ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Most cities wouldn't take kindly to having it said they had gone to the dogs. Alexandria, however, enthusiastically admits to it.
With a population of 160,000, it has an estimated 40,000 dogs, and they have free range of the city (with their humans, of course.) They can enjoy pup-tinis on Barks, Brews and Bites night at Jackson 20 restaurant or "pawdicures" at Head to Tail Grooming Spa. They can take a Canine Cruise courtesy of Potomac Riverboat Company (April through October.) Or they can matriculate at the Olde Town School for Dogs, referred to as "the Princeton for puppies, the Columbia for canines, the Harvard for hounds" (Bo Obama is a notable graduate.)
So, feel free to bring Fido with you, however Alexandria has plenty to offer even if you are currently dogless. It's ranked as one of the South's Prettiest Cities by Southern Living Magazine and one of America's Best Small Cities in the Conde Nast Traveler Readers' Choice Awards.
Just five miles from Washington, D.C., Alexandria is a history lesson come to vibrant, exhilarating life. You'll hear the names Washington, Jefferson and Madison bandied about quite a bit and see places associated with our colonial forefathers, but you'll also find a thriving scene of independent restaurants and one-of-a-kind boutiques housed in beautifully preserved historic buildings from the 1700s and 1800s.
The place to start your rambles is King Street, which begins at the Potomac River waterfront and extends for some five miles, although most of the 160 shops and restaurants are along a one-mile stretch close to the river. Sidewalk cafes line the street, making an ideal spot for people watching, or if you want to be one of the people they are watching, head for the Old Town Farmers Market.
Held each Saturday morning year-round at Market Square, it has been a staple here for 260 years, making it the country's oldest farmers market held continuously at the same site.
Just around the corner from Market Square Plaza you'll find Gadsby's Tavern, a favorite watering hole and dining spot of George Washington. I went for lunch and had the peanut soup, a Virginia specialty. However, if you go for dinner, you can order Washington's favorite meal -- roasted half duck accompanied by scalloped potatoes, corn pudding and rhotekraut. Don't feel badly if you don't know what the latter is. I didn't either until I asked the server, and discovered it's a sweet and sour red cabbage.
After lunch, wander over to Fairfax Street and take the informative tour of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. One of America's earliest pharmacies, it offers an intriguing look at the colonial period's pharmaceutical industry. While the apothecary has no record of ever having George Washington as a customer, it did prescribe medicine for his wife, Martha.
Today, the museum's collection has some 15,000 objects ranging from potion ingredients such as dragon's blood, mandrake root and lavender (Harry Potter fans will love it) to a particularly frightening blood-letting device.
The electric blue house on Queen Street usually causes passersby to do a double take and reach for their cameras. Just 7 feet wide, it is the skinniest historic house in America. Known as the Spite House, it was built in the 1830s so the owner could keep loiterers out of his adjacent alley. It might have been built for spite, but it makes for a vivid addition to the Queen Street landscape.