Alexandria, VA: Four Centuries in Three Days

Located along the Potomac River, just mere minutes from the monuments that define our nation’s capital, lies historic Alexandria, Virginia. Established in 1749 by Scottish merchants, the city has been entwined with the people and events that mark seminal events in our country’s history—from the Colonial era through the 20th century. George Washington, who first surveyed the town as a teenager before beginning his military and political career, also made his home here and later in life would own a townhouse on Cameron Street, worship at Christ Church, and be seen discussing current events with fellow luminaries of the era at Gadsby’s Tavern.

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. Photo courtesy of K. Summerer for Visit Alexandria

Alexandria’s connection to American history is far deeper and more complex than being the adopted hometown of George Washington, with Mount Vernon just eight miles south of Old Town and easily accessible today by bike trail, parkway, or water taxi. Prior to the Civil War, Alexandria was one of America’s largest domestic slave trading ports. The contributions enslaved men, women, and children had to our collective prosperity and the multi-generational struggles that followed the end of slavery are a prominent part of the city’s history and our national story. These dark chapters in our history are illuminated with the personal stories of Black Alexandrians who overcame adversity to advance the cause of social justice from the Colonial times through the Civil Rights movement to the present.

Exploring the places and people that make Alexandria central to the story of America will take you down beautiful tree-lined streets along riverfront walks and surround you with architectural gems that span nearly 275 years of history. The stories aren’t confined to dusty bookshelves but are alive in Alexandria’s buildings, sights, sounds, and tastes. Here are our recommendations for incorporating Alexandria’s rich history into your stay.

Where To Stay: Historic Lodging in Old Town Alexandria

On the corner of Pitt and King Sts., in the heart of Old Town is The Alexandrian Hotel. Alexandria was named after Scotsman John Alexander who owned much of the land that became Alexandria. The Alexandrian hotel was also named after Alexander and embodies the spirit of the surrounding neighborhood with cobblestone streets and beautifully maintained historic buildings. The hotel “strives to emulate history in all aspects of guest’s experience while also adding a modern twist with a clever, contemporary attitude.”

The lobby of The Alexandrian Hotel. Photo courtesy of The Alexandrian Hotel

Along what was once the sight of a bustling commercial wharf along the Potomac waterfront is the Hotel Indigo. This modern hotel was designed in the architectural style of warehouses and shipping offices that lined this section of Old Town. This charming property with a lovely courtyard, luxurious modern décor, and an ideal location at 220 South Union St., allows you to take up residence in the city’s only waterfront hotel. . The surrounding neighborhood ties the landmark charms of Alexandria to the vibrant eateries and boutiques that the city is known for today.   

Day One: Vibrant And Historic Old Town Alexandria

It’s hard to visit Alexandria without being charmed by its downtown—the bustling and historic Old Town, a nationally designated historic district on the Potomac River’s scenic waterfront where Alexandria’s rich past collides with its vibrant and exciting contemporary present.

Shopping along historic King St. Photo courtesy of Sarah Marcella Creative for Visit Alexandria

The best way to experience Old Town is by taking a tour of its most illustrious thoroughfare, the brick-lined, centuries-old, and picturesque King Street, also known as one of the “Great Streets of America.” And while strolling this historic street on foot is one of the best ways to customize a journey through Old Town, the King Street Trolley adds a hint of classic charm to any sojourn through the neighborhood. Old Town’s location on the waterfront also makes it a gateway to exploring the area via sightseeing cruises, too. A link to both the area’s maritime and colonial history, this scenic cruise on the Potomac is one of the most historic attractions in Old Town.

Old Town is also where history meets culture, packed with fun and informative spots that explore the city’s more artistic side at places like the Torpedo Factory Art Center, which is housed in an early 20th-century torpedo and munutuions plant. Architecture appreciators will revel in Old Town’s historic buildings, too; like the Spite House, designated as “the skinniest historic house in America.” The historic downtown is also home to its quirkier side too, with attractions like Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, where visitors can channel their own inner Harry Potter by exploring real-life ingredients used throughout the 19th century in one of the city’s oldest continuously run businesses; and modern architectural marvels like Tide Lock Park, the site of the original river lock of the Alexandria Canal—and don’t forget to visit the “Promenade Classique” sculpture garden while you’re there!

Exploring the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Photo courtesy of K. Summerer for Visit Alexandria

The city’s historic downtown and waterfront is also home to some of its most dynamic restaurants—from historical gems and waterfront wonders; to hip, contemporary updates on the classic fare and creative comfort food faves. Dining on the water has never looked so good with spots like Vola’s Dockside Grill and Hi-Tide Lounge. Named for iconic Alexandrian and Civil Rights leader Vola Lawson, this fresh and exciting spot combines retro-hip vibes with a historical side that is the city’s signature. A renovated 18th-century warehouse reminiscent of colonial-era taverns at their finest, the Union Street Public House is classically historic yet undeniably modern with its warm and welcoming hospitality and chill, contemporary menu. Local charm meets historical haven at Virtue Feed & Grain, located in the heart of Old Town in a historic building that was once a feed and grain warehouse—a great way to grab a bite while basking in those eclectic and adventurous downtown vibes.

Vola’s Dockside Grill and Hi-Tide Lounge. Photo courtesy of Chris Cruz for Visit Alexandria

Day Two: Exploring Alexandria’s Black Culture And History

There are many ways to explore the rich history of Alexandria, whether it be through sightseeing and exploring the city’s signature landmarks through informative walking trails or by stepping back in time with a visit to one of its historic colonial sites.

Follow along the newly established African American Heritage Trail, a self-guided tour that showcases Alexandria’s people, places, and historically Black neighborhoods from its founding through the 20th century. The trail winds its way north from the foot of King St., at Waterfront Park, alongside the Potomac through Founder’s Park, Oronoco Bay Park, and Tide Lock Park before concluding at the Cross Canal on Montgomery St. The trail consists of 11-stops and it should take about 45 minutes walking at a leisurely pace. This link provides a detailed, mobile-friendly guide to the route and its stops. Launching later this summer will be a new Southern loop with 20 additional stops.

Edmonson Sisters Statue. Photo courtesy of Evan Michio Photography for the City of Alexandria

Exploring Alexandria’s most notable Black history is not only limited to on-foot sightseeing tours; visitors can also explore the area via a driving tour, too. This eight-site driving tour is a great way to explore the significance of the African American experience and how it shaped both the city and the country. An informative trip down Alexandria’s memory lane that incorporates iconic landmarks in Black history from the first cornerstone laid by Benjamin Banneker to sites intrinsic to the Civil Rights movement.

Harambee Books and Artwork on Prince St. in Old Town is an independent bookshop that elevates literature by and about the African experience in America. Their engaging staff can help guide you through rare and hard-to-find small press and independently published works. Their exceptional selection of titles focusing on the African culture from ancient times to the present, social justice, community awareness, and an ever-growing children’s selection, alongside unique artwork, come together to create a remarkable and enlightening shopping experience.

Lobster roll at Haute Dogs & Fries. Photo courtesy of Misha Enriquez for Visit Alexandria

After a long day exploring historical gems, a visit to one of the area’s Black-owned restaurants is a great way to end the day. Hen Quarter has some of the finest classic Southern cuisine in a fun-casual setting anywhere in Virginia. Casual and cool, Haute Dogs & Fries serves up ballpark style franks with a number of original and fresh toppings that focus on locally sourced ingredients—the perfect place to grab a tasty local bite. And last (but not least), cap off a delish meal with a visit to Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats, a nostalgic spot styled a la a 1950s soda fountain.

Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats. Photo courtesy of Adedayo Dayo Kosoko for Visit Alexandria

Day Three: George Washington’s Colonial Alexandria

As the adopted hometown of George Washington, Alexandria has over 140 locations tied to its most famous resident, including those with important ties to colonial history. From museums to historic houses and everything in between, the city is rife with historical sites that are integral to the fabric of both America and the city itself.

As the most visited estate in America and the site of George Washington’s former home, Mount Vernon is a fantastic place to visit to truly appreciate the scope of the first president’s impact on American history. Located just eight miles south of Old Town Alexandria, Mount Vernon is a fun day trip where visitors can explore colonial life through the lens of one of its greatest early contributors. Explore the museum; tour the well-preserved grounds and gardens, and enjoy all the immersive and informative experiences this historic destination offers.

The Mount Vernon Estate. Photo courtesy of The Mount Vernon Ladies Association

Though Mount Vernon is undeniably a must-see on any visit to Alexandria, there are plenty of cultural and historical sites throughout the city’s downtown that are equally as important to both the city’s and the country’s early colonial history. And indeed, the former home of one of Alexandria’s founder’s John Carlyle is just one such example—steeped in local history and colonial lore; Carlyle House is also a fine example of Georgian architecture and home to sprawling, manicured gardens. In addition to this 18th-century gem, there are several other sites to explore that highlight the city’s architectural and historic significance, including The George Washington Masonic National Memorial, the Murray-Dick-Fawcett House, and Captain’s Row, arguably one of the city’s most picturesque cobblestone blocks.

Group Tour of the Carlye House. Photo courtesy of K. Summerer for Visit Alexandria

While Gadsby’s Tavern is no longer the gathering and meeting place of famous colonial dignitaries, it’s still an amazingly historic place to grab a bite and get a taste of colonial Alexandria. Offering fine dining since 1770, Gadsby’s Tavern is a great way to follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers with an elegant meal in one of its colonial dining rooms. Captain Gregory’s is another excellent spot that combines historic vibes with an eclectic menu and trendy setting. An ode to Alexandria’s illustrious past as a port city, Captain Gregory‘s is now a hip speakeasy spot where guests can curate cocktails and sweet, donut-inspired treats—all behind a secret sliding door.

Captain Gregory’s. Photo courtesy of Misha Enriquez for Visit Alexandria

Alexandria, Virginia, stands at the crossroads of American history with a time-traveling past beginning in the Colonial era and makes its mark throughout the centuries with significant contributions to Black history and culture from a Civil War past to a dynamic Civil Rights movement. But Alexandria offers so much more than a historical side—it’s also a hip, contemporary spot that makes its mark with a diverse cuisine scene and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that are not dulled by the lens of history but are brightened by it.

Baseball: America’s Home Run Exhibit. Photo courtesy of the National Postal Museum

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