Snapshot in Time: A Walking Tour
Through "Old Town" Alexandria, VA
By Craig Lancto
“Old Town” Alexandria, VA, delivers a condensed version of America’s history. The best way to immerse yourself in this Colonial experience is to ramble along the city’s historic brick and cobblestone streets in search of historic homes, taverns and parks.
Start your Old Town walking tour at Ramsay House (703-838-4200 or http://pages.alexandriacity.com/visitorscenter.htm), 221 King St.
Dating from 1724, the home was named after William Ramsay, one of Alexandria’s founders and a close friend of George Washington. This historic site, the city's oldest home, aptly doubles as a visitor center.
So step inside to look around. While there, pick up a map, touring information and courtesy visitor parking passes.
From the house’s vantage point at the corner of King and Fairfax Streets, you’ll look east to quaint shops, the Torpedo Factory Art Center (703-838-4565 or www.torpedofactory.com), 105 North Union St., and the Potomac River docks.
The Torpedo Factory is shown at right.*
Out and About
Begin your walk by crossing North Fairfax Street to arrive at (it is directly across the street) Market Square, which has bustled with activity since 1753. Not only is this one of the oldest continuous farmers markets in the country, but British General Edward Braddock also drilled his troops here during the Revolutionary War.
The brick building behind the square is City Hall. About a half-block north of Ramsay House, across the street and slightly to your left, is Carlyle House.
The Carlyle House Historic Park (703-549-2997 or www.carlylehouse.org), 121 N. Fairfax St. with its stone Palladian mansion was the social hub of the city in the 18th century.
In 1755, the mansion (shown at left*) served as British General Braddock’s headquarters. Carlyle House was also the place where the American colony’s Royal Governors made the fateful decision to tax the colonists. The result was festering anti-British sentiment that led to the American Revolution.
Each October, Carlyle House is decorated in an 18th century mourning mode to commemorate the 1780 death of John Carlyle, the home’s builder. Carlyle’s funeral is re-enacted annually on Dec. 18.
Also during December, Carlyle House is among the Alexandria Colonial sites included on a candlelight tour; visitors will enjoy 18th century music, dancing, and décor.
Reportedly, the house is haunted. You can judge for yourself.
Editor’s Note: An individual ticket to Alexandria’s Carlyle House Historic Park or to either of two other historic attractions -- Gadsby’s Tavern Museum or the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum – (both detailed later in this article) costs $4 for adults and $2 for kids 11 to 17. Children 10 and under are admitted free. But if you buy a “Market Square” admission ticket, the combo ticket for all three attractions is just $9 for adults, $5 for kids 11 to 17, with younger children admitted free.
From the Carlyle House, continue north to the end of the block, where North Fairfax connects with Cameron Street. Turn left and proceed west along Cameron Street.
The building on the left (it occupies the entire block) is Alexandria’s City Hall (703-838-4000 or www.ci.alexandria.va.us/city/about-alexandria/about.html), 301 King St. If you like art, stop in to tour the second and third floor art galleries.
This city hall stands on the former site of an assembly hall. At this spot in the 1700s, George Mason and a small group of other political leaders started a dialogue that led to the drafting of the United States Constitution.
Washington and Gadsby's Tavern
To reach the city's most famous tavern, continue your walking tour moving west.
The next cross street is North Royal and the building facing you is historic Gadsby’s Tavern (703-838-4242 or www.gadsbystavernrestaurant.com), 138 North Royal St. Throughout the year, the tavern (shown in the photo below*) is open for lunch and dinner.
Try George Washington’s Favorite -- cider glazed duckling with smoked bacon spoonbread, rhotekraut and port wine glacee for $24.
Alternatively, order the Gentleman’s Pye -- venison, lamb and duck braised with vegetables in a red wine stew with potatoes and pastry crust for $22.
The tavern and adjoining hotel provided accommodations for such notables as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Gadsby’s ballroom still hosts occasional political and social gatherings, period dances, fencing lessons and storytelling (including spooky tales about ghosts) Visit it at http://oha.alexandriava.gov/gadsby/gt-events.html.
General Washington located his headquarters at Gadsby’s when he served as colonel of the Virginia Militia. He reviewed his troops for the last time from the tavern’s steps.
Interestingly, America’s first President even participated in the first two annual “George Washington’s Birthnight Balls” at Gadsby’s. That tradition continues each February. The ball is always a sell-out, so inquire early if you wish to attend.
Adjacent to the restaurant is Gadsby’s Tavern Museum (703-838-4242 or http://oha.alexandriava.gov/gadsby), 134 N. Royal St. The museum’s rooms show visitors the accommodations 18th century overnight guests would expect. In addition, the dining rooms are set as if General Washington and his party were expected momentarily.
From Gadsby’s turn left to Cameron Street and continue west, where you will pass a small yellow house on your left at 508 Cameron Street. The building is a reproduction of the townhouse and office that Washington maintained on this site. This replica incorporates some materials from the original structure.
More Historic Sites
A block and a half farther west on Cameron Street will find you at North Washington Street. The handsome old church across the way is the 1773-era Christ Church (703-549-1450 or www.historicchristchurch.org), 118 N. Washington St.
At right is the church exterior with an attractive bell tower, while the interior is shown below. *
Small plaques identify pews where Washington, Robert E. Lee and their families worshipped.
Before entering the church yard, take a few steps to your right. Here a stone above a mound just inside the fence marks the graves of Confederate prisoners of war who died in a nearby Union hospital.
From Christ Church, return to Washington Street and walk south to the end of the block, which connects with King Street.
Turning left, head four blocks east along King Street and make a right turn onto South Fairfax Street, where directly ahead on your right, you will find the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum (703-838-3852 or http://oha.alexandriava.gov/apothecary/ap-index.html), 105 S. Fairfax St.
Over the years, the apothecary served the Washington and Lee families, as well as Civil War soldiers and generations of Alexandrians. At one time, the apothecary, its factory and wholesale operation occupied the entire block.
The business was operated by the same family between 1792 and the late 1930s, when it was forced to close during the Great Depression. Fortunately, its original contents, ingredients and documents remained dormant for decades.
The result is a rewarding visitor experience. Original architectural features and historic records are well-preserved. Bottles are original and displayed on the apothecary’s original shelves.
Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for kids 11-17 and children 10 and under are admitted free.
From the front door of Stabler-Leadbeater’s Apothecary, you’ll again see the Ramsay House in view at the intersection of Fairfax and King to your left.
This brings you to the end of this roundtrip walking tour, perhaps ready to enjoy lunch, shopping or a few more historic attractions.
At left, shoppers stroll the historic streets of Old Town.*
Ready for Lunch or Dinner? Several excellent restaurants are steps away from Alexandria’s attractions:
King Street Blues (703-836-8800 or www.kingstreetblues.com), 112 North St. Asaph St., offers what it terms “comfort food with a southern accent.” So chow down on barbecue ribs, chicken, catfish and Po’ Boy sandwiches.
Warehouse Bar & Grille, (703-683-6868 or www.warehousebarandgrill.com), 214 King St. serves up sizzling steaks and savory seafood.
Food Court Pavilion, Union Street between King and Cameron, is an affordable, family friendly choice. Just head for the docks behind the Torpedo Factory Art Center
Still Eager for More History
Visitors with more time in Old Town might peruse the exhibits at the Alexandria Lyceum.
In 1839, a group of gentlemen who called themselves the Alexandria Lyceum joined with the Alexandria Library Company to build a grand hall to provide a place for lectures, scientific experiments and quiet reading.
Eventually, the building itself became known as The Lyceum; it's shown at right.*
Over the years, this structure served as a Civil War hospital, a private home, an office building and the nation's first Bicentennial Center. In 1985, The Lyceum became Alexandria's History Museum.
Alternatively, you might just amble along the destination's historic streets to admire the architecture and style of Old Town's 18th and 19th century homes. (see photos below*)
For More Information
Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association
703-838-4200 or www.funside.com
A good tip for potential visitors? Before you head out to Old Town Alexandria, check out http://oha.alexandriava.gov/esavings/gt-esavings.html for discount coupons.
Craig Lancto is an Alexandria, Virginia-based travel writer who specializes in history and culture.
*Photos in the above story are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the Alexandria Convention & Visitors Bureau; Virginia Tourism Commission; Erik Kvalsvik CVA/VTC; or Gadsby Tavern Museum. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.