To many, Memorial Day means the unofficial start to summer, a three-day weekend for grilling and a chance to break out white clothes that have been in the attic all winter. But the holiday is more than just beaches and barbecue. It’s a time to pay tribute to those who have died in military service to our country. Originally created after the Civil War to honor the fallen Union soldiers, Memorial Day has now evolved to commemorate every American soldier and service member. Here are the top 10 destinations to celebrate and honor America’s heroes.
1. Honolulu and Waikiki
For a deeply memorable Memorial Day Weekend, take a trip to the beautiful beaches of Hawaii. First stop, the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor at Honolulu. The USS Arizona is the final resting place for many of the ship's 1,177 crewmen who lost their lives on December 7, 1941. The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is the place to visit first. There you will receive information about planning the day at Pearl Harbor and getting the most out of your time there. See here for more information.
While in Hawaii, be sure to make the trip over to Waikiki to check out Oahu's most visually breathtaking annual events: The Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony at Magic Island at Ala Moana Beach Park that honors ancestors and those who have sacrificed their lives in war. The ceremony is held at sundown, as more than 3,000 candlelit lanterns are set afloat on the ocean as part of a traditional Buddhist rite, which originated in Japan. The ceremony will also feature live music and speeches. For more information visit the event page.
2. Williamsburg, VA
Take a trip back in time to Colonial Williamsburg to commemorate Memorial Day. A procession with Fife and Drum will kick off the holiday followed by the firing off of volleys to honor soldiers of the American Revolution and Civil War, who are interred nearby.
The Memorial Day “Festival Williamsburg” will run all weekend and feature performances by top artists, including eight time Grammy Award winner Arturo Sandoval. Veterans, and their families receive free Colonial Williamsburg admission for the entire Memorial Day weekend. Visit the Colonial Williamsburg website for more information.
3. New York City
New York City honors the nation’s fallen heroes with parades all over the five boroughs. The Little Neck–Douglaston parade in Queens is reputedly the largest, but Brooklyn's Memorial Day Parade is the oldest, at over 145 years old. There is a smaller parade in upper Manhattan, which begins at Dyckman Street and Broadway. For start locations and times see the city’s Memorial Day event page.
If after the parade you feel like continuing the celebration, Coney Island officially reopens May 25 for swimming. The Brooklyn oceanfront combines three miles of sand and surf with classic carnival rides and games.
Another location to pay tribute to America’s service members is at the 9/11 Memorial, a national tribute of remembrance to the men, women and children killed in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. For more information visit the memorial's website.
4. Gettysburg, PA
Standing at what was to be The Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. It would come to be regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history.
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” Lincoln spoke from the graveyard. “Testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.”
To begin your visit, start at the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center at 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, where the park offers free information, an extensive museum about Gettysburg and the Civil War. Be sure to attend the 146th Annual Gettysburg Memorial Day parade on Monday. It is one of the oldest continuing ceremonies in the country. For more information visit the National Park Service’s event page.
Another cemetery to pay tribute to America’s heroes is the Granary Burying Ground in Boston. Three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine, are buried there. Founded in 1660, the Granary is the third oldest burying ground in Boston proper. The burying ground was given the name “the Granary” in 1737, when grain was stored nearby. The cemetery is located on Park and Tremont Streets in Boston proper.
While in Boston, make sure to walk The Freedom Trail. Start at Boston Commons and stop by the visitors center where you can pick up an audio guide and also visit the "Military Hero's Garden of Flags" in front of the Soldiers and Sailors monument. For more information visit the Freedom Trail website.
6. Washington, DC
The nation’s capital is likely the most patriotic place to spend Memorial Day Weekend. Be sure to arrive early on Thursday to be present when soldiers put a flag in front of every gravestone in Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery’s rolling hills mark the final resting place for more than 14,000 veterans, including those that fought in the Civil War.
You will have to stay the entire week so as not to miss Monday’s wreath-laying ceremony and concert, held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and followed by a grand parade with the U.S. Army Band. Afterwards, PBS sponsors a free concert on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The concert will feature actors Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise, and other guest artists along with the National Symphony Orchestra.
If you need a bit of sunshine to celebrate Memorial Day, Orlando is a good option. To commemorate the holiday, Orlando’s Wekiva River will host the 2nd Annual Team Patriot Paddle Memorial Day River Run, in which paddle boarders, kayakers and canoers will paddle for eight miles in support of the Wounded Warrior Project and Heroes on the Water.
In addition to attending the high spirited boat race event, be sure to visit Disney World. The theme park will kick off Memorial Day Weekend by remaining open all night on Friday. SeaWorld's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is also set to open that weekend. Visit Orlando’s tourism website for more information.
8. San Diego
The USS Midway Museum in San Diego is dedicated to preserving and honoring the 225,000 young men and women who served aboard the USS Midway. On Friday, the museum will host its fourth annual American Freedom Festival on the flight deck of the USS Midway.
Be sure to also check out the city’s Victorian National Historic District for the Gaslamp Art and Music Festival. The festival will showcase many genres of free concerts from of regional and local bands, offering everything from Latin Jazz to Irish Rock, 80s hits, reggae and acoustic music.
Seattle’s Museum of Flight will hold a Memorial Day celebration in honor of the military’s aviation department. The museum will hold its annual Cascade Warbirds Fly-In, highlighting a wide variety of vintage military aircrafts, representing several nations' armed forces from World War II through Vietnam. During the ceremony, visitors will be able to tour and even fly aboard the historic Seattle-born Boeing B-17 bomber.
Also on the itinerary, the Washington Memorial Park. It is the oldest cemetery in Seattle. Over Memorial Day weekend, more than 100 volunteers from the local community will place flags on the 3,000 plus graves of Veterans at Washington Memorial Park. Click here for more information.
10. Long Beach, CA
The Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier in Long Beach has a long history. In 1908 the citizens of Belmont Heights asked the City of Long Beach to build the neighborhood a pier--a request that was flatly denied. Bruised by the city's refusal, but determined to build a pier, the neighborhood decided to break away from Long Beach and soon had formed the new City of Belmont Heights. On Christmas Eve of 1915 the much anticipated pier opened to the public and a California landmark was born. For more information visit the Belmont Pier website.