This post describes how to plan your visit to witness the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown in Arlington National Cemetery. The Tomb of the Unknowns is considered by many to be the most sacred area of the cemetery. Established after World War I, the Tomb of the Unknowns is the final resting place for 3 unidentified servicemen who represent all those who remain unknown. Since 1937, the Tomb has been guarded for every second of every day. Watching the Changing of the Guard ceremony is, for many visitors, the highlight of their trip.
The Changing of the Guard takes place in the middle of Arlington Cemetery at the top of one of two hills. It occurs between the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Memorial Amphitheater. If you are walking from the visitor center, it is approximately 15-20 minutes up moderately steep hills to reach the Tomb. The trolleys make a stop at the Memorial Amphitheater. If you have a smartphone, be sure to download the GPS activated ANC Explorer. It’s free and very handy for self-navigation in the cemetery. You can also view our Google map with directions. For tips on where to stand to view the Changing of the Guard, please skip to the bottom of this page.
The ceremonial Changing of the Guard takes place 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and it has taken place without interruption since 1937. Neither weather nor acts of terrorism have prevented the Changing from taking place. The times that the Changing of the Guard takes place are dependent on the time of year. The Changing takes place at the following times:
*Especially during busy travel periods, there is often an additional Wreath Laying Ceremony that follows the Changing of the Guard. This is popular for school and civic groups, but anyone can request to lay a wreath at the Tomb.
We recommend that you arrive at the grandstand in front of the Tomb at least 10 minutes before the Changing begins. This will give you the best chance to get a prime spot on the stairs to view the ceremony and also give you enough time to use the restrooms, if necessary. If you want an up close-up view of the inspection of the new sentinel, then be sure to choose the front right side (when looking at the Tomb) of the grandstand, as close to the rail as possible. We recommend that you stand to the right of the Tomb for the best views. The two red stars in the image below show the two best viewing points on the lower deck and the blue star shows the best vantage point from the upper deck of the grandstand. The yellow arrow points to where the inspection of the relief sentinel by the commanding officer takes place. The black arrow points to where the actual Changing of the Guard takes place. The black stripe in the image is the mat on which the Tomb Guard walks.
When the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for World War 1 was erected, access to the Tomb was considered achievable only with great difficulty to the average visitor to the cemetery, that the Army felt the stationing of a sentry was not necessary. However, according to Robert M. Poole, author of “On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery“, by 1923, a lack of decorum at the Tomb was being reported to the Army. Some of the undignified activities included picnickers enjoying the views of Washington, professional photographers taking posing sightseers in front of the Tomb, cigars being stubbed out on the marble plaza and men approaching the Tomb with hats on. Following a story reported in the Washington Post, the Army hired a private guard at the end of 1923. In 1926, after complaints from veterans visiting the Tomb, a military guard was posted. By 1937, the military sentries would stand guard 24 hours a day. As with many armed forces, tradition is important for the United States Army and sentries posted at the Tomb are ceremoniously relieved. Today, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded by members of the Army’s Third Regiment.
If you arrive before the Changing starts, you will see a lone sentinel, sharply dressed in formal Army attire, and most importantly, no rank. Since we do not know who the Unknowns are, we do not, therefore, know their ranks, and it would be inappropriate for the Unknowns to be guarded by someone who outranks them. At some point, the sentinel will be standing at the end of a long black mat, facing east (in the direction of the Tomb). After 21 seconds, the guard will make a 90-degree turn, click his heels, and then adjust his m-14 rifle to his outside shoulder, in between himself and the crowd, always guarding the Tomb. After another 21 seconds, the Sentinel will take 21 steps across the mat, past the Tomb. Once he reaches the other end, he will click his heels, make a sharp 90-degree rt turn to the east (again, in the direction of the Tomb), click his heels, and then wait another 21 seconds before repeating the process, only this time in the other direction. The number 21 is significant, as it’s in honor of the 21 gun salute, the highest salute accepted in the U.S. military, reserved for the President and foreign heads of state, but also for the Unknowns. (Visit the U.S. Navy’s website for the origins of the 21 gun salute).
A relief commander will come out, seemingly from nowhere, and will approach and salute the Tomb, and then will turn to the crowd and ask you to rise and remain silent during the ceremony, all the while, the posted sentinel will continue with his routine. As the Relief Commander is speaking, the relief sentinel will appear. The commander will walk over to the relief sentinel (this is why we suggest positioning yourself on the right side of the grandstand). The commander will conduct a full inspection of the new sentinel, inspecting the weapon and the sentinel himself. This is a real inspection and the relief sentinel can be sent away, leaving the current sentinel in place till the next scheduled Changing of the Guard. If approved, both the relief commander and relief sentinel will walk to the middle to meet with the posted sentinel, all the while keeping in step with each other. At this point, the relief commander will complete the ceremony by having the posted sentinel step off of the mat and face the relief sentinel. Both sentinels will acknowledge each other with orders. All three will salute the Tomb, then the relief sentinel will step onto the mat and take over where the now relieved sentinel left off. Both the relief commander and the relieved sentinel will walk off (all amazingly in step with each other) and exit off the right, which concludes the ceremony.
Written by Stephen Pickhardt