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The ‘other’ side of D.C.: Be sure to include Alexandria in your tour of the Capital

If you’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., consider staying across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, where you can see sites such as the formal gardens at the Carlyle House.

If you’re planning a trip to Washington, D.C., consider staying across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia, where you can see sites such as the formal gardens at the Carlyle House. Pat Snider

Along with a new president, there are plenty of other changes and recent additions to the Washington, D.C., visitors’ scene.

This year alone brings the opening of the much-ballyhooed Smithsonian African-American History Museum; the re-openings of both the Renwick Gallery and the National Gallery of Art East Building; the removal of scaffolding around the Capitol dome, and the completion of the restoration of the grass turf along the National Mall between the Capitol and Washington Monument.

If you haven’t visited our nation’s capital recently or since your senior high school trip, now is a good time to go and get reacquainted.

From Portland, two nonstop flights serve the Washington area, but only the Alaska Airlines flight uses Reagan Washington National Airport, a much closer-in facility with easy Metrorail access to the city center. Equally close to the airport and serviced by the same Metro lines, is the historic town of Alexandria, Virginia, directly across the Potomac River from Washington, making it a great base for visiting the city.

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Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home in Alexandria, Virginia.

While staying near the Mall and other D.C. attractions is convenient, city hotels can be expensive, noisy, and filled with conventioneers and school groups. Alexandria, on the other hand, is one of the best kept secrets of a D.C. visit and, to quote the Visitors’ Association, it’s “Minutes from D.C. yet a World Away.”

Good transportation is a key consideration and the thing that makes Alexandria a good choice. Both the blue and yellow Metro lines whisk visitors to the Mall area in about 15 minutes and to/from Reagan Airport in seven minutes. Many hotels offer shuttle service to the airport and the Metro station. There is also a free, local trolley running the entire length of King Street (the main drag), from the Metro station to the city’s waterfront with stops every two blocks. Finally, a water taxi is available for a 30-minute trip across the Potomac River to the West Basin Dock, a short walk to Lincoln Memorial and other attractions.

On its own, Alexandria’s Old Town has much to offer and its lively mix of restaurants, pubs, and shops draws D.C. residents for weekend city escapes. All of this is set in a landscape of beautifully preserved 18th- and 19th- century buildings, cobblestone streets, waterfront promenade, and dozens of historic sites.

The town was founded in 1749 by Scottish merchants and became an important seaport and tobacco trading center in Colonial and Revolutionary times. During the Civil War, this boyhood hometown of Robert E. Lee was the longest Union-occupied city, and served as a hospital center for the Union Army. Fans of the PBS Civil War-era drama, “Mercy Street,” will recognize Alexandria as the series’ inspiration.

Historical attractions include the Gadsby Tavern Museum, where the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a pint or two over dinner; the Carlyle House dating from 1753; the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Shop; and the old Christ Church, where both Washington and Lee had family pews.

Art lovers will enjoy the Torpedo Factory down by the waterfront. This former industrial site has been repurposed into studios, workshops and gallery space for more than 80 artists. It provides a wonderful opportunity to observe and engage with artists at work, and, of course, shop for unique gifts and decor.

An easy day trip from Old Town Alexandria is a 90-minute cruise down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington’s home. Here, visitors can explore the sprawling estate with the restored house, many original structures, Washington’s tomb, and extensive grounds and gardens.

Old Town Alexandria is a highly walkable and pedestrian-friendly spot with attractive residential streets running in both directions off commercial King Street. After a busy day of Washington, D.C., sightseeing, it’s a welcome retreat, like stepping back in time.

You can learn more about staying in Alexandria at visitalexandriava.com.

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