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Exploring Old Town Alexandria
Find colonial history, charming boutiques, art and a farm-to-table dining scene in this 200-plus-year-old riverside city
Set foot onto Old Town Alexandria’s redbrick sidewalks, and you could be fooled into thinking you have traveled back in time. The small city was founded in 1749 as a colonial tobacco port, and still boasts cobblestone streets, 18th-century buildings and even a town crier, all of which will make you feel like you’re in George Washington’s era.
And that’s not a coincidence. George, whose Mount Vernon plantation is nine miles down the road, frequented Old Town businesses, many of them still in operation today, like Gadsby’s Tavern (now a restaurant/museum hybrid) and Christ Church. His farm even sold produce at the Saturday farmers' market in Market Square, which has been operating since 1753. It’s still a great place to buy flowers and a hot ham biscuit. There’s even a dramatic architectural salute to the first commander in chief: the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, a 331-foot-tall granite structure that holds exhibits on the president, a 17-foot-tall statue of him and a diagonal elevator that whisks visitors to the top of the tower.
Other historic attractions include the Carlyle House, a grand, 1753 merchant’s house with a pristine city garden and impressive interior carvings, and the Athenaeum, a pink, neoclassical-style 1851 building that once held a bank but now holds an arts center. You can see these and other signs of the past on guided walking tours (including candlelit ghost treks close to Halloween).
But amid all that ye olde charm, there’s also a bustling, modern town known for its walkable streets, independent and national stores and a vibrant dining scene. You’ll uncover them on the main drag, King Street, as well as small side streets, where offerings range from fashionable shoe stores, chic home boutiques and worth-a-hunt vintage clothing and decor shops. More than 80 painters, sculptors and jewelers work and sell at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, a World War II-era munitions factory-turned-cultural mecca.
Restaurants and bars cluster along King Street and near the waterfront. In addition to a smattering of Irish bars, you’ll also find fine dining, speakeasies and international fare from Thai to Mexican. Many are located in historic storefronts or old shipping buildings, just adding to the throwback appeal.