A mere six miles from the nation’s capital, Alexandria feels a world away. Here, people don’t dash about from power lunches to meetings to business cocktails, or bark “stand to the right” at oblivious tourists. Instead, they stroll down a boulevard framed with trees, twinkle lights, topnotch restaurants, boutiques and bars. In recent years, numerous organizations have recognized Alexandria’s charms: Livability.com named it among the Top 10 Downtowns. Amazon has repeatedly dubbed it the most romantic town in America. And the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Alexandria a “Distinctive Destination.”
Need more convincing about Alexandria’s charms? Below you’ll find Paste’s take on how to spend a weekend visiting D.C.’s (slightly) southern neighbor.
Alexandria is for foodies, and no visit is complete without patronizing at least one piece of the Cathal Armstrong kingdom. This Irish-born chef, who began his culinary training in France at age seven, has racked up the accolades, including Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef in 2006, the National Restaurant Association Neighborhood Community Award, and eight consecutive James Beard nominations. His empire, “The Eat Good Food Group,” includes his flagship restaurant, Restaurant Eve, featuring modern American dishes with French influences built around Virginia’s growing season, using only hand-fed, farm-raised, organically grown products; Eammon’s, a “gourmet fry house” (think: battered cod, prawns, grouper and candy bars) with communal seating; PX, a 1920s-style speakeasy (marked with a pirate flag and blue light), renowned for its cocktails mixed with homemade bitters, tonics and infusions; and Society Fair, a culinary emporium complete with a market, bakery, butcher, wine bar and demo kitchen.
Photo: Dakota Fine
For after dinner drinks, visit Columbia Firehouse. Formerly the Columbia Steam Engine Fire Station (established in its current location in 1883), this four-level restaurant provides some of the best ambience in Old Town with an atrium, outdoor patio, and barroom decorated with brass rails, floor to ceiling dark wood, and stained-glass details. Bartenders specialize in recreating famous cocktails from the 1850s to the 1940s, such as the Sazerac (from New Orleans’ Sazerac Coffee Shop circa 1859) and the French 75 (from New York’s Stork Club, circa 1929). If your appetite returns, you’ll also find a substantial selection of late night snacks, including oysters, pulled pork sliders on jalapeno biscuits, pepperoni arancini, and a salad tossed with beets, hazelnuts, radishes and pomegranate vinaigrette.
Start the day on a savory note with a bloody mary, hush puppies topped with gruyere and chives, and a frittata ranchera at Virtue Feed and Grain. Built in a granary from the 1800s, the restaurant’s interior reflects its history: its floor comes from an old oak barn that pre-date the Civil War; its wallboards, from a Victorian era Amish barn; and the wood on the dining tables was pulled, planed and sealed from stair treads of the previous tenant, Olsson’s Books and Records. Don’t worry if there’s a wait: a pool table, porch swings and sofas make this a comfortable place to hang.
Virtue Feed and Grain
Photo: David Coleman
Just 413 feet away, you’ll find the Torpedo Factory Art Center, an old munitions plant that’s home to 82 artist studios, six galleries, two workshops and an archaeology museum. You can observe artists at work, shop their wares (from earrings and scarves to floor-to-ceiling oil paintings and six-foot-tall sculptures) or participate in a class through The Art League School.
The Torpedo Factory abuts the Potomac waterfront, which runs into the Mount Vernon Trail, a nearly 18-mile path that stretches from Thomas Roosevelt Island (near Rosslyn, Va.) to George Washington’s estate. For a little exercise and a quick overview of the area’s parks, wetlands and historic townhouses, rent a bicycle from Wheel Nuts Bike Shop or Big Wheel Bikes.
Venture off the beaten path to Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood to feast on upscale comfort food at the Evening Star Café. Everything’s divine, but local favorites include the macaroni and cheese made with grafton cheddar and roasted Anaheim peppers and the Carolina Gold Rice risotto with charred broccoli, baby white turnips, celery root, whipped goat cheese, benne seed and a soft boiled egg. (Shunning carbs? Opt for the littleneck clams or the beef striploin.) Keep the evening humming in either of the restaurant’s two bars, The Majestic (in back) or the No. 9 Lounge (upstairs). Warm and inviting décor, a robust drink menu (20 craft draught and cask beers and nearly 1,500 wines) and activities including board games and live music encourages many to linger until last call.
Old Town Alexandria
Photo: Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Head north on Henry Street to Homer Simpson’s nirvana: Sugar Shack Donuts, where creativity with sugar (ever try a red velvet cake donut topped with salted caramel cream cheese?) is rivaled only by the staff’s playfulness. (You’ll appreciate this when you see the line to order.) For instance, on March 14, “the Pi Day of the Century,” employees offered freebies to anyone willing to serenade them with Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Check out Sugar Shack on Twitter to learn how to score a sweet treat on the house.
Walk off your sugar high as you peruse the Old Town Boutique District. Alexandria teems with independent retailers, who stock their shops with high-end, distinctive items and hire friendly, educated salespeople eager to offer personal service. Among them: Bellacara, home to premium beauty products, such as Skinceuticals, Kevyn Aucoin, and Tocca; The Shoe Hive, where the well-heeled can get their Kate Spade, Aerin, or Frye fix; and La Cuisine, which peddles with every culinary tool conceivable, from sea creature-themed cookie cutters to a 60-blade mandoline.
End the weekend with a little history lesson. Delve into the mystery of the Freemasons at the George Washington National Masonic Memorial. This 333-foot Neoclassical tower, fashioned after the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, consists of nine floors that house a research center and library, theater, banquet hall, meeting rooms and a museum. Each floor is sponsored by a different Freemason chapter and decorated in a specific theme, including one in the Egyptian Revival style, which contains a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, and another, in the French Gothic style, dedicated to the Knights Templar. Tours are available five times a day, seven days a week, and run about one hour. They conclude with a visit to the observation tower, offering you the perfect chance for a panoramic photo before bidding adieu to this alluring city.
George Washington National Masonic Memorial
Photo: Flickr/Mike Heller
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is three and a half miles north of King Street. The Metro (yellow and blue lines) will take you directly from the airport to King Street in approximately eight minutes.
A free trolley transports visitors from the King Street Metro Station to the Potomac waterfront. Capital bikeshare has eight locations around town. Rent a bike for a nominal fee and return it to any another station.
Where to Stay
The Lorien, conveniently located near the King Street Metro, has 107 guestrooms furnished with claw-foot bathtubs and decorated in a soothing color scheme of blues and grays to foster relaxation. Other amenities include complimentary morning coffee and tea service, an evening wine hour, yoga mats and bicycles. Its adjoining restaurant, Brabo is a great place to enjoy mussels (try the red Thai curry version), frites, a charcuterie plate or savory tart.
Vibrant colors and comfortable furnishings abound in the public spaces and 241 guest rooms at Hotel Monaco, located in the heart of Old Town. Special touches include special programming for children, in-room spa services and a heated pool, where the hotel hosts “dive in” movies every Saturday night. Its restaurant, Jackson 20, serves epicurean comfort food, such as charcoal slow-roasted goat with creamed corn, pimento cheese ravioli and sweet potato puree.
Roughly halfway between the King Street Metro and the Potomac waterfront is Morrison House, in an old colonial home. This boutique bed and breakfast features two- to four-poster beds with luxurious Frette linens and spacious bathrooms with Italian marble countertops in its 45 guest suites. Book lovers will appreciate its library and numerous nooks for reading. Enjoy fine dining (filet mignon, pan seared rock fish) next door at The Grille.
Katie Hendrick is a freelance writer in Sarasota, Florida. Her work has appeared in Garden & Gun, Popular Mechanics, The Local Palate and Our State.