The Interstate 95 (aka I-95) is the main highway on the East Coast, running parallel to the Atlantic Ocean seaboard on a north-south trajectory and serving as the principal artery for cities from Florida to Maine.
Having spent a career in public service while based in Washington, D.C., I drove it many times – too many to recall – always to points north or south. But I never remember stopping in Fredericksburg, Virginia, about 60 miles south of D.C. It was always a tad too soon for a coffee stop or a restroom break.
I finally made the stop and spent several days in this historic city, wondering why I hadn't done so sooner. I encountered ties to pre-colonial times, buildings that have survived the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and homes of some of the early Presidents. While slavery is a blight on Fredericksburg’s past, I found a town that had grown through this adversity.
My weekend itinerary focused on the multifarious layers of Fredericksburg history, with some contemporary cuisine mixed in. Here's a sampling:
Ferry Farm is regarded as the family home of George Washington. In 1738, Washington was only six years old when his family moved to Stafford County, Virginia. This was his boyhood home until the age of 20. His relationship with the land ultimately shaped his character to the benefit of a fledgling U.S. of A.
Though the place was initially called Home Farm, it later became known as Ferry Farm due to the ferry that transported people across the Rappahannock River from the farm to the town of Fredericksburg.
Today, Ferry Farm is rich with archaeological resources, though none of the original Washington buildings exist. A self-guided tour allows visitors to canvas the site of the original Washington house and where it stood overlooking the Rappahannock River. An iPad version of the tour is also available, though it didn’t work very well while I was there.
Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop
Located in a restored circa 1771 building, the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop brings to life medicine as practiced in colonial times. This had one of the best character presentations I've experienced in quite some time – the physician’s assistant stayed amazingly in character for the entire presentation. If you have the least bit of interest in blood-sucking leeches, crab claws, lancets or snakeroot and their role in colonial cures, you'll hear all about them and how they were used here.
Children in particular will marvel at the size of the live leeches that are kept in large glass jars, a stark visual of how patients were “bled” in colonial times for many an ailment.
The realistic historical portrayal is based on George Washington’s family friend, Dr. Hugh Mercer, who was known to treat Washington’s mother, Mary Washington. A captivating immersion into the workings of an apothecary shop, it should be tops on any Fredericksburg list.
Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center
This fascinating museum transports you to the Fredericksburg area of 1730-1860, with a representative collection of furniture, paintings and silver to how the city's role in the Civil War was just as divisive as the country over issues of slavery. The museum gives insights from the perspective of slaves and immigrants. Seven permanent exhibitions include my favorites: George Washington and the Masonic Tradition; an inside look at Fredericksburg at war based on objects left behind during the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and World War I and World War II; and a reflection of community based on African-American perspectives during the Civil Rights era and women’s insights.
James Monroe Museum
Located in historic downtown Fredericksburg, the James Monroe Museum is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and administered by the University of Mary Washington. It is the country’s largest collection of artifacts and documents connected to James Monroe (1758-1831), the fifth president of the United States. Not many people realize that Monroe was the last of the Founding Fathers to serve as president. He was also the third president to die on Independence Day, the other two being John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. A protégé of Thomas Jefferson, his lasting legacy would be the Monroe Doctrine – a warning to European powers to not interfere in the affairs of the United States or its possessions. Essentially, he was the first national defense president with a focus on Western expansion.
Many of the artifacts on display were used by President Monroe in the White House, including his writing desk, clothing, china and fine arts. This museum is a gem and should also be considered a must-visit.
Civil War tour
The areas of Fredericksburg and nearby Spotsylvania were the stage for some of the fiercest battles and highest casualty counts during the Civil War. Today, the best way to take in tours of the Civil War – and the Revolutionary War and colonial history – is by signing up for a personalized tour with Hallowed Ground Tours. With licensed guides, they customize tours around your specific interests, lasting from two hours to all day. And it's all from the comfort of your vehicle.
Where to eat and drink
Fredericksburg is alive with a restoration vibe everywhere, beckoning visitors to explore its flavors along with a popular drinking scene. While the city may be dated historically, it's also at the forefront of wine, beer, and distilled spirits. Case in point: Potomac Point Winery & Vineyard, Blue and Gray Brewing Company and A. Smith Bowman Distillery.
For dinner options bursting with local flavor and clean ingredients, I walked to FOODE, where many of the entrée ingredients are freshly picked by local farmers or provided by vetted meat purveyors. This is not a fancy place; you pay for your order in advance at the counter. Be prepared for crowds.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Courtyard Marriott while in Fredericksburg, and found the room spacious and location convenient.
TIP: One of the best bargains available is the 75-minute Trolley Tour through America’s Most Historic City. Tours depart daily from the Fredericksburg Visitor Center in the Historic District and include discounts on admission prices to many museums and historic homes.