Our Fourth of July weekend in Washington, D.C., didn't turn out as my husband and I had planned, mainly due to a searing toothache for him, but I was still able to hit the pavement and the river between Alexandria and Georgetown for plenty of side-street discoveries and dining options that didn't break the bank. And a week after we returned, Grace Bonney's Design Sponge blog ( designspongeonline.com ) posted its D.C. home-design shopping guide, written by Alexandria shop owner Amy Rutherford of Red Barn Mercantile (703-838-0355 or redbarnmercantile.com ), a home-décor store I always visit whenever I'm in the neighborhood. That guide alone justifies a return trip this fall.
In both Alexandria and Georgetown, I ate at La Madeleine Café and Bistro ( lamadeleine.com ). This chain is a lovely surprise. While you order cafeteria-style, the soups, breads and pastries are very good. My blackberry/cream-cheese croissant hit the sweet spot on Saturday afternoon, and a cup of vegetable soup and Parmesan crisps made for a perfect late-Sunday lunch in Georgetown. For my Sunday breakfast, I ducked into the Alexandria location of Bread and Chocolate (703-548-0992 or breadandchocolate.net ), which is locally owned. A $6 bowl of Birchermuesli topped with yogurt and fresh fruit was my antidote to the steaminess outside. Also try lunch or dinner at The Majestic Café (703-837-9117 or majesticcafe.com ), where everything, from pickles to chips, is made on-site. Last July, the restaurant even hosted a birthday dinner for the "First Granny" Marian Robinson and her guests, daughter (and first lady) Michelle Obama and granddaughters Sasha and Malia. Fittingly, the restaurant also serves a family-style Nana's Sunday dinner for $22 per person. In September, the set menu is lasagna Bolognese, Caesar salad, sautéed rapini with cherry tomatoes, focaccia and tiramisu.
My idea of visiting D.C. involves avoiding the Capital Beltway and ditching my car for the entire weekend. I'm able to do both by staying at Embassy Suites Alexandria (703-684-5900, weekend rate of $180/night), an easy drive from the King Street exit on I-395. Pull into the hotel's adjacent parking deck ($24 a day) and pull out only when you are ready to head back to Richmond. This hotel, located across the street from the King Street Metro/VRE/Amtrak station, offers a complimentary cooked-to-order buffet breakfast every morning, making it oh-so popular with families and school groups. It's chaotic dining, to say the least. A less-harried alternative for your morning meal can be found at Whole Foods (703-706-0891), which is around the corner from the hotel.
Four options here: First, the free King Street Trolley ( alexandriava.gov/Trolley ), which goes up and down King Street in Old Town Alexandria — a great service. Second, Embassy Suites has a free shuttle that guests can use for Old Town. It's especially convenient if you have a dinner reservation and then need a return ride. Third, there's the King Street Metro Station. Get almost anywhere in D.C. by riding the Metro, except for Georgetown and National Harbor. For those, use the services of the Potomac River Boat Company (see "Don't Miss"). Finally, if you're interested in seeing the sights, think about touring the Potomac in a kayak led by the folks from Jack's Boathouse in Georgetown (202-337-9642 or jacksboathouse.com ) or reserving a spot on a Sunday-morning bike tour through Old Town Alexandria with a guide from Bike and Roll (703-548-7655 or bikethesites.com ).
I tried to shop the side streets in Alexandria, staying off of packed King Street, and I was pleased with what I found. A block from the hotel is the Crate and Barrel Outlet (703-739-8800). I scored here on Marimekko fabric for $8 a yard as well as an adjustable beach chair and umbrella for $50. Don't miss the Shoe Hive (703-548-7105 or theshoehive.com ) and Hysteria (703-548-1615 or shophysteria.com ) in the 100 block of South Fairfax Street. Both shops have well-edited collections in creatively compact spaces. In addition to great women's-wear lines such as Trina Turk and Tory Burch, the jewelry and bag selection at Hysteria was also worth a long look. At Gossypia (703-836-6969 or gossypia.com ), the store was heavy on Eileen Fisher and Flax. It too boasted a great jewelry selection with copious amounts of stone-and-silver creations. In Georgetown, don't miss the ever-so-chic Barney's Co-Op (202-350-5832) and Cusp (202-625-0893), both with edgy designer labels and accessories. If you have the time on a Sunday, try to make your way up to the Georgetown Flea Market (202-775-3532 or georgetownfleamarket.com ) at 1819 35th St. NW. More than 40 vendors gather here weekly from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Take the Potomac River Boat Company's Monument Cruise (703-684-0580 or potomacriverboatco.com ) from Alexandria's City Marina, which is directly behind the Torpedo Factory Arts Center. While my husband was nursing his tooth and watching his beloved Washington Nationals on television instead of at the stadium, I opted for this cruise from Alexandria to Georgetown on a blistering afternoon. It was well worth the $24 round-trip ticket price. Our tour included a little wake and spray from passing boats and the history of Alexandria, the Lincoln Memorial, the Kennedy Center and the bridges leading into the district. I disembarked in Georgetown and then took a return boat an hour and a half later. Next year on the Fourth of July, I want to be on one of their boats, watching the fireworks over the Capitol. Those tickets sell out quickly. Be on the lookout for their release.