Photographing Old Town Alexandria is best done via carefully cropped vignettes. Founded in the 1700s, Old Town has many gorgeous original buildings and alleyways. The key is finding ways to crop out cars and air conditioning units – hence the vignettes. If you’ve been wanting to do a “door series” of photographs, Old Town is your spot. Doors, alleys, window reflections, architectural details all make for wonderful close-up photos.
The most beautiful buildings are a few blocks inland from the river. To understand Old Town’s layout, think in terms of the Colonial Era in which it was founded. It was a bustling (and probably stinky, rat-infested) port city that pre-dated DC. Obviously there was no air-conditioning, and based on observing the neighborhoods built in that era, people lived in a highly stratified society where each group was segregated from another. The super wealthy (boat owners and financiers?) lived blocks away from the noise and smell of the harbor, on the few hills that exist in Old Town, in homes with massive windows and high ceilings designed to catch any cool breeze. The semi-wealthy (ship captains?) lived closer to the harbor, in houses close to the top of the hill. Depending upon your rank on the ship, your house got smaller and closer to the harbor. Sadly, the port city of Old Town was an active participant in the slave trade. Buildings used by slave traders are located far inland, near the cemetery.
That means you’ll find many of the regal old brick houses between Fairfax and St Asaph on the south side of Duke St. There is a notable exception to this rule which is the cluster of amazing houses near Christ Church – including the Lee family homes, the Lord Fairfax house, and the Carlyle House where many meetings were held to plan the Revolutionary War. George Washington also kept his modest townhouse in this area.
Equally photogenic are a collection of modest, wood clap homes clustered between Queen and Oronoco closer to the water, between Pitt and Fairfax. The buildings near the port were primarily warehouses. Most have been torn down, hence much of the new development near the waterfront. But a few remain. Look up and you will see the 2nd story barn doors used to haul items into storage areas, particularly on King St in the 100 and 200 blocks. The cemetery holds some amazing history and is worth a walk, located out Duke St, west of Rt 1 (aka Patrick or Henry St).
- Christ Church – a must.
- Friendship Firehouse – great lookout tower.
- The tiny wood clapped homes (see above).
- The cemetery, which includes a National Cemetery for fallen veterans.
- Alleys – make sure to peak down all of the alleys, sometimes they’re car-free and you can transport yourself to the 18th century
- Spite House: the smallest house in Old Town
- Washington’s town house, it is a replica though!
- Farmers market: every Saturday from 8 AM – noon on Market Square, except in January to mid-March.
- Park under the 495 bridge at the tip of the Potomac and the original lighthouse.
Other non-photographic tips, a list of some of my favorites in town:
Little museums: Leadbeater Apothecary, and I won’t reveal the secret on the 2nd floor; Carlyle House, being promoted now due to TV show; Friendship Firehouse, one of the oldest private fire-fighting companies; and Gadsby’s Tavern where Jefferson held his inaugural diner.
Outing: Taking the boat to Georgetown or National Harbor. The Georgetown boat includes a better view of the major sites (e.g. Lincoln and Jefferson memorials), but it’s fun to pass under the 495 bridge.
Cocktail: I have to give it up for Todd Thrasher – any of his bars are excellent: Restaurant Eve, super upscale; Society Fair, super casual; and PX, a jewel box speakeasy where reservations are a must!
Outdoor dining: Bastille; Hunting Creek, Virtue Feed and Grain, which also has a really fun indoor space on the 2nd floor.
Romantic dinner: Restaurant Eve, Vermillion, Magnolia’s on King, Brabo’s. Vermillion is a favorite of the Obamas. The White House won’t let the restaurant advertise it, but they’ve been known to enjoy quite diners there, with people at the adjoining table probably pretty startled to find themselves next to POTUS and FLOTUS (DC tip, keep your hands visible and move slowly to avoid a close encounter with the Secret Service!).
Ethnic food: Caphe Bahn Mi, Hawwi Ethiopian, The Pita House
Small plates: Grape & Bean
Seafood: Hanks’s Oyster Bar
Southern food, Virginia is in the south after all: Jackson 20, Magnolia’s on King, and possibly The Majestic when they re-open (pre-remodel closure they had excellent Southern)
Hotel: Both Monaco and Lorien are excellent. Monaco is closer to the action since it is across from City Hall square, but the Lorien is prettier on the inside, has a relaxing vibe and an excellent restaurant.