Virginia: Alexandria, Free or Almost Free Family Vacation Fun.
Just say George Washington once lived here and you will have the attention of any 10- year-old. The city, located on Potomac River just outside of Washington, D.C., offers families bikes trails, scavenger hunts, street festivals, and living history all for free or almost free, making it easy to have fun and stay on budget. Walk about Old Town.
Alexandria was dubbed one of the Ten Most Walkable Cities in the USA by AAA. From historic walking tours with a family-friendly twist to self-guided routes with cell phone messages, Alexandria showcases history and traditions in a surprisingly contemporary atmosphere. Alexandria is an active community that offers its visitors a chance to get outside and stay in town. Bike away.
Alexandria is fairly bike-friendly by virtue of its location along the Potomac and the abundance of well-marked, multi-use trails. For example it is possible to follow biking trails along the Potomac River through George Washington's estate. In addition throughout the year Historic Alexandria conducts guided (free) biking adventures. Much like living history on two wheels participants cycle a 14-mile loop of Alexandria’s forgotten burial sites. The ride offers exercise at a leisurely pace with frequent interpretive stops. The activity is well suited to families with school aged kids because there is action not just information. It makes sense to take water and a couple of energy bars. (Stop for snacks at Trader Joe’s on St. Asaph Street before heading out.) Riders meet at the George Washington Masonic Memorial and though the ride itself is free reservations are required. Free music, street entertainment, and art.
The Torpedo Factory complex on the Potomac River at the edge of Old Town Alexandria is the backdrop for frequent (free) Thursday-night music concerts featuring folk, swing, blues, and jazz provided by local musicians. Bonus points:
Also at Torpedo Factory, the 2nd Thursday Art Night is a monthly event when studios and galleries are open to the public. The general public is invited to gaze and graze, meet artists, sample refreshments, and enjoy the art—it’s all free. Share a scavenger hunt.
I like family vacation activities with a purpose so I am pleased to pass on a cool activity in Alexandria. The scavenger hunt offered by the Alexandria Archaeology Museum provides an easy way to share history without being overwhelming. This scavenger hunt tour was created by Eagle Scouts as a badge project so it works for kids for sure. The do-it-yourself urban adventure takes two-to-three hours, and spans a twenty-block area as it coaches participants through Old Town with stops at some of the city’s oldest and most historic spots. Need to know:
While some stops require entrance to museums, none of the clues require entering a museum that charges an admission fee. Take an art safari.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center hosts its annual Alexandria Arts Safari, a festival of hands-on arts and crafts activities for kids and their families. The Potter’s Art activity presented in the Alexandria Archaeology Museum is designed for kids of all ages! Children learn to identify 19th-century Alexandria’s potters and have the opportunity to create a take-home drawing. Visit the Carlyle family.
John Carlyle and his wife, Sarah Fairfax Carlyle, moved into their new home in Alexandria in 1753 to raise their family. Their story remains compelling to all ages because of the interesting family history. It is a remarkable dwelling with oodles of stories to be heard. The docents and staff put cleverness into the tours making the rooms come alive. Bonus points:
From time to time the site conducts free, family-friendly programming featuring living history interpreters. Market to market to…
Each Saturday morning on historic Market Square in the heart of Old Town vendors offers fresh produce, homemade delicacies, absolutely lovely samples, and interesting crafts. It is said to be the oldest continuously running farmers’ market in the USA.
While some of the same folks appear each week there are always seasonal discoveries to be made. Browse the stalls for pottery, preserves, local honey, rosemary sachets, wind chimes. You may find hand-carved wood toys, straw dolls or crocheted pot holders. Sample sweets.
I usually avoid any mention of candy when suggesting family activities however if you miss sampling taffy and homemade fudge at the Market Square Farmers’ Market then a stop at Candi's Candies (107 Fairfax Street) is a tempting alternative. The old-style candy shop has a nostalgic atmosphere, a ghostly history, and simply luscious confections - free samples provided.
Ride the King Street Trolley.
Alexandria's Old Town Trolley is an easy way to get around town and it is completely free. The trolleys provided transport scheduled every 20 minutes between the King Street Metrorail Station and the Potomac River waterfront with 20 stops along the way. The free trolley operates along the one-and-a-half-mile route seven days a week.
Can you tell me a story?
The Alexandria Black History Museum offers a glimpse of America’s history from the viewpoint of the African American community in Alexandria from the early slave trade and the Underground Railroad to the pivotal Civil Rights Movement. Bonus points: Fables and proverbs were used in African tribes to instill moral values or teach important survival lessons about family life, hunting, or travel. The museum’s website offers a few of Aesop’s fables to be shared. Admission runs $2.00. Stand for the Union.
Explaining the American Civil War is no easy task but Fort Ward Museum provides useful interpretation and exhibits on Civil War topics, and living history activities throughout the year. The Museum and Historic Site also interprets Alexandria, Virginia as an occupied city, the city's role as a vital Union Army crossroads, life within the Defenses of Washington, and the everyday life of Civil War soldiers and civilians. Bonus points:
A 12-minute video entitled Fort Ward and the Defenses of Washington: Silent Guardians of the Capital City pulls the story to together and a small-scale, three-dimensional model of Fort Ward shows how the site looked during the Civil War. Bonus points: During reenactment events visitors can walk through the regimental camps, observe camp life, watch soldiers drilling and parading, and meet and talk to soldiers and civilians in camp. Refreshments and old-fashioned children’s games are also offered. At the annual Christmas in Camp holiday program, living history interpreters, musicians, and a Civil War period Thomas Nast Santa Claus are featured. Admission is free but you can still spend your money in the gift shop. Use you cell phone.
Historic Alexandria has created a menu of more than 20 pre recorded topics and provides them through “Ask Alex - Cell Phone Tour.” It makes it easy for families to tour at their own pace using a cell phone. So the messages are free however depending on the cell phone provider and your individual plan regular minute usage may be charged. Call (703) 229-8632 and follow the prompts. Here’s the deal.
In addition to the free stuff I have mentioned it makes sense to stop by the Alexandria Visitors Center at Ramsay House, 221 King Street. They sell the “Key to the City” a coupon book with extra savings to nine historic sites plus more than 60 coupons or special offers on shopping and dining in Alexandria. The cost is $12.
Make it happen.
The city also supports great community events throughout the year including awesome parades - all free and fun. Make a stop at Alexandria Visitors Center located within the Ramsey House at Fairfax and King. You’ll receive plenty of free firsthand information from staff, free maps and coupons plus it is the departure spot for a guided tour of the city. To make family vacation arrangements or snag the best deals go to www.VisitAlexandriaVA.com Family Vacation Planning details. Historic Alexandria.
Charged with the conservation, interpretation and promotion of links to the past, the Office of Historic Alexandria manages the following sites - The Alexandria Black History Museum, Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Fort Ward Museum and Historic Park, Friendship Firehouse, Gadsby's Tavern, and The Lyceum - Alexandria's History Museum, and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum – showcase Alexandria's fascinating history. http://oha.alexandriava.gov/ Carlyle House.
121 N. Fairfax Street Alexandria (703) 549-2997. Alexandria Black History Museum.
902 Wythe Street Alexandria, Virginia 22314. (703) 746-4356 or http://oha.alexandriava.gov/bhrc/bh-kids.html Alexandria Archaeology Museum.
The Torpedo Factory Art Center 105 N. Union Street, #327 Alexandria, Virginia 22314. (703) 746-4399 or for the hunt map http://oha.alexandriava.gov/archaeology/pdfs/ScavengerHunt.pdf
Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site.
4301 West Braddock Road Alexandria, Virginia 22304. (703) 746-4848.