Huh. That’s what we thought when we first learned that Alexandria, Va., was voted one of Travel + Leisure’s Best Places to Travel in 2023, Travel + Leisure’s Best Cities in the US 2022, and Southern Living’s Best Cities on the Rise 2022. That’s some kudos for a smallish southern city, always overshadowed by its neighbor across the Potomac River (Washington, D.C.)
We hadn’t been to Alexandria for many years, and it hadn’t left that much of an impression. Best in the United States? (Do you hear our skepticism?) We needed to check it out. We flew into Reagan Washington National Airport, took an Uber to Old Town, Alexandria, and checked into the Hotel Indigo.
The modern boutique hotel has a great location in Alexandria’s historic district, within walking distance to shops and restaurants, and the city’s major attractions. It has a blue and white nautical theme that is classy rather than kitschy, playing on Alexandria’s past as one of the busiest ports in early America. Our rooms were sleek, clean and comfy, with modern baths, and Potomac River views (room rates start around $275).
The history below the building is cool, too. Where the hotel now sits would have at one time been underwater, and archaeologists found remains of an 18th-century ship during the hotel’s construction. The hotel lobby features an archaeological drawing of the ship remains, and the original 1749 shoreline is marked on the patio and inside the hotel.
First things first: We had lunch at Virtue Feed & Grain, a bustling eatery housed in a former 1800s feed house, with concrete and wood floors, big beams, antiques, and lots of reclaimed wood. The something-for-everyone menu is huge; we shared a hefty platter of duck poutine, followed with fried shrimp tacos and a chicken BLT wrap. Fortified, we hit the sidewalk.
Old Town Alexandria was founded in 1749 and is the nation’s third-oldest designated historic district. The commercial centerpiece is mile-long King Street, lined with shops, restaurants and historic sites. There’s a free trolley that runs most of its length, but we walked it, beginning a few blocks from the Potomac River. We popped into the Torpedo Factory Art Center, with more than 70 artist studios, and spent more time than we had browsing their works.
Back on King Street, we passed the Athenaeum, once the Old Dominion Bank, frequented by Robert E. Lee. We walked by an array of historic structures dating back to the 17th century, housing restaurants and shops; the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, one of the nation’s oldest pharmacies where George and Martha Washington shopped for medicines, and the Old Presbyterian Meeting House where the funeral of George Washington took place. We skipped Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, where a slew of famous early Americans met to discuss life and politics (including Washington and Thomas Jefferson). Instead, we walked down Captain’s Row, a cobblestone street named for Captain John Harper, who built many of the historic Federal-style row houses. We also strolled pretty Queen Street, with colorful clapboard Colonial homes, including the famous Spite House. The famous 7-foot-wide bright blue house is one of the skinniest houses in the country, built out of spite to keep loiterers and horse-drawn carriages out of the skinny alley.
Later, we visited the new Robinson Landing waterfront development with Rebecca Doser, director of communications for Visit Alexandria, who pointed out some of the shops and new restaurants in the area.
“The restaurant scene in Alexandria is really heating up,” she said. “It’s drawing from Washington, D.C., talent, with an influx of new chefs coming here and opening their own places.”
More than 25 new restaurants opened in 2022, with more on the horizon. That evening, we took one of Doser’s recommendations and dined at the lively Hank’s Oyster Bar in Old Town, enjoying raw Salty Wolfe oysters from Chesapeake Bay, grilled branzino with a butternut squash sauce, and a spicy shrimp po’boy. Another day, we had lunch at BARCA Pier & Wine Bar on the river, with a lively Barcelona beach bar vibe. We shared plates of crispy patatas bravas, herb-y pan roasted mushrooms, garlicky spicy shrimp, and chorizo stuffed piquillo peppers.
On our final day, we visited the newly revamped Freedom House Museum, showcasing Alexandria’s Black history. Like many cities across America, Alexandria is looking back at history and forward to the future, acknowledging the good, the bad, and the ugly. The museum is what remains of a large complex where thousands of Black men, women, and children were trafficked into slavery. The City of Alexandria took over the National Historic Landmark and spent the pandemic closure renovating the space and creating three new exhibitions.
The 1315 Duke Street exhibition, designed by D.C.-based firm Howard+Revis Design, whose former clients include the Smithsonian Institution and the National Civil Rights Museum, tells the story of Alexandria’s role in the American domestic slave trade, including archaeological artifacts, a model of the complex, and stories of individuals who were trafficked through the domestic slave trade.
“Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” is a traveling exhibition from the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, tracing four centuries of Black history in Virginia, including profiles and stories of 30 individuals.
The “Before the Spirits are Swept Away: African American Historic Site Paintings by Sherry Z. Sanabria” exhibition showcases the artist’s paintings of African American sites across the United States. We left the museum with just enough time to catch our plane back to Boston.
Best in the United States? One of The Best Places to Travel in 2023? Alexandria has rich, storied history; fine architecture; thriving neighborhoods; a prime riverfront location; friendly southern hospitality, and an up-and-coming culinary scene. We’re no longer surprised this city made the lists. VisitAlexandria.com is the official source for travel information to Alexandria.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org