North America

D.C. Road Tripping – The More Solemn Side

All of us were especially looking forward to visiting the Pentagon during this trip.  It is such an unique and impressive structure and it’s hard not to be awestruck when trying to fathom just how enormous it really is.  And honestly how cool it is that we got the opportunity to be inside this landmark that is in charge of defending our country!

Pentagon/Pentagon Tour
The Pentagon, the largest low-rise office building in the US (and in the world?) is where the Department of Defense resides and the headquarters for all of our military branches.  The Pentagon is actually not in Washington D.C., but rather it sits across the Potomac River from D.C. in Arlington, Virginia.

While the Pentagon is technically not open to the public, they do offer guided tours for which you need to make a reservation in advance.  You can start submitting the reservation request via their website 90 days prior to your desired tour date, but at the very least 14 days out, in order for the background checks to clear.  I submitted our tour reservation pretty much as soon as I was able to as I’ve heard that the tours do fill up quickly.  And this was evident when our friends were informed that no tours were available when they requested about 2 months out.

The Pentagon tour lasts about 60 minutes and each group is led by one of the many military officers who work in the building.  Our guide was a super funny and energetic Air Force officer, who led the entire tour by walking backwards.  There was also another officer who brought up the rear of the group so we were essentially sandwiched by the two of them (to keep an eye on the group so no one sneaks away?).

The tour highlighted interesting facts about the Pentagon as well as the significant moments in our military history.  I think that the Pentagon tour is definitely a great experience and it was one of our favorite things that we did on this trip.  It was very educational however I feel that it may not be suitable for younger kids (I’m thinking maybe at least 8 years old).  They do keep the group moving along at a semi-brisk pace and you are not allowed to wander.  You also get the most out of the tour by paying close attention to the guide and that’s why we made sure we were always at the front of the pack and could ask questions freely.

One important thing to note is that no photography is allowed inside or outside of Pentagon, and you would see signs/warnings saying so as soon as you exit the metro station.  There are only two exceptions to this rule.  One is in the tour waiting area where you can take pictures with a replica of the Pentagon podium used for press conferences.  And the other is the Pentagon Memorial.

National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial
The Pentagon Memorial is located on the southwest side of the building and it is free and open to the public all year round.  The construction for the Pentagon actually began on September 11, 1941, exactly 60 years before the terrorist attacks on the day we will never forget.  On September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed and killed 125 Pentagon workers (military and civilian personnel) and 59 passengers on the plane (not including the 5 hijackers).

The Pentagon Memorial was opened to the public on September 11, 2008.  Inside the Memorial there are 184 illuminated benches called the “Memorial Unit”, each honoring a victim of the crash.  Every bench/unit sits over its own pool of reflecting water and has the victim’s name, age, and the location at the time of the attack inscribed on it.  The memorial benches  are positioned to differentiate those who were on board Flight 77 and those who were in the Pentagon.  The units representing the victims on the flight face the direction of the plane’s approach to the Pentagon.  And the units honoring the Pentagon victims face the plane’s point of impact on the Pentagon’s south side.

(A unit for a victim on the flight)
(A unit for a Pentagon victim)

The benches are also arranged along an age line according to the year each victim was born.

(source)

The Pentagon Memorial really is a beautifully designed Memorial and you can’t help but feel the powerful emotion upon setting foot in it.

Arlington National Cemetery and Hop-on Hop-off Bus

Arlington National Cemetery is a U.S. military cemetery and it is also located across the Potomac River from D.C., next to the Pentagon.  This hallowed ground is the final resting place for many men and women who sacrificed their lives for our country throughout the history, going as far back as the Civil War.

After being out and about bracing the cold for a couple of days, everyone was slow moving the morning we planned to visit Arlington National Cemetery.  It just so happened that I came across a flyer about this Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour that’s offering a winter promotion, so I decided to book us all on it for the day seeing that they have a shuttle that would pick us up right in front of our hotel (and drop off too).  Win-Win!

In all honesty it was a rather expensive ride to just want to get to Arlington, as we did not get to utilize the Hop-on Hop-off part of the package.  Since we did not manage to leave the hotel until 11am that morning, we didn’t start the tour until noon which meant that we really only had about 4 hours to visit Arlington (which could easily take 2-3 hours) in addition to complete the bus route.  But because we were all still tired, everyone was pretty content with just relaxing on the bus while listening to the driver/guide telling us all kinds of interesting facts about the various important figures/monuments/buildings across the history of Washington D.C.  The tour started at their welcome center near the FBI Headquarters on E and 10th St.  And the route took you right by pretty much all of the main attractions such as the White House, the U.S. Capitol, Smithsonian, Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial, whereas the passengers can choose to hop-on hop-off at any of the stops.  It was the thought of having to wait in the frigid cold for about 30 minutes for the next bus that stopped us from wanting to get off anywhere (I know, lame, right?).  We did have to get off at the Lincoln Memorial stop in order to switch to a different bus that transported visitors solely to and from Arlington National Cemetery.

Once inside the cemetery after passing through the security check at the visitor’s center, you have the option to walk around the cemetery on your own by following the walking paths.  However it is very spread out and requires a lot of uphill walking, which unfortunately did not sound attractive during a cold winter day (I imagine it would be really beautiful to walk around the grounds during the cherry blossom season though).  Instead, we opted to take the shuttle service that’s offered inside the cemetery.  I think that the cost is $13.50 per adult and $6.75 for children between 4-12, and you can purchase the tickets online or in the visitor’s center when you arrive.  We did not have to pay for the shuttle inside the cemetery as it was already included with our Hop-on Hop-off package (by Old Town Trolley Tours).

(The Memorial Amphitheater)

The shuttle inside the cemetery is also hop-on hop-off by nature, though we only hopped off at 2 stops (it was not any warmer inside the cemetery either 😂).  First stop was at ‘The Tomb of the Unknowns’ to watch the Changing of the Guard.  The tomb is perpetually guarded by the U.S. Army and the Tomb Guard marches up and down the mat behind the tomb by taking exactly 21 steps each way.  The number 21 symbolizes the military’s highest honor – the 21-gun salute.  This routine is repeated until the guard is relieved at the Changing of the Guard, which occurs every hour on the hour during the winter months, and on every half hour during the summer months.

(the new guard walking out)
(the new guard being inspected)

We next stopped at the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as Iwo Jima Memorial, which is located just outside the grounds of the cemetery.  You exit the cemetery through a side gate to walk towards the memorial and would need to go through another quick security check at the gate upon re-entering.

The famous statue is based on the iconic photograph of six Marines raising a U.S. flag during the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II.  The memorial is dedicated to all Marines who have given their lives defending the country.  The base of the memorial is engraved with every major battle involving the U.S. Marine Corps since 1775.

This is the one memorial that I’ve wanted to visit for quite some time now, as somehow I never had the chance to during the couple of times I visited D.C. when I was younger.  I have always felt that the Iwo Jima statue is especially moving and captivating, and it really inspires true patriotism.  As luck would have it though, the memorial was undergoing some major renovation when we were there and therefore the access was limited.  I was disappointed that I couldn’t get a front shot of this famous memorial with D.C. as the backdrop, nor could we get up close to read the inscriptions on its base to truly appreciate and admire this great memorial.  😔

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