The port city of Alexandria is less than thirty minutes away from Washington, D.C., but this Virginia town seems timeless, in the good sense of the word. The narrow, colorful buildings in the Old Town bring back memories of the old America, where travelers would arrive here by boat or by horse, many of them immigrants who helped to build the idea of a new nation.
In a short visit tour to the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, a former center for social life and politics, it’s easy to imagine both the rich and the working classes coming to Alexandria for dances and for business, staying in crowded rooms with no windows and drinking in the halls. It’s said that George Washington visited Gadsby’s Tavern frequently, as well as other important American historical figures of the time like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It’s a small building steeped in American history like so much of the Washington, D.C. region.
While the tavern is the original historical place, some of the decorations and furniture have been moved to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Small guided tours take place every day and their passion for Alexandria’s history is obvious. The guides will share amazing secrets and stories of those who visited Gadsby’s, putting the whole building into context in the historical development of Alexandria. A similar story is told in the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, a preserved pharmacy of old times that still smells of salts and remedies.
Next to the Market Square, where an old market has continuously taken place for over a century (and where people now gather for special events and festivals like the Scottish Christmas Walk), the Alexandria Visitor Center on King Street is one of the oldest houses in Alexandria. King Street serves as the main artery of Old Town Alexandria with a collection of vintage stores, restaurants, cafés and a bustling street life. Alexandria also advocates for small, local businesses and many of the shops in Old Town Alexandria are independently owned.
One thing immediately apparent when walking down King Street is that this is a city not just for tourists and people, but Alexandria also holds the record of being one of the most dog-friendly places in the United States. And because the city has a commitment with affordable quality-of-life and climate change, a free-of-charge bus goes all the way through King Street from the George Washington Masonic National Memorial to the Waterfront Park.
With its view and terrace over the Potomac River, Vola’s Dockside Grill is a great bar and restaurant with delicious seafood and salads and great desserts. Also right at the pier is the funky Torpedo Factory Art Center, an old torpedo factory now turned into a multi-level collection of studios and ateliers, where local artists pay a fee and have a space to create and sell their photographs, sculptures and crafts. The open gallery specializes in both souvenirs and art pieces. If you wander around, you can meet the artists and have a talk about their work—oftentimes while they’re still creating.
During my visit to Alexandria, I stayed at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa. The hotel is home to the Brabo restaurant—one of Alexandria’s many fine dining restaurants. The Brabo is a great option both for service and for food. Imagine white tablecloths, top quality service and a menu specialized in local ingredients and innovative dishes. Try the wonderful grilled octopus and check the menu for the meals of the season.
Another great option for dinner in Alexandria is Hank’s Pasta Bar with a selection of all sorts of pastas, including some gluten-free meals and many wines. A little outside of the main King Street drag, it’s worth the short trek for its rustic Italian cooking and great atmosphere. And on the way, there’s a secret hideaway behind the trendy Sugar Shack Donuts. Through a secret passage at the front of the donut shop, a speakeasy bar Captain Gregory’s is hidden. Handcrafted cocktails (and donuts!) make the perfect nightcap.
Part of the beauty of Alexandria is its place in American history. So close to Washington, D.C., the city looks straight out of history—its colonial architecture, the cobblestoned streets. In fact, many films and TV shows shoot in Old Town Alexandria for its looks—helped by the fact that the city in fact has a strong place in Civil War history.
In 2017, though, the busy and cool streets of Alexandria tell a different story nowadays, one of people enjoying cappuccinos in hipster cafés like Killer ESP or in Society Fair. After all, this city has played a major role in history and maybe the whole state of Virginia is doing it again: one of the most welcoming and gay-friendly states in the USA, Virginia is currently promoting its campaign “Virginia is for lovers”, and in a time where bigotry and hate are rampant, it’s good to be reminded of the good ol’ values of hospitality, acceptance and respect—an important part of Alexandria’s past and present.
More information about visiting Alexandria can be found on their official tourism website.