Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year from the Washington DC Metro Area

Happy New Year!

Thank you for visiting my blog throughout the year. This was my first time dipping back into the blogging pools since late 2009, maybe early 2010. In 2014, I decided to come back with this new blog. It has been a fun adventure and a real (re)learning curve for me. 

I have appreciated every visit I've received. Thank you, and I am looking forward to sharing more photos and information about this wonderful region next year (I personally am excited about making my annual journey to see the cherry blossoms downtown!)

Wishing you all the best for a happy and healthy New Year! 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Reasons to visit Winchester, Virginia

Winchester is a city I've driven through a few times, but it was usually en route to another place. Earlier in the month, we decided to make a trip to explore Winchester specifically. Turns out there is quite a bit to see. Unfortunately, it down-poured the day of our visit so we didn’t get to see everything we would have liked to but still saw a few places. It was enough to whet my appetite to want to see more. Would definitely love to make another visit, probably in the warmer months. 

In the meantime, here are some reasons we found to visit Winchester:

Old Courthouse Civil War Museum

I loved this museum! If you enjoy history, architecture, and learning about the Civil War, this museum has it all. A 19th-century courthouse that was active well into the 20th century, it served not only as a legal hub but also as a Civil War hospital. Due to Winchester's proximity in the northern region of Virginia, the building (and city) changed hands numerous times during the war. 

On the first floor is the old court itself. Parts of the structure are original, the rest reconstructed (wood was burned during the war) to look the way it would have. What was interesting to note was the way the court was structured, the positioning of those involved in trials was very different than what you'd see today.

The platform here is actually raised off the main floor. During the 19th century, the witness sat in the solo chair, the jury faced the witness and the plaintiff/defense sat behind the witness, possibly even sharing a table. The judge sat in front of that large window behind the jury's bench.

The second floor contains a lot of graffiti from Civil War soldiers. There is also an extensive collection of war memorabilia and relics on display. Kids will probably love the fact they can pull the rope and ring the court's bell.

Civil War era graffiti

Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters Museum

This museum was intriguing. It is a house Stonewall Jackson used as his office during the Civil War. I love old houses, so right there is a plus for me, but if you love history, particularly the Civil War era, this is a good place to see. You'll probably learn some not-so-known information during your tour. I visited during December during the seasonal and festive open house candlelight tours and it was a bit busy. This is one museum I'd like to go back to and take the regular tour.
The exterior of Jackson's headquarters in Winchester. He used the left front room as his office.

Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

A true gem with a lot to see. You can easily spend a few hours in this museum alone. There are plenty of art and history exhibits, even miniature (elaborate) homes. Additionally, there are some special exhibits. On my visit, there was an exhibit called, "Second Time Around: Hubcaps as Art" and another exhibit showcasing food safes made in the Shenandoah Valley.

Exhibit at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

George Washington's Office Museum

A small museum, but right in the center of town and easily accessible. This museum highlights where George Washington spent time during the Revolutionary War, it was close to a nearby fort in Winchester and the perfect location. The structure is interesting.

The historic district in the city looked like it had a number of interesting historical sites, architecture, and shopping, I look forward to my return trip (hopefully on a sunny day!)

Monday, December 29, 2014

5 great day trips from Washington DC

There are so many interesting things to see and do in Washington DC and the surrounding suburbs, however do you ever just want to put some miles between you and the city (or the traffic!) and take a great day trip?  One nice thing about living in the DC Metro area is the easy access to other great landmarks and attractions. Many of these are only an hour or two away and make great day or overnight trips.

Here are some of my top picks:

1. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

If you love history, outdoor recreation and nature, this is the perfect spot as it has it all. The National Park Service (NPS) runs the park itself, and there is plenty to do within the park's borders. Not to mention all of the activities in the area surrounding the park (we love to go tubing in the summer!).

Once in the park, you'll hop on a bus (or you can walk if you're up for the adventure - it's a little over 1.5 miles, but one section is pretty steep) to the bottom of the hill where lower town is. 

Lots to see and do in Lower Town, including ranger tours

Regardless of how you get to the bottom of the hill, there is a lot to explore in both lower and upper town. It's about 90 minutes from DC. From Fairfax it takes me about an hour.

I was standing near the rail towards the rivers/Maryland border and looked back on lower town


2. Fredericksburg, Va.

Located about an hour south of the District, Fredericksburg is a great city to poke around. Not to mention, a very walk-able city. There is plenty of history, architecture and shopping, to name a few things to do. Great eateries too. We've taken a few day trips there (once spending a weekend) and really enjoy exploring the city and visiting many of the attractions. If you visit at night, check out the local ghost tour schedule, if it coincides with the season, it's a fabulous tour. We've also visited Chatham Manor, Hugh Mercer Apothecary, Mary Washington House, Kenmore. James Madison Law Museum and the Rising Sun Tavern, to name a few. On the overnight, we stayed at the historic Richard Johnston Inn and had a lovely stay. 

Lovely interior in Kenmore, the home of George Washington's sister. At the time of my visit the paintings and furniture were removed during renovations and photos were allowed to be taken inside. That is not the case now.


3. Caverns

These are a little further out from Washington DC proper, but easily accessible off the Interstates. Out to the west are a number of different caverns. I know of at least four - Skyline, Luray, Shenandoah and Endless (and more the further south you go on I-81), of these four the only one we've yet to see is Endless, but it's on our list. Cavern tours are generally about an hour long. Each cavern has something distinct of its own to share and most of them have other attractions on the property or other nearby attractions to make it a fun-filled day. These are all about 90 minutes to 2 hours away from the District, depending on where your starting point is. 

Taken during a day trip to Luray Caverns in 2009

(Related: My post about visiting Skyline Caverns)

4. Monticello, Michie Tavern and Highland

This might make a better overnight trip, but it can be done in a day if you're up for the 2 hour+ trip each way. However long you decide to stay, it's worth a visit. Monticello is the home of Thomas Jefferson and there is plenty to see on including the home, expansive property and museum. I've been there twice and spent several hours there. You can easily spend the whole day.
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (side view)

Highland is the home of James Monroe and is located very close in proximity to Monticello (formerly "Ash-Lawn Highland" previously named after two owners is now simply "Highland" after Monroe's name for the property). If you travel all this way, it's worth it to see both. Touring Highland doesn't need much time, even an hour to 90 minutes is enough to see most everything. Also, the historic Michie Tavern is nearby - you can tour the old tavern and have lunch at the restaurant. They only are open limited hours for lunch, currently 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. We stopped in during our last visit to the presidential homes and found the food to be excellent. (Note: We've eaten there several times since this post was first written and always a good experience).

(Related: My post about Highland)


5. Antietam National Battlefield

This trip takes you to Sharpsburg, Maryland. It's about a 90-minute trip from DC/Northern Virginia. This is the site where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place. You can tour the battlefield by car or on foot (we usually do a combination of both). It is a full day trip. There are some nice restaurants to eat in town.

Taken during a day trip to Antietam in July 2014

There are truly many more great day trips aside from these five. I'll be writing about more of them in the upcoming months. As an aside, there are also many other places on my "to go" list which include exploring other areas of Maryland including Baltimore, Frederick, Annapolis and the shore points.

Related reading: Fun day trips from DC: Terrapin Nature Center, Md.  

What are your favorite day trips from the D.C. region?

Friday, December 26, 2014

Still time to check out 2014 season Bull Run Festival of Lights

Instead of my usual Photos on Friday, since the year is almost done, I decided to do a post on one of the events we went to this year, but didn't have time to write about earlier. 

Now that the holidays have arrived, the kids are off school and many of you are probably taking a few days off. If you're looking for something to do, the Bull Run Festival of Lights is still running through January 4.

We decided to do this last weekend and had a great time. The cost is $20 for weekends though, so it is a bit less if you want to get a discount and go Monday through Thursday (there is advertised coupon (pdf) off the weekday admission). 

The trip takes about 30 minutes from beginning of the festival to the end where you'll find the carnival entrance. Here are some highlights from our ride this year through the park -

"Winter Wonderland" was my favorite segment - my photo honestly doesn't do justice how beautiful the "falling snow" looked.
There is also a carnival too. We only stayed a few minutes there, but the kids had fun coloring holiday sheets and roasting a couple of marshmallows over the fire. There are also regular carnival rides, a photo-op with Santa tent and camel rides, we only took a peek at these.

The week of Christmas is busy time though. Last year we tried on Christmas night and the line was backed up at least 3 miles so we drove around some local neighborhoods instead. This year we decided to go early, at about 5 p.m. (gates open around 5:30 p.m.), and had just a short wait.  

Carnival entrance
 For more information and directions to Bull Run Park see the official website.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Northern Virginia!

Thank you for visiting my blog. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and Happy Holiday season!

All the best,


A few scenes spotted in Fairfax County over the years - 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Family fun in Northern Virginia: "3 Days 'til Christmas!" performance

Over the weekend we went to see a wonderful play over at the Northern Virginia Community College Annandale Campus called "3 Days 'til Christmas". This was a spur of the moment decision as  I decided the day before to search for a play to see and found this one in a web search, we read the description and immediately bought some tickets as a surprise for our daughter. 

The show, put on by Encore Theatrical Arts Project (ETAP), was fantastic.The show is an original holiday story. The singing, acting and dancing were beautiful and very professional. The performers in the show ranged from (approximately) 6th to 12th grade with three adult special guest performers. The show is fun for all ages.

The opening scene shows some of Santa's elves at the North Pole sad that all of the kids are on the naughty list, no one is going to get presents! Reginald, who is in charge, is upset that children are breaking the toys. After starting in the present, the story then flashes back 3 days to explain the events leading up to the current. In between is lots of entertainment, many laughs, with a happy ending of course. Did I mention the costumes? These were beautiful too.

We all really had a great time. What also made it special is there is a Girl Scout "behind the scenes" tour before the performances. Since there were not too many kids at the later show, our family was invited to come along (the kids in this group even got the chance to appear on stage during song #2). It was neat to learn about what goes on backstage with this type of show and speak with the producer, the backstage crew and some of the performers.

Based in Northern Virginia, ETAP, a nonprofit dedicated to nurturing new talent, is now in its 19th year. Many of the organization's graduates have gone on to become Radio City Rockettes, appear on Broadway, perform on various cruise lines and more. 

We happened to catch the second to last day for 2014's holiday performance, but ETAP has a new show every year, so if you missed it this year, keep an eye out for next year.

My family was already asking if we could go back and see next year's Christmas show.

My response? "Absolutely!"

(No photos or video allowed during the show, however, Fox News also reported on this and included a video segment of the show).

Friday, December 19, 2014

Photos on Friday: Holiday Festivities in Washington DC

This week's Photos on Friday takes a jump downtown to Washington D.C. The District is no New York City in terms of decorations, however, it is festive in its own more subtle way. 

I enjoy walking around the quiet streets this time of the year and looking at the pretty decorations.

I haven't been downtown for the last two months, but for today's Photos on Friday I thought I'd share some photos from earlier years.

Close up look at the Congressional tree

U.S. Treasury
One of my favorites - an ornament at the United States Botanic Garden

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Family-friendly New Year's Celebrations in Northern Virginia

If you haven't decided how you will spend your last days of the year, there are lots of options in the Washington D.C. metro area. 

Many of the regional Christmas and holiday events are still open for seasonal tours, such as ICE!, "Seasons Greetings" at the U.S. Botanic Garden, and Mount Vernon, to name a few.

There are also many cool family-friendly things to do to ring in the New Year. Here are some things going on in the area:

First Night Alexandria

Every year the City of Alexandria hosts a big celebration with entertainment and fireworks. Visitors will experience live music, comedy, and kid-friendly events. For more details on location, current price (children under 12 are free and, in the past, they've given passes to active duty military), entertainment and event times, check the FAQ page and schedule. The fireworks, which are displayed over the Potomac River, are free. This is an all-day event (starts in the afternoon) and is a long-running tradition.

City of Falls Church Watch Night Celebration

This annual tradition spans a 4-block area and celebrates the incoming year with live music, interactive fun, inflatables, swing dancing, face painting, karaoke, DJ dancing, puppet shows and more. The party starts at 7 p.m. If you are arriving by Metro, there will be a free shuttle to take you from the East Falls Church station (on the Orange/Silver lines) to the celebration. For more information see the official website.

First Night Vienna

Vienna also holds its annual First Night event. This one is advertised as being fun for all ages. There will be music, food, lots of fun for the kids (check the link for details), moonbounces and more. This event is free and looks to be very family-friendly.

Bull Run Festival of Lights

The Bull Run Festival of Lights also runs through early January.  This is a drive-through tour. There is also the annual carnival at the end of the 2+ mile drive. This event is held at Bull Run Regional Park in western Fairfax County. (Tip: Car lines here during peak times can get long - I learned last year Christmas is extremely busy - we ended up turning around - so plan well this time of year). The gates open at 5:30 for admission, we lined up this year around 5 p.m. and were maybe the 15th car in line, not too long of a wait.

The "Winter Wonderland" segment of the lights was my favorite. This photo doesn't do it justice.

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens' Winter Walk of Lights

Meadowlark Gardens also hosts its light festival until just after the New Year. I haven't been to this one yet, but have heard some nice kudos for it. The website notes there are "more than exquisite 500,000 lights and displays" to enjoy. This is a walk, not a drive-through of the lights, so be sure and dress warmly (it's a little over a half mile). Meadowlark recommends purchasing tickets in advance.

There are a number of other family-friendly events, such as First Night WarrentonArtSpace in Herndon, First Night Winchester, and First Night at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley 

Thank you for visiting my blog. Happy New Year!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Photos on Friday: Christmas in Northern Virginia

I can't believe it's already mid-December already! While Christmas is almost upon us, there are still a lot of wonderful events, parades, Christmas markets and other happenings taking place in Northern Virginia in the upcoming weeks.  

Today's Photos on Friday highlights some of this festivity. Here are a few Christmas trees I've spotted in Northern Virginia over the years.  

A Victorian Christmas at Sully Historic Site

Tree lighting in Old Town Alexandria (always a fun evening!)

Mount Vernon has a number of beautifully (themed) decorated Christmas trees each year

It was raining heavily on my trip, but it was clear Old Town Winchester gets all dressed up for the holidays.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Exploring Winchester: Old Courthouse Civil War Museum

Old Courthouse in Winchester
In the northwest area of Virginia is the historic City of Winchester. Until recently, I'd only casually driven this city, usually on my way to other destinations. This past weekend, however, we did drive west and explore Winchester. One of our stops was the Old Courthouse Civil War Museum.

The structure was built in 1840 and not only served as a courthouse, but also a prison and hospital during the Civil War. 

Due to its location, the building had been under both Confederate and Union control at various times during the war. According to the museum, Winchester changed hands more than 70 times in those years.