On the banks of the Potomac River, across from Washington, DC, sits the pretty colonial town of Alexandria. Its waterfront location, cobble-stoned streets, and beautifully preserved colonial architecture make it a natural draw for families visiting the capital area and are worth a visit all on their own.
If you’re traveling to Alexandria with kids, the plethora of ice cream and gelato shops, historical museums, and fun playgrounds will make you want to stay a while. And if you do, here’s what I’d recommend putting at the top of your list, along with a helpful map to follow.
Activity 1: Eat Like George Washington
George Washington ate here! And so did John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and the ever-enigmatic Marquis de Lafayette. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, Gadsby’s Tavern was the center of social life in Alexandria, with dancing assemblies, theatrical and musical performances, and meetings of local organizations.
At the Gadbsy’s Tavern Museum, you’ll learn all about the tavern’s illustrious guests, secret passages, and maybe hear about a haunting or two during a guided tour. Kids will love hearing these tales from costumed junior docents. Guided tours are available every day in the summer.
While you can eat “colonial food” in the adjacent tavern, we felt the food and prices were not worth it. We recommend walking a couple of blocks toward the river to Caphe Banh Mi instead (more below).
Activity 2: Sleep Like George Washington
George Washington slept here! Mount Vernon is just a few miles south of Old Town Alexandria. The founding father’s famed plantation is one of the most-visited historical sites in the country. During your visit, you’ll be able to get a good idea of what everyday life was like on a late 19th century plantation, with costumed farmers, blacksmiths, and slaves serving as your guides.
George Washington and Martha Custis moved into the mansion in the mid-1700s and spent the next decade remodeling and expanding the property. It has been meticulously restored to the way it looked in 1799 and, as small kids will especially appreciate, still has farm animals throughout the grounds. You’ll pick up loads of historical tidbits and decorating ideas from the historical interpreters leading the 20-minute tours.
Tip: If you’re staying in Old Town Alexandria, you can get to and from Mount Vernon by boat! Check out the website for times and prices.
Activity 3: Take a Reading Break
Is there any greater smell than the smell of a new book? Hooray for Books! is an inviting independent bookstore that makes a welcome break from sightseeing. From picture books to teen novels and adult fiction, they have your family covered. And if you’re not sure what you’re looking for, don’t hesitate to ask. The helpful staff will be happy to give you recommendations.
Drop in for their weekly story time for preschoolers and check their events calendar for author presentations and book signings.
Activity 4: Play Like a Local
Windmill Hill Park and playground (aka Union Street playground) is a great place to get the wiggles out, shoot some hoops, and meet some local families. One of the hidden gems of Alexandria, this playground/park has a fenced in, shaded play area with a variety of structures, a sand pit, swings, a sand volleyball court, basketball hoops, and even a rope climbing wall. It’s set right on the Potomac River so the view isn’t too shabby either.
Tip: Pick up some excellent espresso drinks and Italian pastries at Carluccio’s, just three blocks away, and get your caffeine/sugar fix while the kids run around.
1 Great Place to Stay: The Kimpton Hotel Monaco
If you’ve stayed at a Kimpton hotel, you know they offer great boutique style at reasonable prices. Alexandria boasts three (!) of the chain’s hotels, the Lorien, the Morrison, and the Monaco. While they’re all great options, the Kimpton Hotel Monaco’s location and funky style makes it a top choice for families. The indoor pool doesn’t hurt either.
The Kimpton Monaco is right across the street from Market Square, site of a Saturday morning farmer’s market, town celebrations, and a large fountain the kids can run around. And it’s only three blocks from the river front.
The hotel has a decent restaurant on site, but chances are you won’t need it since there are dozens of dining options, like Caphe Banh Mi, just a cobblestone’s throw away.
1 Great Place to Eat: Caphe Banh Mi
Caphe Banh Mi is a gem of a Vietnamese restaurant tucked away on a quiet street just a few steps from Market Square. You’ll find several types of banh mi (scrumptious sandwiches), pho (noodle soup), and rice dishes. The iced tea and iced coffee are to die for. It’s a bustling place, very popular among locals, and they don’t take reservations, so come early.