On the western shore of the Potomac River, less than 8 miles due south of the White House and the buzz of the nation's capital, lies historic Old Town Alexandria, founded in 1749 and an important colonial seaport. Once considered a day trip for families staying in D.C., the area holds its own, thanks very much, as a destination unto itself. For those choosing to set up camp in Old Town, the National Mall and Smithsonian museums are a 20-minute Metro ride from the King Street station. Most kid-pleasing sights are accessible on foot and within shouting distance of a waterfront marked by marinas, restaurants, an artists' cooperative, shops, scenic walkways, weekend festivals, and ample opportunities for feeding the ducks and meeting local dogs out strolling with their owners.
For the most comprehensive tourism info stop by the Visitors Center at the Ramsay House at 221 King St. in the heart of Old Town (tel. 703/838-5005; www.visitalexandriava.com). To join a tour, contact Alexandria Colonial Tours (tel. 703/519-1749; www.alexconolonialtours.com).
What to See & Do
Stop at the Ramsay House Visitors Center (221 King St. tel. 703/838-4200) and gather brochures and get feedback from a docent. Most are longtime Alexandria residents; all are well versed in local history and lore. Pick up a map for a self-guided Scavenger Hunt. The clues are linked to our first president, George Washington. As a teenager, GW was a surveyor's assistant in the D.C. area. (No shopping malls or dance clubs for teens back then.) With children 10 and older, reserve space on the ever-popular Ghost & Graveyard Tour (tel. 703/519-1749; www.alexcolonialtours.com).
Take a narrated 40-minute trip up and down the Potomac on the Admiral Tilp or cruise to Georgetown (D.C.) or the Gaylord National Resort across the river in Maryland. Cruises are run by Potomac Riverboat Co. There is a waterfront kiosk behind the Torpedo Factory, between King and Cameron Streets (tel. 703/684-0580; www.potomacriverboatco.com).
At the Torpedo Factory (105 N. Union St. tel-703/838-4565; www.torpedofactory.org), an artists cooperative in a world War I munitions warehouse, painters, sculptors, ceramists, gemologists/jewelers, stained-glass artisans, and fiber artists do their thing while chatting up visitors. Shoppers take note: Most items are for sale at ridiculously low prices. In the same building is the Alexandria Archeology Museum, with hands-on activities and displays of artifacts from local digs.
The Stabler Leadbeater Apothecary Museum (105-107 S. Fairfax St. tel.703/836-3713; www.apothecarymuseum.org) was once a huge wholesale business that dispensed medicines and processed herbs for this site and more than 500 other apothecary shops. The fascinating half-hour tour is appropriate for mature 8-year-olds and up. The Lee-Fendall House (614 Oronoco St. tel. 703/548-1789; www.leefendallhouse.org) is a museum dedicated to Lee family memorabilia, including an antique dollhouse collection and beautiful boxwood garden. (While many Lees bedded down here, Robert E. Lee did not.)
Stroll Waterfront Park and Founders Park (Duke Street north to Pendleton Street) and enjoy the playground equipment, say hi to the pets on parade, feed the ducks, chase the pigeons, ogle the boats, and glimpse D.C.'s monuments. Or just take a timeout and relax. In nice weather, bring a picnic. Rent at bike at Big Wheel Bikes (2 Prince St.; tel. 703/739-2300; www.bigwheelbikes.com) and pedal along the Potomac.
Where to Eat
Tear into the BBQ, ribs, po' boys and other southern-style comfort food at King Street Blues (112 N. Saint Asaph St.; tel. 703/836-8800; www.kingstreetblues.com) while feasting on the, um, décor popping from the walls. It's sure to enchant the kiddies. The Royal Restaurant (734 N. Saint Asaph St.; tel. 703/548-1616) has been serving the community for close to 70 years. Slide into a Naugahyde booth and chow down on tasty diner fare at reasonable prices; breakfast is served all day. Fasting is advised before lining up for the weekend buffet. Head to The Majestic (911 King St., 703/837-9117; www.majesticcafe.com) for scrumptious award-winning American food with flair. Can't decide between roast chicken, meatloaf, salmon, crab cakes, or a daily special? Open for lunch and dinner. Reservations are recommended at dinner and for Nana's Sunday Dinners, served family style 1-9pm.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with a double-scoop, extra-rich, made-on-the-premises cone, sundae or shake from Pop's (109 King St.; 703/518-5375; www.fishmarketoldtown.com).
Note: There are scores of seafood houses, ethnic eateries, pubs, cafes, and carry-outs. Ask the concierge or at the front desk. Better yet, do as I do and ask those who work in the shops (and live here).
Where to Stay
Stay at The Hotel Monaco Alexandria (480 King St. tel. 703/549-6080; www.monaco-alexandria.com), which opened in March 2007, and roll out of bed and onto King Street. Rooms are comfy and cushy; some bathrooms have a Jacuzzi. Swim year-round in the indoor pool. The staff is beyond friendly and upbeat without being intrusive. Jackson 20 is the onsite restaurant with plenty of kid-friendly menu options. In the courtyard April through October, Tuesdays and Thursdays, is the not-to-be-missed Doggy Happy Hour.
When to Go
Alexandria is a year-round destination, and locals flock here on weekends. While the best weather is April through October, the off-season can be cozy and tranquil. Seasonal events are spread throughout the year, with a predominance of outdoor activities taking place, as you might expect, in the summer months.
Getting There & Getting Around
Fly into Reagan National Airport and take Metro to the King Street station or a taxi to your hotel. If you're driving, connect with I-495/I-95 to Exit 1/US 1 toward Alexandria, merge onto Patrick St. Go East (toward the Potomac River) on King St/VA 7. Without a car, the nearest Metro stop is King Street. From there board a free King Street Trolley, 10am-10pm daily. At other times, board the DASH shuttle (tel. 703/370-3274; www.dashbus.com) for the 15-block ride. Your own two feet are the best way to navigate Old Town's 36-square-block grid.