When you come to a place like Northern Virginia, big-city living often means spending the big bucks to have fun experiences. But sometimes, the best things in life can be free. You just have to know where to look. Arlington and Alexandria are two such cities, brimming with beautiful historical and natural adventures that don’t cost a dime. Here are seven of our favorite spots that you (and your wallet) will love.
ALL IN ON ARLINGTON
We’d be willing to bet that you won’t find an aerial spectacle in the area better than Gravelly Point Park. Its location a few hundred feet north of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport makes this green space a plane peeper’s dream.
Insider tip: Thunderous aircraft descend over the park consistently throughout the day, but sunset offers the best scenery.
If serenity is what you’re searching for, you’ll find it at Theodore Roosevelt Island. More than two miles of trails meander through wooded uplands and swampy bottomlands as a tribute to America’s “Great Conservationist” and 26th president. Be sure to stop and admire the 17-foot-high bronze statue of Roosevelt, whose legacy is still felt today.
The last option in Arlington may come as no surprise, but that doesn’t mean it won’t surprise you. Arlington National Cemetery is an iconic resting place for famous figures, from John F. Kennedy to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—with its unforgettable Changing of the Guard ceremony. Don’t miss this and the Netherlands Carillon, a bell tower that rings out every 15 minutes daily between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. as a symbol of lasting friendship between the United States and the Dutch.
THE ALLURE OF ALEXANDRIA
Not visiting Alexandria is like denying yourself dessert after dinner: Life just isn’t as sweet without it. Take a stroll—or, better yet, take the free trolley—to soak in Old Town’s cobblestone streets, gas-lit lanterns, and colorful row houses that’ll propel you back to colonial times. Just don’t deny yourself the sweetest section of town: King Street.
Speaking of propelling, you’ll find it especially appropriate to visit the Torpedo Factory Art Center while in Old Town Alexandria. The former naval munitions plant still houses evidence of its military history through a 78-year-old Mark XIV green torpedo displayed in the main hall, but the star attraction is the art.
Here, 150 artists continue to create a hub for expression across galleries spanning two floors, where you’ll discover anything from ceramic sculptures to fiber accessories. Head up to the third floor to uncover the Alexandria Archaeology Museum’s treasure trove of prehistoric artifacts, Civil War sites, and shipwrecks from the city’s waterfront.
Huntley Meadows Park is a treasure unto itself that attracts nature lovers. The 1,500-acre oasis is known for its half-mile, ADA-accessible boardwalk (called the Heron Trail) over expansive freshwater wetlands as well as ample birdwatching opportunities. On any given day, there’s a good chance you’ll spot a great egret, hooded merganser, or common yellowthroat, but if you get lucky you may catch a glimpse of a barred owl or great horned owl.
Looking to linger a little longer? Hop on the Hike and Bike Trail to explore Historic Huntley, a Federal-style villa that served as a summer retreat, grain farm, Civil War encampment, and dairy farm before being converted into a museum. Tours are offered at 10:30 a.m. and 12 p.m. on Saturdays from May through October ($10 per person).
IF YOU’VE GOT SOME MONEY TO SPARE …
Check out the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. For $5 per person ($3 for children), you can take a self-guided tour of the 8,000-plus objects that were left in place when the apothecary closed in 1933. The family’s business is essentially frozen in time as you roam past hand-blown glass bottles, gold-leaf labels, and herbal botanicals. Other artifacts on display include letters and business ledgers bearing the names Martha Washington, Nelly Custis, and Robert E. Lee—all customers of the apothecary.
If you upgrade to the guided tour ($8 per person for ages 5 and older), you’ll have access to the second-floor manufacturing area, which feels like it has been plucked out of the pages of “Harry Potter.” You’ll find containers with labels like “Dragon’s Blood” and “Mandrake Root,” which always spark some curiosity.
When it comes to affordable adventure in Arlington and Alexandria, where will you go first? Tell us in the comments section below.