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History and Modern Delights in Alexandria

Take a day trip from Washington, D.C., to Alexandria, which offers charming historical landmarks and popular boutique shopping.

 

Once you’ve experienced all the pomp and circumstance of Washington, D.C., Alexandria, Va., can be a welcome retreat. Sure, there’s still an abundance of American history but it’s on a more manageable, personal scale.

After you’ve climbed the stairs of the Washington Monument in D.C., you can walk in the footsteps of the first president in his hometown. Enjoy lunch in the same restaurant where George Washington celebrated his birthday, then visit the apothecary where Martha Washington placed her orders for their household items.

Established in 1749 along the banks of the Potomac River, the town of Alexandria, now known as Old Town, was a bustling colonial port prior to the American Revolution and home to merchants and seamen who built elegant townhouses and businesses along its cobblestone streets. Today, many of these buildings have been preserved and restored offering an authentic feel of colonial life. 

Key Historic Attractions

Gadsby’s Tavern

While you can eat here, I would stick to the museum to get a peek at this historic tavern, which was once frequented by Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison and the Marquis de Lafayette. Comprised of two buildings, the museum features colonial furniture and artifacts with 30-minute tours 15 minutes before and after the hour. 

If you insist, have lunch, dinner or brunch in the tavern where waiters are dressed in colonial garb and strolling musicians entertain in the evenings and on Sunday. Soak in the authentic colonial atmosphere and just remember you’re not there for the food. 134 N. Royal St. Tel. 703-838-4242. www.gadsbystavern.org

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

It doesn’t take much time to go through this museum, but there is something appealing about walking around in what was once a warehouse for medicinal and household items in the colonial era (since 1792) until it closed its doors in 1933. The apothecary appears almost exactly as it always has and is best known for its famous customers, including George and Martha Washington. 105-107 S. Fairfax St. Tel. 703-836-3713. www.apothecarymuseum.org

Art and Museums

Torpedo Factory

Even the most jaded art lover can find something to appreciate here. Located just off the wharf from the boat dock, this giant warehouse was an actual torpedo factory during World War II. Today, the space has been reconfigured into individual galleries and studios featuring the works of more than 182 artists working in a variety of mediums.

Visit the galleries, talk to the artists and, in many cases, watch them at work. The Torpedo Factory also is home to the Archeology Museum, which showcases objects unearthed in Alexandria dating back to colonial times. 105 N. Union St. Tel. 703-838-4565. www.torpedofactory.org

Alexandria Black History Museum

While not centrally located in Old Town, this is worth the detour. Housed in what was once Alexandria’s segregated library for its African-American residents, the museum provides an interesting look at black history in Alexandria. Exhibits include photographs, African tools and weapons, and other artifacts. A visit can be a helpful reminder as you are walking around admiring the quaintness of Old Town that in the 19th century, Alexandria’s thriving port was at the center of the slave trade. 902 Wythe St. Tel. 703-838-4356. www.alexblackhistory.org

Principle Gallery

This small fine art gallery always manages to have an impressive display of paintings by regional artists with a focus on realism. A definite step up from the Torpedo Factory, this small gallery with its friendly, knowledgeable staff is well respected and a great source on the local art scene. 208 King St. Tel. 703-739-9326. www.principlegallery.com

Alexandria Shopping

Now for the real reason we go to Old Town: great shopping. Start on King Street at the waterfront and work your way up the street. The first four blocks and its side streets are full of boutiques with fashion for women, children and even pets. As you head past Washington Street, the emphasis transitions to interiors with a variety of upscale and downscale antiques, accessories and furnishings. Visit OldTownBoutiqueDistrict.com for a great listing of boutiques and pick up a copy of its brochure in one of the boutiques listed, which features an easy-to-use map.

Other shopping highlights include:

Why Not? Terrific children’s store featuring fun European clothing for babies through size 7, as well as an excellent selection of books and toys. 200 King St. Tel. 703-548-4420.

La Cuisine. This small store manages to stock an impressive selection of chef’s equipment, gadgets, cookbooks and even spices and hard-to-find baking accessories. 323 Cameron St. Tel. 703-836-4435. www.lacuisineus.com

Chateau Animaux. My friend swears by this chi-chi pet store featuring cute outfits for your favorite canine, as well as fresh-baked, all-natural dog treats and gourmet specialties, including birthday cakes. 101-A S. Saint Asaph St. Tel. 703-518-5188. www.chateau-animaux.com

Random Harvest. Large space full of classic antique furniture refinished and covered in muslin, as well as interesting decorative accessories all laid out in inspiring tableaus. 810 King St. Tel. 703-548-8820. www.randomharvesthome.com

Hooray for Books. Locally owned bookstore with a terrific variety of children’s books and storytimes, including a storytime in Japanese on Tuesdays. 1555 King St. Tel. 703-548-4092. www.hooray4books.com

Restaurants

After a day of sightseeing and shopping, be sure to relax in one (or two) small, locally owned bistros, cafés and pubs found throughout Old Town. [Read more about Alexandria Restaurants.]

Next: Del Ray, Lodging, Getting There

Del Ray

Located northwest of Old Town, Del Ray is a quiet gem of a neighborhood featuring charming Arts & Crafts bungalows and cottages filled with young families who have renovated the homes and frequent the cafés and shops that line the main drag of Mount Vernon Avenue

Cheestique

Although Del Ray is small, it is a foodie dream. My first priority was to visit the neighborhood’s star resident, Cheestique (2411 Mt. Vernon Ave., tel. 703-706-5300), a specialty cheese shop with a focus on artisanal cheese. The wine bar behind the boutique beckons with wines by the glass and a small menu highlighted of course by cheese and charcuterie.

Cocoa Bar

Next stop: sweets. Artfully Chocolate/Kingsbury Confections, or ACKS Cocoa Bar (2003A Mt. Vernon Ave., tel. 703-635-7917) sells handmade chocolates by owner Rob Kingsbury. I bypassed traditional truffles to sample his Chipotle Cinnamon, Brie truffles and his ultimate treat: fleur de sel caramels—rich chocolate surrounding a delicately chewy caramel center and dotted with fleur de sel shards. The cocoa bar offers hot and iced cocoa drinks with names commemorating classic Hollywood leading ladies.

Frozen Custard

Don’t miss the Wisconsin frozen custard at The Dairy Godmother (2310 Mt. Vernon Ave., tel. 703-683-7767). Everyone walking down Mt. Vernon Avenue seems to have the same thought in mind as a cone seems to be the most popular accessory in Del Ray, with good reason—my mint Oreo custard was creamy and divine. Pets enjoy their own selection of frozen and baked treats.

Shop It Off

It’s time to walk it all off by shopping at the tiny boutiques that dot Mt. Vernon Avenue.  I found an impressive selection of children’s clothing, shoes and toys for my young girls at The Purple Goose (2005 Mt. Vernon Ave., tel. 703-683-2918).

Second to babies, dogs are stars in Del Ray. Barkley Square Bakery for dogs (2006 Mt. Vernon Ave., tel. 703-628-4311) specializes in freshly baked treats and cakes for man’s best friend. On the other side of the spectrum, Nature’s Nibbles (2601 Mt. Vernon Ave., tel. 703-931-5241) features natural food for pets.

Old Town Lodging

Although there are plenty of chain options, Kimpton Hotels seem to have a bit of monopoly on the best beds in town.

Hotel Monaco Alexandria. This new Kimpton-brand property brings its style and panache to King Street. Its prime location makes it my No. 1 choice for an Old Town stay. 480 King St. Tel. 703-549-6080. www.monaco-alexandria.com

Morrison House. This 18th-century-style manor house is now owned by Kimpton but retains its romantic bed and breakfast feel. 116 S. Alfred St. Tel. 703-838-8000. www.morrisonhouse.com

Lorien Hotel & Spa. Just opened this year and also managed by Kimpton, it is the only hotel in Old Town with a spa. 1600 King St. Tel. 703-894-3434. www.lorienhotelandspa.com

Getting There

While small, narrow cobblestone streets may be charming to walk along, driving into Old Town can quickly erase any sentimental feelings as you sit stranded in gridlock. Instead, an enjoyable way to get to Old Town from Washington, D.C., is by boat. The Potomac Riverboat Company (tel. 703-684-0580) offers water taxis from Georgetown to Alexandria.

If the 45-minute boat ride is too time-consuming or you’re traveling during the winter, the new free King Street trolley makes the Metro, D.C.’s subway system, an appealing option. Old Town is organized in a grid with King Street being the main thoroughfare. The trolley route runs from the King Street Metro station along King Street to the waterfront with frequent stops about every two blocks so you can hop on and off as often as you like. Signs at almost every corner of King Street list the boutiques, restaurants and galleries on the side streets, making it easy not to miss a thing.

For Del Ray, it’s easier to drive to and park here than in Old Town. For those taking the Metro, get off at the Braddock Road stop and walk (about 10 minutes) to Mt. Vernon Avenue.  


Destinations: Alexandria

Themes: Historical Vacations

Activities: Museums, Shopping, Sightseeing


User Comments

This article delightfully captures Alexandria's charm & attractions … I can’t wait to return!

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