7 brilliant things you must do in Alexandria, Virginia

With cobbled streets, independent restaurants and historic landmarks, Alexandria is a lively hub but maintains its old charm…

Peter Moore
23 September 2022

Only five stops on the Metro, or a serene ferry ride down the Potomac, this colonial-era charmer is within spitting distance of Washington D.C. but feels a whole world away.

It was founded by Scottish merchants, John Carlyle and William Ramsay, planned by George Washington and has a strong African American history too. Here are the things you must do to get under the skin of this riverside gem, recently declared one of America’s Top 3 Small Cities.

1. Walk the length of King Street

Businesses on King Street (Shutterstock)

Leafy and charming, King Street is a walkable mile stroll through history. Starting down near the railway station, it will lead you, straight as an arrow, to the mighty Potomac. George Washington laid out the plans for Alexandria in 1749 and envisaged King Street as the city’s economic centre and gathering place, a role it continue to fulfil today. Indeed, the American Planning Association has proclaimed it as one of the ‘Great Streets of America’.

King Street covers 20 blocks and is a pleasant and engaging walk. Strict zoning laws have protected the 18th and 19th century buildings that line it and there are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants to punctuate your stroll. Highlights include Market Square, surrounded by stately buildings from the 18th and 19th Century and home to the US’s oldest continuously operating farmer’s market.

Mature trees line both sides of the street, offering welcome shade during the summer and an added charm to the historic buildings here. The free King Street Trolley bus shuttles up and down King Street, linking the train station and the waterfront, should you overindulge.

2. Explore the waterfront

Reflections on the Potomac river (Shutterstock)

Alexandria was originally established as a tobacco port so, as you’d expect in one of America’s most important historic port towns, all roads lead to the Potomac. Here locals and visitors alike dine al-fresco, picnic in one of the eight riverside parks or cycle along the Mount Vernon Trail, an immaculately paved pathway that leads all the way to D.C.

The glory days of the tobacco industry are long gone but the dock here is still busy. The Potomac Riverboat Company runs regular water taxis to D.C. to the north and Mount Vernon to the south. The Potomac Paddle Club offers the region’s first and only pontoon paddle boats. Grab some friends and pedal from the Old Town to the National Harbour. Kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding are popular options too.

The waterfront is also the city’s artistic heart. The old World War II torpedo factory has been turned into an arts centre that is home to 82 studios, seven galleries and more than 160 artists. Intertribal Creatives on N. Lee Street showcases handmade artwork from indigenous artists from across North America. And the Waterfront Park at the bottom of King Street has become something of an outdoor gallery for a revolving roster of public art installations.

In 2022, it’s a giant neon sign declaring “I Love You”, scripted in rose-hued metal. It was created by husband-and-wife team, Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt, to reflect the city’s welcoming spirit but has quickly become a message of hope through the COVID-19 pandemic as well.

3. Eat your way through the city

Bob & Edith’s (Peter Moore)

Alexandria is bursting with independent restaurants and cafes, each offering exciting and delicious dishes. You could quite easily eat your way along King Street, starting with breakfast at Bob & Edith’s, an old school diner down near the station. Lunch at Augie’s Mussel House and Beer Garden, Alexandria’s only open-aired beer garden, halfway along King Street. And finish at BARCA, right on the Potomac, where you can enjoy tapas and watch the sun set over the Capitol Building, barely five miles upriver.

The Majestic on King Street offers seasonal treats in a breath-taking art-deco space. Café de Soleil on South Union Street is famous for its organic coffee and French-inspired pastries. And Kismet Modern Indian on N Pitt Street showcases the Michelin recognised cuisine of Chef Ajay Kumar, whose traditional Indian cooking techniques are combined with unexpected ingredients.

For a real treat, tuck into the seafood platter at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Old Town. It’s overflowing with local fresh treats like Middleneck clams, chilled Maine lobster and oysters on the half shell and at $US59 for two people offers extraordinary value. Book a table on the terrace, preferably early evening, pausing momentarily to watch the oysters being freshly shucked at a workstation just past to the left of the entrance.

4. Follow the trail of American History

Carlyle House (Shutterstock)

Alexandria was founded just before the American Revolution and in many ways the history of the country is embedded in its charming streets. George Washington famously had a hand in its layout. Robert E. Lee claimed it as his hometown. And more recently, it saw some of the most seismic moments of the Civil Rights movement.

Carlyle House on Fairfax Street is perhaps the best place to start. This Georgian manor belonged to Scottish plantation owner John Carlyle and was the social hub of Alexandria in the late 1700s. The parties and balls held here were legendary and guests included Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, also on Fairfax Street is the most complete apothecary of its kind and counted both George and Martha Washington as customers.

The city’s African American History is being recognised and celebrated too. The Freedom House Museum is set on the sight of an old slave trading headquarters and chronicles that dark chapter of the city. Alexandria Library on Queen Street was the site of a famous sit-in against discrimination, two decades before the Civil Rights movement. And it was here, in a court on the corner of King and N. Pitt Street, that interracial marriage was first legalised.

The local tourist board has created two self-guided walking tours that take in the most important sites – African American Heritage Trail and Duke Street Black History Trail. But for a more personal insight into the city’s African American History, try the Manumission Tour Company. Their tours are peppered with little-known stories of both enslaved and freemen, at a time when Alexandria was one of the main centres for the international and domestic slave trade.

5. Bring some Old Town charm to your Instagram feed

Captain’s Row (Alamy Stock Photo)

With its stately Federation homes, cobbled pavements and American Flags hanging beside every door, Captain’s Row is the Star-Spangled Barrier writ large in architecture. Just a block to the south of King Street, and close to the river, it is surprisingly peaceful and quiet, with only the odd wedding couple getting photographed indicating it’s not 1840 anymore.

You can step back further in time on the block that starts on the corner of Princess and Washington Streets. Here the road is paved with cobblestones, just like all the streets were when Alexandria was founded in the 1770s. Legend has it that the cobblestones were first laid by Hessian soldiers captured by George Washington’s troops, using ballast from ships sailing to America.

Queen Street, on the other side of King Street, is famous for its brightly coloured row houses and is another favourite with Instagrammers. You’ll find most of them outside number 523, America’s smallest ‘spite’ house. Once an alley between two houses, the owner got sick of people gathering there and built a tiny house in the gap just to spite them. Barely seven foot wide, it’s possible for most people to stand in the middle, hold out their arms and touch each side.

The local tourist board has created the Ultimate Instagram Guide to Old Town Alexandriato help you brighten up your feed.

6. Say yes to a new hairstyle

The All-American Barbershop (Peter Moore)

Fans of the popular TV show, ‘Say Yes To The Dress Atlanta’, will be delighted to know that the fabulous Monte Durham has opened his own hairdressing salon in Alexandria. Monte is famous for ‘jacking up’ brides-to-be and can be found snipping, primping and just generally zhuzhing in his Jackie O-themed salon on South Union Street. As you can imagine, you’ll need to book well ahead to get an appointment, but Monte is happy to take a moment to pose for a selfie with any fans who drop by.

For something a little more traditional, head over to the All-American Barbershop on the corner of Queen and N. Henry Streets. Booker T. Wilkins has been cutting hair at All American Barbershop for over 50 years and the barber shop has been a permanent and much-loved fixture of the community ever since. It’s a great place to freshen up your fade, as well as get the latest gossip, discuss local politics and understand how a place really ticks

Finally, make sure you drop by Crown Wigs at 706 King Street. They’ve been supplying wigs made from 100% human hair since 1968. The hairstyles have moved with the times but the mannequin heads haven’t, creating quite the surreal window display.

7. Explore the region

Mount Vernon Estate (Shutterstock)

Only five miles from the nation’s capital, Alexandria makes a convenient and delightful base to explore this part of the Capital Region. George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate can be easily reached by boat and by bike, as can the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve. It’s the largest remaining freshwater tidal wetlands in the Washington Area and your best chance to spot a bald eagle in the wild.

For a more cosmopolitan day out, head to the nearby Del Rey neighbourhood. Just two miles from Alexandria’s Old Town, this arty community is famous for its murals, Art Deco architecture and focus on wellness. Arlandria, just to the north, has a big Salvadorian community, and is famous for its colourful Latin restaurants and authentically delicious pupusas.

Of course, you can’t come to the USA without visiting a mall and Alexandria has two only a few stops away on the Metro: Springfield Town Center and Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. Get yourself a baseball cap from Lids. Gorge on a cinnamon roll the size of your head from Cinnabons. Or just sit and watch the world go by in these microcosms of American life.

Eight Metro stops and you’re on the National Mall in D.C., with eleven Smithsonian museums to choose from, including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

For more information on things to see and do in Alexandria, drop by visitalexandria.com.

You should also consider Alexandria’s Key to the City attractions pass. It offers $US60+ value for only $US20 including free entry to Carlyle House and Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and 40% discount on Potomac Water Taxi cruises and entry to Mount Vernon

You may also like:

Explore More

More Articles