“Why don’t you come visit us? We’ll show you around Alexandria,” my cousins implored, inviting me to spend time with them in their historic hometown.
I’d never thought much about Alexandria, Virginia, as a town worth exploring. After all, Washington, DC, just across the Potomac River, has so much to offer, more than I had time to experience on one of my vacations. I quickly discovered, however, that Alexandria is an underrated neighbor to the nation’s capital in terms of visitor interest.
Alexandria has a plethora of attractions in its own right and is well worth exploring, particularly for those with an interest in American history. Robert E. Lee grew up here. George Washington slept, relaxed, danced and partied here along with several other founding fathers. While Washington, DC has an awesome assortment of attractions for the visitor, Alexandria may offer a more authentic glimpse into the history of the region.
With one of the largest colonial-era historical districts in the country, Alexandria is also the third oldest, dating back to 1749. It rose to prominence in the post-colonial years, 1780 to 1820, when its location was virtually the geographic center of the young country. The Old Town district developed alongside the harbor at the edge of the Potomac River. Restoration and preservation efforts by the city have effectively retained the feel of those years and display the skill of the builders of the era. Old Town is not an outdoor museum, however &mdash modern buildings are interspersed throughout. The older buildings are integrated into the daily life of this vibrant neighborhood filled with interesting shops and restaurants.
The Ramsay House Visitor’s Center on King and Fairfax Street provides maps of the area’s museums and attractions and is a good place to orient oneself for a walk through the historic district. We visited Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, an early period restaurant and meeting place frequented by George and Martha Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Gadsby’s was a hub of political and social life in post-colonial Alexandria. Musical performances and dances were common here. It was a place where the leading figures of the time, including many of the Founding Fathers, could kick back and recharge. The current version of Gadsby’s hosts a restaurant serving food in the colonial style and an adjacent museum that preserves the 18th-century tavern where Washington addressed neighbors before leaving for New York to assume the presidency.
We walked alongside the predominantly colonial and post-colonial architecture that characterizes King and Washington Street. A 19th-century ambiance emerges from historic townhouses and art galleries sprinkled throughout brick and cobblestone streets. A relaxed atmosphere results from this sense of time standing still, perfect for an afternoon stroll. We ambled down to the Potomac where we had lunch at a seafood restaurant. The once-bustling colonial seaport originally grew up along the river as a tobacco port, but diversified and continued to thrive in post-colonial years.
A replica of the townhouse George Washington used when he was doing business in Alexandria was restored in the 1950s and beckons visitors on Cameron Street. A quick turn onto a side street and we were at the childhood home of Robert E. Lee. For 33 years, until 2000, it was open to the public. It can now be viewed on a virtual tour (leeboyhoodhome.com). The Lee-Fendall house, however, the home of the Lee family for generations, is open as a museum. On Union Street, the Torpedo Factory, which manufactured torpedoes in WWI and WWII, is now an artist’s studio for printmakers, sculptors, painters and photographers. A gift store provides a quality buying opportunity for visitors.
Further fueling the passions of those with an interest in history and archaeology is the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, where enthusiasts can reconstruct Alexandria’s history. There is also a Black History Museum that highlights the local African-American experience. Market Square offers one of the oldest marketplaces in the country.
We also took a trip to Mount Vernon &mdash Washington’s home just up the Potomac River. This was the perfect complement to exploring Alexandria. Getting there is a snap via a water taxi that runs from Alexandria to Mount Vernon and into Washington.
I found the well-preserved historic community of Alexandria an interesting and welcome contrast to the museums and monuments of Washington, DC. If you’re visiting the nation’s capital, consider working in a visit to Alexandria as a day trip. It’s accessible via the DC Metro. Get off at the King Street stop and take the free trolley down King Street to the heart of Old Town. You American history buffs won’t regret it.