Old Town Charm

Bundle up and hit the streets of historic Alexandria for a stroll through winter wonderland.

Walking through the tree-lined streets of Old Town Alexandria harkens to a quaint river town of the past. Though the charm is still fully intact, Alexandria, Va. has grown to offer visitors much more than your usual historic city.

Row houses and walk-ups with varying colored doors, wrought-iron accents, and decorated stoops are the calling card of Old Town, along with the occasional cobblestone street. Businesses and restaurants also line the streets in original and consciously preserved buildings to retain the small town vibe that permeates the town.

While preserving the history of the town, Alexandria has emerged as a bustling community full of independently owned boutiques and restaurants, pet-friendly establishments, and an art scene worthy of a trip all on its own. Stroll by Market Square to check out the Old Town Farmers Market, the longest continually operating farmers market, where George Washington was once a vendor. Sample scratch-made pastries and New Zealand meat pies, pick out assorted truffles and chocolates, meet local and regional farmers and artisans, and pick up the perfect bouquet (Alexandria was named the “Most Romantic City in the US” by Amazon.com this year).

Nothing quite encapsulates the revitalization of Old Town like the Torpedo Factory Art Center on the Potomac riverfront. The factory was once a fully functioning munitions factory that was used as storage for the Federal government after the end of World War II. In 1969, the plant was bought by the city of Alexandria, and Marian Van Landingham, the Art League president at the time, proposed a project to turn the factory into working artists’ studios, as it is today. Visit 82 artists’ studios, seven galleries, two workshops, and the Alexandria Archeology Museum, all under one roof.

To really immerse yourself in the culture of Alexandria and Old Town, book a stay at the Kimpton Morrison House, located just an 11-minute walk from the Torpedo Factory Art Center. The Federal-style building houses 45 guest rooms and seamlessly blends in with the landscape of Old Town. Walk up the granite stairway and into the parlor, painted the same green hue as a room in Washington’s Mount Vernon (only a 20-minute scenic drive down the road). Lounging is encouraged in the cozy living area and sophisticated Ashlar Bar, both right off the main hall. Guest rooms are sleek with pops of color, like tartan carpet (a nod at the Scottish heritage of the city) and bright red alarm clocks on the bedside tables. Hop on one of Morrison House’s loaner bikes and traverse the city at your own pace.

While exploring Old Town, pop into the various shops and galleries. You won’t find many major chains here—nearly 80 percent of retailers and restaurants in Old Town and Del Ray are independently owned. Looking for the perfect gift this season? King Street and the Old Town Boutique District is where to start. Shoppers can find an array of high-end clothing and accessories retailers, along with interior décor shops and antiques galleries full of statement pieces. During a leisurely day of shopping, stop by Don Taco for a casual lunch. The two-story eatery and tequila bar gives patrons a sheet of all the tacos to choose from, and they simply pick how many they want (think of a sushi menu). For a sweet treat visit Casa Rosada Artisan Gelato, owned and operated by a family from Argentina. Traditional flavors include Malbec, Dulce de Leche, and Sambayon. Dogs aren’t left out here—grab some Doggy Gelato in either lactose-free peanut butter banana or apple cinnamon.

Alexandria’s surrounding neighborhoods draw visitors in their own right. The action in Del Ray is centered on the bustling Mount Vernon Avenue, dotted with cafes, bakeries, wine and cheese shops, and restaurants. Notable stops include Junction Bakery & Bistro, a new addition with a focus on house-made breads and baked goods, with a hearty brunch crowd. Grab farm-to-table Southern fare at Stomping Ground, a casual neighborhood spot with seasonal offerings (and plenty of biscuits). Cheesetique takes cheese and wine pairings seriously with a collection of hard-to-find cheese, meats, and accompaniments, along with their take on a cheese ball and oft-praised mac n’ cheese.

Also in Del Ray is Swing’s Coffee Roasters, currently celebrating 100 years in the D.C. region. The industrial-inspired coffee bar houses the brand’s roastery, which focuses on ethically sourced beans and making face-to-face relationships with small farmers in countries around the world.

Also outside of Old Town are Alexandria’s two breweries, the well-established Port City Brewing Co. and the newly resurrected Portner Brewhouse. Port City Brewing Co. was named the Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival. The production brewery also includes a taproom with two bars and arcade games. Portner Brewhouse is a brewery and restaurant based on the largest pre-Prohibition brewery, The Robert Portner Brewing Company. The establishment is being opened by two of Robert Portner’s great-great grandchildren, Catherine and Margaret Portner. The brewpub includes a craft beer test kitchen, where aspiring brewers get the chance to craft their beer on a commercial level and test its success.

Top-notch restaurants are aplenty in Alexandria, but two should be on any foodie’s radar—Restaurant Eve and Hank’s Pasta Bar. Restaurant Eve, located in a historic warehouse, is led by James Beard-nominated Chef Cathal Armstrong and his wife, Meshelle. The menu is based on regional American cuisine and features ingredients from the 2,000-square-foot garden behind the restaurant. (Pro-tip: go for the tasting menu.)

Hank’s Pasta Bar opened in February of this year. The space is warm and inviting, and different images of Hank, Chef Jamie Leeds’ dad, line the walls. The menu features 13 different kinds of handmade pastas and the cocktail list has a section just for different riffs on the classic negroni.

Nightlife in Alexandria is not lacking—you just have to find it. The city is home to two speakeasies, PX and Captain Gregory’s. PX, located in Old Town, is a cozy upstairs social lounge where conversation and cocktails reign supreme. Captain Gregory’s is housed inside Del Ray’s Sugar Shack Donuts. Reservations are encouraged as it seats less than 30 people. Look for seasonal, handcrafted cocktails and exorbitant donuts for a sweet way to end the night.

Alexandria allows visitors to straddle the line between past and present. Meander through historic neighborhoods, past buildings and landmarks from the days of Washington, all while enjoying the new establishments that embrace the city’s heritage.

 

Bustling Boutiques

Old Town is known for its independently owned boutiques and shops. Here are just a few of the favorites:

The Hour

This is the best place to find a gift for the hostess with the mostess. The Hour is stocked with exquisite vintage cocktailware and barware. Find styles from notable designers, along with serving trays, utensils, and bar carts.

1015 King St., www.thehourshop.com

 

Stitch Sew Shop

This new concept combines a by-the-hour sewing space with classes and a curated selection of fabrics meant for garments. Browse patterns from independent designers and check out books and tools from around the world.

102 N. Fayette St., www.stitchsewshop.com

 

fibre space

This yarn and fibre boutique specializes in items you can’t find anywhere else for knitting, crochet, and spinning. Find hand dyed, independent, local, and U.S.-made products. The shop also hosts classes and events, and works to foster a community of makers.

1219 King St., www.fibrespace.com

 

From Street to Screen

Alexandria takes center stage in PBS’ most recent period drama, “Mercy Street.” The show is inspired by real events of Civil War Alexandria. Visitors can put themselves in the iconic sites featured on the show. Here are a couple notable places to visit:

 

Carlyle House

This Georgian Palladian manor house was built in 1753 by merchant and city founder John Carlyle. It is also where five royal governors and General Braddock met to discuss funding of the French and Indian War.

 

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum

This historic apothecary served both George Washington and General Robert E. Lee. The walls still hold jars with their original contents.

 

Season two of “Mercy Street” premieres on PBS on Sunday, January 22, 2017, at 8 p.m. ET.

www.pbs.org/mercy-street

Find other “Mercy Street” inspired experiences at www.visitalexandriava.com/mercystreet.