Outdoor markets, warmly lit downtowns, cozy restaurants, cheerful locals... there is something special about American…
Washington D.C. remains one of America’s top travel destinations. However, nearby Alexandria, Virginia makes for a fantastic home base. In 2021, Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards named it one of the nation’s Top 3 Best Small Cities. It’s easy to see why, with its access to the nation’s capital by water taxis, Metrorail, bike share and more. Plus, hotel rates are on average 30 percent more affordable than in D.C. But there’s more to love than its sidekick status to D.C.
Here’s why Alexandria is a great destination on its own.
History, history and more history.
Founded in 1749, Old Town Alexandria is the nation’s third oldest locally designated historic district. Visitors can walk in the footsteps of George Washington and America’s Founding Fathers while learning about Black history and African American changemakers.
Trace Alexandria’s Black history and culture through largely outdoor experiences via a guided tour with Manumission Tour Company or a self-guided route with the Courageous Journey driving tour, Duke Street Black History Trail and more.
Just south of Old Town, George Washington’s Mount Vernon is the nation’s most-visited historic home, with some 500 acres to explore.
Harry Potter fans will love the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, an 18th-century family-run pharmacy which peddled Hogwarts-worthy ingredients such as Dragon’s Blood. The museum was selected as a new National Historic Landmark in January 2021.
Hello, Potomac River!
Alexandria’s waterfront has recently transformed into an exciting destination, with new dining, arts, history, outdoor space and more. Dine along the water at newly opened Ada’s on the River and BARCA Pier and Wine Bar. Embark on the waterfront African American Heritage Trail , or get out on the water aboard a new craft beer cruise on the tall ship Providence (yes, please!), or a cruise on the newly launched Potomac Paddle Club to National Harbor in Maryland.
Don’t miss the chance to unwind and dine riverside. BARCA Pier, Alexandria’s brand-new waterfront dining destination, is a seasonal outdoor eatery inspired by Barcelona’s beach bars. Made from carved-out shipping containers, menus consist of fun and delicious Mediterranean small plates.
Head farther north along the waterfront to Vola’s Dockside Grill, where you can watch the world go by while savoring lobster rolls and refreshing cocktails (or mocktails).
Celebrate a special occasion at Old Town’s Bastille Brasserie & Bar, which offers French cooking with an American twist. The courtyard, in a word, is so charming. Share steak frites or house-cured duck leg confit alongside handcrafted cocktails or wine selection. The pot de crème au chocolat is a reason to go all on its own.
Old Town Alexandria is the D.C. area’s “Shop Small” destination, with dozens of independent boutiques along the King Street Mile. Visit Mason & Greens, the D.C. area’s first zero-waste grocery and sustainable dry goods store, for vegan and plastic-free products ranging from soaps and shampoos to kombucha on tap. Peruse upscale fashion at donna lewis, a Black-owned boutique known for dressing the likes of Nancy Pelosi.
Pick up printed treasures from Penny Post, sustainable women’s clothing from Threadleaf, vintage barware from The Hour and your next page-turner from Old Town Books… you know how I love a good bookstore!
Get Your Daily Dose of Vitamin D
From Oronoco Bay and Founders Park to Waterfront Park and Jones Point Park, there’s no shortage of riverside green space. Take your pick and play, picnic or plant yourself on the grass. Catch a cool breeze off the river along with glimpses of wildlife as you explore sprawling Mount Vernon Trail, spanning the George Washington Memorial Parkway from Rosslyn to the Mount Vernon estate.
Where to Drop Your Bags
Book a stay at Hotel Indigo, Old Town Alexandria’s boutique-waterfront hotel, for a romantic riverside getaway. Another great option? A stay in the heart of Old Town at The Alexandrian, just steps from Market Square on King Street. Located near the Amtrak and Metrorail stations, Kimpton Lorien Hotel and Spa is perfect for a couples massage at the in-house salon. Got kids? Then it’s all about the Embassy Suites by Hilton.
Arts, Culture and Architecture
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In addition to the Torpedo Factory Art Center, the nation’s largest collection of active artists’ studios under one roof, Alexandria boasts an ever-growing collection of outdoor artwork. Visitors can enjoy an annually-rotating waterfront public art installation series, then scope out Old Town’s photo-ready al fresco artwork or stroll by the murals dotting Alexandria’s artsy Del Ray neighborhood.
With styles spanning more than 250 years, Alexandria is an architecture lover’s dream destination. I’m talking preserved 18th and 19th-century styles on display throughout Old Town, Art Deco designs hidden in plain sight. A Frank Lloyd Wright home available to tour just south of the city.
Where to stay up past your bedtime
Spend a night out strolling bustling King Street under a canopy of twinkling tree lights. Embark on a wine tasting at Sonoma Cellar or sip craft cocktails at Captain Gregory’s and King’s Ransom, both speakeasy-esque. Find live music at Old Town hubs like Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub and Blackwall Hitch, or book a ticket to a show at the legendary Birchmere..
The Perfect Photo Op
Visitors love to pose with arms wide in front of cobalt blue Spite House, America’s skinniest historic home, clocking in at a diminutive seven feet wide. Spite House earned its name in 1830, when John Hollensbury built it to keep horse-drawn wagons and loiterers out of his alley. Looking to get Insta-famous? No? Well you still might want to check out the Ultimate Instagram Guide to Old Town Alexandria featuring the city’s can’t-miss photo-friendly spots.
Since you’re in the area…
Alexandria’s marina on the Potomac River offers traffic-free connectivity to Washington, D.C., Maryland’s National Harbor and MGM Resort & Casino and George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Book a water taxi across the river to a nearby destination with City Cruises anchored by Hornblower.
Have you visited Alexandria? What are your favorite spots? Share in the comments!