Footloose in Fairfax

Washington’s home is just one reason to explore this vibrant county in Northern Virginia.

Adam B. Auel

High Capacity Student Tour Photos

(Courtesy of Mt. Vernon)

As I slide into a booth at AKB, a bar at the Archer Hotel Tysons in Tysons Corner, the sun is setting. Bartender Patrick Ocama pours me a Hennessey Smoke Mash. “It’s our signature drink,” he says as he torches the drink’s wooden cover and smoke rises in a curlicue. It smells like a campfire.

I’m visiting Fairfax because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by George Washington. I want to see where the “Father of our Country” left his mark on his home county and check out some new attractions. I’m staying at the luxurious Archer, the boutique hotel in Tysons Corner. The hotel’s urban-chic design includes a mural that pays homage to the area’s original peach orchards, which dotted the landscape long before Tysons became a mecca for shoppers.


(Julie McCool of Fun in Fairfax VA, photo by Scott Suchman)

I’ve consulted Julie McCool, creator of the blog Fun in Fairfax Va to design my itinerary. She’s lived here for 26 years, and like me, history is her jam. She’s supplied me with a list of must-sees along with some hidden gems.

“Fairfax has such a wonderful blend of urban and natural attractions,” McCool tells me. “Start at Great Falls Park,” she says, “I can never get enough of the views, and it’s fun to climb the rocks.”

Here, you’ll see Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which runs parallel to the Potomac River. George Washington saw the river as the most direct route for transporting goods from the Ohio Valley to the Tidewater, so he engineered a canal and lock system that skirted the impassable waterfall. “When I walk the old canal, I think about how Washington built it to unite the country and connect western states with the East,” McCool explains. Today, though, the only boats are whitewater kayakers leaping through the rapids.

At Great Falls, I watch as rushing water vibrates like white noise, whooshing over boulders, foam gathering at the crest. Scrambling over the rock-strewn trails, I pass remnants of Washington’s canal. As I hike along the ridgeline, the crowds thin, and I see climbers rappelling down the 750-million-year-old rocks.

From there I head to Great Falls Village to pop into Vivid Chill, a boutique owned by designer Marika Tsombikos. The store is a kaleidoscope of colorful clothing and home furnishings, inspired by her Aegean homeland.

For lunch, it’s Afghani food at Zamarod, where I feast on silky dumplings drizzled with yogurt and brightened by mint. Fairfax County has every cuisine you can imagine—and probably some you haven’t.

After a delicious lunch, I return to my car and check the directions to my next stop. At 406 square miles, touring Fairfax County involves a lot of driving. But, McCool promises, “it’s worth the effort.” 

Photo by Dane Penland

Space Shuttle Discovery

She’s right. My jaw drops when I walk into the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The cavernous airplane hangar houses 170 aircraft, some suspended between multi-level walkways where you get a pilot’s-eye-view. I’m excited to see the Concorde, the pointy-nose Air France jet that flew roundtrips from Paris to Dulles in the 1980s. My dad was a passenger before the plane was retired, and as a pilot himself, he was thrilled to fly at twice the speed of sound.

I stop to listen to a volunteer educator describing his work on the Space Shuttle Discovery—the museum’s showpiece. Discovery flew 39 missions, including 13 trips to the International Space Station. It’s surrounded by rockets, missiles, and a floating astronaut in a Manned Maneuvering Unit, the propulsion unit that enabled astronauts to perform untethered spacewalks at a distance from the shuttle. I wonder what Washington, an engineer with a passion for astronomy, would have thought of this place.

A glass of wine is in order, so I text McCool. “Visit the Winery at Bull Run next to the Manassas National Battlefield—the place has an interesting history of its own.” I drive to the bucolic vineyard and find a table where I can watch riders prance by on horseback as I savor my glass of Lilly’s Viognier.

Thalia Romero

West Front of the Mansion, August 2020

(photo courtesy of Mt. Vernon)

The next morning, I head to George Washington’s Mount Vernon where sun streams through the leaves of poplar trees, now 250 years old. First, I peruse the Museum & Education Center exploring Washington’s amazing legacy—his military career, leadership in the Continental Congress, and election as the first American president.

I feel a rush of emotion walking through the green, yellow, and blue rooms of the mansion where George and Martha Washington lived and entertained visitors. Light fills the Palladian windows ornamented with neoclassical carvings. Here, you can sense the first couple’s presence and imagine how their love for Mount Vernon influenced Washington’s push to move the nation’s capital 15 miles up the Potomac River to where it stands today.

Tour guide Karen Fischer leads my group to Washington’s tomb. “In his farewell address, Washington establishes the country as a republic rather than a monarchy. He didn’t want to die in office, so he set a precedent and stepped down,” Fischer says. I feel my respect swell for the ‘Father of His Country’ who, like every wise father, empowers his child to find their own way.

I could spend all day here, but presidents and tourists have to eat, and Mount Vernon Inn & Restaurant serves Washington’s favorite peanut soup and hoecakes—and they’re calling my name.


A few miles away is the National Museum of the U.S. Army, a sparkling facility that depicts seven periods of war in our history through stories told by real soldiers. “We had not chosen war, but since the job was inevitable, we meant to see it through,” utters an infantryman treading past bombed-out buildings, a tableau from the Meuse-Argonne offensive during World War I.

In the “Founding the Nation” gallery, there’s a miniature Washington Monument representing the Army Corps of Engineers who built the towering obelisk to honor the first president. Coincidentally, the museum sits on the grounds of Fort Belvoir, land that was once part of Washington’s estate.

Mina Habibi

Lucy Burns Museum at the Lorton Workhouse Art Center

It’s a short drive to the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial, commemorating the struggles that countless women endured to win the right to vote. The name alludes to a pivotal moment in 1917 when women picketing beside the White House fence were arrested and thrown in jail at the nearby Occoquan workhouse prison.

“This is the only national suffrage memorial in the country,” explains Pat Wirth, director of the Turning Point Memorial Association. “Its purpose is to mark the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, nearly 150 years after the country’s founding.”

The Occoquan Workhouse has been refurbished and renamed Workhouse Arts Center. Today, the brick buildings house an artists’ collective and the Lucy Burns Museum, where I duck my head into a tiny cell and feel a deep appreciation for my own right to vote.


Dinner is at Cedar Knoll. Helmed by charismatic chef Andrew Holden, the fine dining restaurant overlooking the Potomac serves Virginia wines and Rappahannock oysters. A fetching portrait of Washington hangs over the fireplace. “This building was located on the original Mount Vernon estate,” Holden mentions. It feels like the gentleman from Fairfax could stride in at any moment.


(Archer Hotel Tysons)

Back at the Archer Hotel Tysons, I walk to Capital One Hall, Fairfax’s new performing arts venue featuring a roster of touring Broadway shows. You don’t need a ticket to enjoy its 11th-floor rooftop park called The Perch. After playing bocce and watching sports on a giant screen, I order a bratwurst and beer at the Starr Hill Brewery Biergarten and take in the view of gleaming skyscrapers with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. Although I’ve barely scratched the surface of all Fairfax County has to offer, my understanding of George Washington has deepened, and as promised, it was well worth the drive.


Her popular blog focuses on Fairfax County’s attractions. Here, Julie McCool’s top five tips for getting the most out of your visit. Find more hidden gems at

  1. Great Falls is a natural wonder just 15 miles from D.C., so I always take visitors there to check out three overlooks. In Great Falls Park look for the remains of the town of Matildaville. In the 18th century, trolleys brought D.C. residents there for the fresh air. Afterwards, I go for fish and chips at Old Brogue Irish Pub in Great Falls Village.
  2. At the Udvar-Hazy Center, don’t miss the overlook where you can see restorations in progress. Walk the catwalk to see a landscape of planes.
  3. At the Mount Vernon Inn & Restaurant, try the grits. They’re milled from the Mount Vernon Gristmill by a process used in Washington’s time. The restaurant also serves small-batch whiskey.
  4. At the National Museum of the U.S. Army, the wonderful volunteer docents give context to each piece that you can’t get from reading the exhibit notes.
  5. I love the Winery at Bull Run. Behind its beautiful scenery, there’s an amazing story: When the Battle of Bull Run broke out, locals flocked there with picnics saying, “It’s a lovely day for a battle.” As the Confederate Army prevailed, the picnickers got caught up in the Union Army’s desperate retreat—with one landing in a Confederate prison.


Cedar Knoll, Alexandria

The menu at this fine dining restaurant overlooking the Potomac changes with the seasons. Choose the bright and airy garden room, the understated elegance of the central dining room, or the cabin room, built in the 1800s. Each has a fireplace, and the outdoor patio sparkles with twinkling lights.

Mount Vernon Inn & Restaurant, Mount Vernon

This quaint, full-service restaurant features colonial and regional favorites. Try the hoecakes topped with vanilla butter and honey or roasted turkey pot pie with buttermilk biscuits.

(Chef Dor Niaz of Zamarod, photo by Scott Suchman)

Zamarod Afghan Cuisine, Great Falls

Menu highlights at this authentic bistro include signature kebobs and Afghani classics like Kadu Palow, saut ed pumpkin with yogurt and tomato sauce, and Muntoo, dumplings filled with ground beef.


AKB, a bar at the Archer Hotel Tysons

Try the Appalachian Smash, made with moonshine and ginger rock candy syrup or a seasonal sangria; the Rouge combines red wine, cognac, seasonal berries, mango pure, ginger beer, apples, and a sangria popsicle. Rustic brick-oven pizzas are popular, along with the Warsteiner cheese fondue and ahi taki bites.

Starr Hill Biergarten, Tysons

An outdoor venue located at The Perch, the new rooftop garden on the 11th floor of Capital One Hall. Starr Hill serves casual bites and a lineup of beers on tap. Don’t miss the spicy cauliflower bites and Murphy’s Gold braised bratwurst.

Winery at Bull Run, Centreville

This Fairfax-based vineyard sits on property that played a pivotal role in the Civil War. Later it was used as a Union field hospital.


Archer Hotel Tysons

This urban-chic boutique hotel is the first of its kind in Fairfax County, and the 178 rooms and suites are beautifully appointed. Located beside McLean Metro Station and Interstate 495, just minutes from Tysons Corner’s shopping and restaurants, Archer is an ideal jumping-off point for exploring Fairfax County.

The Watermark Hotel, Tysons

Each of the Watermark’s 300 luxury suites includes a kitchenette, sitting room, and ergonomic workstation. This hotel lobby opens onto The Perch rooftop garden, beside Capital One Hall. Opt for the sumptuous breakfast buffet—and don’t miss the small plates at the hotel’s own Wren.


Tyson’s Corner Center Offers over 300 brands, from Aritzia to Zara. Anchored by Nordstrom, Blooomingdales, and Macy’s and connected to the Hyatt Regency hotel, the center offers concierge services, luggage check, valet parking, 40 dining options, and more.

Vivid Chill, Great Falls

Located in the courtyard of the Great Falls Village Center, this boutique stocks owner Marika Tsombikos’s curated collection of vibrant apparel, jewelry, children’s toys, and clothes, along with skincare and home accessories.

Fairfax County, VA

(Workhouse Arts Center, photo by Scott Suchman)

Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton

The former Lorton Workhouse Prison is now a gallery and working studio space for dozens of accomplished artists. Much of the works on display there are for sale. Built around an open courtyard, the facility is also used as a gathering space and hosts a farmers market.

This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue.

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