From a haunt of founding fathers to a luxury retail mecca, Northern Virginia claims many compelling identities. Bordering Washington, D.C., and encompassing several counties and towns, the region is also Virginia’s most populous. George Washington made his home here, at Mount Vernon estate on the banks of the Potomac River. When D.C. was founded in 1791, it included part of this area, which was later ceded back to Virginia. During the Civil War, battles raged at this strategic location between the Union and Confederate capitals. Today “NOVA,” as locals often call it, offers a wealth of well-preserved historic sites, world-class shopping, dining and entertainment, plus outdoor adventures. There’s plenty to do in every season, but fall, with its crisp temperatures and spectacular foliage, may be the best time to visit.
Though Virginia’s considered a southern state, this region identifies more closely with Washington than Richmond. Southern accents are rare, and “you guys” or “you all” generally subs for “y’all.” With the CIA, government contractors and high-tech companies based here—roughly 70 percent of the world’s Internet traffic flows through data centers in Loudoun County—locals work hard but also take advantage of the many leisure-time pursuits, from wine tasting to horseback riding. A diverse population that includes immigrants from Latin America and Asia brings a cosmopolitan vibe and authentic international flavors to the dining scene.
With bustling towns and bucolic countryside, there’s truly something for everyone. Label hunters peruse the shops at Tysons Corner Center, the state’s largest mall, while hipsters sample sips at the many craft breweries, wineries and distilleries. For history buffs, George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Manassas National Battlefield Park and the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center make fascinating destinations. Outdoors enthusiasts hike in Great Falls Park or take a spin on the winding lanes of horse country. When the sun goes down, the lights go up at Wolf Trap, America’s only national park for the performing arts, and restaurants beckon, from longtime favorites like L’Auberge Chez Francois to celebrity chef hot spots and the Vietnamese eateries of Eden Center.
Arlington draws crowds to its buzz-worthy restaurants and shops, many accessible by Metrorail, while Alexandria charms with a made-for-strolling historic district and river cruises. To the south, Prince William County is home to the National Museum of the Marine Corps, as well as Civil War sites and the quaint village of Occoquan. Reston, one of America’s first planned communities, features a lively town center. Farther west in Loudoun County, development gives way to rolling hills of vineyards and horse farms, where Jackie Kennedy used to saddle up. Cycling the W&OD Trail, which runs 45 miles from urban Arlington to rural Purcellville, is a great way to glimpse the many sides of this diverse region.