EXPLORE: Old Town Alexandria, Virginia – A Historic Treasure

Over the past two months, I’ve participated in several opportunities to learn more about the history of my new home – Old Town Alexandria, Virginia!  I’ve learned so much that I’m finding it a challenge to organize my thoughts and write it all down.

First, I can’t recommend Footsteps to the Past enough as a way to gather a general overview of the long history of the town – from colonial times and George Washington, through its four year occupation by Union troops during the Civil War, then its period of neglect through the 1970s, ending with revitalization efforts that keep pushing out from the city center to create a destination town for tourists, new residents, and history buffs alike!  My introduction to Footsteps to the Past was through Groupon, as they had a special for the nightly ghost tour.  Since I joined the tour later in the season, our group was very small, so I got a lot of opportunities to pepper the guide with questions, making the tour a great history lesson, with fun ghost stories as well.  The 1 hour ghost tour leaves the Alexandria Visitor’s Center at Ramsey’s House every night from April through November.  The tour I joined covered stories of: the most famous couple in Alexandria — but no one knows their name; the curse of the Carlysles; the role of historic homes during the Civil war – specifically the hotel built across the front lawn of Carlysle house that was used as a hospital; the Carlysle house used as a Union Army leadership meetingplace; and, the confederate espionage disguised as courtship.  What would a ghost tour be if it didn’t end in a cemetery, at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House? 

Alexandria was once a part of D.C. – old water drain

Following that tour, I also scheduled the 90 minute history tour with Footsteps that fit with my parents’ schedule while they were in town.  I won’t go into the details of all that I learned about, such as George Washington and his favorite spots, notable residents like the Lee Family (as in Robert E. Lee), the story of the first Union officer killed by a confederate sympathizer during the war as he tried to steal a confederate flag, that could be seen from the White House, on the first day of wartime occupation, etc.  Just too much to talk about, and I don’t want to discourage people from taking these great (and cheap) walking tours because they are a can’t miss attraction, in my opinion.

Rounding out my unofficial Alexandria History Month, I purchased a discount admission from LivingSocial to attend the Alexandria Holiday Candlelight Tour.  Held every year on a December weekend, the tour allows you to explore the interiors of four of the town’s main attractions:  Gadsby’s Tavern (and attached hotel), Carlsyle House, Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, and Lee-Fendall House.  All of the historic buildings were decorated in period appropriate holiday themes.  This year, as part of the sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War, the period celebrated is the 1860s.

The tour was fantastic.  Getting suckered into participating in a group period dance while at Gadsby’s Tavern wasn’t my favorite activity, but one of my favorite stories to tell.  I actually spoke with a couple dressed in Civil War formal attire and discovered that they participate in dance lessons at Gadsby’s every week, mostly to prepare people who may be attending one of the major balls held at the building, including George Washington’s Birth Night ball, other 18th century and Civil War balls, and a Jane Austen ball – now that’s more my style! 

Here is my list of must not miss historic sites in Old Town Alexandria:

Gadsby’s Tavern (scafolding from recent earthquake)

Gadsby’s Tavern – The tavern was built c.1782 and the hotel was built c. 1795.  Like Starbucks today, back in colonial days, there seemed to be a tavern on every corner.  This one was conveniently located across the street from the Alexandria jail, at the time.  Gadsby’s was a favorite of George Washington when he was in town on business from his estate just 8 miles south at Mount Vernon.  He also enjoyed Wise’s Tavern a block down the street on the corner of Cameron and Fairfax.  One of the reasons for Gadsby’s popularity was their vast ice cellar and, consequently, the offering of a colonial delicacy: ice cream.  Before you get excited, one of the most asked for flavors of ice cream was…..oyster!!  Ew!

Carlyle House with Holiday Interior

Carlysle House – Completed in 1753 by a wealthy Scottish merchant, John Carlysle, for his bride, Sarah Fairfax.  Sarah was the cousin of Lord Fairfax, one of the largest landowners in the region and, subsequently, very wealthy and influential.  There are some interesting stories about the construction of the home, including a roofline that is not even, mismatched brick sizes on the house exterior, a cat entombed in the foundation, and how Carlyle got around the rule that all homes had to butt up the front of the house to the street – not set back like Carlysle house.  After the Carlysle family line died, the house eventually was owned by a gentleman who also owned the two buildings on the sides of the house.  He proceeded to build an extension between the two buildings on the front lawn of Carlyle House, essentially removing the home from sight.  During the Civil War, the house became a headquarters for the Union Army, and the hotel surrounding the property became one of Alexandria’s largest hospitals for wounded soldiers coming from surrounding areas, including both battles at Manassas/Bull Run.

Apothecary – Founded in 1792, this is Alexandria’s longest continuously run business (1796-1933).  Martha Washington used to write to the owner to send her medicines down to their estate.  Robert E. Lee was also a customer.  Now, it houses the store display and a museum upstairs.  I didn’t get to see the museum, as it was not a part of the Candlelight tour, so now I have an excuse to go back!

Christ Church – This adorable church, built from 1767-1773, has name plates on the pews were the Washingtons and the Lees sat during their worship. 

Lee-Fendall Dining Room

Lee-Fendall House – Built in 1785 by the cousin of “Light Horse Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee and Revolutionary War hero, this house sat across the street from Robert E.’s boyhood home.  The home is now a museum open to the public.

George Washington’s Town Home – This is a replica built on the spot where the original stood, using materials from the dilapidated structure, like the foundation stones.  This was George Washington’s place to stay when he had business in the city and could not go back to Mount Vernon.  The modern word “townhouse” most likely has its origins here, as Washington referred to it in letters as his “town house.” 


Captain’s Row – Between Union and Fairfax on Prince St, this original cobblestone street, now brutal on your car’s axles, indicates you are among a great collection of well-preserved historic homes.

Lyceum – Home to Alexandria’s official history museum.  I have not gone yet, but it’s on the near-term to do list! 

So go to Alexandria!  Make a day of it, maybe on a Saturday to visit one of the world’s oldest continually operating  farmer’s markets on Market Square, then visit some or all listed above.  Maybe take an early afternoon history tour from Footsteps, then finish off the day window shopping or browsing the merchandise at the cute businesses that line King Street and cross streets.

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