You could easily spend a full day soaking in the life and times of our first president, George Washington, when he lived at Mount Vernon. The 500-acre estate includes the centerpiece mansion, George and Martha Washington’s home, and so much else: gardens, outbuildings, a wharf, slave quarters and burial grounds, a greenhouse, a working farm, an orientation center, education center, museum and, about 3miles down the road, a working distillery and gristmill.
The plantation was passed down from Washington’s great-grandfather, who acquired the land in 1674, to George’s half-brother, and eventually to George himself in 1754. Washington proceeded over the next 45 years to expand and fashion the home to his liking, though the American Revolution and his years as president kept Washington away from his beloved estate much of the time.
What you see today is a remarkable restoration of the mansion, the oldest part of which dates from the 1740s. Interiors appear as they would have in 1799, with walls painted in the colors chosen by George and Martha, and with original furnishings and objects used by the Washington family on display. Historical interpreters stationed through the house answer questions as you pass through.
If time allows, visit the Ford Orientation Center prior to touring the estate. The Center is located inside the main entrance building, so it’s easy to make this your first stop. The Orientation Center’s 25-minute film, “We Fight to Be Free,” offers some insight into Washington’s character and career. Then, if you have time after your tour of the estate, we highly recommend you visit the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which lies on the path leading to shops and the food court, making this a logical last stop at Mount Vernon. The museum's 23 galleries, theater presentations, and display of 700 original artifacts further help round out the story of this heroic, larger-than-life man.
Note: Visitors with limited time have to choose between visiting those centers or the historic sites scattered throughout the estate. If you’re at Mount Vernon April through October, when Mount Vernon’s shuttle operates (see information box, below) and the weather is most pleasant, I recommend doing the historic sites. Conversely, during the months of November through March, and in inclement weather, visits to the museum and education and orientation centers might be a better idea, both logistically and in terms of your personal comfort.
If you can, start with the Outbuildings: the kitchen, slave quarters, storeroom, smokehouse, overseer’s quarters, coach house, stables, and working blacksmith shop with daily demonstrations. Walk or take the shuttle to the 4-acre Pioneer Farm, which includes a replica of Washington’s 16-sided treading barn (built from his own design) and crops that he grew (corn, wheat, oats, and so forth). Historical interpreters in period costumes demonstrate 18th-century farming methods. At its peak, Mount Vernon was an 8,000-acre working farm, and Washington considered himself first and foremost a farmer.
Not too far from the Pioneer Farm is the wharf, where you can learn about Washington’s boat building and fisheries, and take a 45-minute narrated excursion on the Potomac (mid-March to fall; $11/adult, $7/child). In Washington's time, the river waters teemed with fish—when the shad were running in the spring, the surface of the Potomac was said to sparkle like silver.
Back on land, you have more to cover: the slave burial ground, the greenhouse, and the tombs of George and Martha Washington. Down the road from the estate are Washington’s fully functioning distillery and gristmill. The shuttle travels the 2.7 miles to the site, which is open April through October, and operated by costumed staff. Admission to the distillery and gristmill, as well as the shuttle to and from Mount Vernon, are included in your ticket. Samplings of the whiskey produced here are not included in your admission price, alas, but you can purchase Mount Vernon–made whiskey and stoneground products at the Shops at Mount Vernon. If you’re not visiting Mount Vernon, the admission here is $5 per person; kids 5 and under free.
Mount Vernon belongs to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which purchased the estate for $200,000 in 1858 from John Augustine Washington III, great-grandnephew of the first president. Today, more than a million people tour the property annually. The best time to visit is off-season; during the heavy tourist months (especially in spring, when schoolchildren descend in droves), it’s best to arrive in the afternoon on weekdays, or anytime Saturday or Sunday, because student groups will have departed by then.
Tips for Touring Mount Vernon
1. If you plan to visit Old Town Alexandria historic sites as well as Mount Vernon, buy a Key to the City pass online or in person from the Alexandria Visitors Center and you’ll receive a coupon that allows you to receive a 40% discount off the admission price for Mount Vernon (see information in the Old Town Alexandria section, below). If you’re not interested in the Key to the City pass, you can still save money by buying your Mount Vernon admission tickets online, which reduces the price by $2 for adults and seniors, $1 for children.
2. Your admission ticket is also your timed entry ticket to tour the mansion, so choose a tour time that allows you to first visit the Ford Orientation Center, where a 25-minute movie provides some good background for your visit
3. You will also be given the choice of buying a standard tour ticket or, for $15 more, a premium tour ticket. Again, consider the timing, and if it works, opt for the premium ticket. The difference is worth it: Instead of self-guiding your way through two floors of the mansion, usually a 15- to 20-minute experience, you’ll receive a guided, 1-hour tour that takes you beyond the usual tourable rooms, with all your questions answered by your guide as you go. One other important perk of the premium ticket is that you avoid the very long entry line into the mansion, something you will most definitely appreciate on a hot summer day.
4. During the online ticketing process, you will have the chance to add on specialty tours covering areas beyond the mansion—for instance, a 1-hour “Enslaved People of Mount Vernon Tour” for an additional $4. If you can manage it, add on a specialty tour—these tours truly bring history to life.
Special Activities at Mount Vernon
Throughout the year, but especially April through October, Mount Vernon offers many special tours, demonstrations, activities, and events, some, but not all, included in your price of admission. Every imaginable topic is covered: 18th-century gardens, slave life, Colonial crafts, food and dining at Mount Vernon, archaeology, and, for children, hands-on history programs. Check the website for details.
The Mount Vernon Shuttle
Good news! Mount Vernon offers free shuttle service around its estate, as well as to the gristmill and distillery, 2.7 miles down the road. The shuttle operates in high season only, from April to October, running continuously between the Museum and Education Center and the Pioneer Farm, near the Wharf, with a separate shuttle running back and forth between Mount Vernon Estate and its gristmill and distillery.