When people think of DC, they tend to think of monuments and office buildings. Across the river in Alexandria, though, is a town center that combines the big city with a delightful small town feel.
Old Town Alexandria is a strip of shopping and dining centered on King Street, which runs from Alexandria's Amtrak station (sometimes more convenient than Union Station if heading south) to the Alexandria Waterfront.
Very few major chains can be found here - instead, there are quirky boutiques and a variety of restaurants lining the brick sidewalks. Parking can be a challenge - instead of driving, take the Metro to King Street. A free shuttle bus runs down King Street to the waterfront, stopping frequently. For the fit, it is not at all infeasible to walk the entire length of King Street. About halfway down is the Market Square - one of the oldest farmers' markets in the country and also used as an outdoor venue.
King Street ends at the waterfront, where you can find the Torpedo Factory. Used as a munitions factory in World War II, it is now an artists' cooperative with shops and studio space - a great place to find unique handmade gifts. Evenings and weekends there is almost always a street performer working the plaza outside - often more than one. The Potomac Riverboat Company offers river cruises and a water taxi will take you to Georgetown, the Mall, Nationals Stadium or the new development at National Harbor. The quiet waters of this part of the Potomac are a great place to get sailing lessons.
Cyclists and serious hikers can access the Mount Vernon Trail from here - 18 miles along the river between the National Mall and Mount Vernon. The walk along the waterfront is pleasant in spring and fall.
If you are there to eat, you have many options. The waterfront area tends, obviously, to lean towards seafood, but there are classic restaurants in a variety of cuisines along King Street or just off it. Hank's Oyster Bar is notable for its New England style raw bar. Lord of the Rings fan? Tucked away a bit off the main drag is a theme restaurant called "Bilbo Baggins" - needless to say, mushrooms are important. If you are on more of a budget, you can try King Street Blues (Ironically not on King Street but on a side street off it) for southern style dining, Eamonn's for authentic Irish fish and chips (this place has limited seating so be ready to take your cod to go), or Hard Times Cafe for some of the best chili in the world.
On the shopping side, King Street is known for its antiques stores and boutiques catering to fashionable women, men, children, and, yes, pets. Lower budget? Old Town has some excellent thrift stores. You can also get books, comics, toys and a wide variety of home furnishings and art. Be aware that not all of the historic buildings here are readily accessible for wheelchair users (some have steps between them and the street). Throughout the year, Old Town also has a large number of events. Outdoor concerts in Market Square are common. Annual events include "Art Safari" at the Torpedo Factory and the Symphony Orchestra League of Alexandria's Annual Ball and Auction. Old Town's various pubs also provide opportunities for live music and comedy. An unusual attraction is the Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary Museum, which offers half hour tours where you can learn about old time medicine.
Old Town Alexandria has a feel that can help you forget, for a while, that you are in a big, sprawling city, and many options for good food, unusual shopping, and excellent music. Whether you are looking for a robust place to move to in the DC Metropolitan area or looking for a fun day or night, Alexandria is the place to do it.