Planning a Trip
The Alexandria Convention & Visitors Association's Ramsay House Visitor Center, 221 King St., at Fairfax Street facing Market Square (tel. 800/388-9119 or 703/838-4200; 703/838-5005 for 24-hr. Alexandria events recording; fax 703/838-4683; www.funside.com), is open daily from 9am to 5pm (closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas). In this 1724 house, Alexandria's oldest, you can pick up maps and brochures, find out about special events during your visit, and get information about accommodations, restaurants, sights, shopping, and whatever else. You can also get a free 1-day parking permit here.
Be sure to pick up a free copy of Old Town Crier (tel. 703/836-9132; www.oldtowncrier.com), a monthly magazine packed with information and news about special events, dining, shopping, and entertainment.
By Plane -- Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) is about 30 miles west of Alexandria (tel. 703/661-2700; www.mwaa.com). Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) is 2 miles north of Old Town via the George Washington Memorial Parkway (tel. 703/685-8000; www.mwaa.com). Washington's Metrorail provides easy transport from Reagan National to Alexandria via its Blue and Yellow lines. Taxis are available at both airports, and SuperShuttle (tel. 800/BLUE-VAN; www.supershuttle.com) operates frequent van service.
By Car -- All the major car-rental firms are based at the airports. The scenic George Washington Memorial Parkway passes through Old Town as Washington Street, Alexandria's main north-south thoroughfare. I-95 crosses the Potomac River at Alexandria; take Exit 177 and go north on U.S. 1 into Old Town. Turn east on King Street off either route to reach the heart of Old Town.
If you drive here, the first item of business is to get a free 1-day parking permit at the Ramsay House Visitor Center, which allows you to park free at any 2-hour meter, except those in Metrorail lots, for up to 24 hours. They do not apply to spaces without meters, especially those reserved exclusively for Old Town residents. You'll need your car's license plate number and the state in which it's registered -- which could be other than Virginia if it's a rental.
Tips: How to Avoid Gridlock -- Traffic in the Washington, D.C., metro is so bad that a columnist for the Washington Post writes under the pseudonym "Dr. Gridlock." Although they start earlier and run later depending on distance from D.C., weekday rush hours generally run from 6:30 to 9:30am and from 3:30 to 6:30pm, but tie-ups can occur any time, especially in ongoing construction zones. Take the area's Metrorail or other public transportation whenever possible and try to avoid the roads altogether during rush hours. I keep my radio tuned to WTOP (103.5 FM), which gives traffic reports every 10 minutes.
By Train -- The Amtrak station (tel. 800/872-7245 or 703/836-4339; www.amtrak.com) is at 110 Callahan Dr., at King Street.
By Washington Monorail -- From Arlington or Washington, take the Blue or Yellow Metrorail (tel. 202/637-7000; www.wmata.com) lines to the King Street station (it's across the tracks from Amtrak's Alexandria station). Metrorail operates Monday to Thursday from 5:30am to midnight, Friday 5:30am to 2am, Saturday 8am to 3am, and Sunday 8am to midnight. Fares range from $1.35 to $3.90 depending on time of day and length of ride.
From the King Street Station, it's about a 15-minute walk east on King Street through Old Town's rapidly developing western section. Or you can save your shoe leather for sightseeing by boarding DASH buses numbered AT-2 or AT-5 (or the free weekend shuttle), down King Street to the corner of Fairfax Street and the door of the visitor center. Base fare is $1.
Old Town Alexandria is laid out in a simple grid. The original town grew north-south along the Potomac River, but most of what you will want to see and do today is on, or a few blocks off, King Street, the main east-west drag, between the waterfront and the King Street Metrorail station. Until a few years ago, visitors to Old Town seldom wandered west of Washington Street. But the Metro has spurred development near the station, and new stores and restaurants have sprouted up all along King Street.
Going west from the Potomac River, Union to Lee Street is the 100 block; Lee to Fairfax, the 200 block; and so on. Numbers on the cross streets (more or less going north and south) are divided north and south by King Street. King to Cameron is the 100 block north, Cameron to Queen the 200 block north, and so on; King to Prince is the 100 block south, and so on.
As a glance at the walking tour map later in this chapter will indicate, Old Town's prime historic sites are contained within several blocks. Park your car for the day, don comfortable shoes, and start walking -- it's the easiest way.
Alexandria's bus system, known as DASH (tel. 703/370-3274; www.dashbus.com), is primarily useful for getting from the King Street Metro station to the Ramsay House Visitor Center (take buses numbered AT-2 and AT-5). On weekends from April through December, free Dash About shuttles run along King Street (they bear a cartoon of Mr. and Mrs. George Washington riding in a horse-drawn carriage). The free "Lunch DASH" runs along King Street weekdays from 11:30am to 2pm. Otherwise base fare is $1 with exact fare required. DASH provides service from 5:30am to 11pm weekdays, from 7am to 10pm on weekends. There's no service New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The visitor center gives away route maps, as does the DASH Old Town Transit Shop, 1775-C Duke St. (tel. 703/299-6227), opposite the Embassy Suites Hotel Alexandria Old Town.
For a taxi, call Alexandria Yellow Cab Company (tel. 703/549-2500) or Alexandria White Top Cab Company (tel. 703/683-4004).