Virginia has blossomed out of the early 17th-century settlement of Jamestown into a modern destination whose halcyon days swing by during summer. Days are spent at lush vineyards, boasting fine vintages, or visiting historic attractions and blissful nature trails. Vacationers from nearby Washington D.C. have long taken advantage of the Virginian suburbs, but increasingly, international travellers have caught on to the trend as this verdant swathe of America has something for everyone to enjoy.
Travellers can roam the brightly coloured historic row houses of Alexandria, soak in the history and sombre beauty of the Arlington cemetery or revisit old American ways at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s ambling homestead. And if you fancy a tipple, fine wine is not the only option, inventive breweries in downtown Leesburg serve first-class beer.
All that and more is why summertime in the D.C. suburbs is the perfect season to tap into the artisanal Americana coursing through Virginia.
Start your day at one of America’s oldest and best farmer’s markets, Old Town Farmers Market. George Washington used to send the produce from his farm to be sold at this market, which still takes place in the centre of historic Alexandria. Grab a hot cup of coffee and freshly baked goods at the market (operational only on Saturdays, year-round) before checking out the beautiful organic produce and local craftwork. (www.visitalexandria.com)
Rent a bicycle and ride to Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historically preserved mansion and homestead. Visitors can take the lovely, greenbelt hike-and-bike trail and rent bikes their rides from one of the many Capital Bikeshare stands around Alexandria or opt for more technical bicycles at Bike and Roll DC. The route is full of abundant greenery that runs across the gorgeous Potomac. Bicycle tours are frequent, which makes navigating one’s way to Mount Vernon simple; securing the bicycles at Mount Vernon are just as easy (there are also one-way options). The ride is 45 minutes long, so shuttles, self-drive options, or Ubers may be better options for families with small children or elders.
Visiting Mount Vernon is so much more than a peek around George Washington’s stately home. The once-operational plantation is a snapshot of 18th-century American life. It includes four incredible gardens (which are most lovely during April to September), an orchard, and several paddocks hosting sheep, pigs, oxen, and horses. Guests can go right up to the traditional wooden fences and interact with the livestock.
Across Mount Vernon, costumed docents assume the role of characters from Washington’s world, be they members of his family or enslaved labourers. Guests are encouraged to strike up conversations with them about their role in the estate. The many outbuildings, such as the stable, smokehouse, blacksmith shop, and spinning house are operated by these costumed experts who provide visitors with demonstrations of their craft.
You work up on appetite exploring the property; some of the longer tours can last up to four hours, which makes a meal at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant an exciting option. Those interested in trying traditional dishes from Washington’s time can sample the peanut and chestnut soup or colonial hoecakes. (www.mountvernon.org)
Once you’re back in Alexandria, the world’s your oyster, seriously, the oysters are great here. A walk down King Street is a must, a mile of historic architecture, boutiques, and stylish eateries—take the free King Street Trolley if you don’t feel like walking.
A popular stop for photographers is Spite House, a private residence on 523 Queen Street that is seven feet wide, making it the skinniest historic house in America. The backstory of this architectural oddity is that in the year 1830 an Alexandria resident, John Hollensbury, was so fed up of loiterers hanging about his private alleyway that he built a slender house on the land out of spite. Who would have thought the spawn of spite could look so charming?
Then swing by the Torpedo Factory Art Center (torpedofactory.org), a WWII-era torpedo factory that has since been converted into 82 studios operated by working artists—making it the largest consortium of publicly accessible studios in America. It also features seven galleries, the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, and two workshops, all with events across their annual calendar.
Some folks, however, like to get a glimpse of D.C.’s many monuments, while avoiding the traffic and crowded areas. They should head to Old Town’s historic marina where six sight sighting cruises and water-taxi options
Harry Potter fans should head to the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, an ancient apothecary that operated from 1792 to 1933, after which it became a museum. Wizardry enthusiasts can check out real ingredients from the 1800s-like dragon’s blood and mandrake root, also used as potion ingredients in the Harry Potter book and film series. Or make for Gadsby’s Tavern Museum (www.gadsbystavernrestaurant.com), where George Washington and five other U.S. presidents sampled another kind of ‘potion,’ back when it was Englishman John Gadsby’s tavern (1796-1808). And if that visit makes you thirsty, you might want to grab an award-winning beer or a tour at Port City Brewing Company (www.portcitybrewing.com) and Aslin Brewing (aslinbeer.com) or, perhaps, some cider at Lost Boy Cider (lostboycider.com/home).
The only difficult aspect of dinning in Alexandria is choosing one of its many tempting options. Virtue Feed & Grain (virtuefeedgrain.com) is nestled right up next to the Potomac and has stellar specials like Wild Boar Chops. If you’re still full of energy after dinner, opt for a ghost tour led by a guide outfitted with a lantern and costume, taking you through graveyards and ‘haunted’ neighbourhoods—those over 21 can add a pub crawl to their ghost tour to help them see some spirits. (For all the city attractions, see details at www.visitalexandria.com)
Arlington Cemetery is hauntingly beautiful: all 624 undulating acres of sacrifice, service, history, and remembrance. A particularly moving ritual takes place at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—a monolithic sarcophagus dedicated to all of America’s fallen and unidentified soldiers who fought in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam—known as the Changing of the Guard. The sentinel switching is a touching, intricate, and sombre ceremony that takes place every hour from October through March and every half hour from April through September.
Most visitors also take the time to witness the eternal flame that was first lit on President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite during his funeral ceremony on November 25, 1963. (www.arlingtoncemetery.mil)
In Fairfax the Great Falls (www.nps.gov/grfa) viewing areas at the park look onto an incredible section of rapids and waterfalls on the Potomac River. Experienced kayakers are known to ride this challenging series of natural waterworks. If bargain hunting is on your mind, then try Virginia’s outlet malls—Leesburg, Williamsburg and Norfolk Premium Outlets—stacked with big brands and big sales. Wind down in Loudoun County (just 50 kilometres from Washington D.C.; www.visitloudoun.com), which is home to several resorts that take full advantage of the area’s stunning landscape. Lansdowne Resort and Spa (www.lansdowneresort.com) is one such place, with a championship golf course and a relaxing spa centre.
Downtown Leesburg is quaint, inviting, and absolutely spoils beer fans: they can easily walk between the award-winning craft nanobrewery Crooked Run Brewery, Black Hoof Brewing Company, Black Walnut Brewing, and the famed Delirium Cafe, featuring classic Belgian-style beers (www.crookedrunbrewing.com; blackhoofbrewing.com; deliriumcafe.us).
While Virginia’s wine country is less expensive to tour than California’s, it doesn’t skimp on quality; especially in Loudoun County, home to six wine clusters comprising more than 40 wineries and tasting rooms. A great winery to visit is Sunset Hills Vineyard (www.sunsethillsvineyard.com), offering vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and experienced vigneron. Make sure to sample their Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and their delightful Chambourcin port (Non-Vintage Dusk).
The National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia is a mere eight kilometres from Dulles International Airport, making it a quick bus or taxi ride for those who want to see it before they catch their flight. It is larger than its companion facility—The Air and Space Museum on the National Mall—with a staggering display interspersed across three levels of its two sizeable hangars: the Boeing Aviation Hangar (293,707 square feet) and the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar (53,067 square feet).
With over 161 aircraft and 160 major space objects exhibited, old and young aviation and space enthusiasts are often slack jawed as they wonder over installations, such as, the Red Baron, the Concorde, Space Shuttle Discovery, the world’s first flying car, and Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.
Younger visitors are most often drawn to the astronaut suits at the museum’s impressive gift shop, a movie at the Airbus IMAX Theater, or the ride and flight simulators. And, of course, no visit is complete without a trip up to the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, which offers a majestic 360-degree view of the flight traffic at Dulles Airport. Families with onward flights might get so wrapped up in the experience they end up watching their plane take off without them.
All these attractions are within a convenient distance from Washington, D.C. with myriad travel options. For example, visitors coming to Alexandria from D.C. will take around 15 minutes by taxi, 20 minutes by Metrorail, 30 minutes by water taxi, and around 45 minutes by bicycle. If visitors purchase The Key to the City Attractions pass ($20/Rs1,500), they get free access to eight historic sites and 40 per cent off at George Washington’s Mount Vernon in addition to other benefits.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.