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Older than Washington DC itself, Alexandria, Virginia, is a historic city that melds the charm of yesteryear with attractions desired most by visitors today, including top restaurants, chic boutiques, interesting art galleries, lively bars, and notable sights.
Easily accessible from DC by Metro, car, or even bicycle, the city, in most Washingtonians’ minds, is simply another neighborhood they travel to for top-shelf entertainment and nightlife, a place for relaxation, recreation, and absorbing the area’s history without leaving the comfort of their own backyard.
Founded in 1749 by Scots 50 years before the site for Washington was selected, Alexandria grew as a bustling and wealthy seaport, declared by the Duc de Liancourt in 1796 as “the handsomest town in Virginia—indeed it is among the finest in the United States.”
Today, that beauty continues to shine. Old Town Alexandria, as the historic center is called, is on the National Register of Historic Places, the third-oldest federal historic district in the country, a mix of preserved 18th- and 19th-century townhomes and commercial buildings mixed with World War II-era warehouses, reproduction row houses, and historic taverns, churches, and businesses.
Just eight miles south of Alexandria lies Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation, restored to its glory and now home to a large visitors center that contains numerous artifacts from Washington’s life and three forensically reconstructed wax figures of the first president at ages 19, 45, and 57—worth the price of admission alone.
Mount Vernon is among the finest of Virginia’s plantation homes, run by a foundation that refuses to rest on its laurels; each year, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association demonstrates its commitment to preservation, historical research, and outreach, sponsoring public events such as wine festivals and colonial days, refurbishing outbuildings that include Washington’s grist mill, and loaning artifacts to museums around the country.
Washington began his career as a surveyor; at age 17, before he moved to Mount Vernon, he surveyed the land that became Alexandria. Many of the buildings that Washington and wife, Martha, frequented still exist in Alexandria today and are open to the public, including Gadsby’s Tavern, where Washington celebrated his 66th birthday, and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, where Mrs. Washington purchased remedies and medicinal ingredients, including, according to store records, a bottle of castor oil just days before her death.
Alexandria also sat at the crossroads of the Civil War, occupied within the first month of the war and firmly rooted in its ties to the Confederacy. After the Civil War, the small city suffered few of the consequences of towns elsewhere in the vanquished South; its location, on the Potomac River near Washington, a major railroad hub, sheltered it from decline. In the 1930s, it again made history as the site of one of the first civil rights sit-ins: In 1939, five African Americans staged a protest in the whites-only city library. The act forced the city to open a separate library for African Americans—not integration, but a step toward that ultimate goal.
Alexandria is a compact city easily traversed by foot. King Street is its major artery, lined with shops, boutiques, restaurants, and bars, and similar businesses are found throughout Old Town, along Washington Street and quiet side streets. The King Street Metro Station, at the head of the bustling Old Town shopping district, lies roughly a mile west of the Alexandria waterfront. In addition to its historic area, the city has fun, funky neighborhoods like Del Ray, an early 1900s streetcar suburb popular with families and home to ice cream parlors, restaurants, and an arts community. Del Ray is reachable by car, taxi, or Alexandria city’s DASH transit system.
Alexandria Visitors Center
The main Alexandria Visitors Center (221 King St., 703/746-3301, www.visitalexandria.com, Apr.-Dec. daily 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Jan.-Mar. daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.) is located on busy King Street in one of the city’s oldest buildings, Ramsay House, thought to have been built in 1724 in Dumfries, Virginia, and relocated to Alexandria in 1749 by owner William Ramsay. It has operated as a visitors center since 1956. Parking is available in nearby garages and on the street; the visitors center even hands out parking passes that allow out-of-towners to park free at metered spots. The center distributes guides, maps, and pamphlets and is staffed by people who can help plan an individual itinerary for your visit to Old Town.
Getting to Alexandria
Alexandria lies seven miles due south of Washington DC. To get there by car, cross the Memorial or 14th Street bridges and head south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which becomes Washington Street in Alexandria and bisects King Street in the center of town. To get to Mount Vernon, continue on the parkway an additional 15 miles; the road effectively ends at the plantation visitors’ gates.
Alexandria is accessible by Metro; the King Street Metro Station is served by both the Yellow and Blue lines; the station is roughly a mile from the Potomac River and 0.25 miles from the start of the shopping and historic district. Taxis also will carry passengers to Alexandria; expect to pay roughly $20 for a one-way trip.
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition