News & Politics

Old Town Alexandria: Arts & History

Take a ghost tour or peek inside a working artist’s studio

Visitors to the Torpedo Factory Art Center can see artists such as Christine Cardellino in action. 

Torpedo Factory Art Center
105 N. Union St.; 703-838-4565
In 1974, this naval torpedo station was converted into a community arts space. Today more than 160 artists create, display, and sell their work in the studios and galleries—you can find most every medium from ceramics to glasswork to printmaking.

You can also see the creative process in action: Stop by one of the 82 studios and you might catch artists working on their latest projects. “It’s part of the reward of being here,” says Connie Slack, a painter who has had a studio at the center for more than 35 years. “People want to engage you about your work and share their stories.” The center offers a variety of classes and programs as well as a summer art camp for kids.

Best of Old Town Alexandria

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum
134 N. Royal St.; 703-746-4242
“It was known nationally as the place to stay,” says museum director Gretchen Bulova of this Colonial-era tavern and hotel. George Washington twice celebrated his birthday here, and James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Adams all patronized the establishment.

In addition to being a hub of political and social life in late-18th-century Alexandria, Gadsby’s hosted plays, musical performances, and dances. It’s now a museum and restaurant, offering daily guided tours for $5—and the chance to enjoy a glass of wine where the Founding Fathers once convened. “When you walk into the ballroom and see the hanging musicians gallery and the very high ceilings,” says Bulova, “you can’t help but see people from 200 years ago celebrating George Washington.”

George Washington Masonic Memorial
101 Callahan Dr.; 703-683-2007
Open since 1932, this museum and Masonic memorial is a must-visit for fans of Dan Brown’s novel The Lost Symbol. The 330-foot tower, which offers views of Old Town and DC, plays a prominent role in the 2009 bestseller.

Built as a tribute to George Washington, the memorial serves as a meeting place for Freemasons, the fraternal society with roots in 16th-century Scotland. While many of the group’s rites are secret, Masonic lodges are primarily social organizations. Tours ($5) are offered four times a day Monday through Saturday, three times a day Sunday, and last about an hour. In addition to the striking view, you’ll see George Washington’s family Bible and the clock that was in the first President’s bedchamber when he died.

Christ Church
118 N. Washington St.; 703-549-1450
Designed by local architect James Wren, this beautiful Georgian-style church was completed in 1773. George Washington and Robert E. Lee were worshipers, and nearly every sitting President has visited, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Winston Churchill in 1942.

Although it still operates as an Episcopal church with about 2,400 members, visitors can take docent-led tours of the building and its churchyard. Many of the original features remain. “The pew where Washington sat hasn’t been changed,” says Reverend Pierce Klemmt. Tours are offered Monday through Saturday noon to 4, Sunday 2:30 to 4:30.

Alexandria Colonial Tours’ Ghost & Graveyard Tour
201 King St., Third Floor; 703-519-1949
The Exorcist may have been filmed across the river in Georgetown, but Old Town has a spooky legacy of its own. Led by a lantern-equipped guide, this nighttime tour is an interactive way to learn about the city’s history.

During a one-hour, six-block tour, costumed reenactors share tales of vengeful ghosts and unsolved mysteries. One popular story, called “The Female Stranger,” details the death of an unknown woman at Gadsby’s Tavern. Her spirit is said to still haunt Old Town. “Some guides have reported strange things happening in the graveyards every now and then,” says tour-company owner Wellington Watts. For the more faint of heart, the company offers history-themed scavenger hunts and restaurant hops. Tickets are $6 to $12.

This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.