Celebrate the Christmas Charm of Alexandria, Virginia

Old Town Alexandria is charming anytime, but it really sparkles in December.

Visit Alexandria, Virginia, during the holidays, and you'll find a small town filled with garlanded buildings, historic architecture, and twinkling lights. The brick sidewalks and red bows signal that the town is ready for its Hallmark-movie close-up, but there's lots more to find here beyond the photo ops. In a place like this, you'd expect to find a tight-knit community, and Alexandria certainly has one, but what sets it apart is that anyone can join. Everyone's invited, especially during the holidays.

"None of us are from here, but we've all lived here a long time," says Nicole McGrew, who owns Threadleaf & Company. She has been in Alexandria for about 13 years and was originally drawn in by the town's character, which is perhaps most quintessential at Christmastime. Tartan ribbons wind up the Colonial-style lampposts, and wreaths hang in shop doorways and windows, framed by lush pine garlands. At night, the stately Market Square Christmas tree becomes a central attraction.

Shops decorated for Christmas on King Street in Alexandria, VA

Cedric Angeles

Given its close proximity to Washington, D.C., Alexandria offers the best of both worlds: small-town charm and urban access. As you drive in from the city, it's almost shocking just how quickly the scenery transforms—before the song playing on your radio switches over, the riverfront highway gives way to squat brick townhouses and cobblestone streets. The flickering gas lanterns feel like 18th-century relics, and they very well might be. This town's architecture dates back as far as 1749, when Alexandria was founded. Some of the brick buildings have been treated to a fresh coat of paint, the pastel blue or creamy white offsetting more traditional red-brick facades; each has its own character.

Shop Local

At 8 a.m. on a Thursday, Misha's Coffee—Alexandria's go-to cafe—is bustling with customers. Businesspeople pick up their regular orders; friends meet for coffee; a man wearing a vintage-looking tweed suit and a cowboy hat sits at a high-top table, reading the newspaper. And almost everyone holds one of the cafe's tangerine-hued cups. The spot has been Alexandria's best-loved community coffee shop since it opened in 1991.

Danielle Romanetti, owner of the yarn shop Fibre Space on Prince Street, sits at the bar, splitting a slice of chocolate cake with a beanie-clad barista. With a color-coded calendar set out before her, Romanetti plans out Fibre Space's upcoming class schedule. Knitting lessons from visiting instructors and project-based courses draw crafters to the store's second-floor loft.

A remarkable number of the shops and boutiques in Alexandria are independently owned, like Fibre Space. Yard signs with uplifting slogans (such as "Buy Local" and "Spread Kindness, Build Community") pepper the streets. Fibre Space is one of many neighborhood businesses that are focused on cultivating community. Stitch Sew Shop is a fabric store on King Street in Old Town Alexandria that doubles as a workspace where artists can reserve a sewing machine by the hour. At Threadleaf & Company, a women's-clothing boutique, McGrew hosts after-hours talks about slow fashion and natural fibers. Formerly an Obama-administration lawyer, she founded Threadleaf with a clear sense of purpose: supporting clean and sustainable fashion, a mission she has pursued in her personal life for years.

Threadleaf owner Nicole McGrew in Alexandria, VA
Threadleaf owner Nicole McGrew. Cedric Angeles

"It bridged the gap between my love of fashion and my concern for the community and policy issues," she says. Walking around Threadleaf & Company, McGrew can tell you exactly where each piece came from, who stitched it, and how the materials were sourced. She's on a first-name basis with most of the designers she features, speaking about them more like close friends than business connections.

Many shopkeepers here share a similar story: They left corporate jobs to pursue a second-wave career in something that began as a personal passion. While working in international finance, Victoria Vergason spent much of her free time hopping among flea markets, auctions, and antiques stores. Over 25 years, she collected thousands of vintage cocktail pieces that now line the walls at The Hour, her one-of-a-kind barware shop.

"Old Town Alexandria has continued to cultivate the small-shop owners," Vergason says. "Everybody looks out for everyone else. It's a community, and it's like a family." (You can shop her offerings of vintage barware and glassware online every day.)

Stop by Red Barn Mercantile for home accessories, items for the kitchen, and paper goods. Head to Boxwood for curated gift boxes as well as linens and other stylish decor items for the home. Keep browsing in Alexandria to find shoe shops; spots for jewelry, clothing, and accessories; and holiday gifts for everyone on your list.

Get in the Spirit

Two of Alexandria's annual holiday festivities, a boat parade on the Potomac River and the Scottish Christmas Walk Parade, have been rekindled after closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Catch a celebration, or plan a personalized getaway. Once you settle in, there's so much to explore. The city's tourism office has a guide to the most Instagram-worthy holiday spots in town, so you won't miss a single iconic photo op. While it may seem strategic to plan out your day, we suggest a meander through town instead. You'll easily stumble upon good food and shopping at almost every corner.

Get a cup of hot chocolate from Dolci Gelati Cafe on Fairfax Street, which is just a couple of blocks from Alexandria's up-and-coming waterfront. This is a perfect spot for the holidays—or any day, really. Don't miss Torpedo Factory Art Center, a former munitions plant that's been converted into three floors of galleries, shops, and studios.

The first President's estate, Mount Vernon, also holds its annual Christmas Illuminations, a spectacular fireworks show, in December. Each year, Mount Vernon hosts Aladdin the camel for visitors to greet, just as George Washington once did to impress his holiday guests.

You can cap off the year by attending First Night Alexandria on December 31. The New Year's Eve celebration supports the performing arts with a full day of festivities for all ages.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry

Imbibe at Vola's Dockside Grill with a drink from their seasonal menu. Order the lamb meatballs, garlic prawn linguini, and the carrot cake as part of their pre-fixed Christmas Day menu. Whether you bundle up at an outdoor table or cozy up to one inside, you'll have abundant options.

At Vermilion, the city's upscale culinary destination, a nearby diner scans the menu and says, "I'll eat anything they put in front of me here." She ultimately settles on the ricotta gnocchi—a wise choice. (Vermilion closed because of the pandemic, but it has plans to reopen in summer 2022.)

Alexandria's dining scene is diverse, with plenty of noteworthy restaurants sitting prominently on King Street, but to find some of the area's local favorites, venture just outside Old Town. Start the day in the Del Ray neighborhood at Stomping Ground, a breakfast joint where you can build your own biscuit sandwich, or head to Junction Bakery & Bistro, a daytime gathering spot known for its Cruffin (a croissant-muffin hybrid, that's seasonally flavored and—if you're lucky—topped with a pillowy swirl of torched marshmallow). Down the block, The Evening Star has all the makings of a laid-back date night. The bistro pairs eclectic appetizers like Smoked Beets with adventurous main dishes that are sure to please.

For lunch, head to Chop Shop Taco. You'll have no trouble at all finding this electric-pink building featuring an interior wall painted with a bright, tattoo-style mural. The former garage now holds a hip taco spot, where the succinct menu offers creative fusions. The brisket is flavored with star anise and za'atar red onion, and the crispy flounder is drizzled with a thick mango sauce. If you happen to be on Alexandria's waterfront at lunchtime, be sure to try the American fare at local favorite Chadwicks, where pimiento cheese is on the list of burger condiments.

Chadwick's in Alexandria, VA
Chadwicks restaurant on Strand Street is practically an institution in Alexandria. Cedric Angeles

Of the city's many hidden gems, Captain Gregory's is perhaps the most under the radar. Just inside the entrance to Elizabeth's Counter, a rustic wooden wall slides open to welcome you into this intimate speakeasy. The cocktail menu changes too often to catalog, but one mainstay is the Pine Smoked Old Fashioned. (Sit at the bar to watch the skilled bartender flame a pine board with a blowtorch, catching the smoke in an Art Deco glass.)

Urbano 116 in Alexandria, VA
Urbano 116 is the spot for flavorful Mexican food. Cedric Angeles

Old Town's walkable streets promise caffeination and cold libations around every corner. At Urbano 116, you can start celebrating Cinco de Mayo a few months early with their signature margaritas and carnitas tacos served on striking blue corn tortillas.

The good times extend to the weekends at The People's Drug, and you'll want to arrive early to secure a seat. The tiny bar draws inspiration from its past life as a corner pharmacy and lunch counter. Sandwiches and snacks, from fried chickpeas to truffle fries, arrive in unpretentious cardboard boats and are made for sharing.

The Potomac River provides Alexandria with prime access to fresh fish. Of the seafood locales, Columbia Firehouse (located in a restored 19th-century fire station) stands out for its ambience. This restaurant specializes in seafood and classic tavern fare, but the true prizes are the complimentary peppered honey biscuits—all mere bread baskets pale in comparison. (Columbia Firehouse is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, but you can order their signature meals through Neighborhood Provisions.)

For a more formal seafood experience, reserve a table at Hummingbird in the waterside Hotel Indigo. Try the local oysters from the raw bar, taste the fried calamari, and don't even think about skipping the signature Hummingbird Cake.

End the night with a festive drink (try the Glühwein, a German mulled wine) at Daniel O'Connell's, a lively Irish pub. Or treat the kids to a sundae at Pop's Old Fashioned Ice Cream.

No matter your choice, be sure to walk down King Street at night, when string lights hang from the trees and bands spontaneously set up by the Market Square Christmas tree. It's rare to find a city that looks just as beautiful in the dark as it does during the day.

Where To Stay

If you're making it a weekend getaway, book a room in one of these hotels:

The Alexandrian
The cozy firelit lobby at this hotel, which is in a prime spot on King Street, will make you feel like you're home for the holidays. thealexandrian.com

Hotel Indigo Old Town Alexandria
This city's only waterfront hotel, the Indigo opened in 2017. It's conveniently located a couple of blocks off King Street. hotelindigooldtownalexandria.com

Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa
Although it's farther away from "Christmas central," this lovely place is near the Amtrak and Metrorail stations. lorienhotelandspa.com

Editor's Note: COVID-19 may cause closures or other unforeseen travel developments. Be sure to check the current status of your destination before finalizing your trip plans.

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