Guide to Old Town Alexandria

Spend a day shopping and eating your way through Old Town Alexandria, just a short ride from DC. While you’re there, be sure to take in some of the neighborhood’s history—the town was reportedly one of George Washington’s favorite haunts.

By: Emily Leaman

Closest Metro: King Street on the Yellow and Blue lines.

Alternative transportation: If the Metro doesn’t appeal to you, a scenic way to get to Old Town is the Potomac water taxi, a ferry boat with service between Georgetown in DC and Old Town Alexandria. It’s a 45-minute ride each way. Tuesday through Thursday, round-trip tickets cost $24 for adults and $12 for kids (ages 2 through 11); Friday through Sunday, it’s $26 for adults and $14 for kids; under age two is free. The ferry operates every two hours April through October. It departs from Georgetown starting at 12:30 PM. The Georgetown dock is at 31st and K streets, Northwest, and the Alexandria dock is Cameron and Union streets. Tickets can be purchased online here.

THE SCENE
Historic Old Town Alexandria has managed to maintain its small-town appeal while making room for upscale restaurants, cafes, shops, and boutiques. Originally settled in the late 1600s, the Old Town neighborhood, much as it stands today, was designed and laid out in 1749—the original cobblestone streets and Colonial houses are just some of the historical remnants you’ll see. The neighborhood’s main thoroughfare is King Street, heading east from the Metro stop to the Potomac River; it’s about 16 blocks. The walk is nice, but for those who want to save their feet, there’s a free trolly that rides the length and makes stops along the way. And although King Street certainly has a lot to see and do, don’t be shy about exploring side streets—lots of cute shops, boutiques, and cafes have cropped up off the beaten path in recent years.

SHOPPING
An American in Paris (1225 King St.; 703-519-8234). This boutique stocks clothing, accessories, shoes, and bags for women and girls. True to its name, the shop carries American and European labels, and there’s even a fashion consultant on hand to help you shop—ooh la la!
The Shoe Hive operates under the old adage: You can attract more customers with honey than vinegar—jars of the gooey stuff mark each designer in this footwear boutique.
Book Bank (1510 King St.; 703-838-3620). A small, dusty space packed floor to ceiling with used books, this shop is a no-frills, book-lover’s paradise. There’s a kid’s section in the back with small plastic chairs and carpet squares for young ones to sit and read. Also in the rear are the best bargains—several shelves offering books for $1 each or three for $2.

Crate and Barrel Outlet Store (1700 Prince St.; 703-739-8800). If you take the Metro to Old Town, the King Street stop is just steps from the Crate and Barrel Outlet Store. We know, we know—Crate and Barrel’s a chain. But we just can’t turn down a good bargain! Stock up on flatware, glassware, kitchen items, and furniture at prices that won’t break the bank.

Gold and Silver de Cristina (103 N. West St.; 703-706-9536). Even though this jewelry store isn’t exactly on the main drag—it’s just a block off—it’s hard to miss: The shop is painted bright yellow. Don’t be put off if the door is locked; Cristina has probably just gone into the back, but if you knock she’ll let you in. The tiny space features many of the proprietor’s own handmade pieces. She sells everything from necklaces and earrings to brooches and cuff links.

The Hangar (1325 King St.; 703-706-9536). This all-you-could-ever-want-from-aviation gift shop is a great place to take the kids. From US Air Force Monopoly and build-your-own gliders to Top Gun flight suits and classic aviator sunglasses, this place is every pilot and wannabe’s dream.

The Shoe Hive (115 S. Royal St.; 703-548-7105). This women’s shoe boutique takes the beehive theme to the details: In addition to yellow honeycomb patterns painted on the walls, clusters of shoes organized by designer are marked by bottles of honey bearing the designers’ names. Among the brands the store carries are Michael by Michael Kors, Butter, Betta Carrano, Diba, Salpy, and Dr. Scholls. Stop in here for anything foot-worthy, from rain galoshes to strappy sandals.

Treat (114 S. Royal St.; 703-535-3294). If you’re visiting Alexandria on a weekend, be sure to stop in at Treat, a weekend-only shop that sells designer clothing and shoes at a fraction of the original price. This sample-sale boutique, as the shop calls itself, stocks labels including Nanette Lepore, Milly, Theory, Cynthia Steffe, and Bettye Muller. The selection changes weekly, but the store can usually outfit sizes 0 to 12. Treat is open Friday and Saturday from 11 to 7, Sunday noon to 6.
DINING
Hard Times Cafe (1404 King St.; 703-837-0050). The King Street location of this Texas-style chili spot is the original of a growing franchise that now boasts 16 restaurants—and counting. Though it carries a full menu from appetizers to desserts, Hard Times is best known for its chili, said to be based on a 100-year-old family recipe. In addition to offering four varieties of chili, Hard Times has three chili specials—Chili Bubba (corn bread drenched in chili and topped with cheddar, tomatoes, onions, and sour cream), Frito Chili (Frito chips covered in chili), and the Chili Changa (tortilla with cheese topped with chili)—for just $8.29 each.

The Majestic (911 King St.; 703-837-9117). This updated diner is an Old Town staple. Complete with its original art-deco façade, black-and-white checkered terrazzo floor, and tin ceiling tiles, the Majestic serves American comfort food—excellent roast chicken, juicy meatloaf, and homey desserts such as strawberry shortcake and milkshakes. Also on the menu, a real throwback: egg creams.
Misha's roasts beans daily inside this Old Town coffee shop.
Misha’s Coffeehouse and Coffee Roaster (102 S. Patrick St.; 703-548-4089). This no-frills hipster coffee shop does what a coffee joint is supposed to: It focuses on the coffee. Don’t go in looking for a caramel macchiato with extra whip or a double espresso mocha latte with sprinkles—this place serves coffee, period. But with more than 20 varieties roasted in-house, you’ll still have plenty to choose from. The most popular roasts are the Caravan, Route 66, Misha’s Daily, and Earl’s Private Stock.

The Perfect Pita (1640 King St.; 703-683-4330). This local chain is a favorite lunch spot for people who work in the area. The pita bread is house-made daily. The American and Mediterranean menu includes cold and hot pita sandwiches, such as one that’s toasted with chicken, spinach, and feta and provolone. There are also several vegetarian options including falafel. In nice weather, grab a seat outside on the patio for great people watching.

Restaurant Eve (110 S. Pitt St.; 703-706-0450). Ranking fourth on The Washingtonian’s most recent 100 Best Restaurants list, this Old Town jewel churns out precise yet imaginative dishes that keep locals coming back for more. In the 34-seat Chef’s Tasting Room, try a five- or nine-course tasting menu heavy on locally grown, seasonal produce and meat. In summer, the chef uses tomatoes from his own garden for a basil-laced heirloom-tomato tart. The less formal bistro and lounge offer à la carte menus with items such as duck-leg confit with lentils and house-made lemon and lobster ravioli. The five-course tasting menu costs $95, the nine-course $125; à la carte entrées run $26 to $34.

Uptowner Coffee Bar and Cafe
(1609 King St.; 703-836-3162). This corner coffee shop has a homey feel thanks to the mismatched furniture, beat-up lounge chairs, and fireplace tucked in the corner. Adding to the homegrown atmosphere, the menu—which includes breakfast and lunch items—is an homage to Alexandria: Each item is named after a street in the neighborhood. The Duke Street sandwich is a turkey club for $5.95, and the Columbus Street, for the same price, is a reuben.
Vermilion (1120 King St.; 703-684-9669). Ranked among the top restaurants in The Washingtonian’s most recent 100 Best Restaurants list, this Alexandria hot spot features a simple yet eclectic menu that pulls inspiration from Italian, French, and American Southern cuisine. The space is rustic, dimly lit with Colonial gas lamps. Treat yourself to a dinner of house-made fettuccine with trout or ravioli filled with smoked cheese, but save room for an after-dinner drink—many of Vermilion’s specialty cocktails drink like dessert.

ART & FUN
Arts Afire Glass Gallery (1117 King St.; 703-548-1197). This glass gallery and shop features breakable creations by local artisans as well as ones as far away as Washington state. Some of the pieces are kitschy, such as the glass cats, but some are truly beautiful. The creations by Nina Falk remind us of rolling waves. A word of caution: The gallery has a strict you-break-it-you-buy-it policy, so this might not be the best place for little ones.

Big Wheel Bikes
(2 Prince St.; 703-739-2300). Athletic types can rent a bike here and ride to George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. It’s just a ten mile trip on the Mount Vernon Trail, which follows the Potomac’s Virginia shoreline. Rentals cost $35 a day.

Elizabeth Stone Gallery (1127 King St., Suite 201; 703-706-0025). The works on display at this whimsical gallery make you want to be a kid again—it houses original artwork by renowned children’s book illustrators. Check out signed illustrations from classics including Where the Wild Things Are and Curious George. While you’re there, pick up signed, limited-edition prints, posters, children’s books, and more from the gift shop.
Old Town Theater (815½ King St.; 703-683-8888). This former vaudeville theater, built in 1914, now serves as 400-seat movie theater. It screens indie films alongside mainstream blockbusters—when we went, Baby Mama with Tina Fey had top billing. The concessions counter offers the usual snacks and sodas but also beer, wine, and a few sandwiches.

Torpedo Factory Art Center
(105 N. Union St.; 703-838-4565). This unique spot is a World War II torpedo factory turned art gallery and studio space. The two torpedoes are on display are impressive, but the main draw is the 160 professional artists who create, exhibit, and sell their art on the premises. Among the fine arts and crafts at the gallery are ceramics, collage, glass, jewelry, photography, and sculpture. New artists are added annually through a juried selection process, keeping the work fresh. Admission to the gallery and studios is free. The gallery spaces are open until 5, but studio hours vary depending on the artist.
GREAT ITINERARY
Starting near the King Street Metro stop, work your way east along the main drag. If you love to shop, you’ll find plenty of places to give your wallet a workout. For items like decorative soaps, candles, and stationery, we recommend Embellishments (1303 King St.; 703-299-6602), a shop well stocked with gift items. Diva (116 S Pitt St.; 703-683-1022) and Milano (1123 King St.; 703-548-2540) are good for women’s and men’s clothing. Go thrifty at the Twig (106 N. Columbus St.; 703-683-5544), a consignment shop benefitting a local hospital.

Refuel with coffee and a Danish at Misha’s or make your way to Grape + Bean (118 S. Royal St.; 703-664-0214), an Old Town newcomer serving wine, coffee, and exotic cheeses. If you’re visiting on a Friday night, this stop is a must—Grape + Bean hosts free wine tastings Fridays from 5 to 8.

For lunch, check out Restaurant Eve’s Lickity Split lunch special, where you can pick any two items on the menu for $13.50. Go for two savory courses, an entrée, and dessert (such as the best pink birthday cake you’ve ever tasted), or even a salad or sandwich along with one of sommelier Todd Thrasher’s delicious cocktails. The deal is available only on weekdays at the bar.

After lunch, hit more shops—there’s plenty to keep you busy—or head to the Torpedo Factory Art Center for a taste of local art. If you’re all shopped out, you could spend the afternoon checking out the historic homes and businesses in Old Town. Don’t miss Christ Church (118 N. Washington St.; 703-549-1450), the Episcopal church that George Washington attended. Take a peek inside and sit in his family’s pew.

For dinner, head to the Majestic, where diner food is done right. Or, for a more upscale spot, check out Vermilion—and don’t forget to sip a drink or two at the bar. Save room for dessert because afterward you should head to Old Fashioned Mom and Pops Icecream (109 King St.; 703-683-5807). Peppermint stick and pralines-and-cream are two of the 20 ice-cream flavors available. Or you can splurge for a real classic such as a banana split or hot-fudge sundae—your diet may not forgive you, but your tastebuds will.

Want more neighborhood guides for DC, Maryland and Virginia? Click here.

This article is part of Washingtonian.com’s Visitors’ Guide. For more articles like it, click here.