Old Town Alexandria is one of those cute cobblestone historic areas that modern Washingtonians love to visit. A few authentic cobblestone streets remain, but most streets are paved.
Still, many of the sidewalks are bricked, which lends an old-fashioned feel to the 15-plus blocks of unique galleries, shops and restaurants.
I've written two travel stories on Alexandria for different newspapers. Today being Presidents' Day (the merged February birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, our first and 16th presidents), I figured I'd rerun one of the stories here. (This one ran in the Kansas City Star and the St. Petersburg Times.)
Read about George Washington's haunts, other Virginia history and the Alexandria of today. It's easy for solo visitors to get to Old Town Alexandria without a car. The Metro system drops you off within walking distance of the locations mentioned in the following story:
"Alexandria paints picture of the past"
George Washington liked to ride over from his Mount Vernon home to Gadsby's Tavern in this Potomac River town to drink, discuss the successful Revolution and attend a banquet from time to time. Two-and-a-half centuries later, people still head to Gadsby's Tavern, and other bars and restaurants in Alexandria, to drink, talk about the war and, once in a while, attend a fancy dinner.
The legacy of the leader of the Continental Army and the first president lives on along many streets and in many places here.
The area known as Old Town is one of the largest historic districts in the nation. It has more than 4,000 structures deemed historic; more than 200 date to the 18th century.
Just walking around Old Town, on brick sidewalks or on the occasional authentic cobblestone street, can infuse visitors with the sense of the past. The city government, residents and business owners have worked on restoring and re-creating a lot of history.
Gadsby's Tavern, for instance, gives a real taste of the late 1700s. It's actually two buildings, a tavern built in 1785 and a hotel built in 1792.
The tap room was the men's domain, too rough a place for women, with a lot of smoking and drinking and the occasional fight. A visit to the restored rooms there gives a good sense of what life was like 220 years ago.
Back then, food was laid out in the main room - there were no menus. Everything served was fresh that day, whether it was oysters and rockfish from the river or Virginia ham, salted so that it would keep without refrigeration.
The men who entered the tavern took a plate, heaped on the food, drank beer and hard cider made in nearby back yards, and spent a lot of time discussing the young nation and their chances of successful commerce.
Tavern tour guides now mention the trained animals and acrobats who entertained the diners. Traveling dentists and merchants would rent space to offer their services and merchandise.
The tavern's ballroom is still rented out several times a year, including around Washington's birthday, for banquets and balls.
A stroll past history
Elsewhere in Old Town, visitors can follow a self-guided walking tour to enter or view houses in Georgian and Federal styles, Greek Revival, Colonial and early American.
The city also has several remaining examples of "flounder" houses. These were erected cheaply and quickly: One side is built straight up with no windows, because glass was expensive. But the steep roof pitches to the side that does have windows, or "eyes," which made residents liken the buildings to a flounder, which has both eyes on one side of its face.
On a visit from Washington, D.C., about a 15-minute drive, I reached the farmers market, in front of City Hall. It runs from 5 to 10 a.m. on Saturdays and has been operating for about 250 years in essentially the same place.
Because it was a river port, Alexandria was easily reached by farmers bringing produce, livestock and, for some time, slaves to be sold. The city basically grew around the market.
Today's vendors operate in a grid that is easy to navigate. Stands with fresh fruit and vegetables, homemade breads and jams, and cakes and crafts extend in a square of tables.
Alexandria also has one of the most active archaeological programs of any city and maintains a museum of its finds.
But Old Town is not just historical remnants. It is an eclectic mix of old and modern, artsy and antique.
Visitors from Washington can take the yellow line of the Metro subway and walk the 17 blocks from the Metro station to the river. Walk 17 blocks? Yes, because one of the major reasons to go to Alexandria is to browse.
Although the area has its share of ubiquitous chain stores, it also has dozens of unique shops in historic buildings.
Old Town Coffee, Tea and Spice, on Union Street, is piled to the ceiling with glass jars of loose tea, teapots made from china and glass, and spices, flavored cocoas, imported chocolates and hard-to-find versions of old-time candies.
The floor of this store is uneven and creaky. You almost expect the clerk to come out wiping his hands on an apron, then weighing your purchases on a balance scale.
Cookie jars to chowder
Strolling from the coffee and spice shop, a browser would come to Artcraft, a funky store full of American handmade crafts, from brightly painted furniture to ceramic cookie jars.
The Fish Market is a good place to stop for seafood chowder; the restaurant is casual enough that you can pop in for a quick bowl.
Close by is the Torpedo Factory, built in 1918 to manufacture, you guessed it, torpedoes. Now, the nondescript brick building along the river houses the studios of more than 160 sculptors, painters, potters, jewelry makers and other artists.
Viewing this thriving city, it may be hard to believe that rather than make the half-day ride over dirt roads back to Mount Vernon, George Washington actually did sleep here. Then again, with the presence of so many historic structures, it's not that hard to believe after all.
Photo: By Dmadeo