Visitors flock to Washington, D.C., for its history, its splendid monuments and its palpable sense of power. Despite its charms, Washington can be pricey and, in an election year, intense and self-absorbed.
Sometimes enjoying the capital city is best done at a slight distance.
That's what my wife and I did on a recent visit, when we settled into Alexandria, Va., a 10-minute drive across the Potomac from the District. This gracious river city provides easy access to Washington. But more than that, Alexandria -- especially its historic Old Town -- is an attraction in its own right.
If Alexandria lacks Washington's aura of power, it nearly matches the nation's capital city for historical depth. Old Town is rich in red-brick 18th century rowhouse buildings, many of them finely restored and most within walking distance of one another. It has strong Colonial, Revolutionary War and Civil War associations. And the city's compact, walkable core is festooned with shops, lively cafes, pubs and restaurants serving up a wide range of international cuisine.
We wanted to be enveloped -- literally -- by the past, so we booked ourselves into Morrison House, a well-appointed, 45-room boutique hotel installed in a renovated heritage building by hotel operator Kimpton Group. It proved to be a good choice. Rich period furnishings, big, high postered beds and ornamental fireplaces in guest rooms, the fine-dining Grille Restaurant and a prime location are all attractive lures.
Practically everything is within a 20-minute walk of Morrison House's location on South Alfred Street, just off King Street, Old Town's main shopping and dining artery. Strolling along King Street, with its cobblestones, gaslights and stolid brick, it's not hard to envision city life as it was 200 years ago.
On our first morning, as we walked out of the hotel, we spied a flickering gas lamp outside the former Friendship Firehouse (built in 1855 and now a fire-fighting museum), then rounded the corner onto King and ambled along to La Madeleine (500 King St.), a popular eatery. With high ceilings, wooden floors, a casual atmosphere and commissary-style ordering, La Madeleine offers nourishing soups, savory salads and French-inspired pastries. We liked the place well enough to return.
Old Town is a tourist favorite, but it is not a theme park, and kitschy flourishes are, happily, kept under control. The best way to see the place is on foot; you notice the details that way and can easily give in to improvisation. If you get tired of walking, or the weather turns foul, the free Dash shuttle runs to the King Street Metro (and the Metro runs into Washington).
The local tourist agency, Visit Alexandria, supplies handy maps that outline self-guided architectural and historical walking tours. We picked up a map and armload of brochures at the visitors information center -- itself installed in a historic building, the red-brick Ramsay House. Most printed information, along with staff to answer questions, is found on the second floor, up a steep flight of stairs. Ramsay House is located at 221 King, not far from the town waterfront.
King Street gets lively right after office hours and stays that way throughout the weekend. We fancied an after-work drink at O'Connell 's restaurant and bar, a large King Street (at number 112) redoubtlaid out with plenty of "snugs" (private corners) and dark-paneled rooms. Good grog, such as Smithwick's ale, is on tap.
Not to be outdone is Eamonn's A Dublin Chipper (728 King), a stylish, mod fish and chips spot that also serves trendy cocktails in its FX lounge. The place was opened a year or so ago by an Irish-born chef who jumped across the Potomac to get in on Alexandria's burgeoning food and drink scene.
As you walk along King, you come to the main cross street, Washington Street. The road is aptly named because it links Old Town, as a lovely, landscaped parkway, with George Washington's Mount Vernon estate and its 500 well-tended acres. It's an easy eight-mile drive.
George Washington's associations with Alexandria are many. There is an impressive, 17-foot-high bronze statue of the first president in Old Town, and the church where he worshipped, Christ Church, is beautifully kept and still an active Episcopalian church. It is located at 118 N. Washington St. Robert E. Lee also frequented Christ Church, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill prayed there together in the darkest days of World War II.
Old Town also boasts the beautiful Greek Revival-style Lyceum (201 S. Washington), fronted by graceful columns. As the city's history museum, the Lyceum houses a trove of old maps, archeological discoveries and artifacts from the Port of Alexandria. In earlier days, the river port was a busy trading center -- nowadays, it's a recreational retreat for weekend sailors.
If walking and gawking makes you hungry, appetites can be easily sated. Café Salsa (800 King) specializes in "nuevo latino'' cuisine and features its own take on Latin favorites such as Cuban pork sandwiches and mojitos in a large interior space with big windows. LaPorta's (1600 Duke) is a sleek and happening spot with live jazz nightly, good food and a good wine list.
Want something to take home for the kids? Pop into Why Not? (200 King), an imaginative shop selling children's books and toys, not far from the waterfront.
Torpedo Factory Art Center
Do take in the sunset from the docks, walk the tidy riverside park and check out the incredible variety of original art in the Torpedo Factory Art Center (105 N. Union St.). Sprawling over three floors and overlooking the Potomac, this converted industrial space was once used to make torpedoes. Now it is home to no fewer than 82 artist's studios, an art school and galleries. Making art, not war, is the business at hand.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer. He covers airlines and airports, hotels and resorts, food and wine, and writes travel destination features.