5 miles S of Washington, D.C.; 95 miles N of Richmond
The city of Washington may be named for our first president, but he never lived there. No, he called this other side of the Potomac home from the age of 11, when he joined his half-brother Lawrence, who owned Mount Vernon. He came to Alexandria often, helping to map out the 60-acre town’s boundaries and roads when he was 17, training his militia in Market Square and selling produce there from his Mount Vernon farm, worshipping at Christ Church, and dining and dancing at Gadsby’s Tavern.
The town of Alexandria is actually named after John Alexander, the Scot who purchased the land of the present-day town from an English ship captain for “six thousand pounds of Tobacco and Cask.” Incorporated in 1749, the town soon grew into a major trading center and port, known for its handsome homes.
Today, thanks to a multimillion-dollar urban renewal effort, some 200 structures from Alexandria’s early days survive in Old Town’s historic district. (Four thousand structures, in all, are deemed historic.) Market Square is the site of the oldest continuously operating farmers’ market in the country. (Catch it on Sat between 7am and noon, and you’ll be participating in a 266-year-old tradition.) Christ Church and Gadsby’s Tavern are still open and operating. Many Alexandria streets still bear their original Colonial names (King, Queen, Prince, Princess, Royal), while others, like Jefferson, Franklin, Lee, Patrick, and Henry, are obviously post-Revolutionary. Wander down to King Street’s waterfront and watch archaeologists excavating the 18th-century merchant ships that were discovered when developers started carving out land on which to build condos and commercial establishments.
Twenty-first-century America thrives in Old Town’s many shops, boutiques, art galleries, bars, and restaurants. But it’s still easy to imagine yourself in Colonial times as you listen for the rumbling of horse-drawn vehicles over cobblestone (portions of Prince and Oronoco sts. are still paved with cobblestone), dine on Sally Lunn bread and other 18th-century grub in the centuries-old Gadsby’s Tavern, and learn about the lives of the nation’s forefathers during walking tours that take you in and out of their houses.
George Washington stood in the door of Gadsby's Tavern and reviewed his troops for the last time. Robert E. Lee spent his boyhood here. Both worshiped from the pews of Christ Church. Indeed, if they weren't instantly shocked back to death by the cars jockeying for prized parking spaces, Washington and Lee would still recognize their old haunts.
There's more than history here to explore. With its abundance of shops, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and tourists (not to mention hordes of older teens hanging out on Fri and Sat nights), Old Town Alexandria serves as our hip version of Georgetown over in D.C. Once you get here, you will find plenty to see, do, and eat in Old Town. Give yourself at least a day to poke around the historic district, another to see Mount Vernon and the other Potomac plantations a short drive to the south.