With a cobblestone lane or two, red-brick sidewalks and colonial-era buildings (including the circa 1767 Christ Church, the home parish of George Washington and Robert E. Lee), Old Town Alexandria remains one of the greatest hits and pit stops for fans of early-American history.
After all, handsome, well-dressed George Washington danced here (at Gadsby’s Tavern, still open as a museum-restaurant hybrid), Robert E. Lee’s Revolutionary War-hero dad Harry “Light Horse” Lee made his home here and early Scottish merchants helped make Alexandria one of the busiest colonial ports in the late 18th century.
That tricorn-hatted quaintness, so familiar to me after living in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades, still resonates in the walkable, historic burg just nine miles from the U.S. Capitol. But on my recent evenings and afternoons there, I’ve been getting a feel for Old Town’s other charms: buildings from the turbulent, hoop-skirted Civil War period—Alexandria is the inspiration for PBS’s Union hospital drama “Mercy Street” (2016-2017)—restaurants dishing up modern Southern fare and one of the best indie boutique scenes on the East Coast.
“It’s so easy to stroll around the main parts of Old Town, and there’s such a cool patchwork of history and modern businesses,” says Ashley Valanzola, who founded the walking tour company Discover Alexandria in 2017.
Her most popular trek? A “Mercy Street”-themed jaunt taking in sites like the Carlyle House, where the real-life Green family lived, currently a historic house and museum, and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum where the Union hospital that’s the center of the drama would’ve picked up potions.
Though “Mercy” was filmed in Richmond, Virginia, fans (myself included) can geek out on the old-school pharmacy’s slightly creepy collection of hand-blown glass medicine bottles (what is Cretprec anyhow?) and weathered mortars and pestles. Handsome TV surgeon Dr. Jed Foster (actor Josh Radnor) isn’t anywhere in sight, but I tell myself he might drop in momentarily with some smelling salts.
Other guided trips, including a running tour, take in the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, in addition to Market Square—both touchstones in the long and complicated history of African-Americans in Alexandria from slavery onward.
“They’re such powerful locations, and people react so strongly,” says Valanzola.
Propelled perhaps by all this history and Virginia’s location on the edge of the South, the restaurant scene veers between down-home comfort and uptown foodie. That’s perhaps no more apparent or plate-cleaning tasty than at Hen Quarter, where, on a recent Saturday, two girlfriends and I tucked into fried chicken and cheese-packed biscuits in a two-level space decorated with a bourbon-bottle chandelier and weathered wood. “This doesn’t look like what I think of as ‘Ye Olde Town,’” remarked one pal, as she downed the last of an herbaceous mint julep.
Nearby, second-floor speakeasy PX beckons for me to once again climb the rickety stairs to the dark, vintage wood bar for retro cocktails with inspired local ingredients (tobacco, local honeycomb). I’ve also slurped many a briny oyster while taking in the dazzling views of the Potomac River at the cavernous, fish-centric Blackwall Hitch.
Meggrolls feels more “new Virginia” than old, too, with its beachy vibe and walls covered in retro album covers (think The Cars, Zeppelin).
Still, owner and Alexandria native Meghan Baroody knows her comfort chow. Her cafe serves up egg rolls stuffed with down-home fillings like mac and cheese and chicken parmesan.
“I’d been working in restaurants and bars in the area for years, and I love Old Town’s relaxed vibe,” says Baroody, who, when she’s not wokking and rolling her savory treats, hangs out nearby at old-school watering hole Chadwicks. “It’s the kind of place where you can stroll in wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap to watch the game,” she says.
Me, I’m often dressed more fashion blogger than sports fan when I’m hitting these short, rowhouse-lined blocks since my favorite Old Town pursuit is shopping. Dozens of indie boutiques (more than most ‘hoods across the river in D.C.) entice with vintage and new clothing, housewares and a smattering of antiques.
King Street, the main drag since colonial times, buzzes with personal favorites like The Hour, where I’ve scored colorful vintage cocktail shakers and bar napkins, and Red Barn Mercantile, where owner Amy Rutherford oversees a den of cozy sofas, decor books and intoxicatingly scented candles. “We keep trying to renew the mix, which is something I think Old Town itself is doing,” says Rutherford.
Dropping in on a couple of my top-choice clothing shops reinforces Rutherford’s claim: the brands and stock here rival that of D.C., and heck, NYC. At haute-end The Hive, I try on a coral Rag & Bone dress that’s one part rocker, two parts lady and paw through feathered earrings from Lizzie Fortunato.
Nearby, at Bishop Boutique, I can’t resist buying a pair of velvet pumps by Kate Middleton fave L.K. Bennett. They’re retro yet oh-so-cool—just the thing I could wear to one of those fabulous balls George W. went to back in the day.
More Recommendations for Savvy Travelers
Old Town has been a center of hustle and bustle since the 18th century. History lives on at Columbia Firehouse, a former 19th-century engine room now an American brasserie, while Nasime serves up scratch-made Japanese dishes in a cozy dining room. Vola’s offers a waterfront hangout with seafood comforts like fish ‘n’ chips and lobster rolls. Columbia Firehouse: 109 St. Asaph St., 703.683.1776; Nasime: 1209 King St., 703.457.0146; Vola’s Dockside Grill: 101 N. Union St.,703.935.8890
Speakeasies PX (look for the blue light) and Captain Gregory’s (inside Sugar Shack) pay homage to the golden age of cocktails with inventive new spins. At Portner Brewhouse, founder Robert Portner’s great-great-granddaughters continue his legacy in expanding one of the largest pre-Prohibition breweries in the Southeast. Captain Gregory’s: 804 N. Henry St., 703.577.9023; Portner Brewhouse: 5770 Dow Ave., 571.312.0243; PX 728 King St., 703.299.8385
At Fibre Space, find hand-dyed yarns, yarn “tastings” and even movie nights. 529 Kids offers seriously cool duds for tots at deep discounts, while The Dog Park stocks treats, and more, for furbabies. 529 Kids Consign: 122 S. Royal St., 703.567.4518; The Dog Park: 705 King St., 703.888.2818; Fibre Space: 1319 Prince St., 703.664.0344
Former munitions plant Torpedo Factory Art Center now houses artist studios and a printmaking workshop. At the Alexandria Black History Museum, learn about African-American heritage inside the once-segregated Robinson Library. After, jet across the Potomac on a water taxi with the Potomac Riverboat Company. Alexandria Black History Museum: 902 Wythe St., 703.746.4356; Potomac Riverboat Company: 105 N. Union St., 877.511.2628; Torpedo Factory Art Center: 105 N. Union St., 703.746.4570510.444.1233