Old Town Alexandria is a charmer, a place where historic, centuries-old Colonial houses sit cheek-by-jowl with fashionable boutiques and excellent restaurants.
Perhaps the grandest of the houses – and one that every visitor should see – is the storied Carlyle House, an 18th century Georgian mansion that was the HGTV Dream House of its day. It was the home of Scottish merchant John Carlyle, who, with his family and as many as 20 slaves, took up residence in 1753. (His wife gave birth on moving day.) The mansion, which played a cameo role in the PBS series “Mercy Street,” sits resplendently in the heart of town.
I asked Ben Schultz, a docent leading a tour, about the vestibule’s black-and-white floor tiles, which looked strangely like the linoleum tiles in my family’s kitchen when I was a kid.
There had been a lot of mud and manure in the streets, Schultz said, and the mess got tracked into the house each time someone went in or out. The homeowners needed a floor that could be quickly and easily wiped clean. The solution? In testimony to the mansion’s 18th century state-of-the-art appointments, tiles were fashioned out of canvas sailcloth and resin – the forerunners of today’s ubiquitous vinyl floor coverings.
But Carlyle House isn’t unique in Old Town, where hundreds of remarkably well-preserved Colonial structures still stand and history oozes from behind the bricks, shutters and garden walls and from beneath the cobbled streets.
This past summer my wife and I, onetime Alexandria residents, were in Old Town, 8 miles south of Washington, to show the place to her sister and brother-in-law from California who, like us, were in town for an aunt’s 90th birthday.
Our first stop was Gadsby’s Tavern, a couple of blocks from Carlyle House. Surrounded by colorfully painted row houses, the three-story brick tavern was built in 1785. In its day, the tavern was a required stop on the political circuit. President George Washington was feted there at two Birthnight Balls, and Presidents Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe and Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette also frequented the place.
Today, Gadsby’s is a working tavern, with servers in period costumes serving up scrumptious meals and a variety of craft beers. My grilled shrimp were impeccably fired; the gooey onion soup ordered by my sister-in-law’s husband also hit the spot.
Gadsby’s isn’t the only place in Old Town that serves good food. When my wife took our guests back home for a rest, I dropped by Bittersweet Café and Bakery, where the salads and desserts are a big draw. Later, in the rear courtyard of Christ Church, built in 1767, I encountered tourists dining al fresco with takeout fare from the establishment.
Up King Street from Market Square, the sun-splashed courtyard at Taverna Cretekou, Greek and moderately priced, was crowded with diners sitting at tables draped with blue tablecloths while waiters in white shirts darted among them. I peeked in both the acclaimed Brabo by Robert Wiedmaier and the lesser-priced Brabo Tasting Room; they looked impressively edgy. Other good bets I found when living in Alexandria were Fontaine Caffe and Creperie (inexpensive, French) and Red Rocks Neapolitan Bistro (moderate, pizza and other Italian fare), and for a special if pricey treat, Vermilion, a favorite of President and Mrs. Obama.
Since Alexandria is the kind of place where merchants and restaurant hosts sit on chairs outside or on their stoops when the weather’s good, I asked Megan Munston, who was greeting passers-by outside Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub about business that day. “It’s been crummy,” she said. “We don’t have a patio, and when it’s nice like this, people want to sit outside or go to the farmers market. We’ll be packed tonight, though,” she said, explaining that the pub’s Irish music attracts regulars.
At the market, the country’s oldest (it’s been operating continuously since 1753), Pilo Laryea, a musician and nutritionist from Ghana, served samples of sliced fruit and vegetables outside a produce stand. He couldn’t keep up with the demand as market-goers lined up to taste his wares. “I’m always busy,” he said proudly.
Fresh produce isn’t all that’s for sale; purveyors of art, home goods and fashions line King Street and its cobbled side streets. At Red Barn Mercantile, I browsed the eclectic collection of rustic art, crafts, home goods and gifts, many nautically themed. My favorite shop is The Hour, which sells only “curated” vintage barware and glassware. Other notable retailers include An American in Paris (women’s fashions) and Tradition de France (reproduction antiques).
I headed down King Street past Market Square toward the Potomac River, pausing to chat with an engaging busker, Steve Haug, who had been delighting a crowd with country, bluegrass and pop vocals, accompanying himself on banjo, harmonica and a tambourine attached to his foot.
But Haug wasn’t the only act in town. On the waterfront plaza at the foot of King Street, musicians and magicians attracted crowds as the sun slipped in the sky, casting long shadows. Others sat on benches enjoying the view. The adjoining Torpedo Factory Art Center, a collection of 82 art galleries and studios housed in a World War II munitions factory, had closed for the evening.
Ferries headed from the plaza up the shimmering, mirror-flat river for National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Md., a new urban destination with upper echelon brand name shops and restaurants, a pleasant boardwalk and a giant Ferris wheel. Water taxis were taking baseball fans to Nationals Stadium in Southeast D.C. for a game.
I fully agreed with the people I’d met: On this beautiful day in Old Town, it was best to be outside – or on the water.