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Kid-Friendly Zones: Alexandria, Virginia

by Elaine Labalme

While the echoes of George Washington and Robert E. Lee may still be heard in Alexandria, Virginia, this city hugging the Potomac is also at the vanguard of shopping and dining trends. Expect to eat, drink and be merry as you experience American History 101 and, duly sated, pop on over to Washington, D.C., which is right next door.


Where to stay   The Hotel Monaco on King Street in Old Town is part of the Kimpton hotel group and yet another dazzler. Lobby walls are soaked a deep blue while multiple seating arrangements showcase fantastical fabrics spread across chairs, couches, settees and love seats. There are dogs everywhere at this pet-friendly property and everyone is welcome at the nightly wine hour. Your room is a soothing escape, a corner king sporting taupe walls and black-on-white accents. A chaise longue beckons and it could easily sleep a small child, though there's also room for a rollaway bed. The hotel pool is larger than many and makes for a refreshing dip, and the hotel's location is central (and walkable) to Alexandria's main attractions. 480 King Street  (703) 549-6080  http://www.monaco-alexandria.com/  Doubles from $169.


Take a walk   If you're visiting Alexandria over a Saturday morning, by all means start your day at the weekly Farmer's Market fronting City Hall, the latter an elegant brick structure which forms the backdrop for vendors clustered around a square fountain. Tables brim with fresh produce, much of it organic, and you can easily cobble together breakfast by grabbing Freestone peaches from one vendor and pairing it with the flaky croissants and French pastry of another. Tie it all together with a cup of coffee made with beans sourced from Coban, Guatemala or a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and allow time to shop the wares of the many artisans on hand. Next step is to fashion your own self-guided walking tour of historic Old Town, which extends north and south of the main artery, King Street. If you plot the various locations on a map first, your walk will be a breeze. First stop is the Visitors Center at 221 King Street, housed in a building which dates to 1724 and is backed by a lovely English garden. You'll learn that the city was named after John Alexander, a planter who purchased land in 1669, and that Alexandria was a major port in the 1700s. George Washington visited frequently, and the city was the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee. While here, pick up “keys” to the city, small booklets chockablock with free admissions to historical attractions as well as shopping and dining discounts. The Carlyle House Historic Park at 121 N. Fairfax Street is graced by a Georgian mansion built by British merchant John Carlyle for his bride. The Carlyles were at the center of social and political life in young Alexandria and you can tour their home to see how they lived. Expect to pass well-mannered dogs – Alexandria is among the most dog-friendly cities in the U.S. – on the way to Gadsby's Tavern at 138 N. Royal Street. Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison all dined here and the Americana-style rooms are evocative of the period; lunch and dinner still served. Revel in the relative quiet one scant block off bustling King Street as you pad along cobbled streets (the block of Princess Street between N. St. Asaph and N. Washington Streets has some of the oldest cobblestones in the city) on the way to 523 Queen Street, where you'll see Alexandria's narrowest house, a mere seven feet wide. It's painted royal blue and impossible to miss, and is one of many tidy brick structures in Old Town that date to the 1700s and 1800s.

At 607 Oronoco Street is a Federal-style manse which was the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee. Washington ate here, Lafayette visited and Lee left when he went to West Point. The nearby Lee-Fendall House at 614 Oronoco Street is a white clapboard gem that was home to several generations of Lees. Today, its gardens are often the setting for weddings. Washington and Lee worshipped at Christ Church at 118 N. Washington Street, an Episcopal church designed by James Wren which dates to the late 1700s. Gleaming white wood pews have held the likes of Winston Churchill, Rosa Parks and the Rev. Desmond Tutu in recent times, and much of the woodwork is original.


If you're starving by now, stop in at Eamonn's, a “Dublin chipper” at 728 King Street owned by Cathal Armstrong, the man behind several of the city's best restaurants including The Majestic Cafe (see “Where to eat” below). Order the fried cod and an order of “chips,” the latter some of the best fries anywhere. The cod is easily an inch thick, a slab of sweetness encased in a batter that's not at all greasy. Enjoy your meal at one of a handful of tables and benches inside this compact establishment. Post-repast, make your way over to the Friendship Firehouse at 107 S. Alfred Street, the better to ogle antique firefighting equipment used by the city's bucket brigades over 200 years ago. The Lyceum at 201 S. Washington Street dates to 1839 and is now Alexandria's history museum. Close by, the statue of a Confederate soldier at Washington and Prince Streets faces south, something of a twist as most such statues faced north, the better to “eye” oncoming Union soldiers. The Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary at 107 S. Fairfax Street houses a collection of medical equipment and hand-blown jars, much of it explained during an informative guided tour. There is still an active congregation at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, located at 323 S. Fairfax Street and founded in 1772. George Washington's memorial sermon was given in this stately brick structure. End your tour at the Torpedo Factory Art Center at the foot of King Street on the Potomac riverfront. The one-time torpedo factory is now an arts collective housing 82 artist studios and six galleries, the whole sprinkled with live music, art openings and do-it-yourself activities. Must stops include Hollins Hills Potters and the paper-based art of Lisa Schumaier. Not enough shopping here? Carve out time later in your visit for several one-of-a-kind stores. Best of the best include Mint Condition, a terrific designer consignment boutique at 103 S. St. Asaph Street; Zoe Boutique, all young and fresh at 130 S. Union Street and showcasing American designers; and Red Barn Mercantile at 1117 King Street for furniture, home décor and gifts.


On the river   One way to get to Washington, D.C. from Alexandria is via the Potomac River, and it's surely the most scenic. Book passage with the Potomac Riverboat Company for a round trip that will deposit you in Georgetown for as much shopping and dining as you'd like (you can arrange for a return voyage at the time of your choosing). As you depart Alexandria's riverfront, you'll pass the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory on the starboard side of your vessel, with the Pentagon coming into view port side soon after. The Washington Monument stands sentinel in the distance, but you won't touch land in the district for another 45 minutes. Along the way, you pass Potomac Park, where countless walkers and joggers enjoy the green expanse. Be thankful for your watery perch, the better to ogle the Jefferson Memorial and to appreciate an oft-overlooked view of the back of the Lincoln Memorial, its 36 Doric columns representing every state of the union at the time of Lincoln's death. Again looking starboard, the majestic Kennedy Center will come into view and, immediately after, are the many horseshoe-shaped buildings that make up the Watergate complex. Once you dock in Georgetown, walk a handful of blocks uphill to M Street, turn left and step into Ben & Jerry's for a thick chocolate shake. More chocolate can be found at Godiva a block away and betwixt and between, you can shop at well-known names including Lululemon, Anthropologie, True Religion and Coach. http://www.potomacriverboatco.com/


Bike into history   Another scenic journey will take you from Alexandria to Mt. Vernon, the fabled home of George Washington. This time it's by bike courtesy of Bike and Roll, whose rental location is at the riverfront. A 10-mile ride along the aptly-named Mt. Vernon Trail takes you to your destination, and to say the trail is (gently) uphill all the way is an accurate depiction. Along this lush and leafy trail, you'll envy the river view of grand estates facing the Potomac. If you choose to spend the afternoon at Mt. Vernon, consider booking passage in advance for Bike and Roll's “Bike and Boat” package, which has you boarding the Miss Christin at 4 p.m. for a 90-minute narrated cruise back to Alexandria. Alternatively, it's all downhill if you bike back though you shouldn't rush, since this journey is the destination. http://bikethesites.com/Tours/


Where to eat   Begin your day at Misha's, a snug coffeehouse that roasts its beans on site. Warm lemony yellow walls pair well with an assortment of pastries and the staff is happy to talk coffee. http://www.mishascoffee.com/ The Butcher's Block is a modern, upscale deli fashioned by D.C. area chef Robert Wiedmaier, whose presence is felt in Old Town restaurants including Brabo. Bottles of wine and champagne line one wall while racks opposite carry an assortment of oils, vinegars and relishes. The meat case is a gourmet's delight and attentive staffers turn out sandwiches including the “Sweet and Salty,” a crusty roll encasing prosciutto, brie, arugula, balsamic and fig jam. http://www.braborestaurant.com/alexandria-butchers-block.php RedRocks pizzeria also got its start in our nation's capital, with the King Street location a fitting Alexandria outpost for lunch or dinner. Individual thin-crust pizzas are the star but you're well advised to choose starters including a luscious, slightly-sweet heirloom tomato salad flecked with ricotta salata or a beet and walnut salad tangy with Mandarin orange sections and blue cheese. The Puttanesca pizza is a medley of smoked mozzarella, capers, olives, clams and a spicy tomato sauce while kids will love the Funghi, featuring dainty crimini mushrooms amid gooey mozzarella. http://www.redrocksdc.com/ Restauranteur Cathal Armstrong can often be found at The Majestic Cafe, among the stars in his restaurant constellation. In a long, linear room anchored by wood-topped booths, feast on a heaping bowl of mussels swimming in a garlic and white wine broth. A Chesapeake Bay seafood stew showcases chef Shannon Overmiller's knack for seafood while a whole fish entree could be the best thing on the table, a slab of branzino paired with sauteed squash and caramelized onions. http://majesticcafe.com/

The Columbia Firehouse feels like two restaurants in one, since you can dine in the bar or in a light-filled room graced by floor-to-ceiling windows and a massive skylight. Families will flock to the latter and revel in dishes such as a slow-roasted pork shank astride creamy polenta or seared diver scallops paired with a couscous risotto. http://www.columbiafirehouse.com/




Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and eleven-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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