If you find yourself in Washington, DC, with a morning or an afternoon to spare, consider crossing the sleepy Potomac into Virginia: On a warm, sunny day, a stroll through Old Town Alexandria is an engaging stroll through history–local and national.
Established by Scottish merchants in 1749 and laid out with help of a 17-year-old apprentice surveyor named George Washington, Alexandria was once the darling of the British crown, supplying it with best Virginia tobacco, and, after the revolution, the new country’s westernmost seaport. Part of the American South, it saw the largest slave dealing operation, was an important link in the Underground Railroad, and became the longest-occupied city during the Civil War. In the 20th century, America’s first deliberate and planned civil rights sit-in strike took place at the Alexandria library, twenty years before Greensboro. Alexandria’s Old Town was third in the US, after Charleston and New Orleans, to be designated a historic district. There is plenty to see, hear, and taste along Alexandria’s quaint, cobblestone streets. Last Sunday, I began my first coherent journey into the town’s history–I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.
It is easy to get to Alexandria from DC by metro: head to the King Street Station on the Blue and Yellow lines and then hop on the free King Street Trolley. The trolley leaves the metro station every 15 minutes, every day, 10 am to 10:15 pm Sunday through Wednesday and 10 am to midnight Thursday through Saturday. King Street is Old Town’s chief artery, with all main attractions revolving dependably around it (if you start by the metro, don’t miss the bizarre tower of the George Washington Masonic National Monument–the views from the observation deck and some of Washington’s artifacts are nothing short of impressive).
My favorite way to enter the city, though, is by boat: regular water taxis and sightseeing cruises will take you to Alexandria’s Marina from DC’s Georgetown Dock and Maryland’s National Harbor. The 45-minute journey from Georgetown is especially picturesque–no matter how often I take it, I always enjoy the “Washington by Water” Monuments Cruise ($14 one-way or $28 round trip): In good weather, you can relax on the boat’s upper deck, with a drink in hand and a gentle breeze in your hair, listening to a leisurely account of all the monuments, landmarks, and the general drama of nation-building along the way.
Once in Alexandria, pause at the Marina for at least a little bit: it is always lively, with shore birds and street performers vying for your attention. The centerpiece of it all, somewhat unsightly in its utilitarian glory, is the Torpedo Factory, once just that and now a space for artist studios, workshops, galleries, and the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.
As you venture toward King St., you may wish to stop by The Virginia Shop at 104 S. Union St., a treasure trove of old-world Virginia souvenirs and local delicacies. Staff offer to keep your purchase at the store, so you can pick it up on your way back to the boat–thoughtful, charming, and hospitable.
As for your historic journey through Old Town, begin at the beginning: the Ramsay House, Alexandria’s Visitors’ Center on King and Fairfax, only two blocks away from the Marina.
Built for William Ramsay, a Scottish merchant and Alexandria’s first postmaster, this was one of the first houses to be erected in town, positioned to face the Potomac–back then, the river came up to the houses on Fairfax Street–so Ramsay would have a good view of his ships. Over time, the inhabitants of Fairfax Street, many of the city’s most important citizens, realized that riverfront views also meant rats, drunken sailors, and floods, so the river was filled, and the city grew by two blocks. The Ramsay House remained as it was, however, still ideally suited to welcome visitors arriving from the docks.
The Visitors’ Center is an excellent source of maps, brochures, advice, and, on occasion, free parking passes (available upon request for guests to the town). Staff is very helpful, and you can often purchase discounted admittance to several of Alexandria’s most popular historic sites. A number of independent guided walking tours (Footsteps to the Past is a good example)
leave from the Visitors’ Center–I’d call Ramsay House in advance for the timing of tours that day (703- 746-3301). Payments are made directly to the guide in cash. Luckily, the Visitors’ Center is also a great stop for your ATM needs and restrooms, an all-around hospitality corner.
Outside, your wanderings can be as cursory or as extensive as your schedule and physical prowess allow. For an introductory ramble that will keep you close to the Marina, I would recommend the itinerary below–this is what we did last Sunday, and it proved to be an unhurried and enjoyable walk (the city provides more thorough itineraries here).
Exit Ramsay and look around: Alexandria’s City Hall and large Market Square come instantly into view. On Saturday mornings, the square explodes with color and fragrance from the Old Town Farmers’ Market, one of the oldest continually operating farmers’ markets in the country (George Washington sent produce from his plantations for sale here in 1700s). On any day, the Market Square is a lovely spot to sit in shade and plot your next steps.
Across the way, on S. Fairfax St. (King Street dissects Old Town into its Northern and Southern halves), is one of my favorite Alexandria Museums, a hidden gem of the entire DC area: the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. A prominent fixture for 141 years until it closed its doors in 1933, this family-run apothecary witnessed and played part in all of Alexandria’s trials and tribulations from the Revolutionary War and early days of independence to the Civil War and the Great Depression. The building is arrested in time, virtually unchanged since it was bought whole in 1933 and designated a museum–many of the dusty, picturesque drawers are still filled with delightfully toxic medicines of the days past. Tours are given twice an hour, a quarter after and a quarter to the hour. I already described the museum in another post so I won’t say more, except: If you have half an hour, and the timing is right, DO stop by.
Otherwise, head north along Fairfax Street to meet one of Alexandria’s first prominent denizens and landowners, the successful Scottish merchant John Carlyle. You can’t miss the Carlyle House: this white-stone 18th-century Palladian mansion stands out beautifully against all the brick and cobblestone.
John Carlyle built this house for his bride, Sarah Fairfax, a daughter of Virginia’s most prominent family (the street, among many other things in the area, is named after them). The Carlyles moved into the mansion in August 1753; the same night, their first son was born. “It is a fine beginning,” Carlyle wrote to his brother. And it was: Two years later, the house played host to “the Grandest Congress … ever known on the Continent”— General Braddock, the Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America, chose the Carlyle House as his headquarters. It was here that Braddock met with five colonial governors to discuss plans for funding the French-Indian War. The colonists were not forthcoming with funds, and the first threats of taxation were thrown by the angry General, hinting at the frictions to come. Braddock’s congress is reenacted at the mansion from time to time, along with other events in the house’s 250-year history (regular tours of the house are offered on the hour and half-hour): I always look forward to the candlelit Historical Haunt Tour, a reenactment of John Carlyle’s 1780 funeral, in October–just in time for Halloween.
Continue north on Fairfax to Cameron St. At 133 N. Fairfax, you will come face to face with the austere Georgian structure of the Bank of Alexandria, the first chartered bank in Virginia. The town’s most prominent citizens patronized the bank in Washington’s and Carlyle’s time. This building is normally closed to the public, but, some years, you can tour it along with several other historic houses during the early-December Annual Historic Alexandria Candlelight Tours, a fine local tradition.
A bit further, at 201 N. Fairfax, is the cream building of Wise’s Tavern, one of the town’s premier social hubs in 1700s. On the steps of this tavern, George Washington addressed his fellow Alexandrians before heading to New York for his inauguration as the first President of the newly independent country. Washington, reportedly an avid dancer, attended several balls here, including the 1788 celebration of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
Return to Cameron Street, walk west to N. Royal St., and go up to 134 & 138 N. Royal St., two connected buildings that once housed the famous City Tavern and the City Hotel, today Gatsby’s Tavern Museum. Both the tavern and the hotel were also owned by John Wise, Alexandria’s “Tavern King”, but they became famous under direction of John Gatsby. With Gatsby at their helm, it was here that George Washington celebrated two of his Birthnight Balls (including his last), Thomas Jefferson held his inaugural party, and James Madison, John Adams, Marquis de Lafayette, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams enjoyed evenings of Virginia hospitality. A restaurant now operates from the larger City Hotel, serving 18-century fare. I haven’t tried the restaurant yet, but I did love the museum (guided tours, for $5, are led at a quarter after and a quarter to the hour).
From Gatsby’s, return to the corner of Cameron and N. Royal St., turn left and walk west to 508 Cameron Street. This is a reconstruction of George Washington’s townhouse, where he spent many a night and welcomed guests since 1769 (amazingly, the original structure was torn down in 1855!). This is a private residence today. The owners have a bust of Washington in the window, which they often decorate in honor of a holiday or an important event (the medal-clad Washington celebrating one summer’s Olympics is my favorite so far).
Finally, continue west to, fittingly, Washington St. and the entrance to the historic Christ Church, older than the nation and proud of it. Alexandria’s first church, it was once surrounded by a picturesque grove marking the edges of city limits. Its grounds are the final resting place of many important early residents and Civil War soldiers. On a fine autumn day, it is very peaceful here.
As tempting as it is to linger on one of the churchyard’s shaded benches, do go in. It seems, docents hover about in an expectation of you, and this place is impressive in what it has seen.
Every first Sunday of the month, October to June, Christ Church holds its Choral Evensong services at 4:40pm. A beautiful conclusion to a leisurely walk, don’t you think?
On our way back, we stumbled upon several curious sights of Old Town. There is still lots to see here–and I will certainly come back.
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