Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Alexandria, VA

  • Published 2022/12/29

Lying on the Potomac River’s western bank, Alexandria is an independent city of the Commonwealth of Virginia and a nationally designated historic district established in 1749.

It is renowned for its rich history and exquisitely preserved 18th- to 19th-century architecture.

Due to Alexandria’s proximity to Washington D.C., the city comprises professionals working for the federal civil service, the U.S. military, or private companies offering government services.

Alexandria is approximately nine miles from President George Washington’s hometown of Mount Vernon, which accounts for over 140 sites related to the country’s first president.

The City of Alexandria is a fascinating escape all on its own or the ideal home base if you’re visiting the Capital.

Recognized as a Condé Nast Traveler Top 5 Best Small City in the US and one of Travel + Leisure’s Best Cities in the US, Alexandria should be on top of your list of travel destinations.

Check out the free things to do in Alexandria, Virginia, to make the most of a budget-friendly adventure!

Take a Stroll Down Old Town Alexandria

Buildings along Old Town Alexandria

Stephen B. Goodwin /

Old Town Alexandria is the city’s bustling downtown, bordered by the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in the west and the Potomac River waterfront in the east.

Located just minutes from Washington, D.C., Old Town Alexandria is one of the city’s early settlements.

It is now famous for its historic townhouses, restaurants, antique shops, art galleries, red brick sidewalks, and cobblestone streets.

This nationally designated historic district was planned on a grid of large square blocks in 1749.

Kings street at Old Town Alexandria

Stephen B. Goodwin /

King Street, home to more than 200 locally-owned restaurants and shops, is a mile of historic buildings easily explored on foot.

You can see many ancient attractions and architecture and more historical gems hiding in plain sight.

People at Old Town Alexandria

Albert Pego /

Marvel at the Alexandria City Hall

Exterior of Alexandria City Hall

LnP images /

The Alexandria City Hall, also called the Alexandria Market House & City Hall, was built where a 1749 market and 1752 courthouse once stood.

The high, steepled tower, combined with the structure’s Second Empire architecture, was restored after a massive fire in 1871 destroyed the former structure.

Alexandria City Hall has undergone numerous interior and exterior renovations over the years.

Water fountain in front of Alexandria City Hall

Rob Crandall /

The building’s new entrance was reoriented southwards, facing King Street and the Market Square, an open, manicured plaza with a center fountain built in 1967.

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the current City Hall is home to many government offices, including the City Council Chambers on the second floor.

Due to its prominent location downtown, capturing a photo or just simply marveling at the facade of the Alexandria City Hall is a great way to spend a few hours.

Follow an Interpretive Trail at Jones Point Park

A pier at Jones Point Park

Jon Bilous /

Jones Point Park, located along the Potomac River on the southern end of Old Town Alexandria, was one of the country’s major hubs for manufacturing, shipping, and transportation.

The park’s centerpiece is the Jones Point Lighthouse, built in 1855, one of the nation’s remaining riverine lighthouses and the only one currently standing in the Chesapeake Bay area.

An interpretive trail features the natural and human history of Jones Point Park.

The grounds of Jones Point Park

AgnosticPreachersKid at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Exhibits illustrate the freshwater marsh habitat in the area, how American Indians used it, and its role in navigation and shipbuilding.

A boat launch provides access to the river, and two piers make a great spot to catch American catfish, eels, and rock bass.

Multi-use fields, two basketball courts, and two playgrounds are some of the recreation areas in Jones Point Park available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Jones Point lighthouse at Jones Point Park

Albert Pego /

Take a Self-Guided Tour of Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site

Entrance gate of Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site

Jon Bilous /

The Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site showcases the site’s history, the Civil War, the life of civilians and soldiers during the war, Alexandria’s role as an important crossroads for the Union Army, and more.

Fort Ward Museum, built in the 1960s, was modeled after Civil War board and batten-style military buildings constructed in camps and forts surrounding Washington.

Visitors can find a variety of original Civil War-era artifacts inside the museum.

See uniforms, diaries and letters, weapons and military machinery, musical instruments, surgeons’ tools, and photographs related to artillery, medical care, and the common soldier.

Situated adjacent to the Museum and built based on a photograph of Fort Ward’s living quarters, the interior of the Officers’ Hut is visible to visitors through its small windows.

Visit the Fort Ward Museum & Historic Site at your own pace by taking a self-guided tour which starts at Fort Ward’s entrance gate.

Visit the Alexandria Archaeology Museum

The Alexandria Archaeology Museum is committed to preserving and researching the rich archaeological legacy of the City of Alexandria.

It encourages a spirit of stewardship and adventure in both locals and visitors, and building a relationship between the past and present.

The Museum offers an outstanding collection of objects obtained from excavations in the city.

The collection connects students, residents, and tourists from around the world to Alexandria’s past and the history of daily life in America.

The depth and variety of the collection make it one of the best in comparative studies of urban and historical archaeology.

Visit the Alexandria Archaeology Museum on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory Art Center.

Then, learn how the archaeologists, students, and volunteers work to study and preserve archaeological artifacts significant to the community’s heritage.

Enjoy Riverside Views at Founders Park

Welcome sign of Founders Park

Jon Bilous /

The city of Alexandria maintains Founders Park as a public park where people can enjoy and relax.

It’s a tranquil riverfront park that borders Old Town Alexandria and the Potomac River.

The park is near King Street restaurants, stores, the Torpedo Factory Art Center, and the marina. ​​

Boats docked at Founders Park

Jon Bilous /

Founders Park is a well-liked urban green area where people can walk along the river, take in some fresh air, relax in the scenery, play games, have a picnic, catch up with friends, walk their dogs, and more.

Although informal gatherings are permitted at Founders Park, these events can’t impede other people’s enjoyment, so the park can’t be fully or partially reserved for private events.

Tour the Torpedo Factory Art Center

Exterior of Torpedo Factory Art Center

Rob Crandall /

The Torpedo Factory Art Center, founded in 1974, is home to the country’s biggest collection of open studios by working artists under one roof.

For about 50 years, the Torpedo Factory Art Center has become a famous landmark fronting the Potomac River, drawing nearly 500,000 visitors each year.

See a regularly changing lineup of engaging and provocative exhibitions that push the boundaries and spark discussions at the Art Center’s modern exhibition space, the Target Gallery.

Exhibit in Torpedo Factory Art Center

Rob Crandall /

Torpedo Factory Art Center has 71 studios where visitors can see artists actively producing art in various mediums, such as painting, pottery, jewelry, photography, printmaking, fiber, stained glass, and sculpture.

Watch the creative process, pose questions, or even buy original pieces for your collection!

Interior of Torpedo Factory Art Center

Rob Crandall /

Learn Gardening Techniques at Green Spring Gardens

Gazebo at Green Spring Gardens

David Byron Keener /

A must-visit park in the City of Alexandria is Green Spring Gardens, a year-round hub of inspiration and information for home gardeners.

Green Spring Gardens serves as a museum, a national historic site, and an outdoor classroom.

It aims to introduce the local community to cultural and natural resources through horticulture, management, and learning.

Trail at Green Spring Gardens

Jon Bilous /

The park features a wooded stream with ponds, a greenhouse, over 20 themed demonstration gardens, a native plant garden, a historic home, a library of horticulture books, a plant shop, and two gift shops.

The landscapes and educational programs focus on practical gardening and landscaping methods suitable for the Washington metropolitan area.

Green Spring Gardens offers free access to individuals or families of fewer than 12 people.

Garden sculpture at Green Spring Gardens

Branko Hodzic /

Explore the Gardens of River Farm

Main house at River Farm

Jon Bilous /

The River Farm is a 27-acre landscape situated on the northernmost portion of George Washington’s Mount Vernon property.

It is also the current home of the American Horticultural Society (AHS).

Visitors of the River Farm can see and explore a 1920s estate house, formal and natural gardens, and creative and spacious play areas for kids.

It also has ornamental and edible plant demonstration gardens, a four-acre grassland, and scenic vistas of the Potomac River for resting and picnicking.

The grounds of River Farm

jimsohn1 from Alexandria, Virginia, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The American Society for Horticultural Science named River Farm a Horticultural Landmark in 2004 for its ability to preserve its historic character while demonstrating the best and most environmentally friendly gardening practices.

Other features include two structures with “green” roofs, an orchard, and a variety of flora and fauna.

For example, it has one of the country’s biggest Osage-orange trees, rare Franklinia trees, and occasional sightings of bluebirds, bald eagles, wild turkeys, foxes, and more.

Admission is free (excluding private and special events), although donations are welcome to help with the upkeep of River Farm.

Plants at River Farm

jimsohn1 from Alexandria, Virginia, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ride a Bike on the Mount Vernon Trail

Mount Vernon Trail lined with trees

Jon Bilous /

The 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail is a multi-use trail from Washington’s Mount Vernon to Theodore Roosevelt Island.

The trail primarily follows designated trails with small parts on city streets, linking Fairfax County, Arlington County, and the City of Alexandria.

The Mount Vernon Trail began as a gravel path when it opened in 1972, which was later paved and widened.

View of the potomac river from Mount Vernon Trail

Jon Bilous /

It connects to regional trails like the Custis, Four Mile Run, Rock Creek, Woodrow Wilson Bridge Trails, and the much larger Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.

The Mount Vernon Trail provides unobstructed views of the Washington D.C. cityscape alongside the Potomac River.

The Mount Vernon Trail is excellent for strolls, running, and biking.

It is also pet-friendly.

Boardwalk part of Mount Vernon Trail

Jon Bilous /

Find Inspiration at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum

Immerse yourself in the passion, determination, and development of over 600 outstanding inventors in Alexandria, Virginia.

Learn about their past, present, and future contributions to American innovation at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) is a 1973-founded American non-profit organization that honors engineers and inventors who own a U.S. patent related to technology.

Six hundred-three inventors have been awarded as of 2020, most of which were historical figures from the last 300 years and about 100 living individuals.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum is in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office building on Dulany Street, featuring a theater, interactive kiosks, and a gallery of the honorees in digital portraits.

The Museum offers free admission, making it ideal for your trip to the Washington, D.C., area.

Hike a Nature Trail at Dora Kelley Nature Park

A stream at Dora Kelley Nature Park

Annie Madigan /

The Dora Kelley Park is one of Alexandria’s largest parks, named after a community activist.

Dora M. Kelley, a long-time resident of Alexandria and a passionate nature lover, wished to preserve the remaining woodlands close to her home.

Her desire was granted in 1973 when the City of Alexandria acquired 25.6 acres of the property to develop a nature park and wildlife sanctuary.

Dora Kelley Nature Park encompasses 50 acres of diverse habitats, including freshwater marsh, oak-hickory forest, and stream valley floodplain.

It is also home to various native flora and fauna, some unique to the City of Alexandria.

Located within the park is the Buddie Ford Nature Center, which opened in 1978.

It displays live animals, offers nature learning classes, and guided park tours along with a park naturalist.

Take a brochure from the Nature Center to start your nature trail that winds through the park.

Reconnect with Nature at the Winkler Botanical Preserve

A deer at Winkler Botanical Preserve

Terry Kelly /

The 44-acre Winkler Botanical Preserve is a private sanctuary in the middle of Mark Center.

In 1979, Catherine Winkler Herman, her daughter Tori Thomas, and the Winkler Foundation initially founded the preserve.

The preserve was established to protect the area during the construction of the Mark Center.

The on-site private lodge is called Catherine’s Lodge, after Ms. Herman.

In Alexandria’s western end, numerous trails, a lake, streams, and a waterfall are surrounded by forests and local plants.

Winkler Botanical Preserve is free to the general public and serves as an educational resource for schools in the City of Alexandria.

See Wildlife at Huntley Meadows Park

Birds at Huntley Meadows Park

Robert A. Powell /

Huntley Meadows Park is the largest park run by the Fairfax County Park Authority, situated south of the City of Alexandria in Fairfax County’s Hybla Valley area.

The park has a visitor center, a wetland created by beavers, a boardwalk, interpretive trails, and wildlife viewing platforms.

Huntley Meadows Park is home to diverse wildlife and is famous for attracting a variety of amphibians, birds, and plants less prevalent in the region.

Secondary-growth forests dotted with tiny wildflowers and native grass meadows border most of the wetlands.

People along Huntley Meadows Park's boardwalk

Joe Benning /

Several creeks flow through the park, including Barnyard Run, which supplies the park’s central wetland, and Dogue Creek, which forms the park’s western boundary.

Huntley Meadows Park offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing by connecting visitors to essential habitats within the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Huntley Meadows Park offers free admission to individuals or families of less than 12 people.

A bird at Huntley Meadows Park

Robert A. Powell /

Take a Casual Stroll at Tide Lock Park

Night scene at Tide Lock Park

Michael Rosenberg /

Tide Lock Park features the sole remnant of an extraordinary American transport project long hidden beneath the 20th-century landscape.

Alexandria Canal’s tide lock was one of four locks used to lower boats from the C&O Canal to Alexandria by roughly 40 feet.

The seven-mile Alexandria Canal was operational from 1843 to 1886, transporting coal from West Maryland to Alexandria.

The Promenade Classique, located on the north side of the canal lock, is a sculpture garden made by French artists Anne and Patrick Poirier.

They use references to mythology and archaeology in their works.

A brick plaza gives access to a rectangular pool with a sculpted human mouth spewing water from its lips.

A waterfall leads to two spiral staircases, and a grotto of carved ruins looks over an amphitheater and culminates in a marble obelisk 40 feet high, similar to the Washington Monument.

Tide Lock Park is on private land but it is open to the public.

Final Thoughts

One of the best ways to enjoy the walkable city of Alexandria is to walk around.

It offers over 900 public spaces and parks for everyone to experience and enjoy.

These free things to do in Alexandria, Virginia, should give you a warm weekend getaway close to the nation’s capital.

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