Alexandria may be one of the smaller areas in Northern Virginia, but the historic waterfront city is a bustling hub of dining, arts and culture with a number of exciting activities for any visitor, regardless of their tastes. Below are just a few of our favorite things to do in Alexandria, VA, whether you are just visiting or a long-time residents.
Things to do in Alexandria, VA
You can stay in Alexandria, Virginia to explore Washington, D.C. or you can day trip over to this suburb just west of the Nation’s capitol. Either way, you will find loads of to do in Alexandria, including sightseeing cruises, historic sites, artists studios, and the walkable mile down King Street, filled with 18th century architecture (and older!) and 200+ locally-owned restaurants and boutiques.
Tip: Jump on the free King Street trolley to help you get around if you don’t want to walk.
The key to the city, especially when wandering Old Town, is to allow yourself to take that right turn, get lost and find something unexpected.
Torpedo Factory Art Center
This is a one-of-a-kind artistic space, and one of the centers of the art world for the metropolitan area. It is a former naval munitions factory that has been converted into a celebration of fine arts of every kind.
As you stroll through the two levels of the open floor plan, you’ll see real, nationally renowned painters, sculptors, photographers and printers at work in 82 artists studios and two large workshops, along with their many complete works on display and for sale. Artists are happy to answer questions about their process and show off works in progress.
Some relics of the building’s naval history also remain, including a timeline of the building’s history and a full-size torpedo on display.
Old Town bar hopping
A storied and beloved tradition in the area is the weekend bar hop all the way down King Street in Old Town Alexandria, with the goal of making it to the water (though even a failed attempt is still plenty of fun).
Bounce back and forth between spacious, modern bars with a nightclub feel, chic urban restaurants, cozy taverns with live music, and tiny holes-in-the-wall perched on the second stories of converted townhouses. Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub, Village Brauhaus, Port City Brewing, The Light Horse, Don Taco, and Virtue Feed and Grain are just a few of the seemingly endless selection of local-favorite pubs along this road.
Del Ray Shopping
A pleasant walk down Mount Vernon Avenue in the Del Ray section of Alexandria offers almost exclusively local-owned businesses, from activity centers for kids to award-winning restaurants, plus historic churches. The surrounding suburban area features several beautiful murals, playgrounds and other public spaces where friendly locals will always wave hello.
Dog lovers will be delighted by several specialty stores devoted to treats for your furry friend, as well as dog-friendly cafés where you can spot pups of every shape and size.
The Alexandria Black History Museum
The history of Alexandria cannot be understood without recognizing the often painful but essential story of the enslaved African people who were brought to the area to work.
The Black History Museum takes visitors on a journey through the centuries, guided by individuals whose families have lived in the town for many generations. It also provides a reading room and guides to many more sites of importance to Black history throughout the region.
Tip: Manumission Tour Company offers highly-rated tours including “Freedom’s Fight,” which provide a well-informed and engrossing journey through Alexandria’s role in the institution of slavery and the struggle for black equality.
Playtime for adults
Take a break from adulting with one of the many Alexandria destinations with specialized fun activities that aren’t just for kids. Old Town was an early adopter of the escape room craze, and stills house two first-class escape room venues: Escape Room Live and EscapeQuest.
Additionally, Paint This! provides a slightly more sophisticated version of the classic pottery painting studio, with many available art projects to complete with your friends, high-quality art supplies for sale, and an exceptionally friendly and relaxing atmosphere.
If you’re still feeling adventurous, head to the Sportrock Climbing Center, which has classes available for beginners to pros, or one of several other climbing and yoga studios throughout the city.
Tour the waterfront
Visitors seem irresistibly drawn to the shore of the Potomac that borders Alexandria to the east. Trails run along the waterfront connecting a number of pleasant, sunny parks, public boat docks, and unique eateries, all with an unbeatable riverside view.
Hop on the ferry at the Old Town Harbor for a scenic minute trip to more fun at Maryland’s hotel and casino center near National Harbor.
Hike down Holmes Run
This stream winds lazily through the west side of Alexandria, providing a beautiful and accessible forested walking trail from Dora Kelley Nature Park, with a nature center and frequent activities for kids, to All Veterans Park, with sunny trails, scenic overlooks and a dog run.
Classic diner breakfasts
Alexandrians are never at a loss for a good place to find breakfast, whether you are looking for traditional or modern breakfast options.
- The Waffle Shop, a classic neighborhood diner with a stand-out flatiron shape and iconic neon sign.
- Bob & Edith’s, the newest location of a long-time Northern Virginia 24-hour diner chain
- Table Talk, a quaint bar and restaurant that serves diner food all day but specializes in delicious brunch.
And café connoisseurs have more options than they have time to sample in Alexandria, with charismatic local coffee houses on every corner, including St. Elmo’s, the Del Ray Café, Buzz Bakeshop, Killer ESP and Extra Perks.
Gadsby’s Tavern Museum
Enjoy a self-guided tour of the many artifacts housed in this well-maintained historical restaurant, which in the early days of the United States played host to the Founding Fathers and the area’s richest shipping magnates.
Actors and educators in historical costume fully immerse you in the late 1700s, and the experience is complete when you head into the still-operational tavern serving traditional, hearty British-American fare.
Travel back in time
To continue the full historical experience, start at the Alexandria Visitor Center, which is located in the home of William Ramsey, founder of the city.
The friendly staff can guide you to many historic buildings, and get you set up with ghost tours, trolley tours, home tours or boat tours of the town.
Also, keep an eye out for historical signs all over town that tell the stories of the city. There are dozens of brass plaques marking historically significant buildings.
A taste of Alexandria would not be complete without seeing a show at the legendary Birchmere, a music hall featuring some of the biggest names in music and entertainment since 1966.
Often thought of as a country and rock venue, this casual and friendly space actually showcases music of every genre, along with dance, comedy and other entertainment spectacles. And, in a shocking departure from most of Northern Virginia, parking is free and ample!
Potomac Yard Marina & Daingerfield Island
This misleadingly named riverside park is not actually an island, but a peninsula jutting into the Potomac River. It’s popular as a peaceful spot to watch sailboats launch and whiz by.
Sailing lessons and boat and bicycle rentals are available, but many visitors prefer to simply grab some lunch at the restaurant and enjoy the scenic view.
Great Waves Waterpark
Cool off during the hot summer months at this neighborhood water park, which sports several large water slides, an enormous wave pool, an imaginative climbing playground and a splash area for younger kids.
Snacks and meals are available, and with batting cages and mini-golf nearby, so be prepare for a full day of amusement park fun.
Charming, walkable shopping centers
Whether you’re just stocking up on essentials or doing a little retail therapy, Potomac Yard is the major shopping center in Alexandria, VA with big cornerstone stores like Old Navy, Target and HomeGoods, along with plenty of smaller local shops. This is also a great spot for lunch, with a variety of local chains and international cuisine options.
If you’re looking for the best spot for a date night or friends’ day out, you might try the Hoffman Center on the west end of town. This is a Metro-accessible outdoor mall with a highly-rated multiplex and plenty of quality casual dining options.
Alexandria National Cemetery
This beautiful and peaceful, if a bit solemn, corner of Alexandria is actually made up of several different historic graveyards right next to each other.
There are many scenic views, incredibly old headstones, and fascinating bits of history to discover here, including the stone marking the original southwest boundary of DC, the African American Heritage Memorial Park, and the Grave of the Female Stranger.
Jones Point Lighthouse
Soak in a bit of history at this unusual little lighthouse. It is a one-story building that once housed a light for signaling ships on the river, the last remaining river lighthouse in the Chesapeake area.
The long and complex story of ownership and use of this point can be found in other area museums, but it is another thing to stand by the water and imagine the shipping industry of days gone by.
The surrounding park exhibits provide more historical context on the native people and European settlers of the area, as well as sport and recreation grounds.
The Mount Vernon Trail
Hop on and off this seemingly never-ending trail that enters Alexandria from Arlington, wends its way along the river and continues into the idyllic Belle Haven Park with its bird sanctuary and wildlife preserve.
This is a wide, popular trail for casual outdoor walks as well as serious running and cycling training, with many areas to stop and gaze at the water, play a game of fetch with the dog, or sit down for a picnic.
Masonic National Memorial
It is difficult for Alexandria visitors to miss this tall, majestic monument built by the Masons to honor perhaps their most celebrated member, George Washington.
Reserve a one-hour tour to explore the building’s magnificent interior, reminiscent of a Roman temple with marble columns and stained glass. You’ll learn a lot about the nation’s first leader and the august organization to which he belonged.
Farmers markets and other events
There are five well-stocked seasonal farmers markets around the region, including the Old Town farmer’s market, the oldest market in the nation that has been held in the same site.
Fun fact: George Washington used to send produce from Mount Vernon to sell here!
More than 70 vendors offer up fresh local produce, prepared foods, and arts and crafts.
While checking the calendar for your visit, remember that Alexandria, Virginia also offers a host of annual festivities, from Del Ray’s Art on the Avenue to the spectacular Old Town St. Patrick’s Day parade and dog show.
This stone Georgian mansion was built in the 1750s, and stands today as a museum of the fascinating events that occurred here and in other historic homes throughout Alexandria.
Get swept up in exhibits about the wealthy families that have owned the home. You will also learn how this home was converted into Civil-War era hospital, and the struggle for freedom from the dark past of slavery in the region to local fights for women’s suffrage and civil rights.
The Athenaeum serves as a contemporary art museum, performance space, and home of the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association. The building itself is a work of art, resembling the neo-classical Greek architecture of many DC monuments. It features soaring curved ceilings and Doric columns.
Visitors are free to simply wander the beautiful gallery, purchase a work of art that speaks to them, or even rent the space for a special event.
Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
Those in the medical fields, as well as fans of odd tidbits of history, will adore this historic medical museum in Old Town Alexandria, which was a working apothecary from 1792 to 1933 and served some of the nation’s most famous figures.
It now showcases a vast array of old-fashioned medical serums, equipment and documents in charming displays that will make you feel like you’re in a 19th century pharmacy, waiting for your laudanum or leeches.
Meet a celebrity…ship
The tall-ship Providence, which sits on the waterfront off Cameron Street, is an accurate reproduction of John Paul Jones’ Revolutionary warship. More importantly, it was featured in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie!
Your group can enjoy a public or private cruise, with a talk on-deck by Captain Jones himself, while being treated to snacks and drinks.
Chinquapin Park Recreation Center
A new, state-of-the-art, go-to spot for any type of physical activity you could care to partake in. Chinquapin Park boosts professional-size fields and courts for all types of sports, as well as pools and saunas, gyms with special classes, nature trails, and playgrounds for any age. We love that there is also an innovative “soft playroom” for young children that is one of only two in the region.
The gardens of River Farm
This lovely farmhouse that used to belong to George Washington is now home to the American Horticultural Society, a group dedicated to making gardens sustainable and accessible to all Americans.
Wander through the perfectly maintained gardens and tranquil woodlands on their grounds, enjoy the art and cultural artifacts on display, or reserve the dining space for a special gathering.