Last Updated on July 1, 2021 by Maggie McKneely
Fredericksburg, VA is one of the state’s most underrated towns. Filled with history, good food, and beautiful scenery, here’s all about why this city should be on your travel list!
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Why Fredericksburg, VA?
I might be biased. After all, I am a born and bred Fredericksburg native. But, I do believe that the ‘Burg is a pretty awesome place.
Directly in between Washington D.C. and Richmond, Fredericksburg VA is actually on a very well-worn, beaten-to-a-pulp kind of track called Interstate 95. For those unfamiliar with I-95, it runs from Maine to Florida and connects most of the East Coast’s major cities: Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, DC. Millions of commuters and road trippers use 95 every day as the most straightforward way to get most places. Locals avoid it like the plague – 95 has a habit of being a glorified parking lot because of the sheer amount of travelers who use it on a daily basis.
That to say, any town with an exit directly off of 95 gets a lot of visitors, whether for bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, or just “need to stretch the legs” breaks. But very few of these towns are seen as actual destinations in their own right. And some, at least Fredericksburg, should be. It’s one of the best towns to visit on the East Coast.
History of Fredericksburg, VA
Fredericksburg’s motto is “America’s Most Historic City.” While I’m sure there are a few other cities who might debate that claim (let’s not tell Boston or Philly, ok?), Fredericksburg VA is definitely a mecca for history buffs.
In 1676, the Virginia General Assembly built a fort on the banks of the Rappahannock River, just a few miles downstream from the present-day city. Over time, as more colonists came to America, the area grew, and in 1720 Spotsylvania county was established, and Fredericksburg was named as the county’s port.
The city has close ties with some major names in American history. George Washington lived here during his childhood, as his family’s Ferry Farm was located just across the river from town. Washington’s mother, Mary, had a home downtown, and his sister, Betty, moved to Fredericksburg’s Kenmore Plantation when she was married.
Other names you might recognize would be future President James Monroe and naval war hero John Paul Jones, both of whom called Fredericksburg home during the Revolutionary era.
During the Civil War, Fredericksburg VA was a key location as a port city directly between Washington, the Union’s capital, and Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. It was the site of a major conflict, the Battle of Fredericksburg, in December 1862. There was a second Battle of Fredericksburg in 1863. Both left their permanent mark on the city. Many of the buildings today still have cannonballs stuck in the walls or evidence of gunshots and fire.
Things to Do in Fredericksburg
Fredericksburg VA for history-lovers
There are a TON of things to do if you’re interested in colonial or civil war history. So in the interest of keeping this list short, I’m going to suggest what I think are the best options:
Fredericksburg Area Museum
The Fredericksburg Area Museum (FAM) is a great place to get an introduction to the city. It has a wide variety of exhibits covering every part of the city’s history, as well as interesting tours and events.
- Hours: 10 AM-5 PM, Thursday-Monday
- Admission: $5 for adults, free for children 5 and under
Washington Heritage Museums
“Washington Heritage Museums” is actually the overarching name for four separate places, though they are all located within a few blocks of each other in Fredericksburg, VA. Each site has some kind of connection to George Washington and his family (hence the name “Washington Heritage”).
- The Rising Sun Tavern was originally built by George Washington’s younger brother, Charles, as a home, but was turned into a tavern in 1792. For 35 years, it operated as a stop in the busy port town. Many of the Founding Fathers spent a night here at some point during its operational history. Today, visitors can take a tour inside, and I highly recommend it! It’s a really fun look at what hotel-life was like for travelers during the colonial days (things have definitely changed for the better!)
- The Mary Washington House is where Mary Ball Washington, George’s mother, spent the last 17 years of her life. George bought the home in 1772 specifically for his mom (which is pretty adorable). Compared to modern-day homes, this one is tiny and the tour won’t take you long. But again, it’s absolutely worth it.
- The Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop is not for the squeamish. For those not up on your colonial lingo, “apothecary” is another term for a pharmacy or medicinal shop. Hugh Mercer was a general in the Revolutionary War, but he was also a doctor, and his business was located in downtown Fredericksburg VA. Visitors can learn about the bygone era of bizarre medicinal practices, including bloodletting (they actually have a jar of live leeches!). The creepy medical tools make this tour very popular with elementary school boys (at least that was the case when I took that field trip years ago).
- The St. James House was just opened for tours in the past couple of years, so I actually have yet to visit. Built-in 1768, it’s one of the few 18th-century homes still standing in Fredericksburg, VA. It’s only open during Garden Week in April or the first week in October. Besides that, it’s appointment only.
Each site has different operating hours; go here to check them out before you go. You can buy tickets for each individual site, but it’s much cheaper to get a Heritage Pass, which will give you access to all four for only $15.
The Historic Kenmore Plantation was built by George Washington’s sister, Betty, and her husband, Fielding Lewis, in the 1770s. The beautiful brick mansion and immaculate gardens are an excellent example of how the wealthy lived in Virginia before the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, the house was used as a makeshift hospital for the Union Army.
When I was younger, the house was almost entirely empty; visitors could walk through the home, but it was hard to get a sense of what life was like here. But recently Kenmore has undergone a complete refurbishing and renovation. Now, visitors can tour a fully furnished 18th century home and can gawk at the restored plaster ceilings, some of which are among the most intricate and beautiful in the United States. A stroll through the gardens is also well worth the time.
- Hours: Open Monday-Saturday, 10 AM-5 PM
- Admission: $12 for adults, $6 for students, and children 6 and under are free. There are also combined tickets for Kenmore/Ferry Farm for $19.
When he was 6-years old, George Washington and his family moved to a plot of land right across the river from Fredericksburg, Ferry Farm. Although historians have known for a long time that this was the Washingtons’ home, it wasn’t until as recent as 2008 that they found the original site of the actual building itself, “Washington Home.”
Today, visitors can tour the grounds, the lovely gardens, learn about the active archaeological site, and see where the home once stood.
- Hours: Tours are offered hourly Monday-Sunday, 10-5.
- Admission: $9 for adults, $4.50 for students, and children 6 and under are free. The combined Ferry Farm/Kenmore ticket is $19.
Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Military Park
The National Park Service operates all of the local battlefields under one umbrella, the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Military Park. No visit to Fredericksburg VA is complete without some Civil War history. While Fredericksburg city proper was the site of two Civil War Battles, there are several other major battlefields within 20 minutes of downtown. It was in this part of Virginia that the Civil War reached its bloodiest and most violent climax. So if you have any interest in learning more about the Civil War, make sure to put at least one of these battlefields on your itinerary.
- Basic info:
- There are full-service visitors centers located at both the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields. Spotsylvania and Wilderness just have open-air exhibits.
- There is no admission price for any of the battlefields (so they are great for you history-loving budget travelers!)
- Hours are sunrise-sunset.
- If visiting in the summer, bring bug spray and sunscreen. As I’m sure you can guess, battlefields are entirely outdoors. They are great places to go hiking and get a dose of nature, but Virginia summers are hot, sticky, and filled with mosquitos. So be prepared. (And be glad you didn’t have to fight a battle in full military gear here!)
- The battlefields:
- Fredericksburg – the battle took place right downtown, so this is probably the most convenient for you to visit, as it’s close to everything else. This was the site of one of the South’s most decisive victories.
- Chancellorsville – one of the most important battles of the war. This is also where “Stonewall” Jackson was shot by friendly fire and died 8 days later. Located about 20 minutes from downtown Fredericksburg.
- Wilderness – the first battle that General Grant fought for the Union. Located 15 minutes from downtown Fredericksburg.
- Spotsylvania Courthouse – the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war – there were nearly 32,000 casualties on both sides. Ironically, today this is an excellent place for hiking, trail running, and bird-watching. About 20 minutes from downtown Fredericksburg
- Addresses and directions for all can be found here.
Fredericksburg VA for nature-lovers
Alum Springs Park
Alum Springs Park is one of the area’s hidden gems. Like everywhere else in the city, the park has a historic background – the “alum spring” was a medicinal site in Washington’s day, a prison during the revolutionary war, and a grist mill during the 19th century. Today, there are a number of hiking trails and swimming spots, as well as picnic areas and a playground. This is a great location in the summer because the entire park is wooded and nearly all of the trails are in the shade all day long.
- Open year-round, sunrise to sunset
- Admission is free
The canal path is a fairly recent addition to downtown Fredericksburg. It’s a 1.8 mile long paved pathway that follows the canal and portions of the Rappahannock River. It’s a great trail for bikers, runners, strollers, and walkers.
Virginia Outdoor Center
Fredericksburg is located on the banks of the Rappahannock River, which provides ample opportunity for all forms of river sports. The Virginia Outdoor Center is where you need to go if you’re interested in canoeing, kayaking, tubing, or paddle-boarding in the area.
During the summer, they’re open Wednesday – Sunday.
Fredericksburg VA for art-lovers
Belmont was the home of famous 19th-20th-century painter Gari Melchers. His most well-known work of art is his mural depicting War and Peace in the rotunda of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. He and his wife moved to Belmont in 1916 and lived there until his death in 1932. Today, the home is an art museum, displaying Melchers’ works as well as those from his contemporaries. A visit here satisfies the interests of both history and art lovers alike!
- Hours: Open daily 10 AM-5 PM
- Admission: $10 to enter the museum, but you can tour the gardens and grounds for free
Liberty Town Arts Workshop
Liberty Town is part art gallery, part playground for artists and art lovers. The 13,000 square foot warehouse has over 60 artists who create and show their work on site. From potters, painters, florists, blacksmiths, welders, and everything in between, Liberty Town has art to satisfy everyone. They also regularly offer classes for any of the art forms they feature in the gallery.
Fredericksburg, VA is home to many, MANY art galleries that you can find listed here.
Fredericksburg VA for food-lovers
Fredericksburg has a pretty impressive food scene for a small town. Since this isn’t a post dedicated to just food (though I could do that, easily!), this is a shortlist of my favorite eateries in town.
Sammy T’s has been a Fredericksburg staple since 1981. They’re known for their fresh takes on vegan and vegetarian dishes, but they have plenty of options for everybody else too. It’s a fun, quirky, casual place that has long been a favorite of mine.
If you’re in the mood for a splurge, this is the place you need to go. Fahrenheit 132 has only been open for a few years, but I doubt this chic and swanky establishment is going anywhere anytime soon. This is the home of arguably the best food in Fredericksburg VA. They bill themselves as a steakhouse, but they are so much more than that. They have a wine list that is almost 20 pages long, and a good balance of gourmet dishes (like bone marrow topped with escargot – actually really tasty!) and more familiar plates, like steak and ribs and grilled salmon.
La Petite Auberge
Every town has to have a French restaurant, right? La Petite Auberge opened in Fredericksburg VA 1981 and has been consistently serving quality, Franco-inspired dishes ever since. They have a smoked fish platter featuring four different types of smoked fish that makes for a divine lunch. Pair that with their baked brie amadine for a very happy lunch!
FoodE gained notoriety when chef and owner Joy Crump appeared on Season 12 of Food Network’s Top Chef. The menu, which features local ingredients with both Southern and contemporary flair, is always quirky but always good. And, it’s housed in the historic National Bank Building in downtown Fredericksburg, which was, until 2014, the longest operating bank in the country. Want to eat gourmet chicken and waffles in a bank vault? Check out FoodE!
Looking for some southern comfort food that’ll keep you full for a few days? Mason-Dixon Cafe is the place you need to go! Their shrimp & grits, biscuits & gravy, and giant hamburgers aren’t exactly diet-friendly, but they are VERY taste bud friendly.
Open since 1867, Goolrick’s Pharmacy is the country’s oldest still-operating soda fountain. And yes, it is also a fully-functioning pharmacy too. If you have a sugar coma after drinking one of their amazing, giant, homemade milkshakes, the pharmacist can take care of you. But in all seriousness, this is a very fun, traditional American place that most small towns don’t have anymore. Make sure to check it out!
Freddy Donuts is a small-batch donut shop born right here in Fredericksburg. They only make 25 donuts at a time and use their own homemade jellies, creams, and glazes. In addition to traditional standby flavors like glazed and chocolate, you can also find creative concoctions such as Oreo-infused, Creme Brulee, Banana Pudding, and even Margarita! If you need dessert, you should go here for one of the best donuts you will ever eat.
Where to Stay
This is just a small sampling of all that Fredericksburg, VA has to offer, but hopefully, it’s enough to consider visiting! And if you do, make sure to say hi to my mom 🙂
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