A gentle breeze whisked me away to a bygone era the moment I set foot on the magic carpet of dry leaves covering the cobblestone lane. For a moment it felt like I could hear the horses’ ‘hooves on the cobbles. The rays of the afternoon sun filtered through the trees and I was transported to the colonial world of kings and queens and sea- faring captains in Old Town Alexandria in Virginia.
I was at Captain’s Row, the oldest cobblestone lane in the Old Town, dating to the 18th century. Strolling along this 100 Block on Prince Street, I found myself on the banks of the Potomac River, which separated the American capital from the petite historic town.
The picturesque and romantic block, like the entire Old Town, is a time capsule that predates the American Revolution and the lantern- lit cobblestone lanes and brick buildings are the last vestiges of an era before the United States of America came into being.
Built with bricks and wood in the Federal style of architecture by Captain John Harper, the row houses flanking the leafy lane were home to several sea captains who docked their ships on the Alexandria wharves. Legend says that the cobblestones were brought in ships from England, as ballast, and were paved by the captured German mercenaries, the Hessians.
Alexandria is the third oldest designated historic district in the US, founded in 1749, and was voted recently as one of the top three small cities. As I pottered along, soaking in the colonial atmosphere, I was told that the Founding Fathers dined here at Gadsby’s Tavern and probably dreamt of an America years before it was formed.
Historically, the Old Town is filled with little nuggets of stories and is lost in a time warp. Become a time traveller and explore the town at your own pace. However, if you are wondering where to begin, then here are my recommendations on what you must see and do in Old Town Alexandria.
1.Stroll along and shop at King’s Street Mile
The very heart of the Old Town lies in this picturesque royal mile which is filled with over 200 independent boutiques and vintage shops, besides breweries, cafes, restaurants. Browse through a book store, stop by to buy charming crockery, get enchanted by witchcraft and watch artisans create magic. Support small businesses in this “Small Shop Headquarters” of the DC Region.
Charming houses, stately manors and quirky museums add to the vibrant atmosphere set in brick buildings and cobble stone alleys. While the free trolley will ferry you up and down the mile, also explore Queen’s Street and Prince’s Street nearby for some quaint architecture.
2. Visit Spite House, the smallest and an Instagram-able house
The Old Town is an architectural delight with a mishmash of Georgian and Victorian monuments but some of the colonial-era brick dwellings are Instagram-able. While the oldest house is the Murray Dick Fawcett House on Prince’s Street, the Georgian manor of merchant John Carlyle is one of the showstoppers.
But nothing is more charming and colourful than the Spite House, the smallest house which is straight out of a fairy tale. The skinniest two-storey house, painted in shades of blue and measuring a little over seven feet in width, was built literally in spite by an irate owner, John Galloway, to keep horse-drawn carriages away from the alley next to his main house. Indeed, every brick in Alexandria has a story to tell, some out of spite as well.
3. Cruise along the Potomac River
Located on the Potomac River, Alexandria was a port city and the waterfront is the very nucleus of the buzzing town with art, history, outdoor events, and al fresco dining. While there are high-speed water taxis connecting you to The Wharf in DC, you can also ferry over to George Washington’s Mount Vernon or just cruise along, admiring the Marina in Alexandria.
The vibrant art installation, “Two Boxes of Oranges and Admonia Jackson,” is an immersive exploration of Alexandria’s history while the Torpedo Factory Art Centre gives you a peek into the artistic and cultural landscape of Alexandria. But what is fascinating is the sheer transformation of this factory that created torpedoes during World War 2 and was a storehouse of Nazi trial records. It is now home to over 100 artists with more than 70 studios spread over three floors with galleries for exhibitions.
4. Create a magic potion at the Stabler Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
You enter a world of potions and lotions in this magical atmosphere of the historic apothecary founded in 1792. For a muggle, it’s like stepping into the world of Harry Potter as the oldest pharmacy in the Old Town is now a museum. A family-run business for over 150 years, the museum displays over 15,000 objects from mundane medical devices, journals and records, hand-blown glass bottles, rare herbs and oils to even exotic ingredients like dragon’s blood. The pharmacy is believed to have been patronised by George Washington and his wife, Martha as well.
5. Buy local produce at the Old Town Farmer’s Market
The traditional and the oldest farmer’s market in the US is over 200 years old and it is a delicious spread of local produce from farmers and vendors from Alexandria. Held at the Market Square beside the City Hall every Saturday, it is believed that even George Washington sent his produce from My Vernon here.
Besides meat and vegetables, pasta and pastries, bread and cheese, there are also handmade soaps and jewellery, potted plants, and flowers. But it’s the vibrant vibe and the local flavour that make this market special.
6. Take a historic tour at Christ Church
Old Town Alexandria predates the American Revolution and most of the monuments, including churches, are over 200 years old. The Christ Church, built in 1773, is one of the oldest churches and is one of the 140 sites associated with George Washington who lived in Mount Vernon in Alexandria. The brick two-storey church was at the forefront of the Revolutionary War and historic tours are held every day here.
7. Step into the world of Founding Fathers at Gadsby’s Tavern
One of the oldest taverns, and now a museum, Gadsby’s Tavern was where the Founding Fathers had dined and dreamt about the formation of the United States. Even today, the fine dining restaurant is reminiscent of a bygone colonial era and it is in the original dining room of the tavern. The museum is a complex of two buildings which include the old hotel. It gives you a peek into the cultural tapestry and historic fabric of the town and chronicles the layers of history.
Alexandria, though steeped in the past, is filled with an easy-going, contemporary vibe that brings tourists and locals from Washington DC which is either a short ride or a ferry away on the water taxi. The erstwhile home of George Washington is an added attraction which is barely 12 km away from the Old Town. You can explore the mansion, the gardens and the grounds and even visit the distillery and grist mill. For outdoor enthusiasts, you can bike the Mount Vernon Trail or cruise along the Potomac River as well.