When you think of Virginia, rich history and natural beauty may come to mind. And there’s no better place to experience both than Fredericksburg, VA. From its colonial-era architecture to its sprawling national parks, this city offers a wealth of experiences that cater to a diverse range of interests. Whether you’re seeking a romantic getaway or an outdoor adventure, there are plenty of things to do in Fredericksburg, VA that you won’t want to miss.
Ask a local about the appeal of Fredericksburg VA, and you’ll most likely hear the word “layers,” as in, “there are so many layers of history and approaches to this town, it’s impossible to summarize in a sound bite.”
Fredericksburg was established in the early 1700’s, at the end point of navigation on the Rappahannock River from the Chesapeake Bay. It was a thriving port city and the boyhood home of George Washington.
In 1738, George Washington’s father, Augustine, moved his family to land across the river. A ferry, in a location now marked “Washington’s Ferry,” took him back and forth from home to Fredericksburg. The Washington family lived here from age six. Both his mother, Mary Washington, and his sister, Betty Washington Lewis owned Fredericksburg homes, now open to the public for tours.
There were four major Civil War Battles in the area, as Fredericksburg was in a strategic location. It was 50 miles from both the Union base of Washington DC and Confederate Richmond VA. The Rappahannock River served as a natural barrier between the two.
The three Church spires that Civil War soldiers could see while marching into town still stand. They remain the highest points on the Fredericksburg skyline.
Now, though, instead of soldiers, the town teems with culinary artists, boutique inns, and fine independent shops. Fredericksburg draws celebrities to its classy, professional dinner theater, and is home to one of the best small-batch bourbon distilleries in the country.
Fredericksburg is on our list of 20 Surprisingly Romantic Getaways in VA. Check it out if you wish to explore the state further. Looking for someplace dreamy outside of Virginia? Check out our 150 Best Romantic Getaways in the Northeast US (Virginia to Maine).
Where is Fredericksburg VA?
Fredericksburg, Virginia, is strategically situated along the I-95 corridor, approximately halfway between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, the state capital. The city is about 50 miles south of D.C. and around 58 miles north of Richmond, making it an accessible destination for travelers from both cities.
Situated alongside the Rappahannock River, Fredericksburg is part of the Washington Metropolitan Area and is a hub of history, culture, and outdoor activities. Its location also places it within easy reach of various historical sites and natural landscapes, offering a balanced mix of urban and rural experiences.
Fun Things to Do in Fredericksburg VA
TOUR: Trolly Tours of Fredericksburg VA
Just in town for a couple of hours? This 75-minute trolly tour will give you a quick overview of the town’s history, leaving you wanting for more. You’ll just have to come back for a few more days.
TOUR: Hallowed Ground Tours
If you have a full day to explore Fredericksburg VA history, you’ll want to enlist the formidable skills of Scott Walker, “Tourmaster.” He will custom-design a guided tour itinerary for your preferred timeframe (both in real time, and in the historical sense), and weave stories about the area so adroitly, you’ll come away with a visceral sense of Fredericksburg history.
I was most interested in the Civil War Tale of Stonewall Jackson’s Arm. So, Walker took me on a thrilling “timeline tour” of this very strange episode in history. I stopped into the following attractions with him, but you can visit each on your own.
VISIT: Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park
The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park serves as a poignant reminder of the American Civil War’s impact on the nation. Covering four major battlefields—Fredericksburg Battlefield, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House—the park is a sprawling historical site.
Visitors can walk along well-preserved trails, explore the visitor centers that provide in-depth historical context, and stand on overlooks where crucial decisions changed the course of battles and, by extension, American history. With a focus on education and remembrance, the park is a destination for those looking to delve deeply into the Civil War’s complexities.
Tour Chatham Manor
This homestead is notable for having hosted three Presidents – Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Built in the 1770s for William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, it was owned by Horace Lacy during the Civil War when Lincoln came to call.
Like all large homes and buildings of the day, Chatham became a Civil War hospital. This is where Mary Edwards Walker, the second female medical doctor in the country, and first to receive a Medal of Honor, healed the war wounded.
Walt Whitman also served as a nurse here. His poem, The Wound Dresser, draws graphically and poignantly on this experience.
While the war was raging, Fredericksburg VA was a dangerous place to be.
So Horace Lacy moved out of town to a relatively modest farm home he called Ellwood Manor. This would prove important in the tale of Stonewall Jackson’s amputated arm.
The view from the terrace – across the River into Fredericksburg – hasn’t changed much, and it’s worth the short jaunt just to see it.
Chatham’s last owner, General Motor’s Executive, John Pratt, improved the house and grounds. The decorative musical-note iron fence he had constructed, spells out “Home Sweet Home.”
When the National Park Service took over the mansion, other important interior elements were discovered and preserved. The most photographed is Civil War graffiti on original plaster walls – etched by members of the 30th Infantry.
Battle of Chancellorsville
One hundred thirty thousand Union soldiers faced off against 65,000 Confederates during 2 ½ weeks in May 1863. Who won? Not the obvious side.
Smack dab in the midst of the four-year war, this battle featured celebrity General “Stonewall Jackson” (see Manassas VA), and General Robert E. Lee. The two hatched a plan to outfox an army more than twice the size of theirs.
As you make your way through the park, you’ll find remnants of a past industry. Augustine Washington came to Fredericksburg because he knew that there was iron ore all around – a “cash crop” smelted locally in iron furnaces, some of which can still be found intact.
Tons of trees were felled to fuel the smelters, clearing land for farming. But this area wasn’t cut.
These uncut tangles of foliage were referred to as the “wilderness.” It served as a good place for Confederate troops to hide while advancing on their opponents.
While Lee pretended to diddle on the main road with a few thousand soldiers, fooling Union officers into believing those were his only men, Jackson marched his line of 30,000 soldiers twelve miles around the vulnerable Union flank.
This strategy resulted in the second bloodiest day in Civil War history – with 21,000 casualties in one day (vs. 23,000 at Antietam) – and a Confederate victory.
Stonewall Jackson’s Fateful Day
It also proved fatal to Stonewall Jackson who was shot by his own men while on nighttime reconnaissance. Walk the path to the place where Jackson was wounded, then spend some time in the Visitor’s Center, which tells the tale of this important and deadly battle.
Jackson, barely alive, was loaded onto a bumpy wooden ambulance. Accompanied by his personal Chaplain, Beverly Lacy, Horace’s brother, he ended up at a field hospital on what is now Route 3/Plank Rd. There, Jackson’s arm was removed. (There’s actually a plaque that marks the spot of “Jackson’s Amputation” on Route 3).
Lacy, knowing that his brother’s place, Ellwood Manor, was just up the hill, decided to bury the great man’s arm in a marked grave, rather than have it thrown unceremoniously on a heap of other discarded limbs. Jackson later died from his injuries.
The Grave of Stonewall Jackson’s Arm at Ellwood Manor
If the home is open, stop in. Otherwise, you can find the headstone for Jackson’s Arm past a hedgerow path and down into a field to the right side of the house.
WALK: Around Downtown Fredericksburg VA
Fredericksburg VA is saturated with Black history. A Slave Auction Block remains on the corner of William and Charles Streets, a sad reminder of a thriving business.
The diary of the enslaved John Washington recounts Union Soldiers standing on the far side of the Rappahannock River, calling to Black men and women to cross to their freedom. “A most memorable night it was when the soldiers assured me that I was a free man,” he wrote on April 18, 1862.
Walking tours of the Washington Heritage Museums provides a fascinating journey into America’s past, right in the heart of Virginia. Comprising four historic 18th-century properties, these museums offer an in-depth look at the life and times of early Fredericksburg residents, including George Washington’s family. The Mary Washington House, where George Washington’s mother lived, the Rising Sun Tavern, Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, and St. James’ House collectively encapsulate different facets of colonial life, from medical practices to domestic settings.
Rising Sun Tavern
In costume, current manager Jo Atkins, channels Elizabeth Frazier, the wife of the first tavern keeper, John, who died, leaving Elizabeth to run the place.
Built in 1760 for George Washington’s youngest brother, Charles, the home was turned into a Tavern in 1792 and operated as one until the 1820s. It then became a private residence.
Atkins stays in character through an illuminating, entirely entertaining 45-minute tour of the only prosperous tavern in Fredericksburg at that time. It was a place where ladies could enter and “not lose their reputation.” Safe in their own sitting room, women could “repair damages to their appearance after a bumpy 50-mile carriage ride.”
You’ll learn the origins of many weird words and phrases. For example, “drink like a fish” originated from the fish stamped at the bottom of “stirrup cup” tankards. “Here’s looking at you” was based on the fact that the bottoms of many mugs were made of glass, allowing imbibers to see their companions even while drinking.
Both Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm are run by the George Washington Foundation. Historic Kenmore is an elegant Georgian-style mansion that once belonged to George Washington’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis, and her husband, Fielding Lewis. The façade of Kenmore still bears a cannonball.
George Washington’s Ferry Farm serves as the childhood home of the first U.S. president, offering visitors an insightful look into his formative years through archeological exhibits and reconstructed buildings.
The James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library is a comprehensive repository of artifacts and exhibits focusing on the fifth U.S. President, James Monroe. The museum, situated on the site of Monroe’s law office, offers visitors a deep dive into his life, public service, and the tumultuous period of American history during which he lived.
Purchased in 1916 by American Naturalist painter (contemporary of John Singer Sargent) Gari Melcher, this home and studio is perfect for art historians looking for an alternative to Civil War history.
Did you know that authentic bourbon must be a) from the USA, b) 60% corn, and c) aged in brand-new charred oak barrels?
After a one-hour tour of this repurposed cellophane plant (FMC closed in the 1970s), you’ll know all there is to know about the history of this company and the distilling and aging process. And of course, you’ll get to sample the goods.
Master Distiller, Brian Prewitt, presides over this small-batch distillery. In the distilling room, stare up at two massive copper stills – “George” and “Mary.” Mary is the “workhorse.” George, with its coiled piping, looks like something Willy Wonka and Captain Nemo would have dreamed up.
Of course, you can purchase bottles of Vodka, Gin, and Bourbon in the gift shop. But my favorite souvenir was a bag of bourbon-soaked charcoal, which had flaked off inside of charred oak barrels during the aging process. It makes for the perfect barbecue enhancer.
SHOP: Sugar + Spruce
Owned by aesthetician, Crystal Wellman, Sugar + Spruce makes buying natural colorful scented soaps, lotions, and bath products a blast.
SHOP: Old Town Fredericksburg VA
You won’t find one franchise store in Old Town, which is a boon to window shoppers everywhere. This part of town is so compact, that you can emerge from Mary or Betty Washington’s house, say, and within seconds be trying on a one-of-a-kind dress.
Actor Sally Struthers (who stays in Fredericksburg while performing at the Riverside Center) is partial to The Kitchen AT Whittingham, a home and kitchen goods store. “It’s got amazing windows – Bob used to do the windows at Saks in NY,” Struthers gushes. “Bob Wittingham is my litmus test for taste.”
DO: See a Show at Riverside Center
This is not your grandma’s dinner theater. Book a seat and you may very well see Sally Struthers vamping it up on stage. Broadway actor, Patrick A’Hearn, named Producing Artistic Director of the theater in 2014, launched the original Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber in Jan/Feb of that year, garnering a “huge response.”
Lately, A’Hearn has been pushing the envelope on traditional dinner theater fare, with Spamalot, Steel Magnolias, and 9 to 5, starring a hilariously bawdy Sally Struthers.
WALK: Government Island – Stafford
It’s about a 20-minute drive north on I-95 to the “Freestone” Sandstone quarry that supplied the building blocks for the White House and our country’s Capitol Building.
Once an island (now silted in), a wide navigable creek encircled Government Island. It was thus easy for quarrymen to load ships that would float out to the Potomac River and then on to DC.
In full production from 1791 – 1795 and then after the War of 1812, Government Island has been preserved as a nature park. There’s a 1 ½ mile loop on boardwalks and easy paths, perfect for bird watching.
Along the way, you’ll see remnants of quarried rock, scored by pick-marks, end pieces or “spoil stone,” and gorgeous river vistas.
Fredericksburg VA Restaurants
Pronounced “foodie” this unassuming counter-service spot serves some of the best meals in the region. Throw cardiac worries to the wind and savor a slice of Pimento Cheese Toast. The Pan Roasted Trout and Herb Marinated NY Strip are but two phenomenal choices on the menu. Even the Roasted Cauliflower, with crème fresh and puffed faro, is a revelation. The menu changes weekly.
EAT: Locals love
La Petite Auberge – a standard, Basilico for Italian, and the Irish pub, Park Lane Tavern.
TREAT: Carl’s Frozen Custard
A tradition in these parts and still family-owned. Soft serve frozen custard in a walk-up stand – Carl’s is cash only and a summer favorite.
Fredericksburg VA Hotels
STAY: 1890 Caroline House & Richard Johanson Inn
Right at the edge of the cute-boutique section of town, this beautifully decorated three-room inn balances 1920s chic with 2020s kick.
Room one – with crown moldings, bay window, black and white pallet, high tech jet tub, glass shower, wrought iron bed, gas fireplace, mirrored vanity desk, dark walls, and sparkling crystal chandelier, could be one of the most popular on a “House Design” tour.
Sister property, the Richard Johnston Inn (see below), is a block away. Breakfast is an extravagant affair. Dine on the likes of Asparagus Crepes with Hollandaise Sauce, Lemon Eggs Over Potatoes and Peppers – or anything you prefer, really. Stays include welcome snacks, complementary bourbon, and three-course gourmet breakfast.
This second luxury inn also puts you at the center of Historic Fredericksburg. Guests staying here and at the 1890 Caroline House will be treated to a phenomenal breakfast in the stately dining room. Rooms and suites stays include three-course gourmet breakfast.
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