I remember when I first stepped out onto the cobblestoned sidewalks of Alexandria. The sun was setting, and a cool breeze carrying the salty scent of the Potomac River kicked leaves down the street. The colorful colonial storefronts beckoned, and though the streets bustled with trolleys and travelers, you could easily imagine what this quaint city looked like in the Revolutionary War era.
Alexandria, Virginia has played a complex role in the United States’ history since its inception. George Washington himself went to church and lived here for a time. Today, Alexandria is a city bursting with vitality; walking through American history, exploring Virginia’s natural beauty, and diving into the city’s delicious and diverse food scene are just a sneak peek of all the city has to offer.
Here are 17 things to do in Alexandria VA that we know you and your crew are going to love!
VISIT GEORGE WASHINGTON’S MOUNT VERNON
I mentioned that George Washington was a fan of Alexandria, so much so that the city became his adopted hometown. However, you may not know that George Washington’s beloved plantation, Mount Vernon, is a short drive from Alexandria.
Visiting Mount Vernon allows you stunning insight into our first president’s life. Artifacts from his day and those of his heirs, the Custis family, line the mansion’s walls. On the plantation grounds, you can learn about the enslaved people who tilled the land and whose histories are integral to Mount Vernon’s story.
Simply walking the grounds of Mount Vernon will transport you back 200 years into America’s past. The trees that line the walking paths that were once strolled by George and Martha on their evening walk, now surround the couple’s tomb that overlooks the Potomac River. There is a beautiful sense of peacefulness surrounding the entire property, especially when looking out over the river.
After touring the plantation, I highly recommend sitting down at The Mount Vernon Inn to reminisce on your experience. The Inn serves 18th century fare that Washington himself may have enjoyed when staying at his home, as well as more contemporary eats.
If you want another adventure, consider walking, running, or biking part (or all!) of the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail. This multi-use trail gives you unobstructed views of the Washington, DC skyline. The trail stretches from the Mount Vernon Estate to Theodore Roosevelt Island.
EXPLORE OLD TOWN ALEXANDRIA
If you want a break from D.C.’s bustling streets or are looking for colonial charm at its finest, take a stroll through Old Town Alexandria. D.C. folks can take the metro to avoid the hassle of parking. Visitors can set off on the King’s Street Trolley for free transport to Old Town.
So what is there to do and see in Old Town Alexandria, aside from gorgeous colonial shopfronts and 300-year-old stone streets? Plenty!
SEE THE LOCALS AT THE FARMERS MARKET
You cannot often say you’ve shopped for tomatoes at the same market where George Washington sold produce from Mount Vernon, but you can in Alexandria. The city is home to the oldest Farmers Market in the U.S.!
At the Old Town Farmers’ Market, you can shop for over 70 vendors during the peak season. The market welcomes visitors year-round on Saturdays, but you’ll find the most vendors during spring and summer. You’ll find everything from artisanal bread to ripe cherries and peaches.
WALK THE KING STREET MILE
King Street is the beating heart of Alexandria. Here, the charm of 18th and 19th century America comes to life in the preserved architecture blended harmoniously with modern-day cafes, boutiques, museums, and restaurants.
The King Street Mile refers to a walk that takes you from one end of the eponymous street, to where it ends at King Street Park, along the Potomac River. The leisurely stroll takes you through the best of Old Town, passing by sites and spots beloved by locals – including the Market Squares Museum, the Spite House, and the Old Town Farmers Market.
OR RENT BIKES TO EXPLORE THE ENTIRE AREA
If you feel like visiting even more of Old Town, consider renting a bike instead. Old Town encompasses several blocks of shops and unique stops worth a bike ride. The streets of the Old Town area are ideally suited for cycling – just remember your helmet (safety first)!
Alexandria has multiple cycling rental shops, some of which offer electric bikes if you prefer. I personally find cycling through Old Town Alexandria a great way to take in the architecture and catch a glimpse of the river.
RIDE A WATER TAXI
One of my favorite memories from Alexandria involved a sunset ride on a water taxi. First, you start out your journey from Old Town Alexandria’s harbor, which rests on the Potomac River. It’s a beautiful area in its own right, with its magnificent riverfront views and the delicious Chart House overlooking the dock. From there, a water taxi takes you down the gentle river waters.
On my water taxi tour, I saw the Potomac turn gold in the sunset. The tour took us upriver to view Washington D.C. from the watery highway once traversed by tea-bearing merchant ships. We saw the Jefferson Memorial and Lincoln Memorial sunset from the water taxi’s deck; truly, there was nothing more breathtaking!
STROLL THE TORPEDO FACTORY ART CENTER
If you can’t wait to hit the arts scene in Alexandria, don’t wait to visit the Torpedo Factory Art Center. You’re probably wondering why it is called the Torpedo Factory? Well, this remarkable art center resides in a retired munitions plant.
The folks who work in the Torpedo Factory now create pottery, paintings, and sculptures instead of weapons. The factory hosts 82 artists’ studios and over 165 artists working with all forms of artistic mediums.
Visitors to the Torpedo Factory will find the largest collection of working artists in one building. And, just behind the Torpedo Factory, you’ll find dozens of artists on the bird walk in the summer. After visiting the factory, you can enjoy a refreshing bite to eat around the corner at Vola’s Dockside Grill or the Hi-Tide Lounge.
MAKE HISTORY AFFORDABLE WITH A KEY TO THE CITY MUSEUM PASS
Alexandria is home to some of America’s most exceptional museums. With the “Key to the City” pass, you can explore nine historical sites throughout the city – plus get a discount on that visit to Mount Vernon you’re planning! The pass is an unbelievable bargain, considering it costs about $20.
Included in your Key to the City are the best museums in Alexandria, including the George Washington National Masonic Monument, which offers breathtaking 360-degree views of Alexandria and the surrounding area.
Also included in the Key to the City is the Alexandria Black History Museum, which resides in a formerly segregated library that now details the story of Alexandria’s African-Americans. If you want to visit a quirky museum, check out the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and discover how the Colonial people treated their illnesses and injuries.
If you want to get closer to George Washington, swing by the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, which Washington used to visit for a drink when in the area. Or, visit the Carlyle House Museum, where colonial governors made many decisions for the French Indian War – Washington served in the war as a British General before becoming the leader of America.
I also recommend swinging by the National Inventors Hall of Fame to learn about some of the greatest technology made by Americans. The museum offers unique insight into women and minority inventors in America. And, the museum is 100% free – even if you don’t have the Key to the City pass.
GO SMALL AT SPITE HOUSE
On Queens Street in Alexandria stands a perplexing house that has confused and entertained pedestrians for over 150 years. Like many homes around it, the building is brightly colored – a vibrant blue – and done in the traditional Georgian style. However, what draws people to this particular house is not its color or shape, but its size.
Known as the “Hollensbury Spite House,” this minuscule home is the smallest in America. It stands at a mere 7 feet wide and 25 feet deep. And yes, people live there, though residential space was not the home builder’s original intention.
You see, this tiny blue home bears the title of “The Spite House” because John Hollensbury built it to “spite” the folks who used the alley, which existed before the house. Hollensbury enclosed the alley, essentially building a pop-up home overnight, much to the dismay of travelers used to utilizing his alley. Today, the little home still bears the mark of its alley origins – you can still see the scuff marks and damage from carriages passing through the alley on the home’s walls.
What’s exceptionally interesting about the minute-sized Spite House is that people live in it! Of course, that does mean that you won’t be able to take a tour inside of the building, but it’s a great place to snag a selfie while wandering Old Town.
SHOP, DINE, AND SAMPLE THE BREWS
I need to warn you; Old Town Alexandria has far too many delicious dining and drinking options – it’ll make you wish you had time to try them all. But, if you’re pressed for time or visiting Alexandria only for a day or two, you’ll have to be selective. Not sure where to start? I have some suggestions.
Breakfast time in Alexandria is delightfully sensual in Old Town. There’s nothing like enjoying a cup of coffee while watching waterfowl take flight from the river or watching the town sleepily come to life from one of the cafe patios. I recommend checking out Misha’s Coffeehouse for locally roasted coffee – the City Roast is my favorite. Or, if you want more traditional breakfast fare, swing by Extra Perks for a Full English breakfast. (They also have excellent Fish and Chips for lunch.)
Speaking of lunch, locals swear by Caphe Banh Mi for authentic Vietnamese food. And, you’ll find plenty of ethnic cuisine in Old Town, whether at Caphe Banh Mi for a steaming bowl of pho or another of Old Town’s scrumptious haunts.
. Now, as far as dinner and brews go – there’s no place better than Old House Cosmopolitan. This German restaurant offers traditional fare, like Wiener Schnitzel, plus on-tap German beers.
If you have room for a tasty libation or two, Alexandria’s Old Town offers two brewing options and an astounding history to go with them. It turns out that beer was rather crucial to Alexandria; the city once housed the largest pre-Prohibition brewery in the South, the Robert Portner Brewing Company.
Port City Brewing carries on the tradition of Virginian beer making and offers a brewery tour for visitors. However, if beer isn’t your game, visit Lost Boy Cider and enjoy adult beverages made from locally grown Shenandoah apples.
DARE TO TAKE A GHOST TOUR
Alexandria has existed since the 18th century, and the area was home to Indigenous tribes well before that, so it should come as no surprise that this picturesque town has quite the reputation for ghosts. And you can get to know them on one of Alexandria’s Old Town ghost tours.
Many ghost tours take visitors to the same haunts in Alexandria. I recall vividly my visit to Gadsby’s Tavern, where the tour guide introduced me to the tale of the Female Stranger that haunts Room 8 in the tavern. And, of course, one cannot forget the mysterious deaths that occurred at the Carlyle House. Ghost tours through Alexandria share these tales and others with their visitors.
You have plenty of options to choose from when selecting your guided tour. Several agencies, like Alexandria Colonial Tours, offer ghost tours conducted by costumed tour guides. Also popular are the haunted pub crawls, where stops include drinks at local establishments.
PICNIC AT JONES POINT PARK
If you happen to be in Alexandria on a sunny day and in need of a picnic spot, check out Jones Point Park. The riverfront park is home to the Jones Point Lighthouse, which once played the vital role of guiding ships in from the Chesapeake Bay safely to Alexandria.
Today, the lighthouse remains the last riverine lighthouse in the state. The park itself offers visitors two fishing docks, playgrounds, and basketball courts for their use. You can also explore the area’s history by following the park’s interpretive trail that explores the area’s history.
WATCH AIRPLANES LAND AT GRAVELLY POINT
Watching airplanes is a pastime in Virginia. You are missing out if you’ve never spent time gazing up as the flights take off. My favorite time to visit Gravelly Point was around sunset, when the lights from the planes added to the glitter of the just-appearing stars.
Gravelly Point sits along the Potomac, making it a popular spot for picnicking and plane-spotting. There are ample grassy areas for a picnic, you can play a game of frisbee, or catch some sun while watching the planes. There’s also a boat ramp, in case you feel like floating along the river while you’re at it.
WALK (OR BIKE!) THE W&OD RAILROAD TRAIL
Taking in history and natural beauty is easy in Alexandria, especially with the W&OD Railroad Trail nearby. The W&OD, or Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Trail, once served as a vital connection between the growing cities of Virginia during the Industrial Revolution era. Though the railroad no longer runs along the trail, it still sees its fair share of use.
Virginians know the W&OD Trail as “the skinniest park in Virginia.” It runs for 45 miles, from Arlington to Purcellville. The Arlington Trailhead is a short drive from Alexandria, but it’s worth it! The W&OD offers some of the best scenic walking and biking scenery in the state, and can get you to other cultural hubs, like Falls Church and Vienna, VA.
Along the trail, you’ll find folks horseback riding, skating, biking, walking, and running. Just be mindful of your surroundings in the autumn, as many students use the trail to get to school.
VISIT THE NEW LOCATION OF AMAZON HQ2
The area surrounding Alexandria practically breathes history. It’s not too often that a new building dominates the skyline near the city. But, in 2023, Amazon’s HQ2 will change the skyline for Arlington and bring a new tourist destination near Alexandria.
The HQ2 plans depict the building as an architectural marvel of glass and spirals. It’s supposed to reflect natural shapes and features an outdoor walking path climbing around the building, all the way to the top. Honestly, it looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.
And, it sounds like the public will occasionally be allowed inside this high-tech building – how cool is that? Though the building isn’t open yet, it’s certainly a sight to see when visiting the area.
VISIT ARLINGTON CEMETERY
Speaking of visiting the area, Alexandria is ideally located in Northern Virginia and is only a short day trip from Washington D.C. and Arlington Cemetery. In many ways, this is one of the most historically rich sites in all of Virginia, and one that carries a deep meaning to our nation.
Before Arlington was the National Cemetery, the grounds on which it rests were owned by Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Lee family lived on the grounds of Arlington House, a mansion that once housed George Washington’s stepson, John Park Custis. The mansion remains standing today, and visitors can explore its complex history, and that of Robert E. Lee, during a tour of Arlington.
But many people who come to Arlington Cemetery do so simply to remember the fallen. Others spend their time walking among the peaceful landscaped trails between their tombstones. Visitors often pause and contemplate the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame, or watch in silence as the Old Guard of the 3rd Infantry parade before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
I last visited Arlington in the autumn, at sunset. It’s then when the white marble tombs stand out most, warmed to a soft gold in the light of the evening. It is a sight and experience you won’t forget.
EAT, EAT AND EAT SOME MORE
With all the adventures you’ll find in Alexandria, I can promise you one thing: you will be hungry. Thankfully, Alexandria delivers! The city has an abundance of restaurants in Old Town and other neighborhoods. (Del Ray Neighborhood is a popular foodie destination!)
Seriously, you won’t run out of food options in Alexandria. Your problem will be selecting where to go. My advice? Research your options and make an itinerary – no joke. Need help starting one? I’ve got you.
If you’re in Alexandria for date night or want to wine and dine yourself, check out Cheesetique. This Old Town restaurant offers lobster mac n cheese, cheese boards, wine, and yeah…more cheese. Or, swing by Hank’s Oyster Bar for the freshest seafood you’ll find on this side of the Potomac!
For folks in the Del Ray neck of the woods, I recommend trying Taqueria el Poblano’s duck carnitas with a side of cebollitas (grilled baby onions). Trust me; they’ll put other tacos to shame. But, if you’re looking for live music and Americana food, Evening Star Cafe has terrific sandwiches, small bites, and cocktails.
I’ll throw two more suggestions at you before ending my drool-worthy list: Stomping Ground and The Dairy Godmother. Biscuits and gravy are a southern thing, for sure, but Stomping Ground does it better. Their buttermilk biscuits are the best in the region! It’s a great way to get your Saturday morning started!
And as for the Dairy Godmother…well, what better way to end a day than with a scoop of frozen custard and freshly made donuts? Are you hungry yet? Because now I’m hungry. If that’s not enough, Dairy Godmother also makes sorbet, homemade marshmallows, and other treats. Yum!
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO VIRGINIA
- YOUR VIRGINIA VACATION
- VIRGINIA BEACH: 21 Amazing Things To Do In Virginia Beach, VA
- RICHMOND: 17 Things To Do In Richmond VA On Your Next Visit
- WILLIAMSBURG: 21 Phenomenal Things To Do In Williamsburg VA
- CHARLOTTESVILLE: 22 Outstanding Things To Do In Charlottesville VA
WHERE TO STAY IN ALEXANDRIA VA
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