Northern Virginia offers travelers a bevy of must-do activities that include historical, cultural, and natural attractions. There are a number of outstanding museums visitors will not want to miss, like the Virginia Museum of the Civil War or the Shenandoah Valley Cultural Heritage Museum. Historic battlefields will appeal to history buffs, while gardeners will appreciate such colonial gardens as Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. Of course, visiting the Pentagon and Arlington Cemetery are must-do activities. There are parks and natural areas for outdoor enthusiasts to explore, including mountains, lakes and waterfalls. This list of 25 things to do in Northern Virginia will get travelers going.
1.Old Town Alexandria
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Old Town Alexandria is a bustling tourist destination rich with history and nostalgic charm as well as distinctive dining and shopping options. Its well-preserved 18th and 19th century buildings have been repurposed as culinary hotspots, independent boutiques, and intimate museums. For a dose of art and history, the Torpedo Factory Art Center is a unique space with a storied past that is a must-see destination. Visitors can board the King Street Trolley at any one of the stops between the waterfront and the Old Town Metrorail station for a free hop-on, hop-off tour of the neighborhood. Things to Do in Alexandria VA
2.Arlington National Cemetery
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Established during the Civil War as a final resting place for those who served their country, the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery now house multiple monuments and memorials in addition to the graves of more than 400,000 servicemen and servicewomen. Visitors to this solemn site can witness the time-honored tradition of the Changing of the Guard in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, enjoy the peace created by the trees of the Memorial Arboretum, and attend a remembrance ceremony at the Memorial Amphitheater. Open daily, the Welcome Center provides visitors with maps and information services and houses exhibits and displays that tell the story of the cemetery. Things to Do in Arlington
1 Memorial Avenue, Arlington, VA, Phone: 877-907-8585
3.Oatlands Historic House & Garden
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The Oatlands Historic House & Gardens is a National Historic Landmark. Originally owned by George Carter, a descendant of one of Virginia’s first families, the 400-acre property is open 9 months of the year and provides visitors with an up-close look at plantation life in the 19th century. Oatlands hosts a variety of educational programs and special events for school groups, families, and historians. For a unique experience, visitors can go on a paranormal tour of the mansion and grounds or conduct their own investigation into some of the unexplained events that are said to have occurred at Oatlands!
20850 Oatlands Plantation Lane, Leesburg, VA, Phone: 703-777-3174
4.Battle of Cedar Creek National Park
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Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park was created to commemorate the Battle of Cedar Creek and to preserve Belle Grove. The National Park Service and its partner agencies offer guided tours of the battlegrounds, the Belle Grove Plantation, and the Hupp’s Hill Civil War Museum. The Visitor Contact Station in Middletown distributes information and brochures for tourists who want to explore the battlefield on a self-guided driving tour. Regional historical societies host a series of lectures throughout the year for history buffs who want to learn more about this historical site.
8437 Valley Pike, Middleton, VA, Phone: 540-869-3051
5.Belle Grove Plantation House
© Belle Grove Plantation House
This Federal-style manor house lies on the grounds of Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park near Middletown. Owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it served as the headquarters of General Philip Sheridan during the Battle of Cedar Creek. Volunteer staff lead guided tours of this culturally significant plantation, which is still being farmed today. Self-guided and specialty tours are also available for individuals and groups. Picnic tables are available for those who want to enjoy a meal as they explore the plantation at their leisure. Visitors should stop in at the Museum Shop for signature souvenirs and gift items made by local artisans.
336 Belle Grove Road, Middleton, VA, Phone: 540-869-2028
6.Children’s Science Center Lab
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The Children’s Science Center Lab can be found at the Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax and is open 7 days a week. This popular facility offers kids and their “grown-ups” an interactive STEM-centered experience that is fun for the whole family. Hands-on activities allow visitors to the museum an opportunity to see science in action. Special programs include camps, field trips, and birthday parties, and the center offers family and community events in addition to its on-going exhibits. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door, but due to the popularity of the center, advanced reservations are recommended.
3949 Pender Drive, Suite 120B, Fairfax, VA, Phone: 703-648-3130
7.George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill
© George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill
Part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, the distillery and gristmill have been faithfully recreated and are fully functioning. Entrepreneurs will be impressed by Washington’s business sense, and whisky lovers will enjoy the small batch spirits that are available at the Shops at Mount Vernon and the Inn at Mount Vernon. Visits to the distillery and gristmill are included in the general admission price for the estate, but guests will need to take a shuttle from the mansion and gardens, as the buildings are strategically located almost 3 miles from the main entrance. The distillery and gristmill are open daily from April through October.
5514 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Alexandria, VA, Phone: 703-780-2000
8.Great Falls National Park
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Nature enthusiasts will love this 800-acre national park on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where the Potomac River spills over rocks and through gorges to create dramatic waterfalls visible from the multi-use trails along its path. The trails are rated from easy to hard and are open to horseback riders, cyclists, hikers, and runners. Detailed trail maps can be found online or at the visitor center, which is well staffed with volunteers and rangers who can answer questions and give advice. A bookstore, exhibits, and an interactive children’s area are also housed in the visitor center, as are restrooms and a seasonal concession stand.
George Washington Memorial Parkway, McLean, VA, Phone: 703-757-3101
9.Manassas National Battlefield Park
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Manassas National Battlefield Park commemorates the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. Guests should stop by the Henry Hill Visitor Center on the south side of the park for a look at the exhibits and displays that tell the story of the first battle of the Civil War and the Confederate victory that took place on the same grounds just over a year later. Maps of the driving and hiking trails that wind through the park are available at the center. The trails are also suitable for running, horseback riding, and cross-country skiing. Entrance to the park and its facilities is free.
12521 Lee Highway, Manassas, VA, Phone: 703-361-1339
10.Meadowlark Botanical Garden
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The Meadowlark Botanical Gardens are home to 95 acres of local flora and fauna. Conservationists will enjoy the well-preserved wetlands and native plant collections, while families will appreciate the wide variety of outdoor activities available for visitors of all ages that are part of the NOVA Parks Roving Naturalist Program. Special events are held throughout the year, and personalized experiences such as group tours, field trips, guided nature walks, and educational programs can be arranged with a call to the staff. The Meadowlark Visitor Center serves as an interactive exhibit space and also houses a gift shop and a library.
5400 Ox Road, Fairfax Station, VA, Phone: 703-255-3631
11.Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
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A visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate is a must for any history buff! The meticulously restored mansion and outbuildings, four separate gardens, a working farm, various memorials, and burial sites including Washington’s tomb all give tourists a fascinating glimpse into the life of the first U.S. president. History comes alive with actors portraying people who were part of his world, and educational programs offer hands-on activities for a family-friendly visit. Themed tours are available throughout the year. General admission tickets can be purchased online for guests who want to skip the (sometimes) long entry line.
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, VA, Phone: 703-780-2000
12.Museum of Hounds & Hunting
© Museum of Hounds & Hunting
A small museum dedicated to the traditional sport of foxhunting can be found in the north wing of the Westmoreland Davis Mansion in Leesburg. The museum’s collections include artwork, exhibits, and displays that tell the history of foxhunting in North America and pay tribute to the men who distinguished themselves in this pursuit. The Memorial Reading Room serves as a resource center for those who want to learn more about the sport. The museum store has one-of-a-kind gift items available for purchase, including limited edition prints, exhibition posters, and notecards featuring the horses, foxes, and hounds that are all part of this gentlemen’s sport.
17263 Southern Plantation Lane, Leesburg, VA, Phone: 703-777-2414
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13.National Air & Space Museum
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At Washington, D.C.’s National Air & Space Museum, guests can explore the universe by watching the programs in the IMAX theater and planetarium or by peering through specialized telescopes in the observatory. Virtual reality simulators transport the most adventurous into “space,” while those who are content to remain grounded will enjoy seeing the exhibitions and collections on display throughout the facility. Daily tours and educational activities as well as scheduled lectures and events give kids and adults many opportunities to learn from the museum’s knowledgeable and engaging staff. The museum is open daily (except for December 25) and admission is free.
Independence Avenue at 6th Street, SW Washington, DC, Phone: 202-633-2214
14.National Museum of the Marine Corps
© National Museum of the Marine Corps
The National Museum of the Marine Corps honors the commitment and sacrifice of the men and women of the United States Marines and preserves its history through a variety of public exhibits and educational programs. The museum houses more than 60,000 artifacts that tell the story of the Corps from the American Revolution to today. The state-of-the-art Medal of Honor Theater plays the documentary We, The Marines on a giant screen daily, which follows recruits from boot camp to deployment. Special events include family days, preschool playdates, and holiday programs. Admission is free, and the museum is open every day except December 25.
18900 Jefferson Davis Highway, Triangle, VA, Phone: 877-653-1775
15.Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge
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Guests are welcomed all year round at the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands host a wide variety of migratory birds and other animal species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and partner agencies offer interpretative tours, environmental education programs, observation platforms and photo blinds, and managed deer hunts for youth and adults. Weekend guests can stop by the visitor contact station’s lending library to borrow field equipment and gather information from the interpretative kiosks and information booths. A small daily admission fee is collected at the entrance booth and supports the projects and facilities of the refuge.
13950 Dawson Beach Road, Woodbridge, VA, Phone: 703-490-4979
16.Potomac Riverboat Company
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The Potomac Riverboat Company offers sightseeing cruises and water taxi transportation on the Potomac River. With stops at seven exciting destinations, the company’s eight seaworthy vessels are a fun and unique way to travel to the historic towns of Georgetown, Alexandria, and Mount Vernon as well as several locations is Washington, D.C. Sightseeing cruises allow tourists to see another side of D.C.’s landmarks and monuments, George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, and Alexandria’s historic seaport. Individual tickets can be purchased at the company’s website. Group tour pricing and private charters are available. Selected cruises have concessions available on board.
210 N Lee Street, Alexandria, VA, Phone: 877-511-2628
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17.Salamander Tree Top Zip Tour
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Adventurous travelers will love flying high above the treetops at Empower Adventures in Middleburg on an adrenaline-filled zipline tour. Five ziplines zig and zag across the 20-acre facility and offer spectacular views of the natural surroundings to participants zooming along at up to 30 miles per hour! Professional guides welcome guests and lead an orientation and safety training session before securing them with individual harnesses hooked to steel cables and letting gravity take over. Themed tours and special events to celebrate the holidays include moonlight zip tours, the Tree Top Egg Drop, and Christmas in Middleburg. Advanced reservations are required.
500 N. Pendleton Street, Middleburg, VA, Phone: 540-692-9471
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For a unique experience in the Shenandoah Valley, nature lovers and budding geologists shouldn’t miss taking part in a 1-hour guided tour of the Shenandoah Caverns. Guests can explore 17 rooms filled with visually stunning geologic formations on the mile-long tour. This Instagram-worthy spot is located less than 2 hours from Washington, D.C., making it a perfect day trip for families and groups. In addition to the caverns themselves, the property has several other interesting attractions, including American Celebration on Parade, The Yellow Barn, and Main Street of Yesteryear. Tickets can be purchased online or onsite.
261 Caverns Road, Quicksburg, VA, Phone: 540-477-3115
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19.Shenandoah Valley Cultural Heritage Museum
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Tourists who want to learn about the history of the Shenandoah Valley should make a stop at the Shenandoah Valley Cultural Heritage Museum, housed in the legendary Edinburg Mill. Spared from General Sheridan’s campaign to destroy all production facilities that supplied the Union soldiers with food, the Edinburg Mill is the perfect site to house the museum’s collections dedicated to the cultural heritage of the town and the surrounding valley. Included in the admission price is a viewing of the film The Burning which tells the story of the mill itself. A gift shop offers commemorative items from local artisans.
214 S. Main Street, Edinburg, VA, Phone: 540-984-8400
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20.Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
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The family-run pharmacy that once served Martha Washington, Nelly Custis, and Robert E. Lee still stands in Alexandria and is now home to the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum. Its collections include herbs and botanicals, medical equipment, and archival materials. The museum offers a variety of guided tours for individuals, families, and groups. Themed events like Potions and Lotions and The Real Science Behind Harry Potter are extremely popular and sell out quickly! Tickets for the tours and special events can be purchased on the museum’s website. For a unique souvenir, guests should visit the gift shop and treat themselves to the museum’s private label tea.
105-107 South Fairfax Street, Alexandria, Virginia, Phone: 703-746-3852
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More than 106,000 visitors are treated to a tour of the Pentagon each year, where they can view displays highlighting the missions of the five branches of the United States Armed Forces. The hour-long guided tour covers a mile and a half of this massive office building and includes a visit to a memorial for the victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, the September 11th Memorial Chapel, and the Hall of Heroes, where the recipients of the Medal of Honor are listed. Online reservations for the tour must be made 14 to 90 days in advance and fill up quickly.
1400 Defense Pentagon, Washington DC, Phone: 703-545-6700
22.Torpedo Factory Art Center
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No visit to Old Town Alexandria is complete without a stop at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Housed in an old munitions plant, this landmark building is home to 82 working artist studios as well as galleries, workshops, classrooms, an archaeology museum, a gift shop, and Eatsplace, a café and marketplace. The Art League School hosts classes and workshops for children and adults for a hands-on visitor experience. The center is open daily with the exception of a handful of holidays, and there is no cost to visit the exhibits and see artists hard at work creating one-of-a-kind pieces.
105 N. Union Street, Alexandria, VA, Phone: 703-746-4570
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23.Virginia Museum of the Civil War
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The Virginia Museum of the Civil War, on the grounds of the Virginia Military Institute, commemorates the Battle of New Market and the role that the institution’s cadets played in the conflict. The museum’s collection includes artifacts and memorabilia from the Civil War, including authentic firearms and original art and photographs. Visitors can watch the Emmy award-winning film Field of Lost Shoes at the museum, which tells the story of the VMI cadets and their heroic defense of New Market in 1864. The museum’s architecture and design even have a part in telling the story of this student-led skirmish.
8895 George Collins Parkway, New Market, VA, Phone: 866-515-1864
24.Wolf Trap National Park for Performing Arts
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Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is a 117-acre facility that schedules performances from one-man shows to fully fledged operas. Guests can make a night of it with pre-performance discussions and dinner on the lawn or at one of the on-site restaurants. Indoor and outdoor facilities make it possible for Wolf Trap to offer year-round events. Tickets can be purchased at either of the two box offices at the venue, online, or by phone. In addition to the three performances venues, the park offers hiking trails, picnic areas, and sledding hills for fans of the great outdoors.
1645 Trap Road, Vienna, Virginia, Phone: 703-255-1900
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25.Workhouse Arts Center
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The non-profit Workhouse Arts Center was repurposed from a correctional facility to a cultural arts center in 2004. Since then, it has become home to over 90 artists who display their work in studios and public galleries and host classes, workshops, and special events that can be scheduled through the center’s website. Artwork can be purchased in the gift shop or in the artists’ studios. Admission to the center is free and includes a visit to the Workhouse Prison Museum, which tells the story of the facility’s historic past. The center and the museum are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA, Phone: 703-584-2900
25 Best Things to Do in Northern Virginia
- Old Town Alexandria, Photo: Courtesy of Bram - Fotolia.com
- Arlington National Cemetery, Photo: Courtesy of Charles - Fotolia.com
- Oatlands Historic House & Garden, Photo: Courtesy of cindygoff - Fotolia.com
- Battle of Cedar Creek National Park, Photo: Courtesy of ablokhin - Fotolia.com
- Belle Grove Plantation House, Photo: Belle Grove Plantation House
- Children’s Science Center Lab, Photo: Courtesy of Gennadiy Poznyakov - Fotolia.com
- George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill, Photo: George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill
- Great Falls National Park, Photo: Courtesy of Tierney - Fotolia.com
- Manassas National Battlefield Park, Photo: Courtesy of ablokhin - Fotolia.com
- Meadowlark Botanical Garden, Photo: Courtesy of pongpol - Fotolia.com
- Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, Photo: Courtesy of Katia - Fotolia.com
- Museum of Hounds & Hunting, Photo: Museum of Hounds & Hunting
- National Air & Space Museum, Photo: National Air & Space Museum
- National Museum of the Marine Corps, Photo: National Museum of the Marine Corps
- Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Photo: Courtesy of Mircea Costina - Fotolia.com
- Potomac Riverboat Company, Photo: Courtesy of jonbilous - Fotolia.com
- Salamander Tree Top Zip Tour, Photo: Courtesy of savoieleysse - Fotolia.com
- Shenandoah Caverns, Photo: Courtesy of Evdoha - Fotolia.com
- Shenandoah Valley Cultural Heritage Museum, Photo: Courtesy of schankz - Fotolia.com
- Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum, Photo: Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum
- The Pentagon, Photo: Courtesy of Chris - Fotolia.com
- Torpedo Factory Art Center, Photo: Courtesy of thampapon1 - Fotolia.com
- Virginia Museum of the Civil War, Photo: Courtesy of Militarist - Fotolia.com
- Wolf Trap National Park for Performing Arts, Photo: Courtesy of Matthias - Fotolia.com
- Workhouse Arts Center, Photo: Courtesy of chainat - Fotolia.com
- Cover Photo: Courtesy of jonbilous - Fotolia.com