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 Theatre 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 November 30th through December 16th.
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.
The Scottish Walk, an Old Town tradition for the past 42 years, kicks off the Christmas season with men in kilts, dogs, firemen, dancers, and bagpipes.
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 Spice & Tea Exchange of Alexandria: 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 Cheese and Wine Bistro: 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: 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. 1219 King 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. 103 S. St. Asaph Street
Being a charming Colonial town also means that Alexandria is loaded with antique stores. For a change of pace, Carbon (128 S. Royal Street) is an uber-cool industrial design furniture store (think reclaimed wood, repurposed machinery parts). Chinoiserie (1325 King Street) offers an asian-inspired and mid-century modern twist. Red Barn Mercantile (1117 King Street) adds a mix of vintage and new pieces.
WHERE TO EAT
If you’ve only a few farthings:
Red Rocks Neapolitan Bistro– 904 King Street; (703) 717-9873; http://www.redrocksdc.com/. 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 – 109 S. Saint Asaph Street; (703) 683-1776; http://www.columbiafirehouse.com/ Several cozy dining areas and a lively bar for fresh seafood, steaks, and house-made charcuterie. Daily specials $15-30.
Daniel O’Connell’s Bar and Restaurant – 112 King Street; (703) 739-1124; http://www.danieloconnells.com/ Irish-accented entrees $11.95-$29. S’mores made at your table with your own tiny “campfire” $8.
For a fancier dinner: