I went to Old Town Alexandria for the first time expecting a theme park-style, colonial period recreation in the style of Williamsburg, Va. After all, this was George Washington’s old stomping ground.
You know the deal: men in tricorn hats and stockings bowing flamboyantly to women adorned in bonnets, speaking in British accents, while boys in wigs march to Revolutionary War-era tunes with their drums and piccolos.
But I was pleasantly surprised. Old Town wasn’t tacky, nor did it feel like an empty office development devoid of human life like much of Foggy Bottom does on the weekends. King Street was alive and bustling with pedestrians enjoying the sunny day.
The city’s main draw is its rich history. American history geeks must tour Gadsby’s Tavern Restaurant, where George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams often stayed. During the year, Gadsby’s also hosts many historical reenactments, a cheesy guilty pleasure.
Stop by Christ Church to see its classic English country-style steeple jutting into the skyline, visible throughout the city. Both George Washington and General Robert E. Lee attended services here.
But Alexandria appeals to more than just history buffs with an impressive art scene. You cannot leave Old Town without visiting the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Once a government torpedo factory, the building is now a world-famous non-profit co-op where 165 artists work.
The center boasts 82 studios, six galleries and an archeology museum, but its best feature is its interactive nature: Visitors are encouraged to enter the studios, watch the artists work and ask questions. All three floors are worth an exhaustive tour, but my favorite artist was Lisa Schumaier, who crafts eerily-lifelike, funky paper mache statues and handmade bottle cap magnets.
Alexandria has its own unique identity, something difficult to find in a region comprised almost solely of Washington commuters. Although it is off the beaten path, I would definitely take out-of-town visitors here, ready for a day of hands-on history and art.