop a knoll, his plantation home, Arlington House, has been reinterpreted to tell the fuller story of all who lived here before the cemetery was established during the Civil War, the Lee family and enslaved workers alike.

Go on a hike at Potomac Overlook Regional Park

The namesake view of the Potomac River at this urban, tree-shaded oasis in the heart of Arlington is seasonal – and not much to write home about, honestly. The reason to visit the rollicking, 67-acre park is to hike on easy trails, taking in a typical Virginia woodland of oaks, maples, cedars and magnolias. You can hear birds flitting about, squirrels rustling in the brush and the quietude of nature.

The nature center has interactive exhibits on local flora and fauna. An outdoor concert series takes place in summer.

Observe women’s history in Washington D.C.

Celebrate women’s achievements at the Military Women’s Memorial

Just outside the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, you’ll spy what looks like a giant neoclassical wall. It’s not just a wall, but a memorial honoring servicewomen from all wars and occupations. Step inside and you’ll discover a modern education center, theater and computerized registry of military women. Plus, there are exhibits with all kinds of interesting facts; for example, you’ll learn there were women spies during the Revolutionary War, while others fought dressed as men.

Another highlight is the 360-degree rooftop view. Behind you, rows of Arlington’s bright-white tombstones march over the hillside, while in front, the star-studded panorama of the Memorial Bridge and Lincoln Monument unfurls before your eyes. Inspiring quotes are etched into glass panels.

Remember 9/11 at the Pentagon and 9/11 Pentagon Memorial

A sprawling complex rising in the heart of Arlington, the Pentagon is home to the US Department of Defense, and one of the world’s largest office buildings, with 6,500,000 sq ft of working space for more than 23,000 military and civilian employees.

Five sides comprise this massive structure, with five above-ground floors and two basement levels, its corridors measuring a total of 17.5 miles. Yet thanks to the spoke-and-ring design, it takes only seven minutes to walk between the two farthest points. The building cannot be toured at this time; check here for updates.

On September 11, 2001, a hijacked jet struck the Pentagon’s west side, killing 184 people. The outdoor 9/11 Pentagon Memorial honors those killed, with 184 illuminated benches inscribed with each victim’s name, age and location at the time of attack. The memorial is open 24/7, and a 24-minute audio tour is available by calling 202-741-1004.

Frolic in springtime beauty at Lady Bird Johnson Park

Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson was always known for her love of flowers, and while her husband, 36th president Lyndon Johnson, was in office, she strove to make Washington, DC – as well as the nation’s interstate highways – as beautiful as possible.

Renamed in her honor in 1968, Lady Bird Johnson Park – an island in the Potomac linked to the mainland by bridges – puts on an extraordinary floral show throughout the seasons. A million blooming daffodils followed by 11,000 red tulips announce spring, while prim hardwoods turn into fiery reds and oranges in fall. There are weeping willows, dogwoods, crab apples and more. Completing the picturesque scene, the views across the Potomac take in Washington’s marble monuments.

You’ll find two monuments within the park: the Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac, and the 1922 Navy and Merchant Marine Memorial. The 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail meanders through, ideal for bikers, runners and walkers. Drivers can only access the park from the southbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

Hang out at Ballston Quarter

Arlington’s once-fading Ballston Mall has been resuscitated. Ballston Quarter, as it’s now called, has undergone a facelift to create a sparkling indoor-outdoor space with entertainment venues, activities and, of course, shopping. There are sit-down restaurants featuring some of the area’s favorite chefs, as well as a buzzy food hall offering everything from street tacos to gourmet doughnuts to local craft brews. You can come here for a cooking class, a trivia game, a Caps or Nats watch party on two giant screens and even take part in a live-action adventure at 5 Wits Arlington.

And here’s something else. On the top floor, you’ll find the MedStar Capitals Iceplex, which not only offers a public ice-skating rink, it’s where Alex Ovechkin and other Stanley Cup–winning Washington Capitals practice. Check their schedule here

An empty tree-lined bike trail in Virginia
The 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail is a primo escape for bikers, walkers, runners and rollerbladers © Jon Bilous / Shutterstock

Bike the gorgeous Mount Vernon Trail

Edging the Potomac River for 18 miles from Theodore Roosevelt Island to Mount Vernon, the floral-bedecked Mount Vernon Trail is a primo escape for bikers, walkers, runners and rollerbladers. Only about 4.5 miles are in Arlington, but what a 4.5 miles they are. For much of that length, you have iconic views across the river, taking in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, US Capitol, Memorial Bridge and more.

Springtime flowers bloom gloriously, while autumn ignites in blazing maples, dogwoods and redbuds. Highlights include Theodore Roosevelt Island, Gravelly Point Park (the popular plane-spotting perch) and Lady Bird Johnson Park. It runs parallel to the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which offers the same views by car.

Stretch your legs on Theodore Roosevelt Island

A pedestrian bridge sweeps you across a placid channel to this 88-acre island in the middle of the Potomac River, where 2.5 miles of hiking trails wander through swampland, marsh and upland forest. Once an overgrown farm that was transformed into a natural oasis in the 1930s, it’s now the domain of squirrels, raccoons, deer and the occasional red fox. The focal point is the 17ft bronze of the 26th US president rising in the center, honoring the man who adored the wilderness.

The island is accessible by car only from the northbound lanes of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, or on foot or by bike along the Mount Vernon Trail.

Make dinner reservations in trendy Clarendon

Vietnamese refugees flocked to the Clarendon neighborhood in the 1960s and ‘70s, and while few of Little Saigon’s restaurants remain, a couple do, including Nam Viet, with a photo wall full of famous diners. Today though, the neighborhood vibe has transitioned to hip and trendy, with a bevy of terrace restaurants and bars catering to the going-out crowd. You’ll find everything from Italian to Japanese to Irish to Baltic. Ambar, Green Pig Bistro and Circa are perennial favorites.

There’s shopping too, including the outdoor Crossing Clarendon shopping center, with big-name stores like Pottery Barn and Barnes & Noble. Among several annual events that take place here, Clarendon Day is a fun street festival with bar crawls, an arts festival and the thrilling Clarendon Cup, a professional bike race.

Look to the skies at the US Air Force Memorial

Ascending high into the blue sky above Arlington, three curved, shimmering, stainless steel spires honor the men and women of the US Air Force. More specifically, the spires represent the contrails of Air Force Thunderbirds as they disperse in a “bomb burst” maneuver.

Dedicated in 2006, the US Air Force Memorial is the last military service monument to be installed in the DC area. It’s surrounded by granite walls with inscriptions celebrating the valor and heritage of aviation pioneers and includes an 8ft-tall bronze Honor Guard statue and a glass contemplation wall paying tribute to fallen airmen and women. You’ll find it near Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking the Pentagon.

Delve into the world of drugs at the DEA Museum

Tucked away in an office building in a nondescript part of Arlington, the last thing you’d expect to find is a thrilling museum dedicated to drugs. But there it is on Army Navy Drive, a whole museum spearheaded by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that explores the nefarious world of drug activity and enforcement over the past 150 years.

Exhibits delve into the science and history of opium, marijuana and cocaine, while a rotating display highlights such noteworthy moments as “taking down El Chapo.” But it’s the artifacts that are most riveting. Among the DEA’s collection of more than 5000 objects and 40,000 photographs are green platform shoes worn by a DEA special agent while investigating a 1970s cocaine ring; a spiritual icon found among members of the Gulf, Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels; and a spiked bamboo booby trap that protected drug traffickers’ crops in Thailand.

Public art in Rosslyn, with blooming flowers in the foreground and cars driving by
More than 70 permanent public-art installations sprinkle the county of Arlington © Virginia Tourism Corporation

Admire public art in Rosslyn

Arlington may not seem like an artistic destination, but more than 70 permanent public-art installations sprinkle the county – and counting.

You’ll find many of them in the neighborhood of Rosslyn, including one of the earliest: completed in 1984, Dark Star Park features spherical concrete sculptures resembling, according to artist Nancy Holt, “extinguished stars.” Anna and David, by Miriam Schapiro, is a colorful, three-story sculpture of a dancing couple, and Luminous Bodies, marking four corners of the bridge over I-66, is a collection of 26-foot-high illuminated sculptures that change colors at night. Take a self-guided walking or driving tour to spot them all.

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