OLD TOWN ALEXANDRIA, Va. — This proud seaport community, once George Washington's hometown, is a place where 18th-Century taverns and apothecary shops are a stone's throw from Vietnamese and Afghan restaurants, where artists create in a converted torpedo factory at the Potomac's edge, and where spirits are said to roam cobblestone streets and red-brick homes.
Its rich history befits Old Town's location between the nation's capital and Washington's Mount Vernon estate 16 miles away, and its strategic role in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. And this is history well-preserved--the city even has its own archeologist.
It also has venerable Gadsby's Tavern, where Washington dined, danced and celebrated his election to the Virginia House of Burgesses (he groused about the cost of the victory party). The majestic Georgian-style Carlyle House was built in 1752 by merchant John Carlyle, who supplied Washington's militia with arms and hosted George and Martha when they came to town.
At the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, General "Light Horse" Harry Lee, Robert E. Lee's father, eulogized Washington upon his death as "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."
Across town, the younger Lee's boyhood home--to which he returned after Appomattox to see "if the snowballs were still in bloom"--is now a museum. So is the nearby Lee-Fendall House, occupied by 37 different Lees over more than a century.
But this is more than just a "George Washington Slept Here" kind of place. Old Town has a flair for bringing history alive as well.
The city celebrates its Scottish heritage each July with a two-day Celtic festival that includes Highland dancing, bagpipers and a national fiddling competition (July 27-28 this year), and each December with a candlelight Christmas walk (Dec. 13-14).
Washington's birthday is recalled with monthlong February festivities highlighted by a black-tie banquet and ball and the country's longest birthday parade.
Old Town is also adaptable. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. In 1918, the Navy built this mammoth structure to manufacture torpedo shell casings. Alexandria subsequently purchased and refurbished it, and today it houses about 200 artists' studios and galleries in three airy stories.
"It's a great place," says paint-splattered potter Judy Kogard, who doubled her income when she joined a cooperative in the art center a year ago. "I don't think there's any market like it in the country."
Old Town itself is part of greater Alexandria, a diverse city of 111,000 about eight miles south of Washington, D.C., and two miles from National Airport. Designated a National Landmark, Old Town is about 100 square blocks.
This area includes some 1,000 Georgian, Greek Revival, Federal and Victorian period buildings that are a century old and several that date back 200 years. Many of the most historically significant are open for guided tours.
From the waterfront on Alexandria's eastern border, the Washington Monument, the dome of the Jefferson Memorial and the Capitol are visible across the Potomac. To the west is the impressive 333-foot tower of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial on Shooter's Hill (so named when Civil War units encamped there). An elevator shuttles visitors to the top for commanding views of Alexandria, the Potomac and Washington.
Old Town's population is diverse. Black families can trace their Alexandria heritage back several generations. A large affluent populace includes lawyers, writers, consultants and others associated with the federal government. And there is a substantial arts community.
Proximity to Old Town's charms has its price. Housing is expensive--modest brick-and-wood-frame town houses start in the $300,000 range and climb to well over $1 million. Flights to and from nearby National Airport can be deafening. And downtown streets are often crowded with visitors.
Nevertheless, Old Town remains determinedly hospitable. Ramsey House, which was Alexandria's first residence, is now a centrally located visitors center with brochures, tour information and helpful staff. Out-of-town visitors can request an "honorary citizen" card that entitles them to free parking. And a 24-hour taped message provides information on upcoming events (703-838-5005).
During our many visits, my wife and I have found that two of the city's strong suits are its varied cuisine and gift shopping. Restaurants offer everything from hearty French bistro cooking to trendy nouvelle New Mexican to delicate Vietnamese dishes. And shops range from those specializing in books and prints of the Civil War to those filled with African art.