Alexandria, Virginia, at less than a half-hour’s drive from Washington, DC, is a breath of fresh air. The city boasts a historic old town that charms with buildings dating as far back as the colonial era. Add to that its setting along the Potomac River waterfront, its easy walkability, and the fact that this small town is dog-friendly. Alexandria makes for the perfect spot for families or couples looking to relax, recharge, and set their own pace. I recently headed to Alexandria with my husband and George, our miniature schnauzer, for a weekend visit to take in the sights and the sounds of this popular Southern small town.
Dog-Friendly Things to Do in Old Town Alexandria
It seems like Alexandria is on everyone’s radar. In recent years it’s regularly been named as one of the best small towns in the United States. And it’s easy to see why. Alexandria has an easy, casual feel that extends to include your four-legged family members in the fun. Not only is there a lot to do that is dog-friendly, but the variety of what is on offer means that everyone will find something of interest.
Explore King Street
If there were ever a “Main Street” in Alexandria, it would be King Street. The road leads through the heart of Old Town Alexandria and ends right at the Potomac River waterfront.
In addition to being the heart of Old Town, King Street is also the life. This is where you will find the town’s city hall and visitor center. But it is also where you will find dozens of restaurants, shops, and galleries. There are a real mix of national chain restaurants and boutiques as well as independent Mom & Pop places to enjoy and explore. Every once in a while you’ll even see the town’s free trolley shuttle running up and down the street. Without a doubt, King Street is “the” happening place to be in Alexandria.
Enjoy the Architecture & History
If you think about Colonial America, cities like Philadelphia or Boston likely come to mind. But Alexandria’s Old Town has a remarkable number of historic buildings that are in fantastic condition.
The centerpiece of King Street is Alexandria’s City Hall. Sitting back a little from the street, the city hall is on an elevated square directly in front of it that serves as the home of one of the country’s oldest farmers markets. There are plenty of chairs and benches around the spot’s water fountain so that you can sit and take it all in.
Nearby there’s also great spots like Gadsby’s Tavern, a popular tavern from the 18th century that counted George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among its clientele, and plenty of restored historic homes like the Carlyle House and the Lee-Fendall House. Some of these spots are now museums and you can visit them yourself to get a peek inside and see just how Alexandria’s most prominent families lived.
A must see is an ice well on the corner of Royal and Cameron Streets, near Gadsby’s Tavern. The 18th-century icehouse sits below ground and provided the luxury and convenience of ice for well-heeled visitors. Today, the ice well has been renovated and protected. You can look through the glass into the underground to see the brick-lined room.
It’s also worth exploring the town’s residential homes. That is to say, the places where people live today. It’s living history, so to speak. It’s fun to walk by and see how the current homeowners are breathing life to these important properties. Look for lovely details like iron stoops, personalized door knockers, and beautiful planters overflowing with flowers.
Stroll Cameron Street
While King Street is where all the action is, a stroll down the quiet and mostly residential Cameron Street was one of my favorite parts of my visit to Alexandria Old Town. The street runs parallel to King Street and you really can’t throw a rock without hitting a historic building. Historic and beautifully restored and maintained. Unadorned red or painted brick buildings dot the street while gas lights flicker as the sun slowly sets.
Among the historic buildings is a reproduction of the George Washington townhouse, where the general and president lived for a time prior to the Revolution. Although it is a reproduction, the townhouse is on the exact site of the original. As you walk by, a white bust of the general peers out the window at you. (You can even spend the night in the home!)
Even with King Street bustling at dinner time on a Friday evening, Cameron Street was practically empty. We only ran into a few other couples with dogs while we walked and admired the buildings.
Visit Christ Church
If you do go for a stroll on Cameron Street, you’re likely to walk directly into the historic Christ Church. The Episcopal church dates to the 18th century and was built between 1767 and 1773.
The relatively modest brick building boasts the kind of architectural details you would expect for the time, including a lovely steeple. A small cemetery surrounds the church and the old headstones of thin, worn stone often sit at an uneven angle from the lush green grass. A brick-lined walkway allows you to pass through the grounds, past the church, and enjoy the beautifully landscaped area. The gardens are lovely.
The church had some notable members in its congregation including, Washington and Robert E. Lee. Among the inhabitants of the cemetery are prominent members of the local community as well as a number of war deceased, such as Confederate soldiers or those who served in the Revolutionary War.
Enjoy Waterfront Park
Part of the appeal of Alexandria is the fact that the town is right along the Potomac River waterfront. Without a doubt, its proximity to the river has always been an important part of its history. With King Street running perpendicular to the Potomac River, anyone who goes for a walk is likely to end up on the eastern edge at the Waterfront Park.
The park has chairs and benches, as well as plenty of places to sit in the grass under the trees and look out across the river as boats, like the unmistakably yellow water taxi, glide by. Across the river towards Maryland, it’s difficult to miss the National Harbor and its giant Ferris wheel.
There are a number of additional waterfront parks in Alexandria, including nearby Founders Park, to enjoy with your dog!
Visit Artists at Work at the Torpedo Factory Art Center
These days it isn’t uncommon to see old and empty buildings getting a new lease on life. But a former munitions factory? The Torpedo Factory Art Center has been giving working artists a spot to call home since the mid-1970s. Today, it’s the largest collection of open artist studios in the country. Visitors, including dogs, are invited to venture inside and see the artists’ work and even go see some of their studios. And what a location the center has! It sits right along the waterfront.
Art centers like this are fantastic for demystifying the artistic process and giving you a full appreciation for everything an artist puts into their work. Grab a work to take home as a souvenir and, in all likelihood, you’ll have a special understanding of its background and its artist.
Eat BBQ at Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque
While there is no shortage of restaurants along King Street offering everything from fresh seafood to British pub grub and even German Biergarten favorites, just a short walk from the waterfront is an award-winning BBQ joint. The restaurant sits in a neighborhood that’s strikingly quiet despite the striking architecture surrounding it.
You may know Myron Mixon from television, where he’s showed off his BBQing skills. But you can get a taste of them yourself at Myron Mixon’s Pitmaster Barbeque. The popular restaurant offers everything you’d expect from a BBQ joint: from chicken to ribs. But the quality is simply fantastic. The BBQ comes naked, that is, you can decide which of Mixon’s famous sauces you want to use (and how much). I recommend the pulled pork sandwich, with its large flavorful pieces of meat, and the warm cornbread muffins. I’m a North Carolina vinegar-style sauce kind of girl and Mixon’s vinegar BBQ sauce did not disappoint!
There are two small tables directly out front of Myron Mixon’s where visitors with dogs can sit. The staff were very friendly and welcoming of our dog. The waitress, generously, brought him a big water bowl full of ice water.
Travel Back in Time to George Washington’s Mount Vernon
At less than a half-hour’s drive (and much less if traffic is good), Mount Vernon is an easy addition to any visit to Alexandria. The historic plantation of the nation’s first president is a definite must see (at least once), especially for history buffs. Visitors could easily spend an entire day exploring all that Mount Vernon has to offer. In addition to the fantastic mansion sitting atop a hill overlooking the Potomac River, there are many things to see on the grounds.
A Brief History of Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon is famous for being George and Martha Washington’s plantation. The property was in Washington’s family since the late 1600s. The nation’s first president did not become the property’s sole owner until more than a hundred years later.
The property was a working slave plantation that was about 8,000 acres in size during Washington’s ownership. Today, 500 acres of the original property remains. Part of the property is the mansion that Washington expanded several times as well as the family tomb.
Visiting Mount Vernon
The central part of Mount Vernon, where much of the most important sites are, is fairly compact; deceivably so if you look at the site’s illustrated map. Even with a tired dog in tow, you don’t have to walk too far. But if you do want to take your time, there are some nice shady places to enjoy. Spectacular centuries old and unbelievably large trees line Bowling Green, a field out front of the mansion. It’s a great spot to enjoy the plantation and take in all of the history.
There are also chairs lining the back porch of the mansion where you can sit and look over the Potomac River. You can also peek your head in some of the small buildings that dot the property: the ice house, the kitchen, the “Necessary” (aka outhouse). These strikingly ordinary buildings are what undoubtedly made life at Mount Vernon liveable — at least for some.
Other spots at Mount Vernon, like the wharf, the distillery, and the gristmill, are a bit farther away from the mansion. For that reason, Mount Vernon operates a shuttle bus that ferries visitors. These centuries-old features of the plantation are still working today. Visitors can purchase liquor made at the distillery or catch a river cruise from the wharf.
Dogs Welcome at Mount Vernon
Dogs are welcome at Mount Vernon. Washington himself was known to have a pack of dogs that lived at the plantation. As with most museums, dogs are not allowed to enter the buildings. However, there is so much to see outdoors at Mount Vernon and there are some really lovely walking trails that you don’t really feel like you’re missing out.
You and your dog can wander through the many beautiful gardens on the grounds, watch with amusement the hogs as they wiggle in the mud, or pay your respects during the wreath laying tributes that take place multiple times each day at both Washington’s tomb and the slave memorial and cemetery.
It’s also worth noting that George Washington’s Mount Vernon also runs an All the President’s Pups tour that provides a historic overview for humans and welcomes dogs along for a hike. Check the daily schedule ahead of time to see when the free tour takes place.
Tips for Visiting Alexandria
Alexandria really treads the line between a small town and a vacation destination. Even visiting over Memorial Day weekend, the town was festive and active but not overly crowded. I love how easy it was to walk everywhere. The town is relatively flat and compact plus there are great spots like outside of city hall and along the waterfront where you can take a break.
If you’re looking to really enjoy everything that Alexandria has to offer, Visit Alexandria offers a special Key to the City Museum Pass. The pass includes free admission to nine local museums and historic spots (including the observation deck at George Washington Masonic National Memorial and Gadsby’s Tavern Museum), an impressive 40% discount for admission to George Washington’s Mount Vernon, and a discount at select museum gift shops. There are also three free museums worth exploring: Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The passes don’t expire until the end of the year, so you can easily make several trips to Alexandria and enjoy all it has to offer.
Dog-Friendly Alexandria Travel Tips
When I say that Alexandria is dog-friendly, I mean it in the truest sense. Water fountains have a special water bowl built in for dogs that sits on the ground. You’ll frequently see dogs in popular spots, such as walking along King Street (the main thoroughfare in the Old Town) or chilling with their humans at the waterfront park. Restaurants with outdoor seating are generally very dog-friendly. (But be sure to confirm that dogs aren’t a problem. There are some restaurants where dogs must remain outside of the fencing around the al fresco dining area.) And you’ll see signs in dozens of shop windows inviting in the furry visitors and their human buddies. I even saw a realtor’s office offering biscuits to passersby.
Pet Friendly Hotels in Old Town Alexandria
It should be no surprise that there are pet-friendly hotels in Alexandria given how welcoming the town is of dogs. Our pack spent the night at the Kimpton Lorien Hotel and Spa in Old Town Alexandria, right along King Street. The Kimpton brand is well known for being dog-friendly and was my first choice for this trip. The hotel was welcoming of George and Kimpton’s policy is there’s no fee for bringing a dog and there are no restrictions on size. Upon check-in, George was given a goodie bag containing two clean-up bags and a small bag of treats.
Our room at the Kimpton Lorien was extremely large — surprisingly so — with a modern bathroom. The hotel sits back off the street with a courtyard created by the hotel’s two restaurants forming the front and side. Our king room overlooked the courtyard and offered a lovely view of a small fountain with a clock in the center. The Lorien is definitely a great hotel in Old Town Alexandria.
For breakfast, we opted for the hotel’s own Brabo Tasting Room. The Tasting Room’s brioche French toast with berries was delicious. The restaurant offers outdoor seating in the courtyard so it was perfect for our trio.
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Thank you to Visit Alexandria for providing Key to the City Museum passes. All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.