With its leafy, cobblestone streets, Federal-style architecture and small town feel, Alexandria, Virginia, represents the antithesis of the fevered hubbub across the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. Founding father George Washington actually slept in Old Town, and if you make it your base, you will find plenty of historic sights, as well as a lively dining and retail scene.
A dose of history before you eat
Old Town Alexandria is highly walkable, and connects to parks and walking trails, many overlooking the Potomac. George Washington, whose Mount Vernon estate is less than 10 miles away, informs much of the its early history.
Start your visit at the Ramsay House Visitors Center, from which a walking tour leaves daily between April and November. If you prefer riding to walking, the Free King Street Trolley is at your beck and call Sunday through Wednesday, from 10 a.m. through 10:15 p.m., and Thursday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. through midnight.
As a thriving seaport city trading tobacco with England, Alexandria boasts many sights tied to Washington. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum is a fascinating repository of herbal botanicals, handblown glass and old-fashioned medical equipment. It’s also where George and Martha Washington, as well as Confederate General Robert E. Lee, filled their prescriptions.
Christ Church is another notable stop. This was George and Martha’s place of worship. You can sit in pew number 60 to channel the first president. History buffs will also appreciate the 333-foot George Washington Masonic Memorial, home to all kinds of memorabilia. Here, you can see the Free Mason’s bedchamber clock stopped at the time of Washington’s death — 10:20 p.m. (on Dec. 14, 1799) — and a 17-foot-tall bronze statue of the first president. Take a free one-hour guided tour which includes a stop on the observation deck, where, if the sky is clear, there’s a great view of the Washington Monument just across the Potomac.
Historic eats and libations
Alexandria, like the Colonial-era Philadelphia and Boston, has a long history of taverns and pubs. Here, Gadsby’s claims to be the founding father’s favorite place to drink. The bar is still a convivial place, and the traditional menu includes such specialties as African-style peanut soup with garlic and ginger and hot Smithfield ham biscuits.
For newer culinary frontiers, discover the savory handiwork of local partners Todd Thrasher, an expert mixologist and chef Carthal Armstrong, who have spent the last decade opening some of Alexandria’s best-known restaurants and bars. Most recently the duo conceived Hotel Indigo’s new seafood-centric Hummingbird restaurant, with its striking waterfront views of the Potomac River. Armstrong offers a raw bar along with clambakes and weekend seafood boils and a killer burger for carnivores, while Thrasher created a menu of classic cocktails and sparkling slushies ideal for patio slurping.
A quick walk from downtown, Armstrong’s Restaurant Eve is the original eatery from the Dublin-born chef and his wife, Meshelle. Named for their first-born, the restaurant splits its space between a casual bistro and a fine dining experience. You can choose among an a la carte menu or five- or seven-course dinners showcasing local and seasonal products that’s served in a 34-seat tasting room.
At PX, another Thrasher-Armstrong collaboration that’s just a 10-minute walk from Hotel Indigo, you climb the stairs to a second story “speakeasy” with a sexy Victorian bordello theme. Thrasher has created a world of handcrafted elixirs made with all manner of tinctures, syrups and craft spirits. Try the PX champagne cocktail made with housemade cherry bitters, Grand Marnier and Bacardi 151, with a Luxardo cherry on top .
In between grazing, wander King Street and peruse dozens of (mostly) locally owned boutiques and art galleries and studios. Alexandria is a throwback to a gentler age — a place where you can try to forget about politics for a while, or at least take a break from the craziness on the other side of the Potomac.