15 Best Things to Do in Alexandria (VA)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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The charming city of Alexandria in Virginia is located close to the capital of the United States, Washington, DC, and if you happen to be going there first, this makes an excellent day trip. That said, Alexandria has much to recommend it in its own right, so if you get the chance it is worth stopping by this city whether or not you are also going to another location en route. Alexandria is known in the area for its history, as this was a key spot during the American Civil War, and you can visit museums, parks, and forts that will fill you in on all of this prestigious heritage.

At the same time, the city lies on the spectacular Potomac River, and there is no better way to take in the wonderful Virginia scenery than from the water. To that end, you can glide on the river on a water taxi, take a leisurely boat cruise, or just walk along one of the many trails that will take you along the majestic waterfront. Whatever you choose to do however, Alexandria is something of a hidden gem that is often overlooked for those in the area, so anyone who does make the trip will doubtless not be disappointed.

Lets explore the best things to do in Alexandria:

1. Torpedo Factory Art Center

Torpedo Factory Art CenterSource: flickr
Torpedo Factory Art Center

As the name may suggest, the Torpedo Factory Art Center used to be a torpedo factory back during the First and Second World Wars.

After the facility closed, it was transformed by a group of local artists who turned it into an arts studio.

Nowadays you can visit and find galleries and studios full of local art work, and you can also take classes here if you feel like getting creative yourself.

2. Daingerfield Island

Daingerfield IslandSource: flickr
Daingerfield Island

Nestled close to the Old Town area of Alexandria is Daingerfield Island, and if you love local wildlife then this is absolutely not to be missed.

Here you will find a plethora of species such as colorful kingfishers, graceful herons, turtles, frogs, and snakes, and this makes a great outing if you want to see one of the first settlements in the city in the days of old.

3. Athenaeum

AthenaeumSource: flickr

The Athenaeum dates from 1851 and is built in the Greek Revival style, so if you want to see something a little different in Alexandria then this is definitely the place to find it.

The building used to be a bank which was famous for being a place frequented by Robert E. Lee, a general who commanded the Confederate Army of North Virginia during the Civil War.

As such, the Athenaeum was also used a headquarters of the Union Army during the same period, and also operated as a hospital for soldiers wounded in battle.

Nowadays you can enjoy this amazing architectural wonder as well as visit the art gallery that sits inside.

4. Dora Kelley Nature Park

Dora Kelley Nature ParkSource: mapio
Dora Kelley Nature Park

The Dora Kelley Nature Park is a nature sanctuary which spreads over 50 acres and is known for its pretty trail.

The nature trail here stretches over a mile and will take you over rambling hills, past wetlands, and over babbling streams.

If you make a reservation beforehand, then you can also enjoy a tour here led by one of the knowledgeable naturalists who works on site, or you can simply take a self-guided tour if you want to go it alone.

If you are feeling energetic then there is also a bike trail here as well.

5. Alexandria Black History Museum

Alexandria Black History MuseumSource: blog.visitalexandriava
Alexandria Black History Museum

The Alexandria Black History Museum actually has a fascinating history itself as this used to be a library that was only available for African-Americans in Alexandria.

The museum will take patrons on a tour of African American history in this part of the United States and you will find period documents and photographs as part of the collections here.

There is a permanent exhibition here named the Securing the Blessings of Liberty exhibit that will tell you all you want to know about the end of slavery in the Alexandria community.

6. Fort Ward Park

Fort Ward ParkSource: flickr
Fort Ward Park

History buffs absolutely mustn’t miss the chance to come to Fort Ward Park which is one of the best places to enjoy some period architecture from the times of the American Civil War.

The park has Union forts and batteries that have been lovingly restored and would have been used to protect Washington, DC in the days of old.

One of the best parts of the park however is actually the onsite amphitheater where you can watch performances and concerts, many of which tell the story of Fort Ward with actors in period garb to help you get in the mood.

7. Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center

Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature CenterSource: alexandriava
Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center

The Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center tells the story of the wider Dora Kelley Nature Park.

At the center you will find programs and exhibits that will fill you in on the natural history of Alexandria as well as take you back through the story of how humans first came to be here.

You can also see animals here in their natural environment and learn about the flora and fauna in Dora Kelley Nature Park.

8. Jones Point Park

Jones Point ParkSource: flickr
Jones Point Park

Jones Point Park is a great spot to visit in the city if you like to get out on the water.

The park lies on marshland and used to be the home of American Indians.

There are two fishing piers in the park and you can fish these waters for catfish, bass, and even eels.

If you want to take to the water yourself, then there is also a canoe launching site here that will take you through to the Potomac River.

9. Winkler Botanical Preserve

Winkler Botanical PreserveSource: meetup
Winkler Botanical Preserve

Winkler Botanical Preserve stretches for over 44 acres and you will find a beautiful array of flora and fauna that typifies the Potomac River Valley.

The preserve here aims to showcase the natural beauty of Virginia, and is open to the public daily.

You can walk around and take in the trails here and get up close to the picturesque plant and wildlife that abounds.

Certainly if you are a nature lover then don’t miss this off your itinerary.

10. Carlyle House Historic Park

Carlyle House Historic ParkSource: flickr
Carlyle House Historic Park

Carlyle House Historic Park is part of the Carlyle House complex and features a garden that lies over three quarters of an acre.

The garden is an oasis of tranquility in the middle of the city, so if you want some solitude in a beautiful setting then this is definitely it.

The garden was designed to mirror the style of gardens in the 18th century and is filled with plants from that period.

It also has charming brick walking trails as well as wooden benches and parterres made of boxwood.

11. Gadsby’s Tavern Museum

Gadsby’s Tavern MuseumSource: flickr
Gadsby’s Tavern Museum

Gadsby’s Tavern Museum is actually exactly that, a tavern and hotel from the 18th century that has now been turned into an amazing museum space.

The site is named after the keeper of the tavern who was named John Gadsby and many an important event took place here, such as George Washington’s Birthnight Ball all the way back in 1798. It also hosted the inaugural banquet of Thomas Jefferson in 1801. You can sign up for a tour here where a docent will tell you more about the amazing history that this tavern has seen.

12. Market Square

Market SquareSource: flickr
Market Square

Market Square is the place to come on a Saturday morning, as you will find a plethora of stalls run by local artisans and farmers.

The market has an illustrious history and amazingly dates back to 1753. It is held in Old Town Market Square which is one of the oldest in the country and also one of the oldest venues to have been continually serving customers over the years.

You can expect to find meat, fish, dairy products, and fruit and vegetables here, and it is said that even George Washington used to sell his produce here after it was grown in nearby Mount Vernon.

13. Potomac Riverboat Company

Potomac Riverboat CompanySource: flickr
Potomac Riverboat Company

It would seem a shame to come to the site of the mighty Potomac River and not experience it up close, and now you can with the Potomac Riverboat Company.

There are a huge range of choice to enjoy here, such as sightseeing cruises or water taxis, and you can cruise by local monuments and famous sights while enjoy the fresh air.

There are several docking stations along the way that will let you see the best spots in the city.

14. Tide Lock Park

Tide Lock ParkSource: flickr
Tide Lock Park

Tide Lock Park gets its name from a canal system that used to exist here and in the days of old the entire waterfront area of Alexandria would have been dotted with gorgeous locks made of wood.

Unfortunately the locks died out in the 1800s, but if you visit the park you can see a replica of a lock and part of the canal system.

Some parts of the original are also visible here such as the stones that would have made up sections of the canal walls.

15. Mount Vernon Trail

Mount Vernon TrailSource: flickr
Mount Vernon Trail

The Mount Vernon Trail is the most famous trail in the Virginia area and spans 18 miles of land.

The trail begins at the Mount Vernon Estate which belonged to George Washington and then skirts along the Potomac River where it takes visitors past key monuments and sites of interest in Alexandria.

You can walk or run along the trail which also usefully connects to a number of other trails in the area such as the Potomac Heritage Trail and Rock Creek Trail, making it a great starting point to explore the wider region.

15 Best Things to Do in Alexandria (VA):

  • Torpedo Factory Art Center
  • Daingerfield Island
  • Athenaeum
  • Dora Kelley Nature Park
  • Alexandria Black History Museum
  • Fort Ward Park
  • Jerome “Buddie” Ford Nature Center
  • Jones Point Park
  • Winkler Botanical Preserve
  • Carlyle House Historic Park
  • Gadsby’s Tavern Museum
  • Market Square
  • Potomac Riverboat Company
  • Tide Lock Park
  • Mount Vernon Trail