Tips + Trends

Port City Awaits: Get the Lay of the Land (and River) in Alexandria, Virginia

Eight miles south of downtown Washington, D.C., the lively city of Alexandria, Virginia, offers a well-preserved look at America during its early days.

Founded in the mid-17th century and famed as the “hometown” of George Washington, Alexandria will charm you with its Potomac River views, fine artisans, independent shops and brick-paved, tree-lined Old Town.

On the Waterfront

things to do in alexandria
The city’s nickname, “Port City,” is apt. (Photo: Alamy)

Alexandria’s nickname, Port City, recalls its early days as one of the busiest ports in Colonial America. Merchant ships no longer ferry Alexandria tobacco and grain from the downtown waterfront, but the area remains an ideal spot to get your bearings.

Hop on the Potomac Riverboat Company’s 40-minute, narrated Alexandria Seaport Cruise along the banks of the Potomac River, which on the Alexandria side is studded with buildings from the early 1700s through the art deco era, and eight small parks.

At the center of the waterfront boardwalk is the Torpedo Factory Arts Center, a sprawling, three-story artisans’ collective set in a former naval munitions complex. Look for enamel jewelry by Sarah Paulson and sea-inspired kinetic glass sculptures by Alison Sigethy, as well as photos, paintings and many other works made from fiber, clay, metal and wood. Admission to the Torpedo Factory is free.

Step Into History

George Washington Masonic National Memorial
The George Washington Masonic National Memorial is a striking sight. (Photo: Alamy)

Alexandria is full of fascinating historical sites, but two in particular will give you a sense of the city as a whole. To save about 50 bucks on these two attractions and six others, purchase a Key to the City Museum Pass either online or in person at the Alexandria Visitor Center.

Based on the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt, the 333-foot-tall George Washington Masonic National Memorial celebrates the life of Alexandria’s most famous neighbor, George Washington. Its ninth-floor observation deck offers panoramic views of the entire city, including lush forests, rolling hills and the Potomac itself.

Back on terra firma, the Lee-Fendall House Museum and Garden represents prominent periods and players in local history. Built in 1785 on a lot sold by a former governor of Virginia (and the father of Robert E. Lee), the Colonial-style clapboard mansion was originally the home of wealthy slave owner Philip Fendall.

During the Civil War it served as a hospital for the Union Army, and in the 1930s was a de facto headquarters for American labor leader John L. Lewis. Seemingly modest from its residential street, this house has some serious stories to tell.

Off to Market (Square)

Graceful 18th- and 19th-century buildings create a sense of stepping way back in time in Alexandria’s aptly named Old Town. This historic district is centered on the brick-paved Market Square, which is home to the Georgian-style City Hall, rebuilt in 1871 after serving as a courthouse in the mid-1750s.

Year-round on Saturday mornings from 7 a.m. to noon, City Hall is the site of the popular Old Town Farmers’ Market, the oldest continuous farmers’ market in America. Back in the late 18th century, George Washington sent produce from his nearby plantation, Mount Vernon, to be sold here, and today you’ll still find fruits, veggies and other goodies from the best area farms.

Hit the Trail

George Washington Masonic National Memorial
Pay a visit to the lush grounds of the Mount Vernon estate. (Photo: Getty Images)

If strolling Old Town’s streets isn’t enough exercise, pull on some sneakers or rent a bike and go explore the Mount Vernon Trail.

Stretching almost 18 miles between Roosevelt Island (just outside of D.C.) and George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, the trail skirts the Old Town waterfront as well as nature areas like Daingerfield Island. The site of Alexandria’s oldest settlement, dating to 1696, this 106-acre park is now an ideal spot for viewing herons, turtles and other river creatures, as well as sailboats gliding along the Potomac.

Shop Till You Drop

Paved with bricks and lined with Colonial-style gas lamps, King Street is the commercial heart of Old Town, full of preserved storefronts and independently owned shops. One of the most popular is the colorful Red Barn Mercantile, a fun source for local souvenirs like Virginia-made Sydney Hale candles and hand-painted Alexandria mugs.

If you swoon over lotions and fragrances, don’t miss swanky beauty boutique Bellacara, and if cocktails are your poison, check out The Hour, which boasts more than a century’s worth of vintage barware. Jewelry and curio lovers will find treasure at The Antique Guild, and old-school vinyl fans will find their bliss in Crooked Beat Records.