Stroll down Old Town Alexandria’s King Street on a cold winter Saturday morning and you’ll walk right past Market Square with its vegetable vendors and cheese mongers, the spice shop with its exotic powders, and the old toy store with its inviting holiday display. The pubs near the river still emit a faint whiff of last night’s revelry as shopkeepers emerge bleary-eyed to start the day’s business.
The cobblestoned side streets are lined with two-hundred year old homes whose gaslights barely cut through the morning mist. You half-expect Uncle Scrooge to tear open a window above and ask you to run down to the store to buy the fattest Christmas goose you can carry.
On the banks of the Potomac River, Old Town Alexandria is a picture-perfect colonial town whose old and new holiday traditions will make you want to tie up your horse and stay a while. And after a stroll through its many unusual shops you surely won’t show up empty-handed to your holiday parties.
You don’t need to travel far to see Uncle Scrooge in action. Since the Little Theater of Alexandria opened in 1934, local families have dressed in their holiday best and made a tradition of going to see “A Christmas Carol.” This year, they present a condensed 45-minute version which is sure to appeal to even the youngest patrons. The show runs December 8th through the 18th.
Mount Vernon, home of George Washington, comes alive at Christmas as the mansion is decorated in authentic colonial style and trees are dressed according to the style of the times. Children will love the annual visit from Aladdin the Camel. Aladdin’s colonial-clad handler will tell you that in 1787 George Washington paid 18 shillings to surprise his family and guests with a camel at Christmas time.
Mount Vernon started an especially tasty Christmas tradition a few years ago with an annual gingerbread decorating display by Former White House Pastry Chef Roland Mesnier. Each year, he and his staff construct a sugary replica of the mansion and choose one room to decorate in great detail. The decorating takes place in the main lobby outside the exit near the gift shop and in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving you may be able to catch the chefs at work there. And if your blood sugar level is not quite high enough, there will be chocolate-making demonstrations throughout the holiday season as well.
For an extra authentic feel, Mount Vernon by Candlelight offers an evening tour of the estate on three weekends in November and December. Mrs. Washington and other costumed characters lead a tour of the first and second floors of Mount Vernon, with fireside caroling, hot cider and ginger cookies. (Separate ticket required. Available online beginning November 1. www.mountvernon.org)
You may not find Scrooge’s Christmas goose in Old Town but with its splendid specialty shops and boutiques, you will find goodies to fill your holiday table and gifts for everyone on your list. The vast majority of Old Town shops are independently-owned so shopping is a personal experience reminiscent of yesteryear, plus you can do it all on foot. Here is a sampling of the stores you’ll find:
The Christmas Attic. As the name implies, you’ll find Christmas ornaments galore in this charming shop, but beware of the ghost that haunts the walls of this colonial building. Legend has it that in the mid-1860s, while getting dressed for her wedding, a young woman’s wedding dress caught fire, the flames consumed her and she perished. Her ghost is said to inhabit the shop and some shoppers have claimed to hear her haunting wails. 125 South Union Street
The Spice and Tea Exchange: The tantalizing smell of teas and spices will pull you in to browse the shelves of jars of exotic powders and herbs. They have many custom blends or you can make your own. 320 King Street
Olio Tasting Room: Taste true extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegars in many flavors at the newest food boutique on King Street. 1223 King Street
La Fromagerie: Although one of the owners is French and they do carry a nice selection of imported cheese, La Fromagerie specializes in American artisanal cheese. 1222 King Street
Whistle Stop Hobbies: This train lover’s paradise has everything you need to build or enhance your model train tracks. They also have a nice collection of toy soldiers. 130 S. Royal Street
Why Not? This old-fashioned toy store carries the most beautiful and unusual toys, games, costumes, and books. 200 King Street
Hooray for Books! With the advent of e-readers and the demise of big-box stores, it’s a real treat to browse through this wonderful collection of children’s books. The sales staff is happy to recommend books for any age and place special orders. 1555 King Street
The Hour Cocktail Collection: This is a great little shop for an unusual gift for that hard-to-shop-for friend or relative. After all, who doesn’t “need” vintage cocktail paraphernalia. Cheers! 1015 King Street
Fibre Space: This is not your grandma’s knitting store. This shop is hip and bright with colorful yarns, and is run by an energetic young staff. Ask about workshops. 102 N. Fayette Street
Mint Condition: This upscale consignment store is very selective in what they’ll accept, and it shows. You’ll find gently-used designer clothes and great jewelry—just in time to pick up a fabulous New Year’s outfit. 114 S. Royal Street
Being a charming Colonial town also means that Alexandria is loaded with antique stores. For a change of pace, Chinoiserie (1024 King Street) offers an asian-inspired and mid-century modern twist. Red Barn Mercantile (113 South Columbus Street) adds a mix of vintage and new pieces.
HOLIDAY EVENTS CALENDAR
Scottish Walk – December 3rd – For over 40 years, this event has kicked off Alexandria’s holiday season with more than 100 Scottish clans dressed in tartans and playing bagpipes, living history units, dog clubs and antique cars.
Holiday Boat Parade of Lights – December 3rd – At dusk more than fifty illuminated boats cruise the Potomac River at the waterfront.
Historic Alexandria Candlelight Tour – December 10th and 11th – Tour Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, Carlyle House, Lee-Fendall House and Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and enjoy seasonal decorations, entertainment and light refreshments.
Handbell Concert – December 18th – The Colonial Ringers offer a free holiday handbell concert on December 18 at 2 and 4 pm at the stately Lyceum, Alexandria’s History Museum (201 S. Washington Street)
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Monaco Alexandria – A 2008 renovation made this the most stylish and affordable hotel in the central historic district. The Jackson 20 restaurant (named for Andrew Jackson, the first president to welcome the public to his inaugural festivities) offers local and regional cuisines in a warm setting. From $189.
Morrison House – The award-winning, four star Morrison House is a stately, federal-style inn. From $159.
Lorien Hotel and Spa – This modern spa hotel is a delightful contrast to the bricks and cobblestones of the surrounding historic area. The onsite restaurant, BRABO by Robert Wiedmaier, is a standout, and the Butcher’s Block market offers meals to go. From $209.
Hilton Alexandria Old Town – A convenient location directly across from the Metro Station. Promotional packages from $119.
Holiday Inn Alexandria – 625 First Street; 703-548-6300; http://www.hioldtownalexandriahotel.com On the quieter north end of Old Town. From $84.95.
WHERE TO EAT
If you’ve only a few farthings:
Eamonn’s – Nothing but the freshest fish and chips, with house made sauces and Guinness on tap. And if you’ve ever fancied a fried Mars bar, this is the place. A large order of cod and chips is plenty for two, $11.75.
Hard Times Café – Four kinds of chili served all kinds of ways. A bowl will run you under $10.
Red Rocks – New to the gourmet pizza scene, this lively brick-walled spot has excellent wood-fired pizza and great beers on tap. Try the eggplant confit pizza ($13).
For the warmth of a pub with comfort food to match, try:
Columbia Firehouse – Several cozy dining areas and a lively bar for fresh seafood, steaks, and house-made charcuterie. Daily specials $15-30.
Daniel O’Connell’s Restaurant and Pub – Irish-accented entrees $11.95-$29. S’mores made at your table with your own tiny “campfire” $8.
Virtue Feed & Grain – Casual bar/restaurant/tavern close to the waterfront. Cockles and Mussels $8. Steak and Kidney Pie $16.
For a fancier dinner:
Restaurant Eve – The multi-course prix-fixe dinners ($120-150) in the Tasting Room are rich and delicious, but their Lickety Split lunch is much easier on the wallet: choose two items for $14.98.
Bastille – French gem hidden on the north end of Old Town. Four-course menu $55. Wine pairings $29.
Paige Conner Totaro and Veronique Autphenne are the founders and editors of All Over the Map, a website about experiential family travel.