The Best Things to Do in Fredericksburg, VA

On the banks of the Rappahannock River, Fredericksburg has been drawing troops of tourists in recent years for more reasons than its well-preserved Civil War battlefields. Visitors haven’t made the mistake of thinking this is a one-note town. Five hours from Manhattan by train, here in Virginia where many history lessons have been taught, there is now a lively restaurant scene, art galleries, festivals, and specialty shops, all conveniently located in the tree-shaded, 40-block National Historic District. Everywhere worth exploring on a weekend getaway is accessible on foot or by bike. (Join a weekly group ride with the town bike club Fredericksburg Cyclists.)

Architectural buffs will appreciate the hundreds of 18th and 19th century buildings, lovingly maintained and used as private residences, B&B’s and boutique stores. They give the town a distinctly colonial feel, but in a much less heavy-handed way than Colonial Williamsburg. Some interesting museums, a fledgling arts scene, and a bevvy of eco establishments round out the picture. While Fredericksburg may not be leading the green way for the rest of the state, there is a discernible shift in Virginian lifestyle, from the LEED-certified welcome centers to businesses recycling efforts and the organic and locally-sourced menus popping up at restaurants all over. For more tips on what to explore in historic downtown Fredericksburg and elsewhere, visit virginia.org

Things to Do

George Washington spent much of his boyhood in Fredericksburg, so his family roots run deep around these parts. To get your patriotic juices flowing, start with a visit to Mary Washington’s House (1200 Charles St., apva.org), which the first president purchased for his Mother in 1772. Kenmore is another pre-Revolutionary Washington family home (1201 Washington Ave., kenmore.org). Built in 1775 by George’s sister and brother-in-law, some think it to be equal to Mount Vernon in its meticulous details, and nearly as opulent. It recently underwent a seven-year restoration, which includes a new guided tour of the 18th century lives of Kenmore’s owners, family and servants.

The Hugh Mercer Apothecary (1020 Caroline St., apva.org) sheds some light on 18th Century medical techniques. A costumed guide gleefully describes once-common, gruesome sounding medical procedures like amputations without anesthesia and therapeutic bleeding with the help of leeches. Whatever opinion you have of Obama’s healthcare reforms, you will leave with a heightened appreciation of modern medicine. The Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center (1001 Princess Anne St., fredericksburgareamuseum.org) details the area’s history, from the Native Americans to the present. The exhibit on 20th Century racism is particularly disturbing in its honesty; Ku Klux Klan hoods and other grim artifacts leave you with a provocative picture of the history of this complex issue.

The Town Dock is a great place to stroll and watch the steamer boats. Locals enjoy fishing, kayaking, canoeing and tubing here. If you need a dose of cute, take the 75-minute Trolley Tour (fredericksburgtrolley.com), which leaves from the Visitor Center. This old-fashioned, wood-bench vehicle offers guided tours, and should fill you to the brim with both historical and practical information. You could fill your weekend browsing the dozens of antique shops and art galleries that have put the town on the 21st Century tourist map. The first Friday of each month is a great time to gallery-hop, as many stay open late and host new exhibitions with “fine art, fine wine, and fine times” as part of the popular First Friday (fbgartwalk.com) event.

Events

Each Saturday morning at 10 a.m. from April until October, Hallowed Grounds Tours (hallowedgroundtours.com) in conjunction with the Fredericksburg Area Museum offers a guided walking tour that highlights the town’s four centuries of history and architecture. The tour leaves from centrally located Market Square. The annual Street Painting Festival (viacolori.com) will be held September 21-22 from 10am-5pm and is the coolest art project you’ll ever be a part of; it’s also a fun family activity. For a slice of pure Americana, set up a blanket at the town dock and bring a picnic loaded with goodies from the farmers market, listen to the live music and watch the display light up the midsummer sky just after 9:00p.m. Each Tuesday afternoon starting at 11:30a.m., enjoy live musical performances at Hurkamp Park, adjacent to the farmers market (900 Prince Edward St.).

Where to eat

Poppy Hill Tuscan Kitchen adheres to a farm-to-table ethic. A husband and wife team hand-crafts the Tuscan-style seasonal menu and presents a wine list that’s heavy on the Chianti, which nicely compliments the cuisine—try the Chianti Blueberry BBQ Short Ribs with homemade bbq sauce and caramelized onion polenta followed by the fresh pears poached in spiced wine with a chocolate ganache and homemade vanilla gelato (1000 Charles St., ciaopoppyhill.com). Lunch is a no-brainer in Fredericksburg. For a bit of culinary history, grab a swirling stool at Goolrick’s. Since its installation in 1912, Goolrick’s classic soda fountain has been serving up old-fashioned milkshakes, malts and other frosty treats, not to mention classic sandwiches, hot dogs and fries. Prices are so low here, it seems as if the menu is stuck in 1912 (901 Caroline St., goolricks.com). For a cup of good coffee and some people watching, find a table at Hyperion Espresso (318 Williams St., hyperionespresso.com)

Where to Stay

When you make your reservation, make sure to book a room in the Historic Downtown area. Greater Fredericksburg is quite spread-out and much of it is suburban in flavor. Many hotels are located just off Interstate 95, impossible to reach without a car and away from all the downtown quaintness. The Kenmore Inn’s 9 rooms fit the bill. Colonial furnishings, canopy beds and an inviting front porch should put you in the proper frame of mind (1200 Princess Anne Street kenmoreinn.com). The Richard Johnston Inn is quite similar, and you will enjoy an elegant southern breakfast in the Federal–style dining room (711 Caroline Street, therichardjohnstoninn.com). If you are looking for something with cleaner lines, there is a new Courtyard by Marriott Historic Fredericksburg (620 Caroline Street, marriot.com) located just a block from the train station and equipped with a sleek modern aesthetic, fitness center and indoor pool.

How to get there: Take Amtrak from Penn Station to Fredericksburg in five hours. The Fredericksburg Train Station is right in the Center of town, no need to take a taxi. You can bring your bike with you and start pedaling as soon as you hit town.

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  • Chermelle

    Always wanted to go to Virginia, thanks for a great to-do list when I finally make it. I'll definitely stop at Hyperion for the people watching.

  • Sara

    Thanks for the great suggestions. I didn't realize Fredericksburg had so much to offer for those of us who aren't history buffs.

  • Aymbereye

    You can't bring bikes on Amtrak…

  • Allison

    You can bring bikes on Amtrak, I did it myself when I visited Virginia. You might want to have a look at this Amtrak link, to see the specifics of bring a bike on board at
    http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer/AM_

  • Strazzlan

    Any ideas for a trip near the 95 traveling near richmond traveling south with 3 young boys