Long before Washington was planned, the shores of the Potomac had been divided into plantations by wealthy traders and gentlemen farmers. Most traces of the Colonial era were obliterated as the capital grew in the 19th century, but several splendid examples of plantation architecture remain on the Virginia side of the Potomac,
15 mi or so south of D.C. In one day you can easily visit three such mansions: Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington and one of the most popular sites in the area; Woodlawn, the estate of Washington's step-granddaughter; and Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, author of the document on which the Bill of Rights was based. (Expect the longest wait times at Mount Vernon, particularly in spring and summer.) Set on hillsides overlooking the river, these estates offer magnificent vistas and bring back to vivid life the more palatable aspects of the 18th century. They are all accessible from I-95, south of Alexandria.
In 1649 King Charles II of England gave the land that would become Fairfax County to seven English noblemen. It became a county in 1742 and was named after Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax. Widespread tobacco farming, the dominant industry in the 18th century, eventually depleted the land. After tobacco, dairy farming became the major agricultural activity, and by 1925 Fairfax was first among all Virginia counties in dairy production. Today the economy depends upon business and government, and Fairfax County has one of the highest per capita incomes in the country. Wolf Trap, the only national park dedicated to the performing arts, is here, and throughout the year it draws concertgoers from miles around.
Loudoun County, capital of Virginia's horse country and an hour away from D.C., abounds with historic villages and towns, antiques shops, wineries, farms, and heritage sites; the countryside is littered with stables, barns, and stacked-stone fences. The Potomac River borders the county on the north. In the major towns in Loudoun, such as Leesburg, Middleburg, and Waterford, residents keep alive traditional rural Virginia pursuits like fox hunts, steeplechases, and high-profile entertaining.
Although D.C. gets all the recognition for its place in the nation's history, visitors to the region might be surprised by the richness of Northern Virginia. This border region—which originally contributed some of the land to create D.C.—is chockablock with historical references and diverse cultural experiences. Some of the greatest presidents used D.C.'s southern neighbor for their own plantation homes. (George Washington's grand home Mount Vernon is a star attraction.) An influx of immigration has also brought an exciting variety of cuisines to satisfy anyone's palate.
Traffic between the District and Northern Virginia goes both ways (each way slowly). Nearby areas have grown significantly in the recent past and have modern housing, government, and office buildings. Tysons Corner in Fairfax County has major retail outlets clustered close to the I-495 Beltway and has office buildings sprawling across 25.8 million square feet. The area employs about 128,000 people, many of them commuters. Expansion toward Dulles International Airport has been particularly massive, especially along the toll road to the airport. Because of their proximity to D.C., many residents consider themselves Washingtonians, though some Washingtonians think otherwise.