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WHY GO: Of course, George Washington’s Potomac Riverfront home, Mount Vernon, is the biggest draw to Fairfax County VA, but those who visit and then leave are missing out on naughty Civil War graffiti, Annie Oakley’s shotguns, milking a cow, The Shuttle Discovery, a Frank Lloyd Wright home, a prison-turned-art-center, mesmerizing waterfalls, planned communities – at least four days worth of activities just twenty minutes from Washington DC. Plan some day trips from the city or stay and explore. We tell you how here….
Things to Do in Fairfax County VA
TOUR: Mount Vernon, Mt. Vernon VA. With over a million visitors a year, George Washington’s Potomac River compound is the most visited Historic Home in the United States. Originally 50,000 acres, now 500 of which 50 are open to the public, encompassing the home, upper and lower gardens restored to their 1787 appearance, George and Martha Washington’s graves, twelve original outbuildings, and a shuttle to Washington’s Distillery (see below), it would take a day or more to see it all.
One of the most remarkable stories about Mount Vernon is how it was acquired from the Washington Family and how it is funded today. In the mid-1800’s, the U.S. Government was virtually broke, as costs of the Civil War mounted. So a local women’s preservation group – the Mount Vernon Ladies Association – raised an unprecedented $200,000 to purchase the historic home. “If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the women of America band together to save it?” wrote Louisa Bird Cunningham to her daughter in 1853. And so, they did. The home was restored and then open to the public in 1860.
The original 1-½ story center section, built by George Washington’s father in 1734, and the home’s wings, added by George and Martha in 1787, are in a constant state of refurbishment. In October 2017, the seven-month restoration of the upstairs Blue Room will be completed. Every room offers another relic of historical proportions. In the center hall, you’ll find the key to the Bastille – a gift from Lafayette to Washington post Revolutionary War. You’ll hold on to the very same staircase railing that George himself grasped, sit on the same porch, with transfixing views of the Potomac River, that the Washington’s and guests enjoyed, and tear up a bit when you climb the stairs to the top floor and stand before the bed upon which George Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799. After her husband passed away, Martha closed off the room, never to enter it again.
While wandering the grounds, you will most likely interact with historic characters in period dress, like the enslaved Caroline Branham, housemaid and seamstress, who you will learn about further in the Donald W. Reynolds Education Center. This museum is a must-do before or after touring the home – with a “sights and sounds multimedia experience” about Washington’s life. As there were no portraits of our first President before age 40, Mount Vernon enlisted the expertise of forensic scientists who created 3-D projections and sculptures of him in his youth. The museum also features a popular exhibit on the 300-plus enslaved workers who effectively ran Mount Vernon. Open daily 9-5 April-Oct, 9-4 Nov-March, $20 adults, $10 kids.
TOUR: George Washington Distillery and Gristmill. Discover how our first President made his own whiskey and spirits. You can see the nuts and bolts of grain and corn milling, watch the 16 ft tall waterwheel turn, learn about the most advanced 1700’s technology, and how whiskey was distilled in Washington’s time at this recently opened historic site. Take the shuttle from Mount Vernon to the reconstructed buildings on the footprint of Washington’s original businesses: flour milling and Rye Whisky making.
Though Washington had inherited a tobacco plantation, he found that wheat was less punishing on the terrain, and easier to grow. From his 8,000 cultivated acres, he devoted 800 acres to the grain, and from 1771 until his death in 1799, milled tens of thousands of pounds of wheat into the finest flour. By the late 1700’s, Washington hired distiller, James Andersen as his new farm manager. Anderson added rye and barley to the crops, and broke ground on a business he felt would be far more profitable: whiskey. In the fall of 1797, the new distillery was built, and the following year, it produced 4,500 gallons of Rye Whisky. The next year, the year that Washington died, the distillery produced 11,000 gallons, and was considered Washington’s most successful business venture.
Both the distillery and gristmill burned to the ground in 1814, and were rebuilt on their original footprints two hundred years later. Historic Mount Vernon now manages this site, grinds flour and corn, and makes the “Common Whiskey” (off season) the way that GW did – with lots of backbreaking labor and elbow grease. Bags of flour and bottles of un-aged rye whiskey can be found in the gift shop both on site and at Mount Vernon. Though costly ($188 Straight Rye, $155 Peach Brandy) you can pick up a Collector’s Gift Box that includes an airplane-sized bottle and shot glass for $31.50. Open daily 10-5 April through October, included in admission to Mt. Vernon.
GO: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Annex at Dulles Airport, Chantilly. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I was within reach of the B-29 Superfortress Bomber that dropped an Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. The Enola Gay is but one of the “Big Five” historic aircraft housed in this lesser known but larger-than-its-DC-cousin Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, adjacent to Dulles Airport in Fairfax County VA. And though the aviation hanger-sized galleries are packed with an overwhelming number of commercial and military aircraft, and the museum itself has been touted by Virginia.org as “The Best Place to Get in Your 10,000 Steps,” you can narrow down your visit to an hour by seeking out the five most significant pieces of flying history.
There’s the Boeing 707 Dash-80, considered the first commercial passenger jet (not the first commercial prop plane, however), with a back-story that includes the barrel-roll derring-do of a pilot attempting to show off to Boeing execs. You’ll behold the never popular enough Concord, which was fast but much too expensive for commercial use, and the all titanium SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest flying machine in the world, which made it from L.A. to Washington DC in 1 hour 4 minutes, 20 seconds. Incredibly, three docents here have actually piloted this stealth beauty.
Though surrounded by breathtaking airships, I found the Space Shuttle Discovery to be the most awe-inspiring of the Big Five. From August 1984 to March 2011, Discovery flew 39 missions. Lying horizontally, it is gargantuan – much larger than I ever imagined and remarkable in its technology and engineering. If you’ve got the time, check out a presentation in the jumbo-sized IMAX Theater that seats 479, and then take the elevator to the observation tower where you can watch airplanes taking off and landing at Dulles Airport. Open 10-5:30 daily, free, but $15 parking.
TOUR: Frank Lloyd Wright Pope-Leighey House and Woodlawn Plantation. Two very different homes, two distinct eras, two important architects, are on the same “campus.” Woodlawn, the very first property acquired by the National Trust, was designed by Dr. William Thornton – a Renaissance Man who was a physician, artist, and architect best known for designing DC’s Capitol Building. But here’s a little known fact: Thornton, according to the guide, “wanted to turn George Washington into a zombie.” Yep – as a doctor, he came up with a scheme to freeze our first President on his deathbed and re-animate him at a later date: a plan that, thankfully, was never implemented.
George Washington commissioned Thornton to build this estate for Martha’s granddaughter Nellie and her new husband, Lawrence Lewis, within telescope-sight of Mount Vernon. Woodlawn, first built in 1800-1805, spent just one ownership cycle as a Plantation, before being sold to a succession of people. After Lawrence’s death in 1838, their son, Lorenzo, sold Woodlawn out from under his mother, Nellie, in the 1840’s to the Troth-Gillingham Lumber Company. The Troths and Gillingham’s, Philly Quakers, invited freed slaves and other religious minorities – Catholics and Baptists – to work the land.
In the 1850’s, Woodlawn was sold to the Mason family who abandoned it by 1889, and in the 1890’s a hurricane seemed to finish it off. But not to worry. In 1900, the rehab-and-flip-it-nut, New York Playwright, Paul Kesler, purchased the dilapidated property for a song, renovated it from 1900-1905, and sold it to coal heiress, Elizabeth Sharpe, who then modernized it. A year after Sharpe passed away in 1924, the final private owners, Senator and Mrs. Oscar Underwood, lived in the home until 1951, when it was purchased by the National Trust.
A fascinating time-line tour showcases 200 years of adaptations by each owner: the Lewis era in the dining room, Victorian hearth and home parlor of the Masons, the addition of unappealing, low-ceiling second floor hallways by Kesler, radiators in the upstairs massive soaring ceiling bedrooms c/o Sharpe. There’s a portrait of the just-married Nellie “doing her Instagram pose” along with one of her tidy needlepoint pictures, and a bust of George Washington by Hiram Powers, a mid 1800’s artist notable for “introducing nudity to American sculpture.” Guides are full of anecdotes and funny asides, rendering a tour through Woodlawn a very entertaining way to spend an hour.
Next door, a short walk away, the 1,200 sq ft. Pope-Leighey House – the only Wright home in Virginia open to the public – built in 1939, was somewhat of a challenge for Wright. This middle-class Usonian house was scaled down from its original 1,800 sq. ft blueprint– a significant reduction of space. Loren Pope had written Wright a “very flattering letter,” admitting that he could only afford two thirds of Wright’s typical Usonian, and the result is as eye-catching and clever as all of his designs.
Yes, all the famous Wright tropes are present and accounted for: bringing nature inside, “breaking the box,” compression and expansion, in wood, brick, glass, concrete and copper. The living room appears larger than it is, due to soaring 12-½ ft. ceiling, with glass doors and wood-cut windows that create interesting sight-lines and cross-ventilation. The floor is radiant heat, bedrooms are Pullman-Car small, with copper screen on windows to warm incoming sunlight. And, amazingly, the phone has a dial tone. You can still call here. Both Houses open April – Dec., Fri-Mon, 11am-4pm, $20 for both houses. Arrive at the latest by 2pm.
TOUR: Historic Blenheim, Fairfax. This 1859 Georgian style brick farmhouse and estate is less known for its first occupant, the mixed crop and dairy farmer, Albert Wilcoxon, who supplied farm goods to the Confederate troops, and more for its inordinate amount of Civil War soldier graffiti. In fact, Fairfax County has earned the distinction of having the “largest collection of German-born Union soldiers’ signatures who wrote on walls of houses.”
Two years after it was built, Wilcoxon’s home was destroyed by Union soldiers rampaging through Fairfax Court House in 1861, and then vandalized by those who camped out there on several occasions. The resulting “writing on the walls” is so abundant and authentic, historians are able to identify most of the young men who either awaited orders during a 2 week period in 1862, or convalesced here when it served as a Civil War field hospital from October 1862 through January 1863. The average age of those graffiti artists and taggers was 25, most were farmers, and 45% were foreign born (Germany, Bavaria, Prussia, Wales, England, and other countries). Since 1998, 121 soldiers have been identified, along with their regiments, companies, and hometowns.
Visitors from all over the world with Virginia roots come here to see their ancestor’s handwriting on plaster walls that have been preserved under carefully removed wallpaper. Heinrich Sauermich was three months shy of his 15th birthday when he joined the 73rd PA Volunteer Infantry. He lived to prosper in the tobacco and cigar business. One unnamed soldier with the 4th NY Cavalry scribbled a comic strip depiction of his frame of mind after 4 months of war: First month – “Still a Patriot”; End of one month “hard tack – hard on Patriotism;” 2nd month – “payday – Patriotic again” (though his drawing shows a figure in ripped clothes, falling down drunk); 4th month – “No money, no whiskey, no friends, no rations, no peas, no beans, no pants, no Patriotism.”
Most of the injured young men, many just teen-agers, were stashed in the attic, which was never wallpapered. Because of this, it’s where you’ll find the best-preserved graffiti. Sadly, this floor is inaccessible to visitors for safety reasons. But not to worry: the 3rd floor has been recreated in the new Visitor’s Center – so you can see these “diaries on walls” – every signature, every scribble, and every amateur drawing – including crudely explicit men’s and women’s genitalia. Open Tues-Sat 10-3, one hour guided tours 1pm Tues-Sat, free.
GO: National Firearms Museum at NRA Headquarters, Fairfax. I know this is a contentious subject, and many will be turned away by just the thought of driving into the NRA parking lot. But take it from this “left-leaning liberal” – if you want to see the mother-of-pearl pistol and carved wood shotgun used by Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, if you’d like to peek at the exquisite handiwork of the gold-embossed 1800 Fatou Flintlock Double Barrel Fowler commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte, or one of 75 guns used by John Brown at Harpers Ferry, if you’ve got any appreciation for the Smith and Wesson that Clint Eastwood carried in the movie, Dirty Harry or his M-1 from Gran Torino, if you want to see the tiniest pistol in the world in working order, a finely filigreed “Colt Vampire Gun” in its coffin case, or the largest exhibit of Gatling Guns in the world – if you are curious about the history of firearms at all – this larger than it first looks collection of guns spanning 700 years in 15 galleries, is worth an hour, at least.
Opened here in 1998 (there are two other museums; one in Missouri and one in New Mexico), the National Firearms Museum is maintained by the non-political arm of the NRA, its Foundation, which offers programs on gun safety. The museum’s centerpiece is a 400-piece assemblage of rare firearms donated by publisher Robert E. Peterson, which included Oakley’s guns and three Parker’s Invincibles – costing $1200 apiece in 1922 and priceless now. Though the Hollywood Movie gallery is the most popular, the most poignant pistol on display is one battered and bent; recovered from the rubble on 9-11, its serial number traced it to NYPD officer, Walter Weaver, who had swapped his day off with a buddy on the force, and whose body was never found. Museum open daily 9:30-5, free. Complimentary tours 1pm Mon-Fri.
VISIT/SHOP/MAKE: Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton. Prisoners made the bricks that built this reformatory in 1910, a place that “lower level offenders” would be assigned outside of the “terrible prison conditions in DC.” In 1917, suffragists, arrested for picketing in front of the White House, went on a hunger strike and endured a “Night of Terror” being violently force-fed: a episode that became one of the final straws in getting the 19th Amendment passed. By 2001, conditions here had deteriorated, prisoners were shipped off to Federal facilities, and the blighted property was sold to the county. Used by the Fire and Police departments as a training site, it was flooded, set on fire, and crashed into by buses and helicopters.
In 2008, however, the facility found new life as an Arts Center, with gallery spaces, 65 artist studios and art instruction. Now, over 800 classes in fine, performing, and culinary arts are taught here every year, along with concerts, brew-fests, July 4th fireworks, and a really, really scary haunted house in October. Each of the dozen or so low-slung buildings ringing a central courtyard houses artists in different mediums: Glass, Ceramics, Blackbox Theater, Art Gallery exhibiting juried art, etc. It would take you days to peruse everything – and meet each artist, but don’t miss stepping into the studio of former U.S. Army illustrator, Martin Cervantez, who, besides creating his own work, fosters creativity in other veterans by overseeing the Workhouse SCAPE (Service member Community Art Partnership and Exchange program) – a form of Art Therapy – every Saturday.
Cervantez, who wears a t-shirt stating, “I don’t need therapy, I just need to paint,” started out here by transforming former guard towers into colorful kaleidoscopes. One of his latest creations– a whitewashed bicycle seat skull with gilded Barbie antlers – is what Cervantez calls “scrapadermy.” Workhouse open Wed-Sat 11-6, Sun 12-5, free.
TOUR: Frying Pan Farm Park, Herndon. At 4pm every day, guests line up to milk a cow. It’s one of those long lost tasks brought back to life on this 1920’s – 40’s era educational-working farm, and from the looks of it, a very popular activity. Locals love this 135 acre farm, which also features draft horses, pigs, sheep, peacocks and more, as a respite from the city; a place to walk, see animal babies (or even, animals giving birth – just stay out of the “splash zone”), shop in the excellent Country Store, ride the antique carousel, explore the historic buildings, and learn how things were done around the farm in the early to mid 20th century. “Farmers in Fairfax County VA were always multi-tasking, always Type-A,” says a docent/historian. “They were always on the cutting edge of technology – being the best farmers they could be.” Open daily dawn to dusk, free. Draft Horse Wagon Rides 12:30-2:30, $6 pp. Events, e.g. Sunday Evenings Bluegrass Concert Series in the Barn, Oct-April, $18.
GO: Great Falls Park. Managed by the National Park Service, the Great Falls are aptly named, both for the quality of vistas, and the danger of the cascading water for anyone attempting to navigate these Class V and VI rapids (not recommended, to say the least, by authorities). There are three easily accessible overlooks, just a few minutes walk from the Visitor’s Center, and I can’t emphasize enough how mesmerizing the view of volumes of whitewater surging over boulders can be at sunset. You’ll just have to see it yourself. Open daily dawn to 30 minutes after sunset, Visitor Center daily 10-4. $10 per vehicle, $5 per person walking or biking in.
WALK: Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, Vienna. Did you know that Prickly Pear Cactus is indigenous to Virginia’s Potomac Valley? You’ll discover that on a foray through the wetlands, bogs, ponds, children’s garden, and forests that are part of the NOVA (Northern Virginia) Park System – incredibly, just shy of 20 miles from the Washington Monument in DC. In 1980, environmentalists Carolyn Ware and Gardiner Means donated 74 acres to NOVA as a Botanical Garden and Meadowlark has since grown to 97 acres.
Perhaps Meadowlark’s biggest draw these days is the new Korean Bell Garden, anchored by a three ton seven foot tall handcrafted Korean bell, embellished with both Virginia and Korean symbols and good wishes of peace and harmony from one country to another. Meadowlark’s most popular event is held in the coldest season– its Winter Walk of Lights – when strings of over 500,000 LED lights are coiled around trees, bushes, and rocks, creating a fairytale setting in the darkest depths of the year. Open daily at 10, closes between 4:30 and 7:30 depending on time of year, $5 adults, $2.50 kids.
GO/MUSIC/DANCE: Wolf Trap National Park For the Performing Arts, Vienna. It’s the only National Park devoted to the performing arts in the USA.
WANDER: A Planned Community: Reston, Tyson’s Corner, Mosaic section of Fairfax. Reston VA was from its inception in 1964 a Planned Community – named after its developer, Robert E. Simon – and the granddaddy of all that followed. Tyson’s Corner, in McLean, encompasses high end residential, hotels, and retail, with a new Mike Isabella high-concept, ten restaurant Food Hall planned for the Tysons Galleria. Mosaic, a very walkable “Urban Village,” is growing leaps and bounds around the Angelika Film Center and Café. Within its expanding boundaries you’ll find Home Depot, Anthropology, Great Gatherings, plenty of independent shops, and great restaurants including Sisters Thai and Requin – with French Mediterranean cuisine by Chef Jennifer Carroll.
Where to Eat and Drink in Fairfax County VA
EAT: Red’s Table, Reston. A cute rustic-contemporary spot by a small lake, Red’s prides itself on fried chicken ($18), Smokey Chicken Wings ($12), salads, and other locally sourced American comfort food. The food, thanks to Reston natives Matthew, Patrick, and Ryan Tracy, is down-home good, service great, and ambiance a breath of fresh air after a busy day.
EAT/TASTE: Caboose Brewing Co., Vienna. So hot, it’s got valet parking, so cool, it’s slogan is “Good Beer, Thoughtful Food,” Caboose Brewing is known not only for its freshly brewed beer, but also for locally sourced small bites. Try Hummingbird Farm Tomato Salad ($12), Oven Baked Mac and Cheese ($10), Southern Fried Chicken and Blue Cornbread ($13). A stop on the 45-mile Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail (linking Arlington to Purcellville), Caboose is also a gathering place for cyclists.
EAT/SPORTS BAR: Glory Days Grill, Fairfax. Though there are now 30 locations, this is the first, and with dozens of wall-mounted TV’s and private “Sports Select Speaker Box” at each table that syncs to each one, this is an extreme a sports bar as you’ll ever find. Service is great – and food, for such a place with the usual salads, burgers, and chicken – is decent and reasonably priced.
EAT: CAVA. This is the freshest Mediterranean-food cafeteria-style eatery to come down the pike. Put together your own bowl or plate of base, protein, and toppings, for a toothsome lunch.
EAT: Locals love Founding Fathers – American comfort food in Tyson’s Corner, L’auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls – considered the best French restaurant in the DC area, Taco Bamba in Falls Church for innovative taco’s, and Sisters Thai in Mosaic for excellent, inexpensive Asian food.
Where to Stay in Fairfax County VA
Most hotels in the area are large chains. Some of the most upscale, like the Ritz Carlton, can be found in Tyson’s Corner.
STAY: Hyatt Regency Fairfax. This high-end newly renovated Hyatt places you in the center of Fairfax County, and is a perfect location for exploring the area. Large rooms with cushy platform beds are handsomely decorated in shades of nature. Best of all, the full service hotel offers free parking. That’s quite a perk so close to DC.