Talk about an embarrassment of riches: One of the nation’s finest historic destinations is also a shopper’s paradise.
But that should be no surprise, since Old Town Alexandria’s Potomac River location made it a world trading center starting in the mid-1700s. Alexandria was founded by Scottish merchants in 1749 and was named for John Alexander, who owned the land. Even George Washington, whose Mount Vernon estate is an idyllic 10-mile bike ride or drive away, bought goods and sold crops on King Street at Market Square. He even maintained a town house in Old Town; it still stands on Cameron Street.
Nearly 80 percent of the King Street corridor’s retailers, restaurants, cafes and bars are independently owned. D.C. residents consider Old Town their secret shopping grounds, and a growing number of connoisseurs from outside the region are beelining to Old Town’s unique boutiques.
Few places offer the chance to shop for chic shoes, designer clothes, delightful home decor, offbeat antiques and choice vintage amid a setting of outstanding period architecture and landmarks.
Old Town’s range of wares is greater than ever. You can spend hours window shopping and probing the floors of colorful, beautifully preserved 18th- and 19th-century buildings. With the heritage, tasty food and good libations, companions and family members will enjoy coming along for your retail therapy.
Getting around is as easy as ever
The streets are fun to walk, and if you want a lift, hop the free King Street Trolley that circulates every 15 minutes between the waterfront and Metrorail station. You can also get bicycles from Capital Bikeshare racks around town or from Bike and Roll.
The Shoe Hive’s eagle-eye owner stocks enchanting styles from heels to flats and Gentle Souls to Tory Burch. Don’t let neighboring Hysteria’s name fool you; it’s a treasury of charming fashions.
Newly opened in a historic structure, Curated stocks whimsical items made by indie designers. Giftable swag includes baby gear and mugs with clever messages such as “This might be wine.”
Regional magazines have hailed Mint Condition as the D.C. area’s best consignment store. You’ll spot Lilly Pulitzer and Marc Jacobs at a fraction of retail. For top-drawer children’s fashions, hit 529 Kids Consign.
Red Barn Mercantile jams its deep space with items that add personality and comfort to every room of the house. Conversation pieces span furniture to wall hangings. Regionally made goods include pillows embroidered with Virginia themes, artisan play-dough and Gordy’s pickle relish.
For four decades, La Cuisine has attracted cooks with hard-to-find equipment, tools and goodies like nonpareils, sparkling sugar, vials of maple and lime essences and exotic pastry chocolate.
More sweets appear at new boutiques such as Sugar Shack (doughnuts!) and Blueprint Chocolatiers (edible art!). A longtimer, The Sugar Cube, beckons with truffles, gourmet gummy bears, locally made chocolate and housemade caramels.
Just off King Street, a tall rowhouse bursts with amazing finds of BW Art, Antiques & Jewelry. Newer shops include The Hour, a wonderland of vintage cocktail items and barware that revives the cocktail hour tradition. Treasures include vintage decanters etched with lively age-old scenes, glasses embellished with 22 karat gold and a cat-shaped jigger.
The restaurants, cafes and pubs are casual but committed to delicious originality. Relax at a sidewalk table or a get-social nook at Hank’s Pasta Bar, opened early 2016 yet already winning stellar reviews. Surprises include a farro-based gluten-free fusilli and fashionable cocktails such as “How to Dress like an Italian in the Spring” made from aromatic ingredients.
Ethnic spots include Taverna Cretekou, run for decades by a local couple. The buffet features stuffed grape leaves and rich Greek salads.
Social lounges are adding new energy to Old Town’s nightlife. PX recalls a lost age of secret doors and sassy drinks. The “I Am Virginia” is flavored with Catoctin Creek Roundstone Rye, Virginia figs and house-made orange bitters. Prefer fresh-roast? Visit Misha’s Coffee or Killer ESP.
Giftable and wearable art
Torpedo Factory Art Center houses an amazing array of working artist studios. For sale: ceramics, travel-sized paintings, personalized glass ornaments, alt-fashion accessories and jewelry. Many items cost less than $50, including aprons in springy patterns by Jen Athanas. “We’re not only artists, but also small business owners,” she says. “Shopping small supports the whole economy.”
Lodging that mixes high style with rich heritage
A favorite place to sleep right in the boutique district is Hotel Monaco, a fashion-forward Kimpton property that despite recent renovation is a bargain. Value, by the way, is a hallmark among Old Town merchants. You can chat about shopping finds in the heritage-laden lobby of this regal red-brick hotel, which is so pet-friendly that it doesn’t impose size restrictions or extra fees and hosts a Doggy Happy Hour.
Alexandria is among the nation’s dog-friendliest towns, evident by water bowls set in front of most businesses. Some boutiques such as The Dog Park specialize in chic accessories, toys and treats for dogs and cats. Talk about an embarrassment of riches…!
Roberta Soslow, an award-winning writer and photographer, can be reached at email@example.com.
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