Spring fling: Travel guide to Alexandria
January 29, 2023
Alexandria, Va., blends historic small-town charm with big-city benefits. The National Cherry Blossom Festival, from March 20 – April 16, might be the perfect time to visit.
by Cathy Martin
Each spring, cherry-blossom mania takes over the nation’s capital, and the fever spreads across the Potomac to Alexandria, Va. In March and April, when the trees are in full bloom, red-brick sidewalks are strewn with the billowy pink petals, and quaint shops peddle cherry-blossom-themed soaps, candles, sweets, even pet toys. The Washington area is fun to visit any time of year — but the flower-filled parks and streetscapes make spring perhaps the loveliest season.
With an allure rivaling D.C.’s oldest neighborhoods like Georgetown and Dupont Circle, Old Town Alexandria oozes charm, from its cobblestone streets to the picturesque waterfront. Metro service, guided bicycle tours and bike rentals, and a water taxi connecting Alexandria to The Wharf, Georgetown and the National Harbor — including a seasonal Cherry Blossom tour — makes it an optimal base to explore the region.
The city’s convenient (and free) King Street Trolley makes getting around Old Town a cinch. But Alexandria is a pedestrian paradise — to get the most out of your visit, lace up your walking shoes and start exploring. Use our suggested itinerary as a guide for planning your own trip.
BARCA Pier, Turkish Coffee Lady
Whether arriving by car (a 6-hour drive from Charlotte) or by plane (a 1.5-hour direct flight), chances are you’ll need a pick-me-up after traveling. Turkish Coffee Lady at the corner of King and Patrick streets provides the caffeine jolt needed to jump-start your weekend. The shop serves specialty coffees and teas on gleaming silver trays, along with sweet treats such as baklava (pistachio, walnut or chocolate), Turkish delight and more. Co-founder Gizem Şalcıgil White is well-known locally as an ambassador for Turkish culture, and her staff will walk you through the selections if you’re not sure what to order.
After fueling up, stroll down to Alexandria’s waterfront, where an annual public art series provides Instagram-worthy installations. In March, a thought-provoking installation by Jamaican-born, New York-based artist Nina Cooke John is set to debut, inspired by ships uncovered on the city’s waterfront in 2015 and 2018.
If the weather’s nice, grab dinner and drinks at BARCA Pier. Built on a commercial shipping pier — the bar is a repurposed shipping container — the waterfront restaurant serves Mediterranean-inspired tapas in a clean, modern space. (The adjacent BARCA Wine Bar provides a more intimate, all-weather setting.) Relax with a glass of stone fruit sangria and enjoy small plates with bright, zesty flavors, like the Brussels sprouts (red harissa, garum, pickled peppers, walnuts and mint) and the beef tenderloin (salsa verde, spring onions, asparagus).
Old Town is home to dozens of restaurants and cocktail bars. Stretch your legs after dinner and stroll up King Street to Brabo, a cozy brasserie adjacent to the Lorien Hotel, for a nightcap before resting up for the weekend’s adventures.
Red Barn Mercantile, Cherry Blossom Water Taxi, Dolci Gelati
Start the day with coffee and croissants at Mae’s Market and Café. The gourmet grocery, deli and bakery opened in summer 2021, serving breakfast (quiche, frittata, French toast casserole) and lunch (soups, salads and sandwiches).
After breakfast, stroll around the historic district of Old Town — much of the Colonial architecture is intact and the area is filled with charming boutiques. You will find a smattering of chain retail shops — Sephora, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream — but most stores here are homegrown or outposts of D.C.-born brands. Among the antique and vintage shops is Red Barn Mercantile, a home boutique chock full of pillows, rugs and decorative items for the home, plus gourmet kitchen wares, cocktail supplies, children’s toys and more. A few doors down, beyond the clever window displays at Penny Post you’ll find a modern stationery shop brimming with greeting cards, jigsaw puzzles, journals and more. Readers will find a small but well-curated selection at Old Town Books, a corner bookstore a few blocks from the waterfront. Browse sustainable and vegan goods at Mason & Greens, including kitchen wares, beauty items, teas and spices.
History buffs might want to spend an hour or two at the historic Carlyle House, an 18th-century house museum and private garden. The stone Georgian mansion was originally home to British merchant John Carlyle; tours are offered daily.
Grab a quick, healthy lunch at Toastique, a D.C.-born gourmet toast and juice bar, then hop on the Cherry Blossom Water Taxi to The Wharf or Georgetown. The ferries run from early afternoon into the evening — be sure to make reservations in advance.
Upon returning to Alexandria, stop by Dolci Gelati for an afternoon pick-me-up: coffee and gelato made with an authentic family recipe blended with local ingredients. Don’t miss the cherry blossom gelato, available for a limited time in spring.
Kismet Modern Indian, Penny Post, Old Town Alexandria
For pre-dinner cocktails, Old Hat Bar is a no-frills gastropub serving surprisingly sophisticated cocktails — from classics (French 75, Old Fashioned) to whimsical concoctions like the Who Doesn’t Love Ryan Reynolds? (gin, dry vermouth, lemon, honey and jalapeno) — in a friendly pub atmosphere.
From the bar, it’s a short walk to Kismet Modern Indian, sibling to Karma Modern Indian in downtown D.C. During the pandemic, co-owner Sachin Mahajan noticed a vacant building and saw an opportunity to fill a void in Alexandria. The restaurant opened in 2021.
If you only have one dinner in Alexandria, make it Kismet. The vibe is upscale modern and service is polished and professional — staff members are quick to make suggestions or explain the menu.
Chef Ajay Kumar’s fresh takes on traditional Indian dishes sing with flavor. Start with an Evening Chill cocktail (vodka, Fernet Branca, honey, lemon and pomegranate) and the tandoori shrimp appetizer with a spicy, flavorful mango salad. Don’t skip the naan, pillowy and warm with your choice of garlic or olives (optional). Entrees may seem familiar (chicken tikka masala, grilled lamb chops) but are infused with local ingredients and flavors. Don’t sleep on the vegetarian kofta — cauliflower and spinach dumplings served with a hearty tomato sauce and cumin rice.
For breakfast, Cafe du Soleil is a daytime cafe with an unassuming exterior and a cozy, warm vibe. Sweet and savory crepes are on the menu, along with croque madame and croque monsieur.
Afterward, visit Torpedo Factory Art Center, a mix of studios, shops and galleries housed in a former munitions plant. Painters, jewelry-makers, potters and printmakers are sprawled across three floors — many are eager to share their process and discuss their work.
Before heading home, stop by the Made in Virginia store on King Street to pick up souvenirs for friends or family. In spring, you’ll find cherry-blossom-themed candles, soaps, jewelry and more from Virginia-based makers and artisans. Year round, the store sells everything from kitchen wares to gourmet foods, T-shirts to small-batch beauty products.
BONUS: If time permits, visit the estate and gardens of Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington, located 8 miles south of Alexandria.
I spent my time in Alexandria happily ensconced in a king suite at the Lorien Hotel & Spa, with a small balcony overlooking the courtyard with twinkling lights below. The Lorien is conveniently located within walking distance of Old Town’s shops, restaurants and waterfront, and close to the Metro stop for easy access to the capital. Other options in Old Town include the Alexandrian Hotel, part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, and, for a sleek nautical vibe, the waterfront Hotel Indigo. SP
Photographs courtesy Visit Alexandria