History and Heritage in Alexandria, Virginia
By Ruth J. Katz
“A customer can have a car painted any color he wants, as long as it’s black,” thus sayeth Henry Ford, or at least, supposedly sayeth Henry Ford.
You might say that Brandon Byrd, the ice cream impresario of Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats in Alexandria, VA, held a similar, focused belief vis-a-vis vanilla: In 2012, he put pedal to the metal and launched a food-truck business. He stepped on the accelerator of his handsomely kitted-out truck, and presto-change-o, his traveling soda fountain and ice creamery started cruising the macadam byways of the area.
He christened the truck Gigi, but he may as well have dubbed her the “Vanilla Van,” as in, “…you can have any flavor you want, as long as it’s vanilla.” Gigi travels around town bringing sumptuous fare to neighborhoods around Alexandra. (Think modern-day Good Humor truck, but with shakes, floats, cakes, pies, and custard extravaganzas.)
If, however, you want chocolate, and not vanilla, then head to Alexandria’s Lavender Moon Cupcakery. Eager for a chocolate-y teat, I found myself in a quandary, as I tried to decide among cupcakes that featured flourless chocolate with almonds and sea salt; triple Belgian chocolate; devil’s food peanut butter mousse; s’mores, and other cocoa-infused flavor explosions.
I soon learned that these sweet-treat vendors are but two purveyors of calories-be-damned desserts in Alexandria. Indeed, this is no mere city on the Potomac: It was named Ice Cream Capital of the United States by Forbes magazine. And so, you’ll also want to visit many of the city’s dessert destinations: The Creamery, Pop’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream, The Dairy Godmother, Nicecream, Casa Rosada, Alexandria Cupcake…and many more.
If a sugar high doesn’t fell you first, then put on your walking shoes to enjoy the more serious side of this former tobacco trading post, a mere five miles from Washington. DC. Founded in 1749, Alexandria (population 160,000) offers something for everyone—from the Colonial heritage of Old Town (a nationally designated historic district) to the lively, “artsy” Del Ray neighborhood to the sober vestiges of the once-thriving slave trade, evident at so many historic sites.
Recognized as one of the Top Five Best Small Cities in the US in the 2020 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards, Alexandria boasts stunning architecture from the 1700s and 1800s; a thriving waterfront, dotted with eateries and artwork (a current site-specific installation, Groundswell, was created by Brooklyn–based artist Mark Reigelman); and fascinating one-off shops (more than 80% of the emporia in Old Town are independently owned), like The Hour, vending unusual, vintage cocktail ware and bar accoutrements, as well as Donna Lewis, a boutique responsible for garbing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “from mask to pantsuit.”
MUCH TO SEE AND DO
An easy, self-guided walking tour of Old Town is a good way to start. Be sure to take in the famous, seven-foot-wide Spite House, 523 Queen Street, the skinniest historic home in America. In truth, there are at least three other period “spite houses” around Alexandria, constructed to “spitefully” keep horses and riffraff out of the owners’ adjacent, narrow alleys.
Do not pass up an opportunity to cruise on the Potomac. The tall ship Providence, which had a star turn in Pirates of the Caribbean, is a full-scale reproduction of one of the most renowned ships in the Continental Navy.
Other riverine options: City Cruises by Hornblower has several options, including a Monuments Sightseeing Tour, passing some of the nation’s shrines. Or hop on a water taxi to other historic sites and shopping areas (like the Wharf in DC).
Amble up Captains’ Row, which is the 100 block of Prince Street, between South Union and South Lee streets. One of two cobblestone roadways in the city, it is lined with resplendent, picturesque Federal-style row houses. (Great backdrop for a selfie.)
Book a walking tour with Manumission Tour Company, curated and owned by local Councilman John T. Chapman, who is also a fourth-generation Alexandrian. Chapman has designed cultural and heritage tours that highlight Alexandria’s extensive African-American history, and his knowledge of the area is encyclopedic. Learn about the Underground Railroad, the Alexandria National Cemetery, and the legendary Edmonson sisters, who were freed with the help of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn.
Just off King Street is the Georgian Palladian home of Scotsman John Carlyle, one of Alexandria’s founders. Eponymously named, Carlyle House is the city’s only 18th-century stone mansion and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Another not-be-be-missed site is the astonishing Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, among the nation’s oldest pharmacies, with over 15,000 of its original products still intact. A National Historic Landmark, its wares underscore why pharmacies were originally regarded as chemists’ shops, as you will also see that on offer here all manner of products that clearly have nothing to do with curing diseases—like turpentine and paints .
No trip to the area is complete without a visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which is maintained pristinely. There are gardens, workshops, slave quarters (Washington held nearly 400 enslaved people), museum exhibits, distillery, and gristmill—and Washington’s tomb.
DINE AND WINE
As noted above, sweets are a big business here, but so is fabulous food, with charming eateries dotting the city everywhere—the riverfront, lower King Street, and Old Town. There is plenty of both indoor and outdoor dining, and you’ll find lots of interesting places for brunch or just coffee.
Ada’s on the River, in the new Robinson Landing area, draws inspiration from Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century pioneering mathematician; you might say that the menu here is equally as pioneering and innovative. Tasty, toothsome, and tantalizing.
Gadsby’s Tavern has been feeding Alexandrians since 1770, and today, costumed wait staff serve and period-inspired performers entertain. The kitchen whisks up colonial-inspired cuisine, so you can dine on sumptuous meals that Washington, Jefferson, or Madison might have savored. Outside, adjacent to the restaurant, is a Colonial-era ice well, which is allegedly, where cold beer was invented.
For a quickie morning cuppa’ joe, try the newly opened Café de Soleil or the charming Fontaine, where Breton-style crepes are a specialty. Two other choices that will leave you satiated are Virtue Feed & Grain with a modern American tavern menu and Vola’s Dockside Grill, known for seafood—lobster rolls, crab cakes, shucked oysters. For a truly fun and absolutely delicious meal, head to Del Ray for the funky storefront eatery, the Evening Star Café, with its eclectic, original menu. And for an any-time-of-day snack, don’t forget the sensational Goodies, which just opened a permanent site, at the refurbished Ice House in Old Town.
I chose the Hotel Indigo, the city’s first waterfront hotel, opened in 2017. It’s a little edgy, (but not so much that you need a Baedeker to figure out how to turn on the faucets), and yet, it’s also ever so comfy—my room had a big wingchair by the riverfront window and a beanbag hassock for resting tour-weary feet. Hummingbird restaurant in the hotel is helmed by James Beard-nominated chef Cathal Armstrong, who dishes up flavorsome, seasonal fare with a flair.
Further Information: VisitAlexandriaVA.com
© 2021 Ruth J. Katz All Rights Reserved
The author of five books, Ruth J. Katz was the style/travel editor of Promenade magazine for eight years. She has written extensively for both The New York Times and New York magazine and has served as an editor or contributing editor at numerous magazines, including Redbook, Classic Home, Golf Connoisseur, and The Modern Estate. She has visited over 80 countries (and counting).