City Guide: Old Town Alexandria, VA

I want to share my tips and must sees for my own neighborhood, which is also a big tourist destination.  Old Town Alexandria is the historic section of the City of Alexandria which is just across the river from Washington, DC.  If you're a history buff there is much to see.  If you just like to shop and eat you're in luck as well.  Old Town is also home to some great hotels including the Lorien Hotel and Spa, the Monaco, and the Morrison House.  All three are boutique hotels part of the Kimpton Hotels family.

History

Lets start with a brief history lesson.  Alexandria was a bustling sea port during colonial times.  In fact, many alleys and streets in Old Town are paved with rocks that used to serve as ballast in the hulls of large ships.

Alexandria is home to George Washington.  His Mount Vernon estate is a short ten minute drive south of Old Town.  Civil War General Robert E. Lee grew up in Alexandria, and you can still visit his boyhood home right in Old Town.  Many famous politicians have entertained at Gadsby's Tavern, which is still open to this day! 

The City's architecture is mainly colonial with many old row homes from the era still standing.  Take a walk through the streets of Old Town and you will see some truly remarkable and old properties. Many of which are still residences, so don't confuse them for museums.  

Dining

King Street is one of the main east/west roads in Old Town and most of the restaurants and hotels are on King or nearby.  In Old Town, King runs from the King Street Metro Station to the waterfront.  On a nice day it's a good walk, about sixteen blocks.  There is also a free shuttle, the King Street Trolley, that runs from the Metro station to the waterfront.  I recommend walking because it gives you a chance to check out all of the shops along King.

Some of my personal favorite destinations are right on King Street including Vermillion.  This restaurant serves modern American cuisine.  They keep their menu small, but what they do prepare they do well.  The same group also owns Columbia Firehouse, which is also a good dinner or lunch destination and is a bit more casual.  Vermillion is in the 1100 block of King, Columbia Firehouse is closer to the water and is 1/2 block off King on St. Asaph Street.      

My pick for Sunday brunch is Murphy's Irish Pub.  You may be asking a pub for brunch?  Yes!  You can't go wrong at Murphy's.  This place is an institution in Old Town.  Their champagne brunch starts at $8.95!  That includes a glass of champagne.  The rest of their specials are only a dollar more.  This is a bargain for DC.  Plus, the consistently put out good food.  The restaurant is as you would expect, a typical Irish pub.  But they also have a big fireplace that sits near the back of the restaurant and is always roaring with a big fire on a cold winter morning.  They open at 10:00am on Sundays and they fill up fast.  

A few other food joints worth checking out; Union Street Public House, Alexandria Cupcake, Firehook Bakery, Jackson20 at the Monaco, Brabo at the Lorien and The Grille at Morrison House.  There are some other decent restaurants in Old Town, but I try to avoid some of the tourist heavy restaurants in the 100 and 200 block of King near the waterfront.

Historic Attractions

If you are in for a bit of a history lesson check out the Carlyle House.  This mansion was completed in 1753 by British merchant John Carlyle.  It's located in the 100 block of N. Fairfax street across from City Hall and only 1/2 block off of King Street.  The home and museum often host special events and the mansion and garden are available for tours.  

A few blocks from Carlyle House is historic Christ Church.  The church, which is still in use today, sits between N. Washington Street and N. Columbus.  The church is more than 200 years old and surrounded by a small garden and very old cemetery.  John Carlyle helped supervise its construction in the early 1770's.  Christ Church is an Episcopal church and has services throughout the day on Sundays.  

For another taste of history, walk a few blocks down Washington Street to Robert E. Lee's boyhood home.  Known as the Lee Federall House, the home is open for tours.  If you are feeling brave, sign up for a ghost tour.  I recommend a somewhat warm or mild evening since this tour is outdoors.  You can buy tickets online for the Ghost and Graveyard tours or stop by the City's visitors center at 221 King Street.

If you're are in the artistic mood, stop by the Torpedo Factory Art Center.  It's located at Union and King Streets, right on the waterfront.  The building is a collection of artists of many different mediums and you can tour their galleries, speak to the artists and shop.  The Art Center is definitely worth a stop.  Make sure you also stop by City Hall and Market Square.  It's hard to miss this building right in the 300 Block of King.

For one of the best views of the area, trek on over to the George Washington Masonic Memorial.  It's one of the tallest structures in the city and can be seen from miles around.  The memorial is privately owned and includes an observation deck as well as museum.  Tours cost about $8 and include the observation deck.

There are many other nearby historic attractions, including Washington, DC, Arlington National Cemetery, and Mt. Vernon, but I wanted to keep this list Old Town Specific.  With a comfortable pair of shoes you can walk to all of the attractions I've listed above.

Shopping

Shopping in Old Town has a little for everyone.  From the large chain clothing stores to the dozens of antique shops, art galleries, and specialty food stores.  A good place to start is in the 1200 block and walk east toward the river.  One of my favorites is Olio.  It's a tasting room for olive oils.  While the concept is not unique, I think they produce some a good produce and I have many of their oils and balsamic at home.  Tastings are free!

Right around King and Washington Street is where you will find some of the bigger clothing stores.  Antique shops and furniture stores run up and down King and many of the side streets in Old Town.  On the weekends, especially when the weather is nice, the sidewalks get busy, but not as crazy as other neighborhoods in the area, such as Georgetown.

Alexandria is very dog friendly.  If you have a furry friend make sure to check out one of my favorite spots The Dog Park, which is on King right before Washington Street.  It's a few doors down from Murphy's.  All of the hotels I've mentioned above are dog friendly.  You can find out more about dog friendly Alexandria on the city's visitors site.

Other Attractions

If you like the outdoors check out the Mt Vernon Bike Trail.  It runs from Arlington, VA to George Washington's Mt. Vernon Estate.  Part of the trail cuts right through Old Town.  You can also take up sailing lessons at the Washington Sailing Marina just a few minutes drive north of Old Town.

If you want to venture out a bit, you can hop on the water taxi and head over to National Harbor, MD or check out some of the river tour cruises offered at the waterfront.  As a boater, I definitely think you get a unique perspective on Washington, DC from the water.  

Resources

Check out Visit Alexandria for hotels, restaurants, history and more.

Note: There are other hotel brands in Old Town, I just wanted to mention some of the more unique options.  TAR is in no way affiliated with Kimpton.