Tourism in Alexandria and the Mount Vernon District of southeastern Fairfax County is not only a primary economic engine, but also a way of life. Anyone who lives in the area never need worry how to entertain either themselves or visiting guests.
The entire City of Alexandria is a testament to living history, from pre-revolutionary times to today. It is a blend of historic architecture, art treasures and facilities, battle sites from both the Revolutionary and Civil wars, and a microcosm of the nation's evolution from its agrarian/seaport beginning to modern technology of the 21st century.
Just 12 miles south of the city limits, at the southern end of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, is the home of America's first president. Mount Vernon Estate is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the United States.
That number is about to increase with the opening of the new $85 million visitor and education center and museum, designed to enhance and preserve the memory of "the father of the country" and introduce present and future generations to the real man and his myriad accomplishments.
The 28-foot-high Education Center and Museum will be located immediately behind the present visitors center/gift shop area and stretch toward the Mansion. It will be underground, with only one side exposed. In addition to the museum, it will also house a theater featuring an educational film being specifically produced for the new center.
Mount Vernon Estate is owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union. It was founded in 1853, under the leadership and vision of Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina, to bring the Estate back from the brick of ruin and to prevent its consumption by developers. All that exists on the Estate today has been accomplished with private funds. That tradition will be continued with the new center.
Accompanying Mount Vernon Estate on the historic sites list for Mount Vernon District are Gunston Hall and Woodlawn plantations. The former, situated in the Mason Neck area, was the home of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Among other activities, a series of colonial cooking demonstrations take place there throughout the year.
Woodlawn Plantation, located at the intersection of Routes 1 and 235, was the home of Nellie Custis Lewis, Martha Washington's granddaughter. It is host to a wide variety of events and colonial demonstrations year round.
Complimenting these three venues are Washington's Grist Mill on Route 235, a short distance from Mount Vernon Estate, and Pohick Church, often referred to as Washington's church, located on Route 1 south of Fort Belvoir. Each of these is surrounded by a myriad picnic areas ranging in size from Pohick Regional Park to spots scattered along the Parkway with restful views of the Potomac River.
In the near future, the new Museum of The U.S. Army will be added to the Mount Vernon District landscape. It will be situated on Route 1 near Fort Belvoir, at an as yet undetermined location. It is expected to be a major tourist attraction generating considerable revenue for the region.
IN ALEXANDRIA TOURISM and activities, to be enjoyed by visitors and residents alike, are non-stop. Two of the most famous and long-standing events are The Scottish Walk Parade, held on the first weekend in December, and the George Washington Birthday Parade in February. The latter is the largest such parade in the nation and draws participants from throughout the eastern seaboard.
The Scottish Walk celebration not only highlights the City's Scottish heritage, but also ushers in the holiday season. It is accompanied by a home tour featuring exquisite holiday decorations and individual festivities in various areas of Alexandria.
A kickoff party, where many in attendance don their Scottish tartan attire, is held each year at the Campagna Center, 418 S. Washington St. Holiday gifts, crafts and decorations are on sale as well as an array of the finest Scotch whiskey, for sampling and purchase.
Following the George Washington Day Parade in February is the St. Patrick's Day Parade in March. It puts the spotlight on Alexandria's triple heritage of English, Scotch and Irish. In August there is also the Irish Festival, held at Waterfront Park.
During the later part of July each year, the grounds of the Episcopal Academy come alive with three days of Scottish Games. There is Scottish food, athletic contests, parade assemblies and anything anyone could want of Scottish memorabilia.
In addition to its roots as a major seaport, Alexandria is also the site of the first deaths in the Civil War for both the Confederacy and the Union Army. The city abounds in Civil War lore and sites.
Not only do such tourist sites as Christ's Church, Carlyle House,
Gadsby's Tavern, Robert E. Lee's Boyhood Home, Old Presbyterian Meeting House, Freemans Cemetery, St. Mary's Cemetery, and Lee Fendell House fascinate City visitors but many of the homes occupied by today's residents date to pre-revolutionary times. They are the "plaqued" homes of Old Town.
For art and antique lovers, both Alexandria and Mount Vernon District are a mother lode. There are antique venues galore, ranging from Mount Vernon's Antique Center on Route 1 to individual shops spread throughout both areas, complimented by shows in every season of the year.
ALEXANDRIA IS ALSO a major art center. The metamorphosis of a former World War II torpedo factory into what is now known as the Torpedo Factory Art Center eventually lead to the introduction of Alexandria's Festival of the Arts in 2003. Held the second weekend in September, it features more than 200 artisans from throughout the nation and consumes all of lower King Street from the river to Washington Street.
Housed within the walls of the Torpedo Factory Art Center, 105 S. Union St., are artisans working in every medium as well as art classes. There are more than 160 professional artists with studios and shops where their products can be purchased. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The festival is the commencement of the area's "Fall for The Arts" celebration. It is followed by "Art on the Avenue" and "Arts Safari For Children." 2004 is the ninth year for both, held in early October.
Art on the Avenue takes place in the City's Del Ray neighborhood on Mount Vernon Avenue between Hume and Bellefonte avenues. It is a multicultural street festival celebrating the diversity of the Potomac West community, and features over 250 area artists, craftspeople, international cuisine, live entertainment and children's activities.
Arts Safari is a day of artists' demonstrations and hands-on activities for children at the Torpedo Factory Arts Center. It, like the other two shows, is free and open to the public.
Other events during Fall for the Arts include:
* Mount Vernon Estate's Colonial Craft Fair held the third weekend in September, the Wine Festival and Sunset Tours in early October, and Fall Harvest Family Days near the end of October.
* Annual Tour of Historic Homes in Alexandria.
* Alexandria Seaport Days, hosted by the Seaport Foundation in early October, features demonstrations and instructions in the art of boat-building.
* Halloween is ushered in by Historic Alexandria Hauntings. A family oriented event with unexplained events and strange tales.
* Historic Alexandria Antique Show and Sale is held mid November at the Holiday Inn Hotel, 625 First St., with dealers from throughout the nation.
Each year is welcomed with Alexandria's citywide "First Night Party." A non-alcoholic/family oriented celebration there are entertainment venues in various City locations. It is now in its 10th year.
All of these activities are complimented by Alexandria's more than 400 restaurants and multitude of hotels. For additional information, contact the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association at 703-838-4200 or visit their web site at www.FunSide.com. Brochures and other guides are available at the City's Ramsay House Visitors Center, 221 King St.