Pentagon tour guides are hearty people. Selected competitively from the ceremonial guards of all five branches of the services, they not only have to know a startling array of facts about the Pentagon, they also have to be able to walk backward without a second thought.
When you take a Pentagon tour, your military guide will face you the entire time, walking backward as you walk forward through the halls of one of the world’s most recognizable buildings. Pentagon tour guides give several tours a day and in the process, walk 2 to 3 miles backward using lighting fixtures and fire extinguishers as guideposts.
All that rearward locomotion is worth it. The Pentagon tour program hosts more than 106,000 visitors annually, and gives seven tours every weekday. Despite the strict security requirements necessary, the popularity of taking a tour of the iconic building is evident not only from the numbers but from their testimony by word of mouth and online. Pentagon tours are among the highest rated on the popular travel site TripAdvisor.com, whose reviews give the visits four out of five stars.
For reference, the Pentagon has three times the floor space of the Empire State Building in New York. The national Capitol Building could fit into any one of its five wedge-shaped sections.
Most reviews single out the tour guides for their professionalism, knowledge, and humor. As the guides walk you though the corridors, relating one interesting tidbit after another, it becomes obvious that their unconventional gait is just another form of progress. As has been the case for 75 years at the Pentagon, the direction is always forward – even if that sometimes means going backward.
The Shape of a Pentagon Tour
If asked what a Pentagon tour is like, you could be snarky and say “pentagonal.” True, the structure is five-sided, but that won’t be your focus as you wend through portions of one of the world’s largest office buildings. Even though you certainly won’t be walking all 17 miles of hallway therein, you’ll get an impression of the immensity of the place.
For reference, the Pentagon has three times the floor space of the Empire State Building in New York. The national Capitol Building could fit into any one of its five wedge-shaped sections. That doesn’t even convey the impression one gets of the broader Pentagon Reservation. You can arrive via nearly 30 miles of access highways, including express bus lanes. Alternately, one can visit by using the Washington D.C. Metro – one of the most extensive subway systems in the country.
The vista above ground includes 200 acres of lawn and pavement on which approximately 8,770 cars park in 16 parking lots. Then there are the thoroughfares inside the building. Some 131 stairways and 19 escalators link the corridors along which a beehive of offices occupies 3,705,793 square feet.
Size has always struck visitors to our national defense headquarters. Surprisingly, the formal public tours program wasn’t launched until May 17, 1976. A June 1, 1976 article in The New York Times laconically announced that, “with a lack of fanfare, the Pentagon has relaxed its security for the first time in four years to let Bicentennial tourists visit the famous office building.”
About 200 visitors per day were accommodated. It was supposed to be a merely temporary feature, expected to run through July 4 of that year. But prospective tour groups just kept coming. A snippet in the June 1977 edition of the Marine Corps magazine Leatherneck reads:
“Approximately 55,000 American and foreign visitors toured the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., during the 1976 Bicentennial year. As a result of the enthusiastic response from visitors, the tour program will continue.”