When it comes to American history, the state of Virginia claims a good portion of the most popular American historical sites. Visitors can spend weeks exploring Williamsburg, Monticello, Mount Vernon, and next door neighbor, Washington DC.
Have you thought about including Fredericksburg on an American history tour to Washington DC? Debi Lander, ByLanderSea, shares her tips for fun things to do in Fredericksburg, VA, especially for colonial history lovers. She recommends this day trip when you’re ready to escape the busyness of our nation’s capital.
The Tidewater area of Virginia encompasses the easternmost region of the state, along with Washington DC, and the land along the Chesapeake Bay and the Eastern Shore. This territory was the first colonized area of the “New World,” (did you think it was Plymouth?) and history runs deep.
Names like Jamestown, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, and Alexandria pop to mind. A Tidewater tour provides memorable and educational experiences for boomers and their extended family. I highly recommend including Fredericksburg in your tour.
Things to do in Fredericksburg, Virginia on a day trip from Washington DC
All Americans are encouraged to visit our Nation’s Capital. Tourists find Washington, DC bursting with famous national and historic landmarks, plus many museums, including the immense (and free) Smithsonian Institution. However, many tourists find the District of Columbia overwhelming and exhausting.
Therefore, I suggest a side trip to nearby Fredericksburg, Virginia, to continue the patriotic theme but relax amidst small-town colonial charm. The compact river town, founded in 1728, is only 50 miles from D.C, easily accessible by car or rail.
Numerous historic sites dominate the walkable Old Town. They’re interspersed by antiques and boutique shops, chef-owned restaurants, and luxury B&B’s.
Ferry Farm: George Washington’s boyhood home
By George, I think you should start with a visit to Ferry Farm, George Washington’s boyhood home. He lived there from the ages of six to twenty-two, along with his three brothers and sister. George was the oldest.
After many years of exploration, archeologists, in 2003, finally discovered the foundation of Washington’s childhood home. They methodically studied the site and then reconstructed a new building on the original footprint. The house contains five rooms downstairs and three upstairs.
Visitors to Ferry Farm hear a detailed and fascinating story about the Washington family: young George, his parents, and brothers and sisters. Did you know that Washington’s father died when he was 11?
George additionally had two older half-brothers from his father’s first marriage. Many of the values that shaped George into a future leader came from his widowed mother.
Here’s the best part of a visit to Ferry Farm: since the house and furnishing are replicas, visitors are encouraged to touch and interact to experience life in colonial times. They can sit at the dining room table, pick up items, and lie down on the beds.
Yes, George Washington really slept there, and you can lie down in his room!
It’s great fun for kids, and I admit, I couldn’t resist! The site includes interpretive displays, several buildings, a working farm, Museum, hiking trails, and beautiful views.
Surely, you’ve heard the myth that George was so strong he could toss a coin across the river. To understand how the myth originated, my guide told a historical account from Washington’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.
Apparently, George hurled a piece of slate across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg. This would have been a plausible feat, as the Rappahannock is much narrower than the Potomac.
At Ferry Farm, you can try it yourself. The farmland descends to the river’s edge.
Need bragging rights? Every year when Washington’s Birthday is celebrated, Ferry Farm holds a simulated event for adults and children. They come to see if they can toss a stone across the Rappahannock River to the other side in Fredericksburg. I failed.
Early American elegance at Kenmore
In addition to Ferry Farm, Fredericksburg also showcases Kenmore. The most elegant house in town was built in 1775 by Washington’s sister and her husband, Fielding Lewis.
Lewis ran a prosperous mercantile business. During the Revolutionary War, he loaned the state over 7,000 pounds, a considerable sum at the time. The loan was never repaid, and after the war, he lost his business.
Fortunately, Kenmore Plantation, his Georgian- style architectural gem remains intact, restored with historically accurate colorful paint, gorgeous plaster ceilings, and fine decorative arts.
Tours start in the small Crowninshield Museum and gift shop behind the house. They contain an introductory exhibit, hands-on activities for children, and a highly detailed replica dollhouse with intricate miniatures.
Downtown Historical Sites in Fredericksburg
A walking tour of downtown Fredericksburg, introduces visitors to several Early American sites. They’re fun to visit so let’s get walking.
Mary Washington House
In 1772, George Washington purchased a small frame home for his mother, now known as the Mary Washington House. Mary spent the last seventeen years of life there.
Mary could walk over to Kenmore to visit her daughter. George came to the house to receive his mother’s blessing before his inauguration in 1789. The Mary Washington House was saved from destruction, restored in 1903, and has remained open to the public since 1931.
Rising Sun Tavern
Around 1760, George’s youngest brother Charles built a home in Fredericksburg, but it was transformed into the Rising Sun Tavern in 1792. Fredericksburg is the half-way point between Richmond and D.C.
Rising Sun Tavern operated as a stopover point for travelers for 35 years. Tours of the tavern by costumed docents explore period furnishings and 18th-century tavern customs.
Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop
Perhaps my favorite Colonial Fredericksburg attraction remains the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop on Caroline Street. Dr. Mercer practiced medicine here for 15 years but left his practice to join the Revolutionary War.
Mercer served as a general in the Revolutionary War and was killed at the Battle of Princeton on January 12, 1777. A statue honoring Mercer stands on the green near Kenmore.
Visitors to the apothecary shop hear passionate costumed staff explain the methods and ingredients used in colonial-era medicine. Gorgeous antique apothecary jars fill the shelves, and you’ll learn about a variety of treatments.
You can’t miss the large glass jar of live leeches and hear how they were used for bloodletting. I guarantee you’ll leave feeling happy to live in the 21st-century.
James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library
The James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library (official website here) were first opened in 1927 by the Monroe descendants to house their prized family collections. Today the James Monroe Law Office, used by future United States President James Monroe from 1786 to 1789, stands as a popular attraction. The Charles Street property includes five exhibition areas.
Fredericksburg Civil War sites and history
Fredericksburg encompasses more than just colonial history; the town saw Civil War action, even fighting in the streets. Four major Civil War battles were fought on more than 7,000 acres of National Park Service-preserved grounds in the area.
Visitors can follow civil war history on a National Park Service auto tour through the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg. The battle was one of the most lopsided victories for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
From December 11-15, 1862, the Federal Army of the Potomac attempted to dislodge Lee’s army from the city’s fortified heights. Although the Federals did manage to breakthrough, the success was short-lived, and the Confederate position held firm for the remainder of the battle.
The location and battle logistics become more understandable if you get out and walk around. The Sunken Road and overlook are poignant places to ponder.
Outdoor fun in Fredericksburg
If you’re ready for a bit more exercise than strolling around downtown, head over to Government Island. You can follow the local’s favorite, the Heritage Trail, including a boardwalk, to a 17-acre early American sandstone quarry.
This quarry was the source of the stone used to construct the U.S. Capital and the White House. Who knew it would provide the stones for two important pieces of architecture in American history?
You’ll also find many hiking, biking, and jogging trails around the city of Fredericksburg. There’s also canoeing, kayaking, or stand-up paddle boarding options on peaceful Lake Anna or the Rappahannock River.
If you are in town during the baseball season, check out the FredNats. They function as the official minor league team of the Washington Nationals and play in the new (2020), 5,000-seat state of the art ballpark.
Those looking for spine-tingling excitement will find it at FXBG Axes, the only ax-throwing spot in town. This unique sport becomes a lot of fun for anyone and everyone.
No experience is needed. Onsite coaches will teach you how to throw and get you hitting bulls’ eyes in no time!
Where to see art
Art lovers should not miss the 18th-century estate of prominent portraitist, muralist, and American Impressionist painter Gari Melchers (1860-1932). Tours of Belmont estate include the house, the original furnishings, personal art collection, and over 1600 works by Melchers. An added bonus becomes the 27-acre grounds featuring restored formal gardens and miles of walking trails.
LibertyTown Arts Workshop is a 13,000 square foot gallery with nearly 60 local craftspeople and artists. Watch potters, woodworkers, welders, blacksmiths, oil painters, pastel artists, watercolorists, and fiber artists create and show right on site.
Enjoy wine, beer, and spirits
Spirit lovers will find a multitude of tasting opportunities in the area. Pick up a passport at the Visitor’s Center or simply download one and follow the Fredericksburg Brew Trail with a possible nine stops.
Wineries to visit
Wine lovers will need a car to get to Wilderness Run Vineyards, but the scenic drive is worth the effort. Wilderness Run Vineyards, nestled away on a historic farm in nearby Spotsylvania, comes complete with an on-premise brewery, the 1781 Brewing Co. They have constructed a large outdoor seating area overlooking the rolling hills and offer an extensive live music schedule.
Lake Anna Winery is housed in an old barn located on the Heidig farm. Built for dairy cows in the 1940s, adapting this structure into a winery proved a real challenge. After years of work, the winery opened in the spring of 1990.
Potomac Point Vineyards and Winery owners, Skip and Cindi Causey based their tasting room design on multiple Mediterranean cultures, Italian, French, Spanish, and American – specifically Napa and New Orleans. Skip, and Cindi planted their first grapes in 2006 and opened the winery’s doors in 2007.
Their efforts in 2020 culminated with the following awards at the Savor Virginia Wine Classic: Richland Reserve Heritage 2017 Gold Medal, Richland Reserve Viognier 2019 Gold Medal, Norton 2019 Gold Medal, Petit Manseng 2019 Silver Medal, and La Belle Vie Rosé Bronze Medal
The A. Smith Bowman Distillery is no newcomer to the scene; in fact, they are the oldest distillery in Virginia. Even up until the 1950s, the family farm stood as the sole producer of legal whiskey in the state.
Tours take you from fermentation of the mash to filling up the stills, nicknamed “Mary” and “George,” to honor the Bowman Brothers’ parents. The company stays true to their time-honored traditions. As a result, they have won numerous national and international awards.
Seven of A. Smith Bowman Distillery’s spirits took honors at the 2020 International Spirits Challenge, receiving Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medals. The three Gold Medal winners include Abraham Bowman Limited Edition Virginia Whiskey, Bowman Brothers Small Batch Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and John J. Bowman Single Barrel Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Whisky Magazine named them “World’s Best Bourbon” winners in 2016 and 2017, with their John J. Bowman Single Barrel Virginia Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Where to eat in Fredericksburg
Fredericksburg thrives with a variety of modern, fine restaurants, so often, the hardest decision facing visitors is where to dine. Try Orofino and Ristorante Renato for Italian, Foode for American farm to table fare, Billiken’s Smokehouse for BBQ, Brock’s Riverside Grill for American, and Fahrenheit 132 for fine steaks. Benny Vitali’s sells the most enormous slice of pizza ever.
Best places to stay in Fredericksburg
Overnight accommodations include the popular downtown Courtyard by Marriott Fredericksburg. No surprise, it includes a bistro, gym, and pool, and rooms up to Marriott standards.
Small town Bed and Breakfast Inns
The Richard Johnston Inn is a distinct upscale 18th century Inn, constructed in 1770 by architect John Taylor, one of The Declaration of Independence’s original signers. In the 1800s, the building was home to Richard Johnson, the Mayor of Fredericksburg.
Today it offers seven beautifully appointed and luxurious guest rooms, 2 suites, and a courtyard and parlors. Breakfast is included with your stay and served daily in their beautiful dining room. The Richard Johnston Inn is located in the heart of historic downtown.
The 1890 Caroline House sits a block away from The Richard Johnston Inn. The Caroline house was built in 1890 and is a Victorian-style home that provides guests a delicious blend of history, elegance, and modern-day luxury.
The Kenmore Inn, a historical treasure on Princess Anne Street, was built circa 1793. The Kenmore Inn opened for business in 1932, making it Fredericksburg’s longest operating inn.
Currently, the Kenmore Inn offers 9 unique guest rooms with the largest guest rooms located in the original house. They feature custom-designed furnishings, working fireplaces, and hand-laid tile bathrooms. Classic architectural elements include heart pine floors, high ceilings, and period millwork.
Fredericksburg Attractions: How to save money
Fredericksburg’s Timeless Ticket offers a 40% savings over individual admission to Fredericksburg attractions. The ticket includes all nine of the must-see historical sites that you can visit on your own schedule. The passport never expires and has the bonus of allowing one child (age 17 or under) to get in free with each paid adult ticket.
Traipse App: Free walking tour
I was really impressed with the free, Traipse App. The app leads you on a themed tour of the historic business district, stopping along the way to offer interesting facts. It also includes cities beyond Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg Visitor Center
Be sure to stop by the Fredericksburg Visitor Center (official website here) for the latest information when you arrive. They are the ultimate resource for trip planning or further information on things to do in Fredericksburg, VA.