Old Town Alexandria
Old Town Alexandria in Virginia has got to be one of my favorite places. Of course that could be because I grew up about 5 miles down the road from it, or that I lived there for about 8 years as an adult. Whatever the reason, it's absolutely charming, and no matter how often I return, it seems like the area welcomes me back with open arms.
I recently visited after a long hiatus and realized that there are some easy mistakes to make when going to this town that is full of shops, restaurants, history and other fun things.
The good news is that these mistakes are easy to avoid, so double check your plans before you pack your bags and make sure your visit is the best it can be.
Brief History of Old Town Alexandria
Known as George Washington's hometown, Old Town Alexandria was once part of Washington D.C.
Before the civil war, the waterfront was home to one of the largest slave trading ports, but was taken over by the Union during the war and the area became an important part of the war effort for the North.
Today, Old Town is full of historic buildings, each one telling a special story. The area has become a hot spot for visitors from near and far.
Mistake #1: Not Riding the Old Town Trolley
Lined with shops and restaurants, the hub of Old Town is King Street. It's the main street that stretches a bit over a mile, from the George Washington Masonic Temple to the historic waterfront.
It's a very doable walk and there are plenty of stops along the way, but if you are planning to be in the area all day, you'll probably get tired. The old brick sidewalks can be hard for some to manage and if you have little ones with you, the walk can be long.
That's where the free trolley comes in. Yes, I said free. It stops all along King Street and you can get off and on wherever you please.
It runs frequently and has plenty of seats on board. Even if you want to walk around, it's worth a ride. It's basically like a free tour bus. What could be better than that?
Mistake #2: Not Staying Long Enough
This is a mistake I list in many of my "5 Mistakes to Avoid When Visiting" articles, but it always holds true. Old Town Alexandria is packed with things to do. There's no way you can do it all in one day, and if you really want to get the feel of the place then you shouldn't.
An overnight stay or long weekend is a wonderful way to get the most out of your trip.
Mistake #3: Not Reading the Parking Signs
If you are driving into town and are planning on parking on the street rather than one of the garages, read the signs carefully.
There are strict parking rules, and the closer you park to the main attractions, the trickier they get. Parking tickets are pricey here.
Be forewarned that the area gets extremely busy, and street parking is at a premium. Remember that you are competing for those elusive spots with other tourists and the locals, who rarely have garages.
Another thing to remember is that some of the local houses have narrow alleyways or garages that you shouldn't block. Sometimes they can be easy to miss.
Mistake #4: Not Exploring the Side Streets
I can't stress this enough, don't skip the side streets. There are all sorts of shops and restaurants off of the beaten path. An added bonus is that they aren't nearly as busy as King Street.
Take time to walk around and read the placards that adorn some of the houses. You'll also come across a couple of streets and alleys that still have the original cobblestones on them. There is some really interesting history to be found.
If you happen to visit during the holidays, look for the traditional colonial decorations that adorn the tops of some of the doorways. Many of the homeowners go out of their way to decorate in this historic style. Also look for the houses who still use gas for their outside lights.
One of my family's favorite things to do when it snowed was to drive down to Old Town and walk around the side streets. It was so peaceful and it felt like we had stepped back in time.
Mistake #5: Skipping a Visit to Mount Vernon
While Mount Vernon isn't in Old Town Alexandria, it's only a short drive down the road, so if you are in the area and have a car, it is well worth a visit.
Let's face it, this is the home of our first president, the father of the United States. You don't want to regret skipping it because you didn't feel like making the drive.
Plan on at least half a day if you go.
Places Not To Miss In Old Town Alexandria
George Washington Masonic Temple
It's a bit off the main street, but the views from the observation platform of Old Town and Washington D. C. are well worth the walk.
Torpedo Factory Art Center
Housed in an old torpedo factory, artists of all types rent studio space to create, exhibit, and sell their work. If you are an art lover, it's not to be missed.
Check out the many sights and sounds of the waterfront. From restaurants to sightseeing cruises along the Potomac river, there's something for everyone.
The tavern is a fine dining restaurant that is adjacent to a museum that tells the history of the tavern which has been in existence since the 1700s. Some of its more famous visitors include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and the Marquis De La Fayette.
America's Skinniest House
Located on Queen Street, and referred to as a Spite House, it is about 7 feet wide and was originally built as a way to block off space between homes so carriages and people wouldn't use the alley.
Old Town Alexandria Is Worth a Visit!
Whether you are planning a visit to the Washington D.C. area or live in the area, Old Town Alexandria is a rare gem that shouldn't be missed.
It's got so much to offer visitors, and once you go once, you'll want to go again and again.
With a little planning, you are sure to have a wonderful trip. Enjoy your visit!
- Exploring Mount Vernon | History | Smithsonian Magazine
George Washington's historic Virginia plantation
- Visit Alexandria
A nationally designated historic district founded in 1749, Old Town Alexandria is home to more than 200 independent restaurants and boutiques alongside intimate historic museums and new happenings at the waterfront.
© 2019 Claudia Porter