Alexandria, VA

Walk Through American History in Old Town Alexandria, VA

Terri Carr

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Old Town Alexandria, VA - Where Historic Ambiance Abounds

A trip to Old Town Alexandria, VA satisfies the history buff, art-lover, shopper and foodie in any crew. King Street is the central artery of Old Town, stretching 1 mile from the Potomac River to the King Street Metro. Cute cafes and boutiques cater to locals and tourists having a look at the numerous historic sites dating back to the 18th century.

Just across the Potomac River from Washington DC, this historic section of Alexandria was originally considered part of the nation’s capital. Strolling it’s cobblestone streets lined with pre-industrial era buildings, this place absolutely oozes historic ambiance. Many buildings now designated historic sites were once occupied or frequented by America’s founding fathers and Civil War generals.

Like most cities in the US, Alexandria is observing Covid-19 restrictions but several historic venues are still accessible. In addition, maps for self-guided walking tours are available from the visitors center.

Ramsay House Visitor’s Center - corner of King and Fairfax Streets

William Ramsay was a Scottish merchant who bought the land in 1749 and arranged to have a small building carried up the Potomac River by barge and installed on the site.

As one of Alexandria’s first trustees, Ramsey was also postmaster, census taker and town overseer. His former home now welcomes tourists looking for information about local attractions and holds public restrooms on the ground level.

Gadsby Tavern - 134 N. Royal Street

The original tavern has been converted into a museum. The taller brick building, operated as a hotel in the Colonial era is currently the Gadsby Tavern Restaurant. It is temporarily closed due to Covid restrictions. Waiters dressed in period costumes serve dishes commonly available in the 19th Century, as well as more modern fare.

Gadsby’s was a popular hangout for politicians and business travelers between Williamsburg, VA and Boston, MA. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee were all familiar faces. Actually, the ballroom of the hotel was the site of George Washington’s birthday ball and Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration ball.

Until 2020, Gadsby’s Tavern Museum offered history-themed workshops on subjects like period dress, social mannerisms and English country dancing.

Christ Church - 118 N. Washington Street

George Washington and Robert E. Lee attended this Episcopal church constructed between 1767 and 1773. Modern day visitors can see the pews reserved for the Washington and Lee families, though many other dignitaries worshipped there over the last two centuries.

City Hall and Market Square - 301 King Street

The Saturday morning Farmer’s Market held in the square is thought to be the longest running farmer’s market in the United States, running continuously since 1753. Apparently produce from George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate was sold at this same market.

Carlyle House Historic Park - 121 N. Fairfax Street

This house was constructed in the 1750’s for Scottish merchant, John Carlyle, one of the first landowners in Alexandria. The city was a vibrant seaport at the time and Carlyle established an import/export business. It is the only Georgian Palladian-style building in the area.

British General Edward Braddock lodged with Carlyle and met with the colony’s five royal governors in his first floor dining room.

In 2021, Carlyle House is open for visitors Thursday through Tuesday, closed on Wednesdays. Visitors see a short film and exhibits of many Colonial era artifacts.

Washington’s Town House - 508 Cameron Street

Though it’s now a private residence, this building is a close reproduction of the one built in 1769 for George Washington. He and his assistant would stay there whenever inclement weather or other pressing matters made it too difficult to journey 9 miles to Mt. Vernon. The original building was torn down in 1855 and reconstructed a century later.

Captain’s Row - 100 Block of Prince Street

As you might guess by looking at the uneven cobblestones, this is one of the oldest streets in Old Town. Wealthy sea captains occupied these homes during Alexandria’s heyday as a bustling seaport.

This block of historic homes and knobbly cobblestoned street evokes an earlier era, making it

a popular site for romantic photo shoots. Captain’s Row appears on many magazine covers and advertisements for picturesque getaways. Alexandria’s cobblestone streets were originally made using stones that had been ballast to weight incoming ships on their transatlantic journeys.

Boyhood home of Robert E. Lee - 607 Oronoco Street

This mansion was open to visitors before the year 2000 when it was converted to a private residence. You can still see virtual tours at leeboyhoodhome.com.

This is one of many Alexandria properties with a reputation for being haunted.

Many accounts by residents and visitors corroborate similar ghostly experiences.

Back in the 1960’s when is was also a private residence, occupants said they heard what sounded like a small child running around the house during daytime hours. And they would the sounds of children laughing throughout the house.

There are several theories about who these ghost spirits might be. Lee’s brother, Philip, died at the age of 4 and seems a likely candidate for many of these ghostly experiences.

Torpedo Factory Art Center - 105 N. Union Street

This complex started as a torpedo factory after World War I and was converted to an arts center in 1974. Each year hundreds of thousands of visitors tour the studios of over 80 artists exhibiting and selling their crafts.

The Mark XIV torpedo, manufactured in 1945, is on display on the ground floor. It’s bright green finish made it easier to see during underwater testing.

From the end of World War II until 1969, the buildings were used as government storage for Congressional documents, dinosaur bones, artwork from the Smithsonian and German war films.

Whether you're a history buff or not, Old Town Alexandria is delightful place to spend an afternoon or the entire weekend.

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