Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer and the high season for tourism in Washington, D.C., but the lessons at the heart of this day of remembrance make it a great time to visit our nation’s capital. 

Unlike Veteran’s Day in November, which honors all members of the U.S. Armed Forces, Memorial Day encourages us to pay respect to the men and women who died in the service of their country. For decades, Memorial Day was observed on May 30 until Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May to create a three-day weekend for federal employees.

When visiting the city on this holiday weekend, you can explore sites and witness ceremonies dedicated to teaching about the people the holiday remembers. However, you should be aware that changes to traffic patterns, visiting hours, and an increase in visitors may impact your itinerary. 

Arlington National Cemetery 

Memorial Day was originally known as Decoration Day because of the flowers, ribbons, and flags citizens used to adorn the headstones of Civil War soldiers. In 1986, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, suggested a nationwide day of remembrance for “decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”

On May 30, 1868, the first Decoration Day ceremonies were held at Arlington National Cemetery. General James Garfield, who served as the 20th President of the United States, made a speech and joined 5,000 participants who decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there. 

Memorial Day Offers Valuable Lessons for Students on a School Trip to Washington, D.C. The tradition continues today as the U.S. President typically delivers an address on Memorial Day in the Memorial Amphitheater. The most solemn ceremony occurs when the President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to mark the national observance.

Also continuing the tradition is Flowers of Remembrance Day on Sunday. Visitors are given a flower to place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and historians share background about the history of Memorial Day.

Another event at the ANC special to Memorial Day is the “Flags In” tradition, which has taken place annually since the Old Guard was designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit in 1948. Each year, soldiers in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place small American flags in front of more than 228,000 headstones and at the bottom of 7,000 rows in the cemetery’s Columbarium Courts and Niche Wall. Each flag is inserted into the ground, exactly one boot length from the headstone’s base.

Situated at the ceremonial entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, the Military Women’s Memorial is the only major national memorial and education center dedicated to preserving and honoring the history of all servicewomen – past and present. Free and open to the public, the Memorial hosts an event that includes formal military honors, remarks from current and former servicewomen, and a keynote address.

Arlington National Cemetery is open to the public during the holiday week, but security around special events can impact your visit. If you add ANC to your itinerary,  your tour manager will work with you to make this a meaningful stop for your student group. 

For teachers and students who can not be there, Arlington National Cemetery Explorer offers an interactive map of the grounds that can be searched by points of interest, including Medal of Honor recipients, notable gravesites, and monuments and memorials. This is an excellent resource for any teacher who wants to encourage students to remember the heroism and sacrifices of America’s servicemen and women prior to a school trip to Washington, D.C

United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery

A lesser-known national cemetery, the United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery is maintained by the Department of the Army. The cemetery’s rolling hills mark the final resting place for more than 14,000 veterans, including many who fought in the Civil War and 21 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration.


After World War I, Decoration Day evolved to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. The war memorials in Washington, D.C. become a way to learn about the service and sacrifice of so many. 

WWI Memorial Scheduled for installation in September 2024, the Memorial’s central feature is a sculpture titled A Soldier’s Journey. It features 38 figures that depict the journey of an American soldier and the larger American experience of World War I. 

WWII Memorial – Placed between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial “recognizes the ways Americans served, honors those who fell, and recognizes the victory they achieved to restore freedom and end tyranny around the globe” through stone architecture and bronze sculptures.

Korean War Memorial  This Memorial is a place of reflection that “honors the Americans who answered the call, those who worked and fought under the most trying of circumstances, and those who gave their lives for the cause of freedom.” The Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation holds a ceremony and wreath-laying event on Memorial Day.

Vietnam War MemorialThe faces of visitors are reflected in the walls bearing the etched names of the 58,318 men and women who died in combat or are listed as missing in action. The memorial includes the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, the Three Servicemen statue, and the Vietnam Women’s Memorial. A Memorial Day ceremony is co-hosted yearly by VVMF and the National Park Service. A candlelight vigil is held Friday night as part of the events of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally.

Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally

It’s hard to miss the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Rally that brings together motorcycle riders from all over the United States to honor POWs and MIAs who served their country during the Vietnam War. This “ride for freedom” draws more than 900,000 riders and includes several group rides through the city. 

National Memorial Day Parade 

To consider for a visit or to avoid due to traffic, the National Memorial Day Parade travels down Constitution Avenue during the afternoon on Memorial Day. Featuring marching bands, youth groups, floats, performers, and veterans, the televised parade is the largest in the U.S.

Poppy Wall of Honor 

The Poppy Wall of Honor displays a poppy flower to honor each of the 645,000 service members who have lost their lives in service since World War I. Created in partnership with the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the exhibit is on display over the weekend on the National Mall in Washington near the base of the Lincoln Memorial.

Smithsonian Museum Extended Hours

Several of the Smithsonian Museums along the National Mall typically offer extended hours during the weekend, including The National Museum of Natural History. Check with your tour manager to see if these extended hours will be a fit for your group.

The Veterans History Project

For anyone interested in infusing Veterans Day lessons with Social Studies standards and project-based learning, the Library of Congress and American Folklife Center offers an opportunity to document history.

According to the Library of Congress website, “The Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war. To learn more, visit the Veterans History Project.

If you are interested in planning a school trip to Washington, read more about How to Plan a Student Trip, or browse Washington, D.C. itineraries to read about curriculum connections!