Tour of Old Town Alexandria | Things to See and Do
Home to one of the oldest historic districts in America, Alexandria boasts a heavy dose of colonial charm. But, it’s still a living, breathing, functioning city creating new chapters stacked atop its storied past. Bisecting Old Town from west to east is King Street, a thoroughfare bustling with restaurants and cafes, bars and bistros, stands and shops.
Looking for accommodation in Old Town Alexandria? We have listed some nearby hotels below.
Getting to Alexandria
You have a full menu of transportation options for getting to Old Town, and driving should be at the bottom of that list. The traffic is often as gridlocked as congressional politics and parking is at a premium, especially when the weather is nice. Besides, the journey is half the fun.
You can bike along the Mount Vernon Trail. It’s just about ten miles from the National Mall to the Alexandria waterfront, it’s a ride that takes about an hour at a leisurely pace. If you don’t have a bike, no worries! Grab some wheels from a Capital Bikeshare(CaBi) dock on the Mall and pedal along the Potomac. There are CaBi docks along King Street. It’ll be a good chance to burn off all the calories that you’re about to consume. And if you’re too full at the end of the day you can just take Metro back.
Or you can take a water taxi! It’s the most expensive option, but hey…you’re on a boat. During the warm months the water taxi will take you right back to the National Mall.
You can also take Metro to the King Street station via the yellow and blue lines, and from there you can meander the ten blocks down King Street to the waterfront. Or if you’re in a hurry you can take the free shuttle that runs back and forth along King Street.
If you must drive to Alexandria, there’s an easy, efficient way to find a spot to leave your car for a few hours. SpotHero is a popular service in DC that enables drivers to search for and book guaranteed parking spots in lots and garages. Book a space that works for you and they’ll email you a parking pass. It’s nice to know exactly where you’re going to be parking, how much you’ll pay, and that a spot will be saved for you!
The Old Town section of King Street is anchored on the east by the waterfront along the Potomac River.
You’ll find a number of restaurants and shops clustered against the riverbank along a boardwalk. If the weather is nice it’s a great place to grab a meal and watch the Potomac lumber go by. You’ll have great views of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which connects Virginia and Maryland. And if you’re standing in the right spot you can see the dome of the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument a little further upstream.
Of course, history is the name of the game in Old Town, and history nerd or not there are some spots you have to check out.
About a block north of King Street along Washington Street is Christ Church where George was known to worship, as was Robert E. Lee. In fact, the church has a few interesting ties to the Civil War. The church is a U.S. National Historic Landmark; but, it’s still an active church with a large congregation.
After praying like George, maybe it’s a good time to eat like George. Gadsby’s Tavern offers up lunch and dinner seatings, and Sunday brunch with a side of time machine. As you walk through the doors candlelight, decor and period costumes will send you two centuries back in time. And, it wasn’t just George who stopped by, other visitors include John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. If it’s good enough for the founding fathers, it’s good enough for you. But, if you’re not hungry you can just check out the museum and do a tour.
After eating like George, now it’s time to do drugs like George. A stop by the Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Museum is a gentle reminder that medicine has, thankfully, come a long way since the colonial era. The museum is preserved as though encased in formaldehyde for a century and a half….you’ll find serums and tonics and drugs. There are a few medical instruments on display, and reams of documentation in the form of logs and journals. Martha Washington spent a few dollars here, as did George’s doctor as he tried to save his life.
The last stop on the being-George-Washington fantasy tour is the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. You can’t miss it, it’s that tall tower at the west end of King Street. It’s clearly super-secret. They offer five one-hour tours daily (9:30 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 4 p.m.). Children under 12 are free, adults cost $15 (although Freemasons get a $1 discount, I’m not sure if you’ll need your robe though). The tour includes a trip to the observation tower, but the tickets are first-come, first-served…so get there early!
Steer a bit off King Street to the Lyceum. It’s a museum dedicated to the history of Alexandria, and its location actually marks a natural pit stop. It’s on Washington Street about halfway down King Street in either direction. You’ll have explored enough of Alexandria to have the context to give the history meaning, but have enough to explore to let the museum stoke your passion for discovery. The building dates to 1839, constructed as a library and cultural center. It would serve as a hospital during the Civil War, and in the middle of the street in front of the museum you’ll find a statue commemorating soldiers of the Confederacy.
Along the waterfront at the end of King Street is another piece of Alexandria history wrapped in the creativity of contemporary artists. The Torpedo Factory Art Center did produce torpedoes before and during WWII. Then, like many of the buildings expanded during the booming war years, it was relegated to storage. It was basically the federal government’s garage until the city of Alexandria rescued and resuscitated this waterfront real estate in the mid-70’s. Now that factory of deadly accuracy is a display of the beauty of life and art. More than 80 artists have studios giving the half-million annual visitors a chance to interact with the artists as they create. The center also has public restrooms.
Time travel is exhausting, so do yourself a favor as you meander around Old Town and grab some coffee. There are some excellent independent coffee shops littered about Alexandria:
Killer ESP: 1012 King Street Stands for Espresso Sorbet Pies…there you go, you can knock out your major food groups in one stop. http://killeresp.com
Misha’s Cafe: 102 S. Patrick Street They have tables adjacent to a massive roaster surrounded by canvas bags of beans…it’s a caffeinated cocoon. http://www.mishascoffee.com
Grape + Bean: 118 S. Royal Street Great chance to get hyped with a cup of coffee and then relax with a glass of wine…they specialize in coffee and wine. http://www.grapeandbean.com
And if gourmet, expertly-brewed, responsibly-sourced coffee served in a charmingly unique setting isn’t your thing…no problem, King Street is bolted down to the west by a Dunkin Donuts and to the east by a Starbucks.
Once it’s time to reward your inner history nerd you can kick back and relax with a few libations in true Alexandrian fashion.
The Light Horse: 715 King Street (at N Washington St) http://thelighthorserestaurant.com Named with a nod to a Revolutionary War hero and one-time Alexandria resident Light Horse Harry Lee. You’ll find a good tap list, and if you’re not too tired from all the walking they have shuffleboard and skeeball.
Daniel O’Connells: 112 King Street http://www.danieloconnells.com/gallery/ It’s a maze of a bar/restaurant with smaller sub-bars throughout the establishment. If the weather is nice try to score some space on the upstairs patio. If it’s misty, murky and chilly pull up a stool next to one of the fireplaces.
Murphy’s Irish Pub: 713 King Street http://www.murphyspub.com A cozy place to grab a beer in the middle of all your shopping. It feels like St. Patrick’s Day exploded in this bar.
The Majestic: 911 King Street www.majesticcafe.com A little art deco in the middle of all this colonial craziness. Grab a Majestic burger or some fried chicken, gourmet style. And start things off with some rock shrimp hushpuppies.
Virtue Feed & Grain: 106 S. Union Street http://virtuefeedgrain.com In a fantastic, rugged space just off the waterfront you can grab everything from burgers to duck confit. They also have a healthy tap list featuring beers from Virginia, Maryland and the District.
Vermilion: 1120 King Street vermilionrestaurant.com If you’re looking for something a little more upscale this spot offers some creative farm-to-table options. Go for brunch or dinner, their tasting menu is a solid choice. Making reservations is a good idea.
Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 3 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the host of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All
With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 25 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 3) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.