ALEXANDRIA, Va. >> Most cities wouldn’t take kindly to having it said they had gone to the dogs. Alexandria, however, enthusiastically admits to it.
With a population of 160,000, it has an estimated 40,000 dogs, and they have free range of the city (with their humans, of course.) They can enjoy pup-tinis on Barks, Brews and Bites night at Jackson 20 restaurant or “pawdicures” at Head to Tail Grooming Spa. They can take a Canine Cruise courtesy of Potomac Riverboat Company (April through October.) Or they can matriculate at the Olde Town School for Dogs, referred to as “the Princeton for puppies, the Columbia for canines, the Harvard for hounds” (Bo Obama is a notable graduate.)
So, feel free to bring Fido with you, however Alexandria has plenty to offer even if you are currently dogless. It’s ranked as one of the South’s Prettiest Cities by Southern Living Magazine and one of America’s Best Small Cities in the Conde Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards.
Just five miles from Washington, D.C., Alexandria is a history lesson come to vibrant, exhilarating life. You’ll hear the names Washington, Jefferson and Madison bandied about quite a bit and see places associated with our colonial forefathers, but you’ll also find a thriving scene of independent restaurants and one-of-a-kind boutiques housed in beautifully preserved historic buildings from the 1700s and 1800s.
The place to start your rambles is King Street, which begins at the Potomac River waterfront and extends for some five miles, although most of the 160 shops and restaurants are along a one-mile stretch close to the river. Sidewalk cafes line the street, making an ideal spot for people watching, or if you want to be one of the people they are watching, head for the Old Town Farmers Market.
Held each Saturday morning year-round at Market Square, it has been a staple here for 260 years, making it the country’s oldest farmers market held continuously at the same site.
Just around the corner from Market Square Plaza you’ll find Gadsby’s Tavern, a favorite watering hole and dining spot of George Washington. I went for lunch and had the peanut soup, a Virginia specialty. However, if you go for dinner, you can order Washington’s favorite meal — roasted half duck accompanied by scalloped potatoes, corn pudding and rhotekraut. Don’t feel badly if you don’t know what the latter is. I didn’t either until I asked the server, and discovered it’s a sweet and sour red cabbage.
After lunch, wander over to Fairfax Street and take the informative tour of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. One of America’s earliest pharmacies, it offers an intriguing look at the colonial period’s pharmaceutical industry. While the apothecary has no record of ever having George Washington as a customer, it did prescribe medicine for his wife, Martha.
Today, the museum’s collection has some 15,000 objects ranging from potion ingredients such as dragon’s blood, mandrake root and lavender (Harry Potter fans will love it) to a particularly frightening blood-letting device.
The electric blue house on Queen Street usually causes passersby to do a double take and reach for their cameras. Just 7 feet wide, it is the skinniest historic house in America. Known as the Spite House, it was built in the 1830s so the owner could keep loiterers out of his adjacent alley. It might have been built for spite, but it makes for a vivid addition to the Queen Street landscape.
Another vivid landscape can be seen by walking down Captain’s Row with its cobblestone street and vibrantly painted Federal houses built by 18th century sea captains who docked their ships along Alexandria’s wharves.
If you are beginning to feel you are in a time warp, walk a few blocks and you’ll be transported four centuries into the present. Alexandria’s bustling waterfront is lined with outdoor cafes, pocket parks and re-purposed historic buildings. Satisfy your hunger (both for food and views) at such spots as Vola’s Dockside Grill and Hi-Tide Lounge and Virtue Feed & Grain. Both offer the freshest seafood as well as Virginia and southern specialties.
While on the waterfront, don’t miss the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Located in a former World War II munitions plant, the Art Center today houses the largest collection of publicly accessible artists’ studios in the U.S. Currently 82 artists working in wide-ranging mediums from painting and ceramics to printmaking and stained glass are happy to show visitors around.
The Alexandria Marina on the waterfront is the place to catch the Monuments Cruise to the fashionable Washington neighborhood of Georgetown where you can get off and explore before catching a return boat.
En route you’ll get a good view of the three main presidential monuments — the towering Washington Monument, the impressive Lincoln Memorial and my favorite, the lovely Jefferson Memorial on the Tidal Basin. You will also pass the Kennedy Center for the Arts, Maia Lin’s Vietnam Memorial Wall and Arlington National Cemetery.
At the latter you’ll learn that as commander in chief, every president has the right to be buried here, but only two are. Most know that John F. Kennedy with his eternal flame is one, but quick, can you guess the other? Your history teacher will be proud if you correctly said William Howard Taft.
You will want to save a day for a trip to nearby Mount Vernon, home of George and Martha Washington. On your way, stop for breakfast at Stomping Ground in the artsy Del Ray neighborhood. Rumor has it that is was Stomping Ground’s cheddar biscuits that were the reason Amazon execs elected to headquarter in Alexandria.
Washington chose wisely in his location for his beloved plantation. The view from the Potomac of the stately Palladian-style mansion with its row of columns is iconic, but arriving by car will take you to the equally stately front entrance. From here you can explore the carefully curated gardens, an idyllic spot for sitting and reflecting on Washington’s legacy while waiting your turn to tour the house.
Don’t be put off by the seemingly endless line — these folks know what they are doing. Groups move quickly through the house, but you never feel you are rushed. Washington himself had a hand in the design and decor, and judging by the elegance of the rooms, he might have had a future as a decorator had he not been called to lead the new nation.
The first room on the tour, which Washington called the “New Room” as it was the last addition, has high ceilings, exquisite architectural ornamentation and stylish furnishings, essential as this was where the president and first lady entertained distinguished guests.
Washington must have had a premonition about the public’s curiosity when it came to the house as he put it on tour himself. In 1794, he wrote: “I have no objection to any sober or orderly persons gratifying their curiosity in viewing the buildings and gardens about Mount Vernon.”
After your tour, book a table for lunch or dinner at the on-property Mount Vernon Inn. Sample the recipes that the Washingtons might have enjoyed from Colonial hoecake and skillet cornbread to Butternut Squash Soup and Pork Shanks.
With its close proximity to the nation’s capital and with all it has to offer on its own, Alexandria makes for an ideal travel destination … for you and your dog.