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A Patriotic Road Trip Through Virginia

Explore American history at museums devoted to the Army, Marine Corps and more

collage of a road map of virginia with sites marked on it and a scene of u s marines at the marine corps museum

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COVID-19 Update

The museums are operating at reduced capacity, with some interactive exhibit elements closed. Individuals who are fully vaccinated are not required to wear masks. Check museums’ websites for updates.

Our military forces have played a central role in our country's history from its birth. “The Army's history is really America's history,” says Tammy Call, director of the National Museum of the United States Army, which opened last year at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia. The same can be said for the nation's other armed forces.

On a Virginia road trip showcasing military bravery and patriotism, you can dive deep into this heritage at flagship museums devoted to the Army, Marine Corps and American Revolution. You could complete this 150-mile journey in two days, but give yourself at least three days to explore other historic sites and attractions on the route.

If you fly into the area, arrive at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. Then either get a one-way car rental to Norfolk, and fly home from there, or plan a round-trip route in and out of the Washington, D.C., area.

The M4 Sherman tank was the iconic American tank of World War II. It was employed in all theaters of operation where its reliability and mobility allowed it to spearhead armor attacks, provide infantry support or serve as artillery

Duane Lempke

National Museum of the United States Army

Start your adventure at the Army museum, about 23 miles south of Washington, D.C., and just a few minutes from Interstate 95 (be sure to reserve free timed-entry tickets online before your trip). This 185,000-square-foot facility looks like a cold, imposing steel-and-glass box from the outside, but inside you'll find surprisingly personal, moving stories. As you wander through the museum, you'll see more than 1,300 artifacts and life-size dioramas, along with films, graphics and texts.

Plan Your Trip

National Museum of the United States Army, 1775 Liberty Drive, Fort Belvoir, Virginia

Visit: Daily (closed Christmas Day), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free, but due to the museum's popularity, timed-entrance tickets are required and available through the museum's website.

Best time to visit: Weekday afternoons, in order to avoid morning school groups.

Best season to visit: Winter is likely to be the least crowded time.

Accessibility: Regular and heavy-duty bariatric wheelchairs are available at no charge (first come, first served) and can be taken to the parking lot about 100 yards away. Guests also can be dropped off at the closer bus entrance. The museum itself is fully accessible.

If you have extra time: Consider visiting some of the many veterans’ memorials in downtown Washington, D.C., including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and World War II Memorial.

Explore the galleries chronologically, starting with the Founding the Nation Gallery, which welcomes visitors with a sword from the early 1600s that was recovered at the colonial settlement of Jamestown. Four hundred years of history and exhibits later, the Changing World Gallery ends with a fleece jacket recovered from an Iraqi air base bombing in early 2020.

In between you'll eye treasures such as a dented combat helmet belonging to Sgt. Alvin York, the World War I hero who captured 132 German troops; and the Black Hawk Down helicopter engine recovered from the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia.

While celebrating the Army, the museum doesn't sugarcoat its history. Some displays address moments this branch has admitted as wrongdoing, including the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the torture of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib military prison.

And its exhibits help you fully appreciate the challenges and dangers soldiers face in combat. In the World War I immersive experience, you can navigate your way through simulated trenches as unnerving battlefield footage surrounds you — bombed-out buildings, soldiers firing machine guns, a Renault FT-17 tank riddled with more than 1,000 bullet holes from the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which involved more than a million soldiers.

The Global War Gallery takes you to D-Day, where life-size figures descend a cargo net into one of the six remaining wooden landing crafts used during the Normandy invasion. Look for details in the scene, and imagine the fear soldiers faced as they climbed down to tiny LCVP (aka Higgins) boats bobbing in the cold sea. In minutes, they would face grisly horrors as they landed on the beach in German-held France to begin a waterlogged assault as Nazi machine-gunners shot down on them from the hills above.

A film in the Cold War Gallery recreates the nerve-racking military drills that ready soldiers for nuclear attack. And the museum ends in the present era, with an up-close view of the dangers troops faced in the Middle East. Acrylic floor panels require you to step over replica IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that proved so hazardous and fatal.

National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle, VA

dbimages / Alamy Stock Photo

National Museum of the Marine Corps

If your heart beats faster when you hear the Marine Corps slogan “semper fi” (Latin for “always faithful"), head 20 miles farther south on I-95 to the National Museum of the Marine Corps (NMMC), in Triangle, Virginia, near Marine Corps Base Quantico.

It's possible to see both museums in one day, but consider breaking up the visits with another nearby Virginia site, perhaps George Washington's Mount Vernon home or Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial (just a mile away from the cemetery), which re-creates Associated Press photographer Joel Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1945 battlefield photo of six Marines raising a U.S. flag over the conquered island.

Plan Your Trip

National Museum of the Marine Corps, 18900 Jefferson Davis Highway, Triangle, Virginia

Visit: Daily (closed Christmas Day), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: Free

Best time to visit: Weekday afternoons, in order to avoid morning school groups.

Best season to visit: Fall and winter, when it's less crowded. On Nov. 10 each year, visitors can attend ceremonies marking the Marine Corps’ birthday and celebrate with free cake.

Accessibility: Wheelchairs and walker stools are available at no charge (first come, first served), and can be taken to the parking lot about 75 yards away. The museum is fully accessible except for the CH-46 helicopter in the Vietnam Gallery.

If you have extra time: Check out other historic sites nearby, such as George Washington's Mount Vernon home, Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial.

That memorial will come to mind as soon as you arrive at the NMMC. Centered on a 210-foot steel spire rising at an angle, the building recalls the iconic image.

The soaring entrance atrium, called the Leatherneck Gallery, immediately evokes the Marine spirit, with a fighter jet, tank and helicopter storming into combat on display. All the galleries put you in the boots of Marines, through immersive battlefield scenes and special effects, generating admiration for these larger-than-life soldiers.

In the Making Marines Gallery, large photos show recruits getting induction haircuts in boot camp — as you walk by the pictures, the images change to reveal startling transformations from civilian to buzz-cut recruits. Even more memorable: walk-in booths where intimidating drill instructors scream out commands in a dizzying, rapid-fire assault. “Your weapon is on the deck!” barks one instructor. “Don't stand there with your mouth open! Say it louder!” commands another one. Imagine enduring 12 weeks of such verbal barrage in boot camp.

From there, elaborate walk-through exhibits recall the founding of the Corps in Philadelphia's Tun Tavern in 1775, and the Marines’ most storied fights, such as the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood in France that secured the United States’ first victory of the war — but saw more Marine casualties (exceeding 4,000) than had been suffered in the Corps’ first 143 years (about 800).

In the World War II galleries, board a troop ship for a five-minute briefing before the Iwo Jima assault. The commander lays out the objective: securing an island just 650 miles from Tokyo and defended by more than 20,000 fighters. “Every rock and cave can be a Japanese soldier firing at you,” the leader says. “There's nothing fancy here. This is full frontal assault. … You're Marines. You know your job. Now go do it!"

As you step out through the ship hold, actual footage of vessels and planes invading the island surround you. Even in this re-creation, you'll sense what Marines must have felt as they stormed the island, overwhelmed by the choppy Pacific Ocean, the roar and flash of explosions, and the flotilla of warships seeming to stretch to the horizon.

Sometimes the history is subtle. At the entrance to the Korean War Gallery, a life-size Marine mannequin holds a machine gun, with a Tootsie Roll wrapper at his feet in the dirt. It's not litter, but the heart of a story from the 1950 Battle of Chosin Reservoir. The candy's name was a code word for mortar ammunition, but when a Marine radioed a request for more Tootsie Rolls, the receiving party took him literally and soldiers were air-dropped cases of the sweet treat. A blessing in disguise, the chocolate candy provided soldiers energy in hostile winter combat against Chinese troops and served as patches for bullet holes in equipment. But don't let the story overshadow the bravery. The gallery's air-conditioning blasts year-round, a reminder that soldiers faced temperatures plummeting to near 40 below zero.

By contrast, feel the hot breeze of a Southeast Asian jungle when you step through a CH-46 helicopter into 1968 and the Khe Sanh battlefield in the Vietnam War Gallery. A bloody Marine mannequin on a stretcher serves as a harsh reminder that many of our combatants never made it home from Vietnam — or any of the other conflicts remembered in this museum.

Canon and cannonballs display at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, VA

Scott Baker / Alamy Stock Photo

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

Head southeast 130 miles on Interstates 95 and 64 to the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. It's an easy drive, with entertaining and historical detours worth making the time to visit. In Richmond, see numerous colonial sites, including the state's Thomas Jefferson-designed capitol. Explore a 300-acre living history museum with several hundred restored historic buildings in Colonial Williamsburg.

Yorktown, a modest settlement and a former tobacco port near the Chesapeake Bay, will be forever known as the site of the British surrender to the Continental Army. The interactive museum explores the pressures that led to American rebellion and the complicated conflict that followed.

Plan Your Trip

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, 200 Water St., Yorktown, Virginia

Visit: Daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; outdoor living-history area, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed Christmas and New Year's Day).

Admission: $16, no senior discount; visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets online before arrival. A free museum app provides gallery tours.

Best time to visit: Afternoon, in order to avoid morning school groups.

Best season to visit: Fall and winter, outside of school holidays.

Accessibility: A few wheelchairs and electric scooters are available at no charge (first come, first served) and can be taken to the parking lot about 50 yards away. A bus drop-off is closer. The museum is fully accessible.

If you have extra time: Detour to check out Richmond, Colonial Williamsburg or Historic Jamestowne.

The first gallery introduces you to colonial America, a hodgepodge of populations, including British nobles, American Indians and hundreds of thousands of enslaved laborers. All would play an important role in the Revolutionary War and beyond. Notice the commanding coronation painting of England's King George III, the ruling monarch during the war. A life-size portrait like this reminded colonists at the far reaches of the British Empire that they were subjects to this man. Then look across the gallery to Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an African scholar captured by slave traders and brought to Maryland to work on a tobacco farm. His portrait, painted in London in the 1730s, is one of the first of an African enslaved in North America.

Galleries describe colonial life and the heavy taxes imposed on residents. With each step through the museum, you head toward conflict with Britain, which finally erupted in 1775 near Boston at Lexington and Concord. Six months later, hostilities reached Virginia in the Battle of Great Bridge, a little-known five-minute engagement that historians say changed the course of the war. A diorama shows patriots and redcoats facing off near Norfolk. The defeated British troops would soon leave Virginia for several years, allowing the colonists to support the American Revolution without interference.

In 1776, the Continental Congress formally seceded, which leads to two other museum must-sees in the Revolution Gallery: the June 1776 printing of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (which first claimed the rights for “life and liberty … and pursuing and obtaining happiness") and a poster-size copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed in July 1776. Broadsides like this were posted in taverns and public squares to alert citizens of the revolt against the British.

Surrounding cases contain swords and guns used by British, French and Continental troops, as well as the Hessians, German mercenaries hired to fight for Britain. “You have the actual weapons that would either defend or reject the ideas behind these documents,” says Katherine Gruber, special exhibitions curator.

See these weapons in action in the 180-degree Siege Theater, where an eight-minute film immerses you in the Battle of Yorktown, fought just a cannonball's shot away. The presentation uses special effects such as smoke, wind and vibrating seats, along with the smells of gunpowder, coffee and seawater.

Before leaving, visit the outdoor living history area, where reenactors staff a farm and Continental Army camp.


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Virginia native Larry Bleiberg is president of the Society of American Travel Writers, a frequent contributor to BBC Travel and the creator of CivilRightsTravel.com.

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