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Northern Virginia Travel Guide

  • Photo: Mesut Dogan / Shutterstock

Plan Your Northern Virginia Vacation

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.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Take a Moment to Reflect at Arlington National Cemetery See Arlington House and its Washington view; learn about prominent early Virginia families Washington, Custis, Randolph, and Lee. Visit the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Kennedy graves, and those of other famous Americans, all within these sacred grounds.
  2. Get to Know the First President at Mount Vernon Visit the historic plantation and learn about George Washington's many contributions as a farmer, patriot, general, and president. See his threshing barn, gristmill, distillery, and personal artifacts, and experience the new interactive displays.
  3. Return to the First Shot of the Civil War Explore the site of the first Civil War battle at Manassas National Battlefield Park in the peaceful Virginia countryside. A second Battle of Manassas lasted three days and resulted in 3,300 killed. (The Confederacy won both battles.)
  4. Wonder at the Views in Great Falls Visit the scenic fall line of the Potomac River, a barrier to upriver navigation that necessitated settlements at Georgetown and Alexandria and the Patowmack Canal, remnants of which are in the park, and later the C&O Canal.

When To Go

When to Go to Northern Virginia

Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp, so expect muggy weather if visiting in the summer months. Winter on rare occasions gets extremely cold, ...

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