We only have a few months left in Northern Virginia and are using every chance we get to explore the surrounding area before we leave. Today, I am highlighting our time in Old Town Alexandria along with a recipe for Virginia Peanut Soup.
Old Town Alexandria, founded in 1749, is filled with historical sites and architecture. The brick and cobblestone streets are now home to a variety of shops (both popular brands and privately owned boutiques), restaurants, museums, and more. Perfect for couples and families alike, there is something for everyone. We had no problem navigating the sidewalks with a stroller and much of the area is shaded, a definite bonus in the summer.
The Ramsay House Visitor Center (photo above on the left) is located at the corner of King Street and Fairfax Street. Open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, maps and brochures can be found here.
King Street, the main street in Old Town, runs a mile from the metro stop to the Potomac River waterfront. This section holds the highest concentration of shops and restaurants. For those who don’t want to walk, a free trolley is available and runs in both directions. It operates 10:30 am-10:15 pm Sunday-Wednesday and 10:30 am-12 am Thursday-Saturday.
One of our first stops when we visit Old Town is the Armory Tot Lot off of South Royal Street. This little fenced-in playground, on the site of the former National Guard Armory Building, is a great place for the kids to run off some energy before lunch reservations or a day of shopping. Geared towards younger children, the playground has a main play structure, sandbox, bucket swings, and a teeter totter.
On Saturday mornings year-round from 7 am to noon, the Old Town Farmers’ Market covers the Market Square. It has been in operation since 1753 and, according to the city of Alexandria, is the oldest farmers’ market in the country to be held continuously at the same site. Here you will find everything from fresh flowers and produce to prepared foods, clothing, artwork, and more from as many as 70 vendors. The parking garage directly below the square offers free parking during the market’s operating hours. Vendors photographed above: Len Garon (painter), Hudson Sauce, Coulter Farms, Billy’s Farm Flowers, Chocotenango, and Central Asian Foods and Bakery.
Another favorite area for the kids is the waterfront at the east end of King Street along the Potomac River. Benches line the boardwalk if you need a breather or want to relax and watch the water. It is just south of Reagan National Airport so you can often see planes beginning their descent from here. We haven’t tried it yet, but there are also boat tours that begin here and go to Georgetown.
Vola’s Dockside Grill is located on the waterfront and serves brunch on the weekends. Indoor and outdoor seating is available (only indoor seating can be reserved). The kids split a bagel along with sharing our Crispy Chicken & Biscuits and Dockside Scramble. We all loved the Cinnamon Sugar Dulce de Leche Monkey Bread.
You will also find the Torpedo Factory Art Center on the waterfront. Created in 1974, the art center is housed in an old naval munitions plant and now holds the largest collection of working artists’ open studios in one building. These 82 studios feature painting, ceramics, photography, jewelry, stained glass, fiber, printmaking, sculpture, and more. The Alexandria Archaeology Museum (not open at the time of our visit) can be found on the third floor.
Gadsby’s Tavern, located on North Royal Street, has a historical restaurant on one side and a museum with 18th century antiquities next door. The restaurant has been open since 1785 with a hotel in 1792 (the hotel is now the current restaurant and ballroom while the original tavern is the museum). Visitors included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe. We went for lunch, but they are also open for dinner and Sunday brunch. The dining rooms are quite elegant, yet still family-friendly with a children’s menu. We enjoyed the Peanut Soup, Madeira Onion Soup, Ale-Battered Crispy Cod, and Children’s Jefferson Baked Macaroni and Cheese.
For a sweet treat, there is an abundance of options in Old Town. We visited twice this summer and went to a different ice cream shop each time. Above is the recently opened Nicecream on King Street. I tried the Honey Lavender and it had such a wonderful smooth and creamy texture. Flavors are rotated based on the week and season. The ice cream is frozen to order using Kitchenaid mixers and liquid nitrogen. It can be quite the site when all the mixers are going at once. They also have a store in Clarendon.
Dolci Gelati is another favorite for us. I first tried their gelato at MetroCooking DC. Founded in Washington DC in 2006 by pastry chef Gianluigi Dellaccio, there are now locations in Shaw, Old Town, and Takoma Park. The Old Town location is next door to the visitor center on North Fairfax Street. A little walkway to the right of the building leads to a small, secluded courtyard with a handful of tables perfect for enjoying the artisan gelato.
Evan, Claire, and I loved the chocolates from Blüprint Chocolatiers on King Street. Run by Kim and Bruce Gustafson, they create all of their chocolate onsite. Along with their truffles, bonbons, and specialty chocolates, they also serve espresso, coffee, tea, and drinking chocolate. Check out their flavor guide here. Since the kids were at the playground with Chad, the owners were even nice enough to wrap the chocolates with an ice pack to keep them from melting on my walk back in the heat.
Dogs (and cats) even have their own special shop at The Dog Park, also on King Street. Toys, homemade treats, accessories, decor, and gifts can be found here.
If you want to see the area a bit more closely, there are an abundance of tour options.
There is much more to Old Town Alexandria that we haven’t gotten a chance to see yet in our two visits. Other notable sites that are on our list are the Alexandria Black History Museum, Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, and many more restaurants/shops.
I actually had never heard of Peanut Soup until we moved to Virginia and noticed it on a few menus. It became popular in Virginia during the 1700s and was influenced by dishes like Maafe, a peanut soup in Senegal and Gambia. My first time trying it was at Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria. This rich and creamy soup has a vegetable and chicken stock base that is either pureed or strained before whisking in peanut butter and cream until smooth. A little lemon juice is added (I have also seen lime used) to add a bit of freshness and hot sauce can be used for extra flavor.
I used an immersion blender to puree the onions and celery. If one is not available, you can also strain the soup and discard the solids before mixing in the peanut butter and cream. I whisked peanut butter into the soup, but I have also come across recipes that start with peanuts that have been soaked overnight and pureed right in.
This soup is incredibly rich. A little goes a long way. It is generally served in small cups as an appetizer.
Virginia Peanut Soup
Adapted from Chris Carey
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups peanut butter
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt to taste
Roasted, chopped peanuts for garnish
Hot sauce to taste
In a large pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and celery and cook, stirring often, until softened and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the flour and stir to coat the onions and celery. Slowly add the chicken stock while whisking. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and use an immersion blender to puree the mixture until smooth.
Return to a low heat and whisk in the peanut butter and cream until smooth. Season with lemon juice and salt and serve immediately garnished with chopped peanuts and hot sauce if desired.