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Historical Places to Visit in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia

By Edited Jul 1, 2016 0 0

Alexandria is a wonderful suburb of Washington D.C. located across the Potomac River in Northern Virginia, conveniently located in close vicinity to I-95. It is a city with a rich and deep connections with Colonial American history. I love its unique charm.

Between the picturesque views, historical structures and prominent history scattered throughout the city, Alexandria truly has a lot to offer to both visitors and residents alike. There are always plenty of activities and events going on, and every day crowds are drawn to Old Town to enjoy the pleasant atmosphere, including good restaurants and trendy shops.

There are also many terrific historical attractions to see in Alexandria, here are a few of my top picks which are located in the Old Town section of Alexandria:

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary

The tour of this museum is a favorite of mine in Old Town Alexandria. The Apothecary was founded in 1792 by Edward Stabler and was an operational business by one family for an amazing 141 years. The store closed up shop during the Great Depression Era; basically the family just locked the doors and walked away.

Astonishingly, everything has remained intact over the many years. Today visitors to the museum can see the business pretty much how it existed for well over a century. Visitors can learn about the apothecary business and see close-up how this family business operated for so many years. Many of the items remain intact as the family used them, and even some of the drawers contain actual ingredients left behind. Truly remarkable. When you go upstairs to the "work" area, usually a couple of drawers are open so visitors can peer inside.  There are even requests for orders from Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee on display.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Shop counter in Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary as it looked "then and now".

Tours of the apothecary are offered in 30 minute slots and reservations are not necessary --  walk-in visitors are welcomed; there is a small admission fee. The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary museum is located on 105 S Fairfax St. in Old Town Alexandria, about a block away from the Alexandria Visitors' Center.

Torpedo Factory Art Center

Opened around the end of World War I, this factory was pivotal in the manufacture of torpedoes for World War II. After the factory closed, for a long time the building had served as a storage facility for the government. The building was purchased by the City of Alexandria in 1969 and renovations began in 1974.

It has since been revamped and today the building is a large tourist attraction and hub of business activity in the artist community. With more than 80 art galleries, an art school, and an archeological museum, this is a treat for both the art enthusiast and history buff. Located right on the Potomac riverfront, there is a lot to see and do in this former real torpedo factory -- including seeing actual torpedoes.

Admission to the building is free. The Torpedo Factory Art Center is located at 105 North Union St. in Old Town, just walk straight down King Street and you can't miss it.

Gadsby's Tavern Museum

This is a great spot for the history buff. This tavern was the center of much activity during colonial times. At the time the building was used to host meals, overnight stays, organized meetings and large parties. Two grand birthday parties were thrown for George Washington in the spacious and elegant ballroom. There was also a hotel which a few of the rooms are open for visitors to see. The building has been restored to look much like it would have in the latter 18th and early 19th centuries. The building is open to the public and visitors can take a 30-minute tour to learn and see Gadsby's rich history. There is an inexpensive admissions fee (and no reservations required).

Gadsby's Tavern
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Gadsby's Tavern stands as a testament to the late 18th Century. Many famous faces have come through its doors.

Christ Church

Christ Church has a strong historical and spiritual connection with Old Town Alexandria. The parish is still an active one and visitors are welcomed to attend services, or tour the Church during non-worship hours. Construction of the church began back in 1767 and was completed in 1773.

Over the centuries many historical figures, including most presidents, have attended services at least once during their administration. Christ Church has been completely restored to maintain its original look; even George Washington's family pew remains intact and is commemorated with a small plaque; Robert E. Lee's pew is also marked with a plaque.

The interior of the church is beautiful and visitors are invited to pray, reflect or simply tour the church. Located at 118 North Washington St. in Old Town, Christ Church just a few short blocks from Gadsby's Tavern. There is also a cemetery on the grounds which is interesting to walk through.

Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

An active parish, Christ Church itself has been restored to a former time.

Carlyle House

This grand home, built in 1753, has quite an interesting history. Designed and built by John Carlyle, a Scottish merchant, this Georgian Palladian style home was once the center of much social and political activity. It was truly innovative for its time, having been built entirely of stone. Despite its rich connection to colonial history, Carlyle House spent a good amount of its lifetime in seclusion and in disarray. For many years, the front yard even housed a hotel which blocked the once grand home's visibility. Today the home has been beautifully restored and serves as a museum. Located at 121 N. Fairfax St., in Old Town, visitors are welcomed, no reservations are necessary. There is a nominal admission fee.

Carlyle House, located in Alexandria, Virginia
Credit: Leigh Goessl/All rights reserved

Carlyle House as it stands today. Beautifully restored, this historical home was saved after decades  (or more!) of neglect.

These are some of my favorite spots to hit when visiting Old Town, but there are many other places, such as the Alexandria National Cemetery, Alexandria Black History Museum, Friendship Firehouse Museum, Old-Presbyterian Meeting House, The Lyceum, Lee-Fendall House and the George Washington Masonic Memorial, to name a few.

I recommend starting your visit at the Alexandria Visitor's Center, it is located in the Ramsey House, which is historic in itself (circa 1724 and once owned by William Ramsay, a Scottish merchant, who helped found the city and later became its first postmaster. The folks there are helpful and you can obtain a lot of information of what to see and do. Also, this is seasonal, but if available, take a ghost tour. The guides tell some neat stories associated with Old Town's history and its early occupants.  I've taken a number of these tours and always learn something new.

Additionally, if you want to get off the beaten path and see what's in the other areas of Alexandria outside of Old Town, try visiting Fort Ward, Mount Vernon, Woodlawn Plantation (great example of Federal Style architecture)  and the Pope-Leighey House. 

Why visit Old Town Alexandria? There are tons of reasons to visit this part of Virginia, these are only a few.

[ Related Reading: Taking a Step Back in Time at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello ]

Location of Alexandria's Visitor Center at Ramsey House

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221 King Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
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