Incredible to think that George Washington’s ethics, wisdom, vision and sheer drive — from over two centuries ago — would live on within you, me and our families today. Every time we enjoy a particular freedom, vote in an election or watch a smooth transfer of power unfold from one president to the next, we have this man from so many lifetimes ago to thank. And how fortuitous for us that we can visit Washington’s private sanctuary, a spot on earth so special to him that he once told a friend, “I can truly say I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of State and the representatives of every power in Europe.”
Mount Vernon — the Washington’s beloved estate — sits an easy fifteen-minute drive from Alexandria and receives over one million visitors a year, making it the most popular historical estate in the country.
Days could be spent walking these hallowed grounds, but if you only have one, don’t make it a quick dash — there’s just too much to see and learn. The mansion tour itself is rather quick but entirely awe-inspiring. You’ll see the vibrantly painted dining room where the extroverted Washingtons and their many guests dined. You’ll walk onto the couple’s back lawn and enjoy the same view of the Potomac that they cherished. And you’ll see the very room and bed that cradled Washington as he died.
You won’t want to miss The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. This museum’s bland title is a wild juxtaposition to the incredibly fascinating exhibits within. You’ll view Washington’s dentures, Martha’s jewelry, the weather vane (a dove of peace) commissioned by Washington himself that crowned Mount Vernon, and take in several absorbing movies on the great man’s life. I’ll repeat: don’t miss this museum. I could barely pull my nine-year-old boys away at closing time.
If you have the time, you’ll also want to visit Washington’s tomb (where he, Martha and other family members are buried), a slave memorial and burial ground, stunning gardens, a waterfront and wharf and many outbuildings. Holidays are also very special at Mount Vernon. Washington’s birthday (the official Monday holiday) is free for all visitors and is the estate’s busiest day of the year. The Fourth of July sees daytime fireworks over the Potomac. And the Christmas season ushers in beautiful candlelight tours with costumed characters in each room of the mansion and a visit from Aladin the Camel (a nod to Washington having brought a camel to Mount Vernon at Christmastime. Aladin, bottle fed as a baby, loves people). Prefer to avoid the crowds? Visit between October through March.
Good planning tips: If you’re visiting Mount Vernon during hot months, plan to tour the mansion and outbuildings during the cool of the morning (arrive early). Eat lunch at noon in the small food court (Pizza Hut, ice cream, Mrs. Fields and more), and spend the hot afternoon in the wonderfully air-conditioned Museum and Education Center. Also wear good walking shoes and bring kid snacks and bottled water.