Alexandria was established as a town along the northernmost part of the Potomac River in 1749, named after the Alexander family whose land formed the majority of the area. It was considered the first major seaport of British America. Known for its 18th and 19th century architecture (we could have spent days just walking the neighborhoods and checking out window boxes and front doors), Alexandria is a nationally designated historic district.
Alexandria is consistently awarded titles like “Top 5 Best Small Cities in America.” It is a very family friendly space with plenty of year round activities everyone will enjoy. There are plenty of open spaces and parks along the waterfront, cobblestone streets, and many historical landmarks that welcome visitors to learn about Revolutionary America.
- Information on parking in Alexandria can be found here and a map of parking garage locations here. There are over 15 garages throughout the downtown area, with reasonable rates and free parking on the weekends. We found the area to be extremely walkable from our hotel on King Street. We parked our car in the hotel garage and walked everywhere for our entire visit (except for Mount Vernon, which we visited on a separate trip).
- Another option for transportation is the Alexandria Transit Authority (called DASH). More information on schedules, routes, and fares can be found here.
- The Visitor Center is located at 221 King Street and offered tons of print materials and docents to help with advice and reservations for popular attractions and restaurants. It is open seven days a week.
- Consider purchasing the Keys to the City pass, which includes a dozen popular attractions and saves a lot of money compared to buying individual attraction passes.
- Check out VisitAlexandriaVA.com for planning and recommendations. I used the website for most of my planning and found it well organized by attraction, location, and interest, with thorough information on dining and lodging, and up to date calendars of events.
10 Things Kids Should Do in Alexandria:
1. Complete the Family History Hunt at the Alexandria History Museum at the Lyceum. The Lyceum was built in 1839 as a public educational center for lectures and performances and later used as a union hospital during the Civil War. Today, the museum chronicles the history of Alexandria with galleries of artifacts dating back to the 1700s. The upstairs lecture hall is used for special events and performances. Kids will enjoy touching some of the artifacts like the deer skin, flipping through question kiosks, and relaxing at the coloring station.
Travel Tips: Check admission hours (currently open Thursday- Saturday) and rates here. A small parking lot and restrooms are available for guests, and there is a small gift shop near the admission desk. The museum is handicap accessible and strollers are allowed. Plan on 45-60 minutes for a self-guided tour. Part of the Keys to the City pass.
2. Count the amount of squirrels on display throughout the Lee Fendall home, as well as the 18th century house trap, service bell, and remnants of the Civil War. Revolutionary War officer “Lighthouse Harry” Lee (father of Robert E. Lee, whose childhood home is across the street) owned the land in 1784, which was later used by relative Philip Fendall in 1850 to build the home. Most of the 19th century furniture and accessories on display were donated by family members. The house was used as a branch hospital during the Civil War and became a museum in 1974. Kids will also enjoy seeing the authentic, 19th century kids room with sewing machine and doll house on display. The squirrel was part of the Fendall family crest and replica squirrels can be seen in several rooms.
Travel Tips: Information on admission hours and rates here. There is a small parking lot on the Oronoco Street side of the property. Restrooms are available, but the museum is not handicap accessible. Plan on 60 minutes for the guided tour. Part of the Keys to the City pass
3. Search for the oldest artifact in the Archaeology Museum at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. The third floor exhibit space is filled with maps and artifacts found throughout the city (including one that is 13,000 years old!). Staff is on hand to answer questions about digs which uncovered many artifacts that tell the story of Alexandria’s past. The Torpedo Factory, which produced torpedos post World War I through World War II, is now home to three floors of studio space for over 80 artists and 8 galleries and workshop spaces.
Travel Tips: The Museum is free to visit and currently open on Wednesday-Sunday; check here for up to date information on hours, parking, and other logistics. The Archaeology Museum is small and a visit should take 20-30 minutes. There is a small gift shops space in the exhibition room. Restrooms are located throughout the factory building, which is handicap and stroller accessible.
4. Learn about Toby, a pig rumored to be able to spell, solve math problems, and read minds at the Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. The museum is adjacent to Gadsby Tavern, (currently open for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday) , which opened in 1785 by John Gadsby, who leased the businesses from building owner John Wise. Today, visitors can take self-guided tours through two floors of recreated rooms showcasing how visitors dined and stayed on property. A 1802 inventory John Gadsby created helped authenticate the recreated room displays. There is a second floor assembly room, originally rented out as offices in the early 1800s.
Travel Tips: Information on admission hours (currently Friday through Sunday), self guided tours, and rates here. A small gift ship is located near the admission desk. The museum is not handicap accessible. Plan on 30-45 minutes for a self-guided tour. Part of the Keys to the City pass.
5. Choose a favorite bedroom color at the Carlyle House Historic Park. John Carlyle built the house, which was considered the grandest home in Alexandria at the time, in 1753. Carlyle was an Englishman who came to Virginia as a teenager and married Sarah Fairfax, whose family helped secure the money for the property. The property was restored in the 1970s and opened in time for America’s Bicentennial in 1976. The rooms are furnished according to the inventory of 1780, the year Carlyle died. Leave time to check out the beautiful gardens, filled with plants that would have been available to Carlyle in the 1700s. Check here for information on special events.
Travel Tips: Information on admission hours and rates here (closed on Wednesdays). The guided tour begins in the lower level with a brief introductory video. The museum is not handicap accessible. There are a few spots to sit and rest weary feet on the tour (look out for the green chairs!). The Market Square Parking Garage is less than one block away and metered street parking is available. Restrooms are available and there is a small gift shop near admissions. Plan on 45-60 minutes for the tour. Part of the Keys to the City pass.
6. Play at one of the several playgrounds and parks in the city. Waterfront Park has over an acre of open space (and tons of great restaurants nearby!) and throughout 2021, the art installation “Groundswell” by Mark Reigelman is on display. Within a mile of the waterfront are Windmill Hill Park and Jones Point Park. Windmill Hill Park includes a great playground, swing set and basketball court, with street parking available. Jones Point Park has well marked biking and walking trails, two fishing piers, two playgrounds, two basketball courts, and plenty of lawn space for picnicking and law games. The Mount Vernon Trail runs through the park. A great option for the toddler set is the Armory Tot Lot on South Royal Street. There is also a large parking lot near the playground. More info on Alexandria parks here.
7. Climb aboard the Tall Ship Providence and listen to the stories of Captain John Paul Jones. Jones and his crew of 75 sailors helped to capture many of the 40+ ships in the four years the Providence (formally named the Katie) was a part of the Continental Navy in the 1770s. The recreated ship (built to celebrate the American Bicentennial in 1976) has a mast 93 feet high. Kids will love exploring all three decks, hearing about the daily chores and meals of the sailors, and practicing loading a canyon for fire.
Travel Tips: One hour tours are offered throughout the day- check here for more information on rates and hours. Tours begin with a brief overview of the history of the ship at the Visitor Center, located under the Chart House Restaurant at the Old Town Marina. From there, it is a short walk to the ship. The ship is not handicap accessible past the Quarter (top) Deck. Restrooms are available in the nearby Torpedo Factory building. Plan on one hour for the tour. Discount tickets are available with the Keys to the City pass.
8. Learn about the trade of freemasonry at the George Washington Masonic National Monument. Built from 1922 to 1932 to honor George Washington, a Freemason at the age of 20 in 1752, the George Washington Masonic National Memorial overlooks Alexandria, Virginia high atop Shooter Hill. The nine story Memorial is 333 feet tall, just 100 feet shorter than the Washington Memorial in nearby Washington DC. It is the home to a museum, active Masonic temple, research library, and performing arts auditorium. Tours are offered five times a day and include a visit to many of the beautiful parts of the museum and monument.
Travel Tips: The Memorial is open seven days a week all year. Children ages 12 and under receive free admission; information here. Visiting the Observation Deck of the Memorial is part of Alexandria’s Keys to the City pass; more info here. The Memorial is handicap accessible with elevators and ramps. Plenty of free parking is located to the right of the memorial. Information on public transportation can be found here. Plan on one hour for the tour, more when visiting the Observation Deck of the Memorial.
Read our full post here.
9. Spend the day exploring the home of George and Martha Washington, Mount Vernon. A short, 15-minute drive from Old Towne Alexandria will transport visitors back to the 18th century when George and Martha bought and renovated the once 8,000-acre property that included five distinct farms. Today, the now 50-acre site has over 20 areas open to the public, including tours of the main home, Washington’s tomb, Pioneer farm, Innovation Barn, walking trails, a distillery and gristmill, and two extensive indoor centers: the Reynolds Museum and the Education Center.
Travel Tips: Information on admission hours and fees here; plenty of parking in adjacent lots. This index includes helpful itineraries based on interest and time. Kids will enjoy completing the adventure map scavenger hunt. The complex includes a food court, Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, and two large gift shops. Plan on at least half a day to explore the main parts of Mount Vernon, but a full day will allow families to really enjoy the complex. Discount tickets are available with the Keys to the City pass
10. Take a water taxi from the waterfront in Old Alexandria to Georgetown in Washington DC or National Harbor in Maryland. Cruises are between 20-30 minutes one way and offer outdoor and indoor seating. The water taxi offers great views of DC’s popular monuments
Travel Tips: Water taxis are in operation from March through December; information on rates and dates here. One day passes are an affordable way to check out all three locations.
Bonuses: These locations were closed due to pandemic restrictions when we visited, but are definitely worth a visit when you’re in town:
- The Black History Museum is located at the site of the first “separate but equal” public library for African Americans, built in 1940. The complex includes a museum and Heritage Park, a one acre park that has twenty burial plots, a sculpture of bronze trees called “Truths That Rise From the Roots Remembered” which honors the contributions made by African Americans to the city of Alexandria, and preserved wetlands. More information on admissions here.
- Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum opened in 1792 and operated until 1933 when it was turned in a museum that showcases a large collection of medical equipment, prescriptions and formula books, and preserved herbs and botanicals. Thirty minute guided tours are traditional offered throughout the day. More information on admissions here.
- Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site is on the National Register of Historic Places and has preserved almost all of the Civil War-era walls and structures. The historic fort offers tours and placards that explain the military engineering of the Civil War era. There are weekly interpretative programs and lectures, and special video series of the history of the fort. More information on admissions here.
Staying in Alexandria: We are big Marriott fans and chose to stay at The Alexandrian, which is part of Marriott’s Autograph collection. The hotel has a boutique feel and is well appointed with spacious rooms and a large center courtyard. The location can’t be beat- right on popular King Street and within walking distance of just about every popular attraction, restaurant, and shopping locale. The hotel is also home to the King and Rye restaurant, with both indoor and outdoor dining on King Street and in the courtyard.
Eating Local: There are over 200 options for dining in downtown Alexandria- check out a good index of options here. We had the opportunity to check out:
- Don Taco for super yummy tacos
- The Creamery for homemade ice cream
- Chart House for waterfront outdoor dining
- Blackwall Hitch for waterfront outdoor dining
- La Madeleine French Bakery and Café for pastries and coffee
- Firehook Bakery for homemade bread and cakes
- Lavender Moon Cupcakery for delicious cupcakes
Disclaimer: My family was provided “Keys to the City” passes for some attractions included in this post. All opinions expressed are my own.