Normally, we wouldn’t hesitate to hop on a plane to Europe to see beloved Christmas destinations (like Budapest, Vienna, and Zagreb) festively done up for the holidays. But then again, there’s nothing normal about the times we’re in. And because the pandemic has forced us to reevaluate flying and international travel, many of us are instead opting for road trips to destinations with plenty to do outdoors.
This is when Alexandria, Virginia enters the picture. An easy four-hour drive from New York and just ten minutes from the nation’s capital, the waterfront city balances the sophistication of an urban metropolis with the neighborly vibes of a small town. Though there’s never a bad time for a getaway here, Alexandria shines especially bright right now by conjuring up the nostalgia of old-world Europe. But while historic King Street — which sparkles with 40,000 string lights hanging from the trees — has a 40-foot tall tree gracing Market Square, and local businesses kitted out in holiday style are comforting to see during such emotive times, the most uplighting sight of all is how lively Alexandria is.
“We have been fortunate here to have seen few businesses shutter,” says Victoria Vergason, owner of The Hour, a boutique specializing in high-end, vintage barware and glassware. “Our residential community has really supported small businesses by shopping and dining locally.” TLC reality star Monte Durham, who opened his namesake Salon Monte in September, agrees, adding, “Residents here don’t just say they support local businesses, they really practice what they preach.”
In addition: Alexandria has prioritized safety with the ALX Promise program, which was co-developed by the Alexandria Health Department and Visit Alexandria, and exceeds the state’s minimum requirements for operation. (Look for the ALX Promise shield in the windows of participating businesses and on their websites.) And to encourage outdoor socializing well into the new year, the city’s top restaurants and bars have gotten creative with their winterized setups, from igloos to complimentary hot beverages.
Here, how to make the most of a safe and relaxing visit to Alexandria.
Where to Stay
Situated in the heart of Old Town near the waterfront, but tucked away off of King Street, the Morrison House offers a stay far more like a gracious home than cookie-cutter hotel. The entrance and parlor of the Federalist-style mansion dazzle for the holidays with wreaths, garlands, and a glittering tree, and the 42 rooms and three suites are appointed with classic, yet colorful touches (cerulean velvet armchairs, orange plaid carpet, and botanical artwork). The hotel’s signature restaurant, The Study, is closed for the time being, but there are plenty of terrific restaurants and bars just steps away.
Located on upper King Street, Kimpton Lorien Hotel & Spa marries world-class amenities with generous hospitality. Though the hotel’s been around since 2009, it feels fresh as ever thanks to a sweeping renovation that wrapped a couple years ago. Just reopened, the award-winning spa now offers a brief, but well-curated treatment menu, while Brabo, the hotel’s signature French restaurant by Sebastien Rondier, continues to turn out crowd-pleasing comforts like mussels marinière and steak frites. As for the accommodations? They’re chic and modern, and accented with jewel-toned inkblots above the beds.
Where to Shop
A few months ago, stylist and reality star of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, Monte Durham, opened Salon Monte. Focusing on bespoke cuts and color, Durham and his team elevate the salon experience with Hikari scissors, filtered water for washing, and Durham’s signature hair care line. At The Hour, Victoria Vergason displays meticulously curated vintage barware — she’s been collecting since business school — alongside her own brand, The Modern Home Bar, in a recently renovated space. For stylish and sustainable clothing and accessories designed to last for years to come, check out Threadleaf, a hip boutique by former lawyer for the Obama Administration, Nicole McGrew. And because sending handwritten greetings will never go out of style, make Penny Post your one-stop shop for quality paper goods.
Where to Eat and Drink
For sit-down meals, diverse options abound. Because hearty food feels especially fitting given the season and stressful times, book a table at Oak Steakhouse Alexandria. While this contemporary take on the classic steakhouse is best known for its expertly-grilled chops and house burger, the globe-trotting appetizers (like the warmed burrata and Portuguese octopus with ‘nduja) and original cocktails are no slouch. Sip the bourbony Luck of the Draw to keep you toasty if you’re hanging outdoors.
Yunnan By Potomac Noodle House is a family-run spot whipping up craveable, hauntingly complex bowls of Mixian rice noodles (a staple in Yunnan cuisine) and positively pretty dumplings — the vegan party ones are a must — in a friendly, no-frills setting. At the newly-opened King & Rye, outdoor dining has been reimagined with heated igloos, enticing Southern small plates by chef Peter McCall (po’ boys, biscuits, and deviled eggs), and seasonal cocktails. If you’re headed to the heated patio of the pizza- and pasta-centric Hank and Mitzi’s, bring your own blanket and receive a complimentary hot beverage in return.
Owned by former New Yorker and hospitality veteran Dustin Lara, Brut is a cozy bar and shop that pours exceptional champagnes — try one of the Landon flights — alongside refined savory snacks (like raclette and truffled egg toast) perfect for pairing. Meanwhile, speakeasy lounge Captain Gregory’s recently unveiled the latest concept for its outdoors pop-up. Themed “Winter Wonderland,” the space pairs cheerful, holiday decor with imaginative libations and bites like Rum, Rum, Rudolph and lobster beignets.
Want to try a local, seasonal sweet treat that’s been around for 144 years? Order a Shuman’s Jelly Cake online. These delicate cakes made with three sheets of pound cake layered with red currant jelly make for the perfect edible souvenir, and are available for local delivery and pickup in Alexandria, and shipping within the U.S.
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