In an annual ritual, scores of bagpipers take to the street in a
multi-hued plaid pageantry of Scottish clans marching in formation. With
each synchronized stride, their soulful pipes bleat out a wail. Throngs
of people have come from near and far to watch the procession. Is it a
funeral of a dignitary? A memorial tribute? But wait: Marching behind
them are snappy pipe and drum bands, followed by prancing Scottish
dancers, performing skip-change sets of reels and jigs. Then come the
floats—and even jaunty Scotty dogs. It’s the annual parade in Old Town
Alexandria, VA, a time-honored Christmas tradition. The event (
commences a season of holiday events, while celebrating the community’s
Scottish heritage and its namesake settler John Alexander in 1669. (Two
other Scots established the town as Alexandria in 1748.)
“There’s even a Celtic contingent, who come to march from the St.
Andrew’s Society’s Baltimore chapter,” says David McKenzie, emcee of the
parade. “They’re the ones wearing white fisherman’s sweaters above
Old Town Alexandria, just an hour from Baltimore, has been named one
of America’s “Top 10 Christmas Towns” by HGTV, and is setting the
standard for a quintessential holiday getaway.
The town, quietly peering across the Potomac shoreline at chaotic
downtown D.C., exudes a quirky hip and historic vibe, reminiscent of
1970s Georgetown. In an era of contrived revival towns, Alexandria is
the real deal. Having played center stage in game-changing historic
events that included Revolutionary and Civil War bigwigs George
Washington and Robert E. Lee, it continues to celebrate centuries-old
holiday traditions in a storybook setting of original cobblestone
streets, lined with preserved 17th- and 18th-century architecture.
Each holiday season, the town shimmers with twinkling boulevards and
storefronts, ornamented in glittering finery, while rich aromas of
cinnamon, cloves, and chocolate seep out from charming cafes into the
By day, history buffs can explore Alexandria’s famous sites, like Gadsby’s Tavern Museum—where
Washington delivered his famous farewell address to the troops—and,
afterward, browse chic galleries and shops in their quaint Colonial
buildings. At night, the antiquated doors of restored taverns and inns
are propped open, offering imaginative cuisines and indie artisans.
As a celebrated Christmas town, Alexandria is distinguished for
hosting a variety of original, high-spirited holiday activities,
including reenacted Colonial events and festivals of Christmases past.
While suburban folks flock to malls on the Friday after Thanksgiving,
Old Town is morphing itself back into the Christmas village of its
founding fathers. Costumed interpreters stroll the streets in Colonial
duds and old-style holiday garb.
“It’s kind of a fitting tradition that the bagpipers from the
Scottish parade end up right here, in front of our shop,” says Cheri
Hennessy, owner of Alexandria’s
Christmas Attic (125 S. Union St., 703-548-2829, christmasattic.com).
The shop is a veritable mother lode of holiday ornaments in a
circa-1785 warehouse that has never been restored, still baring its
original six-brick-thick walls and antique beams. “When my parents
opened this business 42 years ago, we were one of the first really nice
stores here, so I’ve watched the old Christmas traditions [evolve] along
with the town. Old Town is still like a step back in time—and what
Christmas is all about—remembrances, families, folks visiting.”
At lunchtime, nothing speaks Colonial-revival dining better than a traditional pub, like the oyster bar at the Union Street Public House (121 S. Union St., 703-548-1785, unionstreetpublichouse.com).
The crowd is a fusion of old-timers, newbie artists, and day-trippers,
who come for the restaurant’s oyster po’ boy with fried oysters, cherry
peppers, and remoulade ($14), to be washed down with Virginia Native
From Union Street, turning onto King Street, Old Town’s mile-long
main drag is enchanting. Amid the flickering gas-lit lanterns, decorated
cafes, antique shops, and boutiques are miniature trees with tiny white
lights as far as the eye can see. It’s so holiday happy that even
Scrooge could be swayed to smile here. Worthy stops along the street
include the magical windows at
Why Not? (200 King St., 703-548-4420), a long-standing Shangri-La-dom of toys, and The Hour Cocktail Collection
(1015 King St., 703-224-4687, thehourshop.com) with its mid-century
chic entertaining pieces, vintage barware, and outrageous retro cocktail
While wandering around town, it’s worthwhile to pop into Christ Church
(118 N. Washington St., 703-549-1450). This is the Episcopal church
where George Washington worshipped; his family’s pew is still intact.
Strolling these streets amid the restored Colonial townhomes is a treat;
admittedly, one that routinely rouses our peeping-Thomas curiosity
about what’s inside. But the inquisitive aren’t left out in the cold.
Holiday Designer Tour of Homes (srscampagnacenter.org/online/)
offers ticketed tours of some of the town’s most exquisite homes, which
have been grandly decorated by local designers with holiday adornments.
One of Old Town’s long-standing treasures is the Torpedo Factory Arts Center (105 N. Union St., 703-838-4565, torpedofactory.org).
Housed in a real torpedo factory—from 1918-45—it now features three
floors of working artist studios, galleries, and the Alexandria
Just outside the arts center, at the City Marina, is where the annual Holiday Boat Parade of Lights
takes place. This is a juried holiday boat-decoration competition, with
prizes for the most creative and other themes. At dusk on the day of
the event (Dec. 1 this year), about 50 decked-out sailboats and
motorboats parade across the Potomac River from Alexandria to D.C.’s
waterfront, where the judging begins. Some of last year’s winning themes
included “Christmas Gone Wild” (wildlife of the North Pole), “SEAS-ons
Greetings” (a snow globe), and “Surfing Santa.”
Enjoy the present by sampling New American comfort food at Virtue Feed & Grain
(106 S. Union St., 571-970-3669, virtuefeedandgrain.com), located in a
spectacularly restored warehouse just a few steps from the Marina. The
menu boasts that the food is freezer-less, farm fresh, and seasonal.
Entree standouts include Polish sausage with molasses, squash, and
shallots, and whole red snapper with orange gremolata.
After dark, Colonial Christmas celebrations are reenacted by
candlelight in four historic milieus. Costumed docents lead tours
through decorated rooms while regaling visitors with anecdotal tales of
the famous residents’ holiday activities. The
Historic Candlelight Tour
(tickets: $20, $15 seniors, $5 kids, 703-746-4242) includes the
circa-1785 Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, which hosted several founding fathers
and Civil War dignitaries. In its famous dancing room, where George and
Martha Washington once twirled, there are demonstrations by
18th-century dancers in period attire.
Musicians and carolers greet visitors with Old-World holiday hymns at the circa-1753 Carlyle House (121 N. Fairfax St.), once the residence of prominent Scottish merchant John Carlyle.
Lovers, seeking a spontaneous smooch, stand under the 19th-century kissing ball at the circa-1785 Lee-Fendall House
(614 Oronoco St.). The home was occupied by Robert E. Lee and 36
members of his family over a period of 118 years. Another candlelight
venue is the
Bank of Alexandria (133 N. Fairfax St.).
A don’t-miss nighttime adventure is searching for the clandestine hotspot PX,
a reincarnated, 1920s-era speakeasy. Hint: Look for the pirate flag by a
blue light outside 728 King Street and ring the concealed bell. The
door will slip open and quickly shut behind you. Hint two: If you’re
wearing jeans and sneakers, you’ll be back out on the street before you
can say, “Revolt!” This is a classy-clothes joint. Also, on weekends,
they expect a reservation, even though they don’t have a telephone. Hint
three: Call 703-299-8384 and leave a message. (You’re welcome.)
Once inside the bar, a candlelit hallway leads to a vintage drawing
room, furnished with glitzy chandeliers and sumptuous mahogany chairs.
Here, dark-clad wait staff serve creative, modern-day libations with
names like “Thymes Like These.” The cocktail, inspired by a popular Foo
Fighters’s tune, is gin-based with thyme and citrus.
If you’re staying overnight, consider the Hotel Monaco
(480 King St., 703-549-6080). It’s like attending a fabulous family
holiday celebration. The hotel exudes nonstop merriment, with its
gorgeous, glittering lobby, featuring daily and evening musical
entertainment, around-the-clock cider and hot cocoa, complimentary
happy-hour hors d’oeuvres, and even in-room doggy beds and treats.
Those seeking an Old-World setting might select the Morrison House
(116 S. Alfred St.). With more stars, medals, and accolades than
General Lee, this Federal-style inn is elegantly garnished with
greenery, ribbons, and decorated trees. On Saturday afternoons in
December, the hotel’s traditional high tea (from $32) features homemade
holiday delicacies and beverages.
If you go: Old Town Alexandria, VA, is about 50
miles from Baltimore. A calendar and description of holiday events and
activities can be found at
visitalexandriava.com. Where to stay: Hotel Monaco, holiday package rates begin at $149/night and include parking. 480 King St., 703-549-6080, monoco-alexandria.com. Morrison House, holiday package rates begin at $139/night and include parking. 116 S. Alfred St., morrisonhouse.com.
George Slept Here
Mount Vernon dresses up Washington’s home for the holidays.
Christmas at Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens—the home of George and
Martha Washington—offers another holiday visit to the past, and is
located just eight miles south of Old Town Alexandria.
Start your visit at the Ford Orientation Center, where a dozen
towering Christmas trees are on display, each ornamented in Colonial
themes. (Bonus: The ornaments are available for purchase at the gift
shop.) There is also a screening of Mount Vernon’s signature film, We
Fight to Be Free.
Afterward, take a tour of the mansion, decorated with hand-cut
greenery and period decorations. Visitors are greeted by actors
portraying George and Martha’s friends and family. The kitchen and
dining room display foods Martha may have served at her Christmas
dinner, including her famous Christmas cake. Copies of the recipe—which
calls for 40 eggs—are handed out as souvenirs.
Next, head outdoors to stroll around the gardens, stables, and
outbuildings. Costumed Colonials demonstrate chocolate-making over an
open fire, including whipping up a hot-chocolate beverage. Apparently,
George liked to spice up his drink with chili peppers.
In the greenhouse, there is dancing with audience participation. The
dancers demonstrate the steps, including the fancy footwork behind the
traditional Virginia reel.
On Saturday and Sunday evenings, visitors are welcomed into the
mansion for a traditional Christmas celebration and a candlelight-guided
tour. Outside, they can enjoy fireside caroling, dancing, music, hot
cider, and ginger cookies.
Dining at the Mount Vernon Inn on the property is a great way to
culminate a Colonial holiday getaway. The restaurant, set in a handsome
18th-century home, offers fare like peanut-and-chestnut soup, roast
duckling with apricot sauce, and homemade bread pudding. —SC
If you go: Christmas in Mount Vernon runs November 23-January 6.
Advance tickets are recommended. Information: 703-780-2000,