Seven Best-Kept Secrets of Northern Virginia

Washingtonians love to make a fuss about having to cross a river to reach Virginia—and some make that an excuse to never come. But they are missing out on a wealth of sights and activities in the Commonwealth. Here are some gems that resident Virginians might not even know about.

Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary

The Harry Potter-esque manufacturing room

George Washington himself knew the family-run Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary in Alexandria, which operated between 1792 and 1933. This was the place to come for tinctures, elixirs, cleaning products, and groceries, all sold under one roof. During the Civil War, soldiers flocked here to purchase “hot drops,” a cough medicine containing paprika and alcohol. The shop is preserved with original shelving, pots, jars, and journals. But that’s not the real reason why this historic boutique is on this list. You need to go upstairs, to the dark and musky manufacturing room, seemingly straight out of Harry Potter. The wooden drawers are labeled with such curious ingredients as “Dragon’s Blood” and “Gum Gambir.” As you can imagine, there’s a huge Harry Potter birthday fest on his birthday, July 31.

? 105-107 S Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314

Workhouse Arts Center

The restored prison / Wikipedia

Once a prison, the Workhouse in Lorton has been transformed into a hive of studios for artists (including my watercolor instructor, Gwen Bragg, with whom I’ve studied for years). You can stop by to see artists at work—and buy their artwork. But there’s so much more going on here. There are tasting clubs (from Mexican to Korean to Savannah), mixology classes, cabaret shows, glass workshops … Yes, it’s for artists first and foremost, but just think about the cool date night you could plan, or friends’ night out. There’s even a Chef’s Table, where you help prepare the meal and then enjoy it with new friends. As an aside, women suffragettes are among some of the prisoners who were held here, back in the 1920s, including Dorothy Day. A new museum showcases this important history.

? 9518 Workhouse Rd., Lorton, VA 22079

Gunston Hall

George Mason’s Gunston Hall

Poor George Mason. He was deeply involved in the politics of the emerging country, but in the end was lost to obscurity. Who today knows that he was the one, in fact, who wrote the Bill of Rights for Virginia—from which Thomas Jefferson heavily cribbed when writing the Declaration of Independence? Yes, Mason started off his document with this: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Sound familiar? His home, just south of DC, is a beautiful, tree-shaded estate, open to visitors. It’s a fascinating look at a historical footnote, a pondering of what might have been—not to mention, just a beautiful place to spend an afternoon.

? Lorton, VA 22079

The Conche

Chocolatey goodness

Chocolate lovers beware. This chocolate-theme boutique bar/bistro and candy shop in Leesburg feeds your addiction in every way possible. You can buy chocolate, eat chocolate (beef sliders with chocolate BBQ sauce, cocoa nib rubbed diver sea scallops), sip chocolate (chocolate vodka cocktail, Conche martini with creme de cacao and milk chocolate ganache), or simply just enjoy the overall chocolate ambiance. The desserts, as expected, are heavenly: Jivara (whipped chocolate ganache with chocolate cake), Manjari (Madagascar chocolate mousse with chocolate creme brûlée), and the to-die-for Brownie Popcorn Sundae. Glassed windows allow you to watch chocolate being made. A conche, by the way, is a machine that works out any last grittiness of the cocoa bean, creating the chocolate’s smooth, fine-melting.

? Village Market Blvd., SE, Leesburg, VA

 Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Meadowlark alit / Northern Virginia Regional Parks

If you don’t have the time to get out into rural Virginia, never fear. Meadowlark Botanical Gardens were designed to preserve the beauty of rural Virginia, right in the heart of Vienna. Smooth paved trails wind around green lakes and grassy hills, exploring mature woods, open fields, and flower gardens. Each season brings a new look, though spring outdoes herself with daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, irises, and azaleas. Three gazebos and plenty of benches entice you to relax, take your time, listen to the birds sing. The visitor center has a tour map that details a lake tour, a spring blossom tour, and a Virginia gardens tour. But to really experience classic Virginia countryside, continue on to the back of the park, where a short nature trail wanders through woodlands alive with scarlet-bright cardinals daring among dogwood and redbud. In winter, there’s a spectacular Winter Walk of Lights.

? Village Market Blvd., SE, Leesburg, VA

Jammin’ Java

Jamming Jammin’

This hipster little live music venue may be located in a shopping center in suburbia, but it has hosted an amazing array of award-winning and almost-famous local, national, and independent talent since 2001. Three brothers, Luke, Daniel, and Jonathan Brindley, kickstarted the all-consuming business and ran with it. Food and beverages are offered—including gourmet chili. There’s also a notable children’s music concert series. By day, stop by for a cuppa joe. In 2017, the Brindley brothers announced the opening of their dream club, Union Stage, at the new Wharf in DC.

? 227 Maple Ave E, Vienna, VA 22180

Woodlawn & Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House

The Pope-Leighey House / Library of Congress

Once part of George Washington’s lands, the historic Woodlawn plantation house was presented by the great general and president as a wedding gift to his nephew, Major Lawrence Lewis, and his bride, Eleanor (“Nelly”) Parke Custis. Designed by Dr. William Thornton, grand architect of the U.S. Capitol, it’s today open to visitors as a National Trust for Historic Preparation property. That’s all fine, but there’s another house on the property that’s more unusual. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House, built in 1940, is a Usonian house—one of the few open to the public on the East Coast. Wright was interested in designing affordable houses that fit to the needs of his specific clients. It originally stood in Falls Church and was moved on this site for preservation.

? 9000 Richmond Hwy, Alexandria, VA 22309

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