107 N Union St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
Welcome to Historic America & UCPlaces’ walking tour of Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. I’m Rachel, Professional History Nerd, ice cream lover, and your guide for today. Together we’ll visit must-see historic sites and must-taste ice cream shops, learning about the history and culture of this little city, with big charm.
Our tour begins here on the idyllic Potomac River waterfront. You should be standing on the dockside of a building with red awnings, a red stripe across the top of the facade, and a small smokestack. This is the Torpedo Factory Art Center. And yes, you guessed it, this building was an actual torpedo factory! It was constructed immediately after WWI and manufactured Allied torpedoes during WWII. After the Second World War, it became a storage center, housing congressional records and overflow Smithsonian artifacts. In 1974, it became the Torpedo Factory Art Center, boasting the nation’s largest collection of publicly accessible working artist studios. More than 165 artists create and exhibit their work inside, making the building, and Alexandria itself, an important artistic epicenter for the region.
Now let's have a look at the waterfront itself. Turn around and face the river. The Potomac creates a boundary here, dividing the District of Columbia and Virginia. Looking to your left, you'll see water taxis and sightseeing boats. To your right is a large swath of public green space, perfect for outdoor recreation and relaxation, and often home to public art installations in recent years. Don’t let the well manicured grass and joggers with lattes fool you, this riverfront port wasn’t always a picturesque place to kick back and pass the time.
The shoreline has been a useful and popular spot for centuries. Just upriver, the Potomac tumbles over a series of cataracts known as Great Falls, its last obstacle before spilling into the Chesapeake Bay. These falls form a barrier to fish traveling upstream to spawn each year, which makes this a prime spot for great fishing. Indigenous peoples inhabited the region going back over 13,000 years, up until the disease and displacement of European colonization.
When Europeans arrived in this region in the 17th Century, this location was quickly identified as a valuable port, and it would prove a crucial component of the colony’s financial success. Small cash crop farms began to dot the region and soon Alexandria’s first tobacco warehouse was built here in 1732. By the city’s official founding in 1749, it was well on the way to becoming a manufacturing mecca. By 1779, Alexandria was important enough to be declared an official point of entry, meaning foreign ships could dock here and undergo inspections. By the 1790’s, Alexandria was one of the largest ports in the new United States. This port city on the Potomac developed outward from right here, moving farther and farther west through the centuries that followed. In the West End, Commerce Street connected Duke and King streets at an angle, to facilitate the passage of farm wagons from nearby farms, to market locally, and to waiting ships.
The port also became the epicenter of the domestic slave trade. The location was ideal for purchasing enslaved individuals from nearby plantations, and making sales that sent large groups to the major markets in the Deep South. By way of forced march, or on tightly packed ships that left from this port, thousands of people were sold to work in the cotton fields and sugar plantations that powered the American economy. The decades between ratification of the Constitution and the Civil War saw approximately one million enslaved people relocated from here in the Mid-Atlantic and upper South, to the Lower South. In the story of America’s original sin, some of its most horrific chapters were written right here. From the time of colonization this port was a place of business, and black bodies were a commodity.
In the life of a city, geography and climate are destiny. And so, as you take in the views of this waterfront it should come as no surprise that Alexandria was destined to become, at least for a time, a major seaport.
When you’re ready, leave the waterfront behind you and use the built in navigation to make your way to King Street.
109 King St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
We’ve had a taste of Alexandria’s history, and now it’s time for a little ice cream! No one’s exactly sure why there are so many artisanal ice cream shops in Alexandria, but it’s well deserving of this sweet title: Cone Capital USA, (dubbed by Forbes magazine in 2019). Two of the most famous shops sit opposite of each other on the same block!
Look to your right. See the sign that says “Pops?” That brick building with the red and white sign is Pop’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Co. Ray “Pop” Giovanni founded this shop back in the 1940s. If you step inside, you’ll see the interior is decorated like a 1940’s soda shop with bright red finishes and a black and white checkered floor. Perhaps this is a nostalgic nod to Pop’s glory days. Throughout the 1940s, Pop became a local legend. He made a name for himself catering high society events, and even landing gigs at the White House. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was said to be a fan of his ice cream and delicious desserts.
Today, Pop’s has more than 60 unique flavors, derived from the “little black book” of recipes that Pop left behind when he passed away in 1998. All of their flavors are created in house, and they range from traditional classics to flavors with a modern twist.
Now, set your gaze across the street. Do you see the dark green store front, and a large sign with white and pink letters? That's The Creamery. The Creamery holds the title of the oldest continuously running ice cream parlor in downtown Alexandria. It was founded in 1984 by Charlie and Lynne Lindsey. Nearly 40 years later the shop is still family owned. Just like Pop’s, all of their flavors are handcrafted in-house. The Creamery specializes in uncommon flavors inspired by Southern specialties, such as Orange Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Lemon Custard, and Banana Pudding. Go give their specialties a try, and make your visit official by snapping a selfie with the polar bear in the window!
When you’ve had your fill of Pops & The Creamery, continue west up King St. At the end of the block, turn left on Lee Street. You can also use the built-in navigation to get to our next point of interest. See you soon!
134 King St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
Hello, again! Let’s keep walking to the end of this block and turn left when we reach Prince Street. We’re headed to Captain’s Row, which is the oldest street in Alexandria. It’s also one of the prettiest streets, lined with picturesque row houses and waterfront views. Captain’s Row is one of only two blocks in Alexandria still paved with cobblestones rather than asphalt. The name comes from the sea captains who occupied these homes at the height of Alexandria’s early merchant days. This block was first built around the time of the Revolutionary War, and it’s since been restored to the Federalist style, looking much like what it would have then.
129 Prince St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
You should see in front of you a sign indicating you’ve made it to Captain’s Row. I’m sure you’ve noticed the cobblestones!
There’s no real question about the antiquity of the street since it’s clearly old by any colonial America standards, but the cobblestones themselves have had a contested history. Local lore had it that these streets were of British origin, made of stone used as ballast for ships that made brave passage across the Atlantic to this New World. Ballast is simply heavy material placed in the bottom of a vessel to give it stability. Then, the story continued that during the colony’s fight for independence from the crown, patriots used the labor of captured Hessians to haul the ballast from British hulls used to lay these American roads. The Hessians were German mercenaries employed by the British during the American Revolution. What a story! As much as tour guides hate to let the truth get in the way of good stories, this story has since been proven false, as local historians found records indicating that Alexandria’s streets were not paved at all, cobblestone or otherwise, until 1795, a full decade after the end of the Revolutionary War. And scientists agree, this stone didn’t cross an ocean to get here, in fact most of it can be traced to the Potomac River.
Captain’s Row has a rich history, always being prime real estate. The original homes built on the south side of Captain’s Row were built by Col. George Gilpin, a skilled cartographer who socialized frequently with a local man who went on to become one of the most famous Americans of all time, George Washington. Most of the north side residences were built by John Harper, a wheat dealer and prominent land-owner who moved to the area from Philadelphia with him, his wife, and 20 children. Harper was so wealthy that upon his death, all 20 of his children were given both a house and a lot of land.
Remember I mentioned that this block was re-built in the Federalist style? Much of the original architecture was lost to a tremendous fire in 1827. In the early hours of January 18th, local cabinet maker James Green accidentally started the blaze in his workshop, which stood on nearby Royal Street. The fire spread quickly, and could be seen all the way from the Capitol building in DC! Alexandria burned for about 5 hours, until the flames were finally quelch by local citizens hauling water from the banks of the Potomac River.
Leaving the cobblestone’s of Captains Row behind you, head west up Prince street. At the next intersection, cross Fairfax Street and continue up Prince. You will turn right on Royal Street. We’re making our way to City Hall and Market Square
S Royal St & King St / City Hall, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
Cross King Street and continue on Royal. You’ll see a plaza space on your right. This is Market Square. Just beyond the square as you approach the intersection of Royal and Cameron Streets, you'll see City Hall.
Since the city of Alexandria was founded in 1749, Market Square has been the center of activity! A Saturday morning market has been happening right here since then too, making it one of the oldest in the United States! Crops grown on colonial Virginia plantations would come here via Commerce Street in the west, and either be brought to market here, or loaded onto ships on the waterfront. George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, which is just 10 miles down the river from our current location, would also bring goods to market here. Imagine large wagons filled with grains, animals, and tobacco leaves being hauled here to market, or down to the warehouses and ships along the water. In addition to produce and handiworks, the space was also used for the sale of enslaved people, and for mustering the militia.
Stroll around the square and take in the statuary and City Hall. While this has been the location of local government offices since before the American Revolution, the current building is a mix of rebuilds, revamps and renovations. Across from City Hall on the other side of Royal Street, you'll find Gadsby's Tavern, our next stop. Use the navigation to meet me there when you’re ready!
138 N Royal St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
Gadsby’s Tavern self-describes as “Fine Dining since 1770”. It has indeed been at the center of local life for centuries as a gathering space and watering hole, provider of both shelter and sustenance, and a place of political and social connection and celebration.
The oldest portion of the building (the smaller two story side) was built in 1785 and at that time functioned as a standalone tavern. The taller portion of the building was added in 1792, when it became the City Tavern and Hotel. They were both built by John Wise, an American minister and developer. The first building contained 7 rooms, and the addition added a ballroom and overhead gallery for musicians to play in. The tavern’s name comes from the man responsible for its operation after Wise from 1796 to 1808, Englishman John Gadsby. Under Gadsby’s management, with crucial help from his large enslaved workforce, the tavern became renowned for its hospitality and elegance. In fact, many have taken to calling Gadsby’s Tavern Alexandria’s first five star hotel.
The first American President, George Washington, hosted multiple birthday bashes here. Thomas Jefferson had an inaugural banquet here, and other notable colonial guests included Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin!
The restaurant is still a popular dining destination today: Servers in colonial garb bring you food on pewter plates, to tables complete with hurricane candles, in rooms carefully curated to feel like you’re right back in the 18th century. You can even try George Washington’s favorite dish: grilled duck breast with scalloped potatoes, corn pudding, rotkraut, and port wine orange glace.
Aside from the cuisine itself, there was an important feature here at Gadsby’s that set this Tavern apart from the rest. On the Cameron Street side of the building you'll see a small set of stairs, a historic plaque, and a small glass cutaway revealing the secret to Gadsby’s success.
You see, when John Wise was conceptualizing his idea for a high-class institution back in 1792, he knew he needed something that would give his spot an edge over the competition. Wise sought and received permission from the Alexandria Common Council to build an ice well. The structure at the bottom of the stairs was built in 1793. This ice well is extremely large for the period it was built, measuring roughly 17 feet in diameter by 11 feet deep. It is capable of storing up to 68 tons of ice, more than enough to supply the tavern through the hot and sticky months of summer. Refrigeration is a modern technology we take for granted! Prior to the manufacturing of ice with pressurized gas refrigeration, the only way to obtain ice, or ” ice cakes”, was to cut them out of frozen bodies of water and store them in specially designed ice wells and ice houses. Think about how eagerly folks must have watched the river for the first big freeze. Once frozen, it would take many successive days of below zero temperature to deepen the ice before the dangerous and laborious task of harvesting could begin. Well into the late 18th century, transporting and storing ice for commercial use was still an arduous task!
Gadsby Tavern’s enormous ice house certainly made it stand out from the crowd. It enabled the restaurant to serve chilled beverages and perishable food, a luxury only afforded to the wealthy. The Tavern’s ice well also meant they could serve the most novel and popular dessert of the day, ice cream! Remember Washington’s dessert, orange glace?! Glace is French for ice cream, and ice cream was the colonial definition of fine dining! It may be a little easier to keep cold these days, but I concur that if the place doesn't serve ice cream–I don’t want it!
Let’s head to our next historic stop. Use your navigation and I’ll meet you at the Spite House.
528 Queen St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
The cute little blue home at 523 Queen Street measures a little over 7 feet wide (2.3 meters), taking up only 350 square feet of prime real estate. This is a spite house. A “Spite House” is really just as it sounds. It is a building constructed or modified to irritate the neighbors, or out of spite. This is one of three in Old Town, and one of many around the world.
In 1830, John Hollensbury, who also owned the house next door, built this home as a deterrent. Frustrated by loitering pedestrians and damage to exterior walls from careless horse-drawn wagons, he decided to fill the alleway with this teeny, tiny house.
Now a treasured local landmark, this Spite House has been featured on Oprah and holds the title of “Narrowest Home in America,” according to Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
Use the navigation to make your way to our next historic stop, Christ Church. I’ll meet you at the intersection of north Washington and Cameron Street, near the wrought iron gate entry to the courtyard of the oldest church in the city.
201 N Washington St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
If the gates are open, please enter the churchyard. The church, now called Christ’s Church, once went by names like Fairfax Parish, Alexandria Church, or "the church in the woods" because well, when construction was completed in 1773, it was! The red brick Georgian style building was built when Virginia was a British colony. Both laws and customs were different in Colonial America, and churches served both crown and community beyond the obvious spiritual and moral purposes. The colony of Virginia was divided into geographical areas called parishes. Christ Church was built as the Fairfax Parish of the Church of England, and the Church of England was an arm of the government. Membership was required of colonists. In addition to a spiritual space, it was a main venue for information to be shared at a time when neighbors were still fair distances apart, scattered throughout the surrounding countryside on small farms and cash crop plantations. When it was built it sat in a quiet, wooded area. Today, it’s in the heart of Alexandria, with a congregation of over two thousand people, welcoming worshipers and curious sight-see-ers
This church was George Washington’s church, and if it’s open, you can step inside and see the box pew that he purchased so many years ago. This was a common practice in colonial America, as it ensured that families could always sit together during services, and provided a source of revenue for the upkeep of the church. The Revolutionary War broke out not long after, and while many colonial churches struggled during the conflict, Christ Church was spared from economic hardship and violence throughout the war, largely due to its sentimental value to important leaders like George Washington.
This church, like the city of Alexandria, has seen American history at its best and at its worst. It has both condemned and promoted our colossal contradictions. It was built largely by enslaved labor, and was the home church of General Robert E Lee, who led the troop in rebellion to the United States government when Virginia succeeded from the Union in 1861. The U.S Army occupied the city the same year, and promptly seized Christ Church from the Confederacy. Although the Army typically used seized churches as hospitals or storage facilities, Christ Church’s beloved reputation, and ties to George Washington saved it once again. It survived the war, and was used as a place for U.S Army chaplains to conduct services. It was restored to the citizens of Virginia at the conclusion of the war in 1866.
Christ Church retains a place of importance in the fabric of American history. There, President Franklin Roosevelt met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on World Day for Prayer and Peace during World War II. It remains traditional for American Presidents to visit the church at least once during their administration, typically for a Sunday service near George Washington’s birthday.
Spend as much time here as you’d like. We will continue our tour on King Street. Use the navigation to proceed whenever you’re ready!
122 S Payne St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
You’ve arrived at Casa Rosada! You should be looking at a corner building painted pink with white trim. A sign on the building reads “Casa Rosada Artisan Gelato.” The name of this ice cream shop means “pink house” in Spanish. This references the beautiful pink hue of the building, which was originally constructed in the 1870’s and is the only pink house on the block! But the name also pays homage to the other Casa Rosada, the home and office of the Argentinian President. Shop owner Benjamin Umansky and his wife Raquel were inspired by the culture and flavors of Argentina when they founded Casa Rosada back in 2014.
Umansky had a career as a chemical engineer before starting to make gelato at home in 2004. The couple perfected the craft together over the next decade until founding this Alexandria storefront along with their sons David and Mark. All of their confections are produced on-site, and they take pride in their selection of vegan and sugar-free options which accommodate all consumers. This is the place for you if you want fun flavor combinations: Casa Rosada has debuted flavors like tango, kumquat, and arroz con leche. Their flavors change seasonally, but their commitment to bringing Argentine flavor to the heart of Old Town never changes.
When you’re ready to keep going, the next stop is close. Actually, it’s directly behind the building that Casa Rosada is in. Go to the corner of Payne and Commerce Streets, and looking south, you’ll see the historic Ice House.
200 Commerce St, Alexandria, VA 22314, USA
I mentioned earlier that Duke and King streets accommodated the westbound transportation, bringing the crops grown on Virginia plantations to Market Square and down to the Wharf, right? Well those wagons heading from Little River Turnpike to the wharves or marketplace could easily access King Street by using this short diagonal roadway, appropriately named Commerce Street. It was the road to the riches, and you’ve made it to the riches! We have truly saved the best for last. A more recent addition to the Old Town ice cream scene, this frozen custard joint set up shop in a very historic building.
Remember Gadsby Tavern’s ice house, and how important it was to their business model? Well, by the turn of the 20th century, transporting and storing ice was still an arduous task, but the entrepreneurial spirit had devised a solution. Companies would distribute blocks of ice for commercial use, so businesses could still run efficiently without building large adjacent ice houses. One such company was Mutual Ice Co., Alexandria’s largest ice distribution company, founded in 1900. They set up shop right on the Potomac River, thus gaining access to the large shipments of ice from up north in New England and Canada. Mutual Ice built the structure you see before you in 1931, as a storage spot for the ice used to service Old Town stores and restaurants. The company also made money selling ice to trains on the Potomac Yard rail line, who used it in their dining cars. And kids in the neighborhood would come by for cups of shaved ice! Mutual Ice operated small stores like this one between 1924-1955, after which the company sold ice from its processing plant until it ceased production in 1969.
The building fell into eventual disrepair and stood vacant for decades. Local business owner Brandon Byrd bought the property in 2018. After years of thoughtful restoration and renovation, the Ice House rose like a phoenix from the ashes, connecting past and future through community...and they serve up the most delicious custard in the DMV, maybe the world. In 2022, Goodies Frozen Custard & Treats was named to the Top 40 Best Ice Cream Shops in America by Thrillist. With over 11,000 ice cream shops in the nation, this is a serious accolade. We truly saved the best for last, so go taste for yourself!
This tour has been a joint production of Historic America and UCPlaces. To learn more about our trip planning services, public & private tours and digital content make sure to visit us at www.historicamerica.org and to find more audio tours, go to historicamerica.org and UCPlaces.com.