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13 Top-Rated Things to Do in Arlington, VA

Written by Meagan Drillinger
Aug 12, 2021

Just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Arlington, Virginia is just as patriotic of a destination as the nation's capital, brimming with history, culture, and outdoor activities. With easy access to the entire region via the convenient Metro, Arlington is a perfect home base from which to explore the city itself and the surrounding historic landmarks.

Arlington, Virginia is a very walkable city, with charming neighborhoods, beautiful parks, waterfront views, and historic monuments. It has a strong public arts program, and many important national monuments and historic structures. From the cosmopolitan downtown Rosslyn, with its restaurants and hotels, to the expansive green spaces of Theodore Roosevelt Island, the Mount Vernon Trail, and Arlington National Cemetery, visitors will have the best of all worlds with a stay in Arlington.

Of course, Washington, D.C., and all its tourist attractions, is just a few Metro stops away, so you can easily turn Arlington into a multi-destination trip and cross all the important places to visit off your travel bucket list. Plan your sightseeing adventures with our list of the top things to do in Arlington, Virginia.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Pay Your Respects at Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Perhaps the most famous burial ground in the nation, Arlington National Cemetery is a U.S. military cemetery that sits just off the banks of the Potomac River. The 639-acre cemetery is the final resting place of thousands who have served the United States, beginning with the Civil War, though many headstones are from those who were reinterred from earlier wars.

The cemetery was built during the Civil War on what was previously the estate of Mary Anna Custis Lee, the wife of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and great-granddaughter of Martha Washington.

Two of the most famous sites within the cemetery include the tomb of John F. Kennedy Junior and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The latter is the cemetery's most iconic memorial and consists of a white marble sarcophagus that is the final resting place for an unidentified World War I soldier. Unknowns were also added in 1958 and 1984.

Official Site: https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/

2. Visit the Many Memorials

U.S. Marine Corps Memorial
U.S. Marine Corps Memorial | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Washington, D.C. has a high concentration of memorials and monuments, so it's no surprise that directly over the river, Arlington would have many, as well. Visiting Arlington is the perfect opportunity to explore the many memorials and monuments that have been constructed over the decades to pay homage to those who have served the United States.

The U.S. Marine Corps Memorial, for example, stands in memory of the members of the U.S. Marine Corps who lost their lives since November 10, 1975. The statue depicts one of the most famous incidents from World War II – the raising of the American Flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, Japan.

Other standout memorials in Arlington include the 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, and the Women in Military Service Memorial.

The 9/11 Pentagon Memorial honors the 184 lives that were lost in the building during the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The U.S. Air Force Memorial soars into the air with three stainless steel spires that reach more than 400 feet to honor those who have served in the Air Force. The Military Women's Memorial has indoor exhibits that tell the story of women's roles in military history.

3. Tour the Pentagon

Aerial view of the Pentagon
Aerial view of the Pentagon

The Pentagon is the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Defense and has come to be a symbol of the United States military. It is the world's largest office building and spans more than 6.5 million square feet of space, 3.7 million of which is used as office space.

The building was constructed in 16 months and is twice the size of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and has more than double the floor space of the Empire State Building. Believe it or not, the U.S. Capitol could fit into any one of the five wedge-shaped sections.

Today visitors can tour the building. In fact, The Pentagon welcomes more than 106,000 visitors each year. The tours highlight the missions of the five Armed Services, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Staff. Tours are about an hour long and include a mile-and-a-half walk through the building.

4. Explore the DEA Museum

DEA Museum
DEA Museum

If television shows like Narcos and Breaking Bad speak to you, you will certainly enjoy a visit to the DEA Museum (The Drug Enforcement Administration Museum). The museum was designed to educate visitors on the history of drugs, drug addiction, and drug law enforcement.

The museum consists of a series of exhibits, displays, educational outreach programs, and interactive stations that demonstrate the role of drug law enforcement and the history of drug use in America.

The museum opened in 1999, and since then it has accumulated more than 2,000 objects that include everything from patent medicine bottles to modern concealment containers. More than 5,000 photos from the late 1800s to present day are also on display. The museum puts on a lecture series, as well.

Address: 700 Army Navy Drive, Arlington, Virginia

Official Site: https://deamuseum.org/

5. Take a Public Art Tour

Scenes of Arlington mural at the Rosslyn Metro Station
Scenes of Arlington mural at the Rosslyn Metro Station | Elvert Barnes / photo modified

Arlington, Virginia is home to more than 60 public art projects across the city, as well as periodic temporary projects. You can explore many of these works of art on foot through free, self-guided walking tours.

The Rosslyn neighborhood, for example, has a high concentration of many of these works of art, all within a small area. Arlington Arts provides a self-guided walking tour map for visitors.

Some of the public works that you will be able to see include Liquid Pixels, a collection of 42-by-25-foot panels that are covered with 630,000 one-inch diameter disks. Sunlight on the disks creates the illusion of water cascading down the face of the building.

You can explore the Scenes of Rosslyn panoramic mural at the Rosslyn Metro Station.

Pop by the Bennett Park Apartments to see the Art Atrium, as well, where you will discover three unique structures.

6. See the Planes at Gravelly Point Park

Plane at Gravelly Point Park
Plane at Gravelly Point Park | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Located within the George Washington Memorial Parkway, part of the National Park Service, Gravelly Point sits on the West Bank of the Potomac River. The expansive park is not far from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, making it a prime location for plane spotters to come watch landings and takeoffs from the airport.

Every few minutes, just look up. Airplanes pass between 100 and 200 feet overhead when they are headed for Runway 19 or leaving from Runway 1. But even if you aren't interested in plane spotting, the park provides a great spot for boaters and cyclists.

The Gravelly Point area was originally where Captain John Alexander built his home, Abingdon, in 1746. It was purchased by President George Washington's adopted stepson and later became the birthplace of his granddaughter, Eleanor Park Custis.

Address: George Washington Memorial Pkwy, Arlington, Virginia

7. Ride the Mount Vernon Trail

The Mount Vernon Trail
The Mount Vernon Trail

One of the best things to do in Arlington is see it from the vantage point of the Mount Vernon Trail. This 18-mile multi-use trail stretches from George Washington's historic Mount Vernon Estate all the way to Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Brace yourself for spectacular, sweeping views of the Washington, D.C. skyline and many of the historic monuments and buildings. From your perch on the other side of the river, you'll be able to soak in the historic significance of D.C., without having to battle the crowds.

Along the way, the trail connects up with other popular regional trails, including the Potomac Heritage, Custis, Rock Creek, Four Mile Run, and Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trails.

8. Theodore Roosevelt Island

Theodore Roosevelt Island
Theodore Roosevelt Island | Photo Copyright: Meagan Drillinger

Located in the Potomac River between Arlington and D.C., Theodore Roosevelt Island sits as a memorial to the 26th president. The 88-acre island is webbed with miles of trails and features a memorial statue of Roosevelt.

The car-free island is reached via a footbridge from Arlington. Once on the island, you will find nature trails that extend all over, including a boardwalk that runs through swamp and marsh land. You can even take part in an Island Safari tour, which is held on Saturdays and Sundays at 10:30am.

Theodore Roosevelt Island is a teeming habitat for birds, raptors, and warblers. The wildflowers that bloom in the spring and summer are also spectacular. If you'd rather explore from the water, canoeing and kayaking is also popular in the Potomac around the island.

9. See a Signature Theatre Performance

This Tony Award-winning regional theater is based in Arlington. It was founded in 1989 and has developed a reputation for its world-class musicals and plays. The company has staged 59 world premiere productions, including 19 new musical commissions, and is home to the single largest musical theater commissioning project in the United States.

The theater was established as a response to the larger venues that eclipsed the theater scene in D.C. Signature Theatre first started in a middle school auditorium with the first production, Sweeney Todd.

Today the theater company lives in a new two-theater facility and is a focal point of Arlington's Village at Shirlington. The theater has one more than 100 Helen Hayes Awards for excellence and has been nominated 431 times.

Address: 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, Virginia

10. Explore Dark Star Park

Dark Star Park
Dark Star Park | Ron Cogswell / photo modified

Speaking of Arlington public art, a must-see is the Dark Star sculpture set, which was the city's first commissioned art piece. Designed by artist Nancy Holt, the installation was put in place in 1984.

Dark Star consists of five spheres, two pools, four steel poles, a stairway, a large tunnel, and a small tunnel. The spheres were designed to emulate fallen, extinguished stars. Once a year, on August 1, the shadows from the spheres and poles align with tracks that have been laid on the ground.

Address: 1655 Fort Myer Drive, Arlington, Virginia

11. View the Netherlands Carillon

Blooming tulips at the Netherlands Carillon
Blooming tulips at the Netherlands Carillon

Take the quickest trip to the Netherlands via Arlington with a visit to the Netherlands Carillon. This historic monument is owned and operated by the National Park Service and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But what exactly is it? It's a 127-foot-tall, 53-bell carillon that was given to the U.S. from the people of the Netherlands in the 1950s. It was a thank you for the U.S. contribution to liberating the Netherlands from Nazi Germany.

The carillon sits with a lofty perch over the Potomac River, with views across to the National Mall and Arlington National Cemetery. Daily it plays the Westminster Quarters, but on days that are significant in Dutch and American culture, it performs mini concerts.

A gorgeous tulip garden was planted near the Carillon, as well, which is the most important flower in Dutch culture.

12. Visit Fort Myer

Located next to Arlington National Cemetery, Fort Myer is the former name used for the U.S. Army post at this location. The fort was founded during the Civil War and merged with the Marine Corps installation nearby. Today the site is named the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.

The area is the first Joint Base for the Department of Defense and includes military installations at Fort Myer, Henderson Hall, The Pentagon, and Fort Lesley J. McNair. The fort was named a National Historic Landmark in 1972.

13. Gaze Out from CEB Tower

CEB Tower
CEB Tower | Ron Cogswell / photo modified

For the best view in the house, take a trip up to the top of Arlington's CEB Tower, where a 360-degree panoramic view awaits. Called The View of DC, this is the best spot in the area for a bird's-eye view over Washington, D.C.

From the 31st and 32nd floors of the tower, the 12,000-square-foot space has mesmerizing views across the Potomac River through floor-to-ceiling windows. You'll be able to see Georgetown, the Washington Monument, the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, and the many bridges that cross over the river.

Address: 1201 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, Virginia

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