When touring Virginia or driving along the Eastern seaboard, groups will discover that the Fredericksburg region, off Interstate 95, just 50 miles south of Washington, D.C., offers a long look back … and forward.
“We have cornered the market on early American history, but visitors are often surprised at what else they find,” says Victoria Matthews, tourism sales manager for the Fredericksburg Regional Tourism Partnership.
To fully appreciate this northern Virginia region, consisting of Stafford County, Spotsylvania County and the city of Fredericksburg, it helps to know its rich history—because there is plenty to explore today.
Fredericksburg, chartered in 1728, was named after Frederick, the Prince of Wales. The Washington family that moved to the area in 1725 arrived with a son named George who, it’s fair to say, went on to make a name for himself.
“This is where George Washington’s story begins. He didn’t chop down the cherry tree and throw a dollar across the river at Mount Vernon; he did it here,” Matthews says. “When he was a surly teenager, he was stomping around the streets of Fredericksburg.”
To see some of the homes of the first United States president and his relatives, put these four places on your itinerary:
Ferry Farm Guests can take a self-guided tour or an interactive iPad tour of the 80-acre property, which includes a replica of the Washington house overlooking the Rappahannock River.
Mary Washington House In the home that George bought for his mother, visitors can see her personal possessions, extensive gardens, and the original kitchen. “Mary Washington, who lived to the age of 81, was an incredible woman for her time,” Matthews says.
Kenmore Plantation Built by George’s sister, Betty, and her husband, this Georgian-style mansion reflects the pre-Revolutionary War wealth and status of a Fredericksburg merchant.
Rising Sun Tavern The frame building that George’s youngest brother, Charles, built around 1760 as his home became a tavern in 1793.
Washington wasn’t the only future president to reside in Fredericksburg. James Monroe practiced law here, and the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library houses a large collection of artifacts and documents related to the fifth president of the United States, including the Louis XVI desk where, according to family lore, he wrote what became the Monroe Doctrine.
During the Civil War, Fredericksburg sat midway between two capitals: Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia. Travelers tour the area’s many Civil War sites by driving along Virginia’s Civil War Trails and visiting cemeteries or buildings that served as military headquarters and hospitals, such as Massaponax Church, Ellwood, and Christ Episcopal Church.
The Civil War reached a bloody climax in and around the region, and the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park contains four major battlefields—Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania—and a number of historical buildings. These sites offer educational exhibits, driving and walking tours, and knowledgeable historians.
“People know us for being a Civil War site, but I want visitors to look beyond the battles,” Matthews says. “I send them to the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitors Center to learn about Richard Kirkland.”
A Confederate soldier from South Carolina who survived the furious Battle of Fredericksburg, Kirkland left the safety of his side’s fortification to give water and comfort to wounded Union soldiers.
“Amid all the death, it’s that act of compassion that we remember today,” Matthews says.
Today’s peaceful Fredericksburg region is a bustling destination with a vibrant arts scene, boutique galleries, and a multitude of restaurants.
“A lot of my groups are looking for an independent restaurant, something special,” Matthews says.“Well, we have 55 restaurants in our 40-block historic district. Groups will pull into our bus parking area, get dining guides, and then pick restaurants and explore the streets and shops.”
Visitors stay to check out other attractions in the area:
- Shannon Air Museum houses a collection of rare aircraft, and guests learn about famous aviators, view historical artifacts, and discover the local roots of one of the first major airlines.
- Gari Melchers’ Home and Studio in Belmont was a country retreat for the impressionist painter. Visitors can see the home exactly as Melchers’ wife, Corrine, left it when she died in 1955. “Where she left her pen on the table, it’s still there,” Matthews says. “The only thing they’ve done to that house is dust it.”
- Theater lovers spend lively afternoons or evenings at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, which brings popular Broadway shows and holiday spectaculars to the region.
- Thirsty travelers can visit the area’s wineries and breweries and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the production of hand-crafted spirits at A. Smith Bowman Distillery.
- Groups can learn about the region through trolley or horse-drawn carriage tours, and from step-on guides who provide city overviews or tours focused on battlefields, African-American history, ghosts, and architecture.
Along with a spirit of the past, Fredericksburg offers visitors a sense of place, according to Matthews.
“This is an active, vibrant city,” she says. “Our residents are passionate about their home, and when you visit, you’ll see them out walking the dog or getting ice cream downtown. … You can take time to breathe here.”
Top photo: Costumed guides at the Rising Sun Tavern
Photos by Fredericksburg Regional Tourism Partnership