Often compared to Georgetown, Old Town Alexandria really has a flavor and Southern charm of its own. A former warehouse district, this waterfront area on the Virginia shore of the Potomac has been renovated during the past two decades to restore historic buildings and landscaping to an earlier splendor. TRANSPORTATION
Since Old Town is bounded by the Potomac River on the east, you can take a boat or swim across; but given the recent weather conditions and ice floes, it's easier to approach by car. The George Washington Parkway roughly serves as the western boundary of the historic area, becoming Washington Street within the city. Head toward the river on King Street; on-street parking is generally available this time of year. Taking a number 9 or 11 Metrobus from downtown Pennsylvania Avenue will also get you there. HISTORY
To truly appreciate the history of Old Town, wander along the cobblestone streets of Captain's Row and Gentry Row to view the 18th and 19th-century homes of colonial sea captains and Revolutionary patriots. Also see the historic Carlyle and Ramsay houses and note the wood beams in many restored buildings, reminders of a past architectural age.
Alexandria is named after the Scottish merchant John Alexander, who owned much land in this city established by an act of the Virginia Assembly in 1749. During the American Revolution, Alexandria was the site of a major colonial port. SHOPPING
Buyers and browsers will find a proliferation of art galleries, antique shops and specialty stores. King Street houses a majority of shops, but don't overlook the sidestreets and alleys, which also have many interesting outlets.
Read the blackboard outside the Olde Towne Confectionery on King Street, with its schedule of times when various breads and pastries will be hot and fresh from the oven - a warming touch this time of year. And the Coffee Bean (also on King Street) keeps freshly brewed coffee on hand.
An absolute must is a visit to the Torpedo Factory on the corner of King and North Union Streets. This huge building no longer produces the underwater explosives it made during World Wars. In 1974 it was converted into an art center where around two hundred artists, potters and sculptors rent space to create and sell their work. Artists who want company leave the studio door open to the public; those who require intense concentration, shut the door, and visitors can watch the work through a window.
While you're on Union Street, cross over to Dockside Sales, where fives warehouses contain huge amounts of glassware, pottery, furniture and other items.
A shopping note - most of the shops and galleries close around 5 or 6 o'clock, so don't plan to accomplish much evening buying. Old Town reserves night hours for dining out. RESTAURANTS
A haven of food lovers, Old Town is nothing if not an extensive restaurant district featuring sensational atmosphere in restored warehouses, varied menus and, for the most part, delicious food. To examine a collection of menus, check the book in the Ramsay House Visitors Center, but keep in mind that some of the prices need to be updated.
Several restaurants offer special Sunday brunches - a good way to spend a lazy afternoon eating and drinking in comfortable surroundings. Henry Africa (549-4010) on King Street is excellent; hugh omelettes and eggs Benedict are served in a setting of tiled floors, etched glass and mirrors.
Lunch ranges from carry-out at The Snack Bar (549-4775) to more elaborate dining at La Bergerie (683-1007). My favorite choice is II Porto (836-8833), an Italian restaurant with excellent service where you can comfortably sip a glass of red wine and enjoy pasta and veal dishes.
At dinner, request the upper room of the Seaport Inn (549-2341) for a view overlooking the Potomac. An established restaurant for 27 years, the Innwas once a grist mill operated by the tide and dates to 1765. There's also The Wharf (836-2934) for seafood, where one front table is situated in the middle of an old grain elevator. If a waiter drops a tray upstairs, you may still get bits of grain filtering down from the rafters. Try Taverna Cretekou (548-8688) for Greek food and China Gate (548-8080) for Mandarin and Szechuan cuisine. NIGHT LIFE
Most establishments in Old Town depend on food and beverage sales, with entertainment considered a sideline, but you can enjoy good music at certain spots.The Warehouse and The Shed (836-8088) both feature folk, rock and country music, while The Wharf's Quarterdeck Lounge caters to jazz lovers. Upstairs from II Porto, you can sing along with ragtime pianist Bob Milne every night except Sunday. And Mason's (549-1990) provides live folk music and a sandwich menu that includes a "Depression Special" - for 29 cents, this bread heel and margarine is probably the cheapest meal in town.
Although an amateur group, Little Theater of Alexandria is recognized for its dramatic presentations. LTA will present Lillian Hellman's "Little Foxes" Feb. 17 through March 11, a timely choice due to the popularity of Hellman's autobiography, "Pentimento," and the resulting film "Julia." HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GEORGE!
With Washington's birthday coming up (Feb. 20 officially, Feb. 22 for traditionalists), Old Town has arranged a special celebration.
Saturday Feb. 18 there will be a banquet at the Old Town Ramada Inn followed by a colonial costume ball at Gadsby's Tavern. Cost is $35 per couple for both events and advance reservations are required.
George and Martha will arrive in front of Gadsby's Tavern Feb. 20 to view a parade beginning at 2 p.m.
An Old Home Tour of 18th and 19th century homes ending with a tea takes place Feb. 11. The tour costs $5; hours are from 11 to 5.
Strolling minstrels will sing in various shops and at historic landmarks Feb. 11 and 18.
Call 549-0205, the Alexandria Tourist Council, for tickets and information on these and other events. HAUNTS OF THE PAST
Old Town is said to have its share of ghosts. Most places with an active history have legends and alleged visits from individuals who are long dead. I have not personally seen any ghosts during my visits to Old Town, but maybe you'll be luckier. Actually, I'm just as happy I missed them . . . SAYING GOODBYE
One thing missing in Old Town is a good view. This deficiency is remedied as you head back into Washington and see the lights of the city etched beside the water of the Potomac and the silhouettes of the Washington Monument and Capitol dome.