Before there was a District of Columbia, there were two flourishing Potomac River ports trading in tobacco — and, yes, slaves — at the edges of the 10-by-10-mile diamond designated in 1790 as the site of the new federal city: Georgetown and Alexandria. (Alexandria and the rest of D.C. across the Potomac were retroceded to Virginia in 1846.)
In some ways a mirror image of Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria has likewise retained many of its 18th- and 19th-century buildings and much of its historic character and charm. Over the past several decades, both communities have become increasingly desirable places to live, shop, dine and sightsee.
It’s a good time of year for Georgetowners to head eight miles due south for an Old Town excursion. During Alexandria’s Winter Restaurant Week, through Sunday, Feb. 26, some 70 restaurants (not all in Old Town) are offering a three-course dinner or dinner for two for $35. Roughly half are also offering lunch specials for $10, $15 or $20 per person. And Alexandria’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, one of the nation’s earliest, is the following Saturday, March 4.
While Georgetown has two retail spines, M Street and Wisconsin Avenue, almost all of Old Town Alexandria’s retail and restaurant activity takes place on King Street, which extends west to east for about 18 blocks from the King Street Metrorail station to the waterfront. The free King Street Trolley runs every 15 minutes or so until midnight Thursday to Saturday (until 10:15 p.m. other days).
A steady stream of shoppers, many pushing strollers or walking dogs, flows along King Street’s brick sidewalks, especially in nice weather. There are several Capital Bikeshare stations, which are popping up throughout Alexandria.
Near the King Street Metro are a handful of hotels and some of the hundreds of professional associations — the American Peanut Council, the International Association of Refrigerated Warehouses and the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, to name a few — that are a mainstay of the city’s economy.
Heading east, one finds a winning mix of bookstores, cafés, home and garden stores, antique shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars. Past Washington Street, a busy north-south boulevard, the national chains are out in force.
At Market Square, it’s worth making a detour to the block of Cameron Street between N. Royal and N. Fairfax, behind City Hall. Gadsby’s Tavern, visited by our earliest presidents, is here, offering guided tours in the museum portion and meals in the restaurant. Inviting shops, some reached through a mid-block archway, line the north side of Cameron.
Returning to King Street on N. Fairfax takes one past Carlyle House, a stunning stone mansion — with an 18th-century-style garden in back — that was British General Edward Braddock’s French and Indian War headquarters. Around the corner on King is the Alexandria Visitor Center (restrooms, shop, brochures) in historic Ramsay House. A free “Walking with Washington” tour leaves from the visitor center on Sunday, Feb. 26, at 2 p.m.
The pace picks up as King Street slopes down to the river, with sidewalk dining, ice cream shops and, at the Scottish Merchant and Tobacconist, cigars. At the waterfront, along with sightseeing boats and sprawling seafood restaurants — Vola’s Dockside Grill, Blackwall Hitch and the Chart House — is the Torpedo Factory Art Center. The renovated naval munitions plant is home to the Art League school, with several galleries and more than 80 artist’s studios open to the public on three floors.
A large-scale waterfront development plan, with residential, retail and hotel components, is moving forward in fits and starts after decades of controversy. The 137-year-old Old Dominion Yacht Club sold its clubhouse and parking lot to the city in 2014, but the new clubhouse nearby is still a construction site.
Back uphill, on Prince Street, is the porticoed Atheneum, a Greek Revival building where Robert E. Lee banked. Now the home of the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association, it is a venue for talks and exhibitions. Coming up next: a show about former Corcoran printmaker Dennis O’Neil’s Hand Print Workshop International, on view through April 2 with a reception on Sunday, Feb. 26, and a panel discussion on Saturday, March 4.