15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb

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15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - View across the Potomac River from Alexandria looking at Washington DC
On the waterfront in Alexandria with Washington, DC in the background. Photo credit: Judy Antell

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Located on the Potomac River waterfront just minutes from Washington, D.C, Alexandria, Virginia is great for a day trip or the place to stay when you want a low-key spot with its own attractions. Plus it’s super convenient to the nation’s capital by Metro, water taxi, or bicycle.

My daughter had to stay in Washington, DC over the December holidays and asked me and my husband to visit for a couple of days. Because we were pressed for time and Amtrak rides from our Brooklyn home were super expensive, we decided to fly down. Surprisingly, Old Town Alexandria is about 10 minutes from Reagan National Airport. With an early arrival, an unexpected bump up to first class, and no checked luggage, we were in our hotel room about 15 minutes after landing, ready to explore.

Old Town Alexandria, America’s third oldest historic district has cobblestone streets (watch those ankles!), historic homes, and gorgeous riverfront views of DC. Here’s what to do when visiting.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Alexandria City Hall is a landmark on King Street, the town’s main drag and a fun place to shop.
Alexandria City Hall, none of the many historic buildings in Old Town, on King Street. Photo credit: Judy Antell

1. Explore King Street, The Heart of Old Town

King Street is the main drag of Old Town Alexandria. It is lined with boutiques, restaurants, ice cream shops, and gift shops.

On Saturdays, America’s oldest farmer market, the Old Town Farmers’ Market, on King Street, is open year-round from 7 am to noon. George Washington sent produce grown at Mount Vernon to be sold here. Del Ray Farmers Market, another year-round market open on Saturdays, runs from 8 am to noon.

From Market Square, where the Old Town Farmers’ Market is held, to the waterfront park, King Street is pedestrian-only. It is quite a lively scene.

If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, Visit Alexandria sells a “Key to the City” passport. It provides admission to the many small museums around Alexandria, plus discounts to Mount Vernon, the water taxi, and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Visit Alexandria, at 221 King Street has free maps and bathrooms open to the public.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Historic items on display at the apothecary museum in Alexandria VA, one of the fun things to see
Medicine bottles displayed at the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. Photo credit: Judy Antell

2. Explore an Old Time Drug Store: Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum was a family-run pharmacy that started in the 18th century. I found it alarming that the apothecary manufactured and sold medicine over the counter, all without a pharmacy degree. My husband, who claims gin settles his stomach, felt vindicated that juniper was used to treat kidney issues.

George Washington shopped here, which would make me skeptical of any oral care advice given to the first president.

3. See Where Long Ago Travelers Stayed

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum shows how 18th-century travelers bedded down. There were communal rooms, available only for men. And only for white men. Enslaved labor kept the tavern running.

You can explore Gadsby’s Tavern Museum on your own or take a guided tour. Be sure to see the ballroom, used by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Interior of the Carlyle House, a historic home museum in Alexandria VA
The 18th century Carlyle House, meticulously restored. Photo credit: Judy Antell

4. Step Back in Time at the Carlyle House Historic Park

We serendipitously got to Carlyle House Historic Park just as a guided tour of the 18th-century historic house was beginning. The Georgian mansion was built by merchant John Carlyle. The historic home has a pretty interesting, sad story. I won’t spoil it for you.

The garden has benches; it’s a nice place to sit in good weather.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Disarmed torpedo in a former munitions plant transformed into a collective of artist studios in Alexandria VA
Torpedo at the Torpedo Art Center. Photo credit: Judy Antell

5. See Art and a Torpedo at the Torpedo Factory Art Center

The Torpedo Factory Art Center, just off the Alexandria waterfront, is filled with artist studios and art galleries, all open to the public. This is a good place to spend some time indoors on a cold day.

There is also a large gallery, the Target Gallery with rotating exhibits. And you should also see the namesake torpedo, reflecting the building’s past as a munitions plant.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Exhibits of archeological finds at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.
Hands-on at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. Photo credit: Judy Antell

6. Dig Into Old Town’s Past

On the 3rd floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, the free Alexandria Archaeology Museum displays artifacts dug up around Alexandria.

The archeological finds go back 10,000 years and include maritime relics and other items excavated around the city.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Yellow lab on leash in Alexandria’s Waterfront Park along the Potomac River.
Walk, lay down, or sit at Waterfront Park. Photo credit: Judy Antell

7. Walk along the Waterfront Park

Waterfront Park, on the Potomac River, has walking paths and views of Washington, DC. If you stay overnight in Alexandria, this is the perfect place for a morning run.

The park also has public art. And you can see boats and ducks in the water.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Alexandria’s African American Heritage Trail walking tour map.
Wear comfortable walking shoes for the African American Heritage Trail. Photo credit: Judy Antell

8. Take a Self-guided Walking Tour‌

Follow the African American Heritage Trail for a self-guided walking tour. On the waterfront, the African American Heritage Trail goes for 3.2 miles. There is also an Alexandria African American Heritage Park and Black Baptist Cemetery.

Want to learn more? There are also guided tours of Black history in Alexandria.

9. Visit Freedom House

For more on the Black experience, check out the Freedom House Museum. The museum doesn’t try to hide Virgina’s role in the slave trade. The building housing the Freedom House Museum, a National Historic Landmark, has a painful history. It was used by slave trading firms and served as a military prison in the Civil War.

This is where thousands of Black men, women and children were trafficked between 1828 and 1861. I learned tragic facts about Alexandria; for example, it was once America’s busiest domestic slave market.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Exterior of George Washington’s Mount Vernon home near Alexandria VA.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon home is open year-round. Photo credit: Judy Antell

10. See the First US President’s Home: Mount Vernon

George Washington’s Mount Vernon home, which we visited on a previous visit to Washington, DC, is also easily accessible from Alexandria. This is a great day trip, particularly if you have bicycles. It is 10 miles away, along the protected Mount Vernon Trail‌.

You can tour the extensive grounds, take a guided tour of the mansion, and see George Washington’s tomb. The mansion tour is an extra fee, but included with the grounds tour is a tour focused on the enslaved people who built and worked at Mount Vernon.

There are also fully functioning reconstructions of Washington’s gristmill and whiskey distillery, which you can tour. These are both open April – October only.

11. George Washington Masonic National Memorial

The George Washington Masonic National Memorial offers a less nuanced portrait of the first president. It is a monument to Washington that celebrates the man. The National Historic Landmark can only be seen by guided tour.

On the 9th floor, an outdoor Observation Deck is open year-round, with views of Old Town, the waterfront park, and Washington, DC. We had planned to go there, but by the time we saw everything else, the museum was closed. Next time!

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Halloumi dessert in Alexandria VA restaurant.
Delicious AND instagrammable: halloumi in phyllo, with banana tahini sauce, blueberries, and fennel bow. Photo credit: Judy Antell

12. Have a Great Meal

There are many restaurants concentrated in Old Town. We left the hustle and bustle of King Street to eat at Elaine’s, one of the newest restaurants in Alexandria. Elaine’s, on Queen Street, has phenomenal Mediterranean food. This is food that is great for vegans, the gluten-averse, meat eaters, and cocktail lovers. In short, just about everyone.

In a funny coincidence, the owner’s grandmother (named Elaine) was from Alexandra, Egypt, and her granddaughter settled in Alexandra, Virginia. But why not? The international hub of the Washington, DC area is certainly receptive to global cuisine.

13. Tour a Ship

The Tall Ship Providence, docked on the waterfront, is one of the new things to do in Old Town. It is a reproduction of the first ship used in the Continental Navy. The Key to the City pass gives you a 40% discount on tickets.

Guided tours (the only way to see the ship) take an hour. Unfortunately, we were unable to take a tour, which is only offered on weekends in winter. It’s on our to-do list for our next visit.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Exhibit at the Alexandria History Museum.
Alexandria History Museum at The Lyceum. Photo credit: Judy Antell

14. Visit a History Museum

The Alexandria History Museum at The Lyceum is on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1839, the Greek Revival building was a military hospital in the Civil War. It was also the first bicentennial center; it became a history museum in 1985.

In addition to an exhibit on medicine, the museum has old photos, maps and other artifacts from Alexandria’s past.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Man and women squatting inside a brick niche to stretch their quads after an Alexandria VA bike ride, one of the best things to do
Stretching those quads after biking the Mount Vernon Trail‌. Photo credit: Judy Antell

15. Ride a Bike

My daughter and her boyfriend rode their bicycles from the nation’s capital via the Mount Vernon Trail‌. The 18-mile path travels along the George Washington Memorial Parkway in Northern Virginia all the way to Mount Vernon.

If you are from out of town, there are several places offering bicycle rentals in Old Town, including one with electric bike rentals. The Capital Bikeshare also has day passes if you want to take a few shorter rides; the pass is $8 and you get 45 minutes for each ride.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Screening room in the Hotel AKA Alexandria
Unique to Hotel AKA Alexandria, a screening room where you can catch a free movie. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Where to Stay in Alexandria

Alexandria isn’t just historic buildings. The new art-filled Hotel AKA Alexandria, designed by architect Piero Lissoni, has his signature floating staircase in the lobby. The hotel is thoroughly modern, with super comfortable beds and exquisite linens.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Interior of Hotel AKA Alexandria room in Alexandria VA
The simple, serene bed at Hotel AKA Alexandria made for a relaxing getaway. Photo credit: Judy Antell

If operating modern shower fixtures, lighting, and shades flummox you, you can scan the QR code on the TV to learn how to easily operate everything. Our room was flooded with light, so we checked and found out that black-out shades were embedded behind the regular shades.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Exterior courtyard seating at the Hotel AKA Alexandria
A private courtyard on the second floor of the Hotel AKA Alexandria, where you can relax, read a book or hang out. Photo credit: Judy Antell

The AKA Hotel had a spacious gym, where some of the outdoor plantings were spending the winter, a yoga studio, and a huge courtyard off the second floor. There is also a screening room with weekly movies shown.

15 Fun Things to Do in Alexandria VA: Not Just a DC ‘Burb - Historic mark on a cobblestone street in Alexandria VA
Even cobblestone streets merit historic markers in Old Town Alexandria. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Getting To, And Around, Old Town Alexandria

We were in Old Town on the last day of the water taxi season, so we didn’t have time to take a ride. The Potomac water taxi takes you from The Wharf or Georgetown in Washington, DC to Old Town. The ride on the Potomac River takes about half an hour. You can also take a water taxi to the National Harbor in Maryland.

Once you are in Old Town, many of the historic sites are walkable. The free King Street Trolley takes you from Alexandria City Hall/Market Square to the King St – Old Town Metrorail station, with stops every couple of blocks. The last stop is near George Washington Masonic Temple.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The historic cobblestone streets are lovely but can be rough on ankles! A comfortable pair of walking shoes is a must!

Judy Antell is an empty-nester mother of 3 who spends a lot of time visiting her daughters. Why don’t they live in Brooklyn? Judy and her husband love to travel, by bike, car, or plane, whether to see their kids or have friend or couple adventures, mostly centered around vegetarian food.
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