Sunday, October 3, 2021

History, Art and More in Scenic Alexandria, Virginia

Alexandria Virginia, located along the scenic Potomac River, is a great place to visit and people have been taking notice. The area has earned accolades from people like you and me who voted in the Conde Nast Travelers' Readers Choice Awards, naming it one of the Top 5 Best Small Cities in the USA for three years in a row now. 

Known for its rich history, walkability, top-flight restaurants, attractive architecture and flourishing arts scene, it's a place where many escape for an educational and enjoyable getaway.

My recent trip to the region was short--we stayed only two nights, but managed to see quite a bit while we were there, so this itinerary is perfect for a long weekend. If you have more time to experience the region, there's so much more to see and do.

Strolling through Our First President's Abode

George Washington's father Augustine built part of this house in 1734.

Augustine Washington, who was a leading planter and justice of the county court in the Mount Vernon area south of Alexandria, VA, built a one-and-a-half story house there in 1734. His son George began leasing it in 1754 and started executing his dramatic vision of what the place could be. Over the years, George added a story, along with north-and-south wings, a cupola and piazza, expanded the property to 8,000 acres and created four gardens on the estate. He inherited the property in 1761 and continued work on it for approximately 50 years. At approximately 11,000 square feet, with 21 rooms, the mansion is 10 times the size of the average home in colonial Virginia.

When guests arrive at the estate, they will check in at the Ford Orientation Center, to avail themselves of resources like maps, audio tours and other items to help them plan their visit. 

They will also see a miniature model of the mansion itself and a beautiful stained-glass mural highlighting five key moments in George Washington's life.

Mural located at the Ford Orientation Center features five highlights of Washington's life.

Guests will take a path leading from the orientation center to the mansion where they will wait for a guide to take them on a tour which lasts about a half hour. 

The first step on our tour inside Mount Vernon was the "New Room," which was the last addition to the mansion and served as a receiving area for visitors.

The "New Room," served as a receiving area for visitors.

The "Old Chamber"

Next we saw the "Old Chamber" where visitors slept, and the dining room which is painted in a striking bright green and was described by Washington as "grateful to the eye." 

George Washington's dining room, which is part of the original house.

George Washington liked the front parlor best.

The front parlor was considered by Washington to be the "best place in the house." Here the family gathered to read and play games. On rainy and cold days tea and coffee were served here.

The "Yellow Room," which features a fireplace and a window in the east wall.

Visitors are led up the stairs via a beautiful walnut staircase to view various bedrooms, like the one pictured above called the "Yellow Room," which features a corner fireplace and a window in the east wall. 

The bedroom pictured below, known as the "Chintz Room" was considered the finest of the six bedchambers. During that era, the public had a fascination with eastern culture and the furnishings reflect that.
The finest of the six primary bedchambers.

Guests will also be guided through the place where George Washington retreated from the public eye. This was his private area and no one was permitted in the room without his express permission. Could he have tired of being "on" all the time? He would wake up between 4 and 5 a.m. every day and retreat to his study via stairs that led from his bedchamber. Early to bed and early to rise, as his friend Benjamin Franklin said. It was here that he bathed, dressed and kept his clothes. He also wrote diary entries and managed his estate in the study.  A curious artifact is the item attached to the rocking chair, which is an early fan of sorts.
George Washington's man cave.

The final two stops on the mansion tour include the outdoor kitchen and the piazza, which overlooks the Potomac. Guests are invited to sit a spell and experience the same breezes that the Washingtons enjoyed while living there. 
The outdoor kitchen. 

The view from the piazza.
Mt. Vernon Outbuildings

Guests are invited to visit the various outbuildings that area also located on the property, like this "Clerk's Quarters." After Washington retired from the presidency, he hired a man named Albin Rawlins to provide clerical services. Rawlins, a bachelor, was said to find this space sufficient enough for his needs. I guess he preferred to remain a bachelor...

Also seen on the grounds is the smokehouse, the kitchen garden and the stables.

Tombs on the Property

When Washington died in 1799, he was interred in an old tomb that wasn't in the best shape. Being aware of this, he stipulated in his will that he and his family would later be interred in a tomb that would be built after his death. It took awhile, but eventually the new tomb was built in 1831 and is located south of the fruit garden. 

The old vault where Washington was initially interred.

Today's vault is much improved and a guide stands by to answer any questions. 

The "new tomb" where Washington rests today.

When visitors complete their tour, they take a path which leads to a small food court and a gift shop, which features lovely items, like home decor, giftware and more. 

A gift shop awaits at the end of the Mt. Vernon tour.

Also located on the way out is a restaurant, for those who feel like dining somewhere a little fancier than the food court. We didn't eat there, but I did manage to sneak in and snap a pic.

The Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant is located right next door.

A Visit to the Gadsby Tavern

A private dining area in Gadsby's Tavern Museum

In keeping with the history theme, we continued on to Gadsby's Tavern Museum in Old Town Alexandria, where old-time hospitality comes in to view.

The great Gadsby.

The site is comprised of two buildings, a 1785 tavern and the 1792 City Hotel. Named for John Gadsby, who leased and operated the buildings from 1796 until 1808, the tavern and hotel played a large part in the political and social life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Presidents who visited were John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and George Washington, who wrote in his diary that he ate there in 1786. This particular establishment catered to upper and middle class white men, who used the tavern as a place to build their political and economic influence in Alexandria.

White tablecloths, which, at the time, took skill and experience to clean, were a symbol of refinement. Printed menus didn't exist back then, but guests would given a choice of food that was in season, or preserved. 

Alcohol was part of daily life as a substitute for water, which was associated with causing illness. Cider and beer were cheap and easy to make and cocktails, like punch, toddies, flips and grogs were also served, along with coffee and tea.

The inventory at Gadsby's Tavern in 1802 included the following: 43 beds, 186 pieces of china, 50 dish covers, 14 sleeping rooms, 20 looking glasses and 36 silver tea spoons.

The ballroom at the museum.

Two rooms on site.

My husband and I had the opportunity to grab a lunch at the Tavern and the food was not only reasonably priced for the area, but also delicious.

The tavern, which is in operation today. I recommend the meatloaf.

Art that's "Da Bomb"

The Torpedo Factory is located along the Potomac Riverfront.

Located along Alexandria's scenic Potomac Riverfront is an old munitions plant that found a new purpose beginning in 1974, when it was transformed into the Torpedo Factory Art Center, which touts itself as home to the nation's largest collection of working artists' open studios under one roof (more than 165).

Admission is free and guests can wander the three-story building at their leisure and perhaps purchase a few pieces to take home. Often the artists are on site to answer questions and offer the curious insight into their inspiration. 

Art at the Athenaeum
The Athenaeum was once the Bank of the Old Dominion.

Another art venue located in Old Town Alexandria is The Athenaeum. Housed in a Greek Revival building that belonged to William Fairfax and was constructed between 1851 and 1852, it served as the office of the Bank of the Old Dominion, where Robert E. Lee had an account. The bank operated on the site until the Civil War when Alexandria was occupied by the Union forces and the building became the home of the U.S. Commissary Quartermaster. 

Today it is owned by the Northern Virginia Fine arts Association and is used primarily for exhibitions. When we visited, Robert Schultz's "Memorial Leaves" exhibit was there, memorializing Civil War combatants and those who mourned them, using leaves that grew from the ground that was once soaked by the blood of soldiers.

Alexandria isn't only about art and history--the shopping is on point, with blocks and blocks of shops lining the central thoroughfare on King street. Restaurants are also plentiful, with something for everyone. One in particular that we enjoyed was a French bistro called Bastille, which offered delicious food and stellar service. 

Bastille Brasserie and Bar 

I'm also pleased to say that people seem to be out and about again, so make sure you call ahead to make reservations.

These few suggestions just scratch the surface when it comes to enjoying everything Alexandria has to offer and one can spend days there exploring and enjoying.