For many, the last weekend in May signifies a time to change over closets, bring out those flip-flops and clean off the barbecue. College graduations have finished, high school seniors see the light at the end of the tunnel, teachers are counting the days ’til school’s end and thousands plan a long weekend of reveling and relaxation either near or far from home.
Some see that weekend in May as the one to kick back, grab a treat, interact with friends and family, and enjoy. Others find a way to do exactly that and add in a portion of time for reflection, thanks, and recognition of the meaning behind the holiday. And still others spend most of the weekend in celebration of those in the Armed Forces and paying respects to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.
All weekend long Memorial Day traditions take place in towns and cities across the United States. There are countless parades that include military personnel and members of veteran’s organizations. Three of the largest parades in the country take place in New York City, Chicago, and Washington DC. Flags are flown at half-staff and respect is paid at local cemeteries or places of worship around the nation, both publicly and in private.
“I’m not one for the parades and hubbub on Memorial Day and instead want to reflect and remember. One of the best places I spent the day was on the beaches of Normandy, France. It was like you could feel the ghosts on Omaha and Utah beaches, and it was the perfect way for me to remember and honor all those who came before and alongside those I lost. It helped keep the day in perspective, and made it somehow more comforting”. -Elana Duffy, US Army Veteran, Founder www.pathfinder.vet
Why Celebrate Memorial Day?
Far more than a three day weekend celebrating the unofficial start of summer, Memorial Day is a national day of remembrance for all who have died serving in the American Armed Forces. Beginning as ‘Decoration Day’ after the Civil War, the 30th of May was designated to honor the dead of the Union and Confederate forces. The holiday earned a national identity in American history shortly after WWII.
In 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of the holiday, and in 1967 the day officially became known as Memorial Day. In 1968, the Uniform Holiday Act was passed by Congress which designated the last Monday in May as Memorial Day and officially moved it from the 30th of May. This way, Americans were guaranteed a 3-day weekend to reflect on those who have given service to country.
How to Observe Memorial Day
Take a few moments, spend part of the day (or take the whole weekend) to remember the focus of the holiday in whatever way is meaningful for you. Visit a memorial, wear a flower, fly a flag, hug a veteran, share your story, teach the next generation about the past, or give thanks in some way to those who give their service for the freedoms enjoyed daily.
- Wear a red poppy from the first of May through Memorial Day
- Visit cemeteries and place flags or flowers on graves
- Participate in a national moment of remembrance at 3pm local time
- Fly the American flag at half staff on this national day of mourning
- Visit war memorials to pay your respect
- Help out families of fallen soldiers
- Come to the assistance of veterans
Events to Commemorate & Observe Memorial Day
There may be a special event right near your home. Or, you may choose to travel to be a part of a significant ceremony observing Memorial Day. Participate, get involved, talk to veterans and share in the spirit of honor and reflection.
- Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: 150th Memorial Day parade and ceremonies (free)
- Yorktown, Virginia: Yorktown Battlefield Fifes and Drums at Memorial Day Ceremony
- Kansas City, Missouri: National World War I Museum and Memorial (half-price admission all weekend/free for veterans and active duty military personnel)
- San Diego, California: Legacy Week on the USS Midway
- Waikiki, Hawaii: Hawaii Memorial Day Parade
Destinations to Observe Memorial Day
Welcoming visitors from far and wide, these cities are specifically known for their Memorial Day weekend observance ceremonies and celebrations. Whether you’re visiting the ships at New York’s Fleet Week, watching a parade at a renowned military college, witnessing a flower drop, or talking to veterans at one of the many memorials in the country’s capital – these cities are sure to provide you and yours with many ways to add remembrance into your long weekend.
New York City, New York
Fleet Week allows visitors to tour docked ships, see military demonstrations and meet active service men and women in the US Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard. Be sure to head to Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Parade in Bay Ridge that ends with a special ceremony at John Paul Jones Park.
Lake Tahoe, California
The Mike Brown Memorial Splash is a family-friendly beach party and barbecue that also encompasses the Parade of Seaplanes.
Charleston, South Carolina
Allegedly, one of the first observances of Memorial Day was by a group of freed slaves only weeks after the Civil War ended. Today, the Spoleta Festival couples it’s 2-week run with the holiday weekend where visitors can experience hours and hours of music and arts. The Citadel (a nearly 200 year old military college) offers a full-dress parade every Friday and there are various Civil War sites available around the city.
Atlantic City, New Jersey
The largest of its kind in North America, Wildwood’s International Kite Festival takes place over the holiday weekend. There are parades and fireworks displays like the Bradley Beach Memorial Day Parade, Atlantic Highlands Memorial Day Parade and fireworks in the famed Asbury Park.
Palm Springs, California
To commemorate the influential role of those who fought in WWII, three-thousand white and red carnations representing those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are dropped from a B-25 aircraft during the Palm Springs Air Museum Flower Drop.
In the nation’s capital, there’s the National Memorial Day Parade, memorials at Arlington National Cemetery, endless museums, and the annual Memorial Day Concert which is hosted at the Capitol Building. There’s also the Rolling Thunder motorcycle demonstration where visitors can high five riders along the parade route. Each year The Kennedy Center holds the National Memorial Day Choral Festival. Another way to honor service men and women is by attending war memorials like WWII Memorial, Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial.
The windy city hosts their annual Memorial Day parade culminating in evening fireworks at Navy Pier. There’s also a huge music festival and a nearby town’s Red, White, and Blue BBQ festival and competition featuring chili tasting, music, and all you can eat barbecue.
What to Pack for Memorial Day Travel
A quick weekend escape doesn’t require a huge bag or a ton of stuff. Keep it simple, go light, and pack for what is sure to be great weather. The Outbreaker 35 is the perfect bag for a long weekend getaway and has the added benefit of being water resistant if a little late spring rain interrupts the festivities. Be sure to add a daypack for your parade and adventure necessities. Finally, throw in the wet/dry bag to take care of any damp beach stuff, muddy shoes, or dirty laundry on the way home.
- 2 pair of pants, shorts, or skirts (wear one, pack one)
- 3 t-shirts
- 1 long sleeve layer
- 3 pair of underwear
- 1 pair of sandals or shoes (wear the other)
- 1 light jacket
- Mini-toiletry kit (go as light as possible, it’s just a weekend)
- 1 hat
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 travel towel
- 1 wet/dry bag
Whether you’re hiking, attending a parade, or just taking some stuff to a friend’s BBQ, you’ll want a daypack that goes the distance. Fill it with this stuff:
- Water bottle
- A sarong or wrap (to sit on curb side for parades or in the park for music)
Memorial Day Travel: Beach Escapes
Headed to the seaside to get your beach on? Pack those flip-flops, bathing suits, sunscreen, sunglasses, and hats and get ready to relax. Ferry your way to the islands, cruise the clubs in South Beach or grab your lobster roll fix in Cape Cod – you’re bound to channel summer regardless of which spot you plant your lounge chair. Kick back with those poolside barbecues and picnics on the sand as you wile away the hours getting your fair share of vitamin D.
- The Hamptons, New York
- Mackinac Island, Michigan
- Fire Island, New York
- Catalina Island, California
- Sausalito, California
- Los Angeles, California
- Miami, Florida
- Cape Cod, Massachusetts
- Nantucket, Massachusetts
- Carmel By The Sea, California
Memorial Day Travel: City Escapes
Thinking of sticking within the lower 48 and looking for a spot with heaps of things to do – look no further. Head towards one of the many urban centers for a mix of museums, restaurants, attractions and community activities. Take one bag, a duffle should do it, pack essentials for your weekend wanderings (be sure you have sturdy walking shoes) and get ready for a memory making excursion. Whether you’re hiking the Freedom Trail in Boston, checking out the memorials in DC, or hitting the strip in Vegas; fireworks and festivities, parades and parties, history, and happenings are all available.
- Boston, Massachusetts
- New Orleans, Louisiana
- Napa Valley, California
- Las Vegas, Nevada
- Charleston, South Carolina
- Austin, Texas
- Denver, Colorado
- Washington, DC
- New York City, New York
- Chicago, Illinois
Memorial Day Travel: Outdoor Adventures
In search of adventure over your long weekend? Are you looking to hit the trails, breathe in nature, and traverse the great outdoors? The country is filled with havens of natural beauty ready for endless exploration. Pack your daypack, grab your hiking gear, a water bottle, bug spray, sunscreen, a hat, and easy to layer clothing and you’re good to go. If you’re thinking national parks, be sure to book your campsite as soon as it becomes available (early in the year or even as far as eight months in advance). Hike any of Utah’s gorgeous parks like Zion or Bryce, climb Yosemite’s Half Dome, hang with the bison in Yellowstone or head towards the Pacific Northwest to discover the wonders of Washington, and the outdoor culture of Oregon. Spend your holiday weekend roaming the paths and finding your way back to you.
- Moab, Utah
- San Juan Island, Washington
- Yosemite National Park, California
- Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- Springdale, Utah
- Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic. If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains to us.”
—General John Logan, General Order No. 11, May 5, 1868
Memorial Day weekend is observed and celebrated during the last weekend in May. Whether you’re spending the weekend, regarded as the ‘unofficial start of summer,’ enjoying time with friends, remembering those who fought for the nation, or mixing pleasure and reflection, Memorial Day holds special meaning.
- Choose your destination carefully
- Pack essentials
- Take a moment to reflect on the meaning of the holiday
- Wherever you’re going – pack sunscreen
Want more like this?
Get weekly gear reviews, travel hacks, and packing tips sent straight to your inbox. As an added bonus, we’ll send you a carry on packing list right away.