After the brief but thrilling tour through the house I returned to a long row of wooden chairs on the covered porch of George and Martha Washington’s Mansion. I could see the wide Potomac River down the hill. It wasn’t hard to imagine what it was like when Washington lived here in the 18th century because not much had changed at all in this peaceful neck of the woods.
It was a sweltering day in September, in the midst of a bona fide heatwave, when I arrived at the main gate to the Mount Vernon estate. I was thrilled to finally be able to explore the home of George and Martha Washington, but the intense heat and humidity kept me from most of the outdoor exploration. In this post I have compiled everything I learned that day with my four-hour visit to Mount Vernon.
With admission starting at $20 for adults and $12 for children you get lot of bang for your buck. General Admission includes a guided tour inside the Mansion, access to all the walking trails through the gardens and historic area, the museums, and the Distillery & Gristmill located off-site. The general admission alone will keep you busy for a few hours and give you a wonderful insight into our first president.
Here is everything you need to know to visit George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia.
If you look really closely when you visit you can just make out the outline of the original one-and-a-half story house built by Augustine Washington in 1734. When George Washington took over the plantation in 1754 he began a series of renovations and expansions. After nearly 50 years of tinkering he settled with the 21-room Mansion he called Mount Vernon.
The only way to see the Mansion is with a guided tour included in the price of admission. The house has been meticulously restored over the years and offers an absolutely stunning look into an authentic 18th century home. Not a recreation, but the actual home of George and Martha Washington. The architectural details designed by Washington himself are stunning. The fact present-day Mount Vernon has maintained them so well is nothing short of astounding.
The guided tours are admittedly brief, and quite frequently my group bumped into either the group behind or in front of us. Mount Vernon is one of the most-visited presidential homes in the country so I can’t entirely blame them, but my entire tour lasted only 20 minutes. It was an amazing twenty minutes, however, with each room uniquely painted and adorned with paintings, furniture, and artifacts from Washington’s time.
About midway through the tour my guide pointed to a bed on the upper floor of the Mansion and said, “This is where George Washington died in 1799.” To realize I was standing in the very room where Washington passed away was one of the most profound moments of travel and history in all of my adventures.
Surrounding the Mansion at the heart of Mount Vernon is the Historic Area dotted with outbuildings, gardens, and trails. I found this to be the most peaceful part of my time at the estate with no rush to get anywhere and very thin crowds compared to the house tour.
The Historic Area includes the Spinning House, Blacksmith Shop, Slave Quarters, and more than a dozen other buildings. Each was fully set up as it would have been during Washington’s time on the plantation and open to the public to pop in and explore. My favorite building at Mount Vernon? The Necessary. It was just the outhouse, but I found the name hilarious (and reminded me of the necessary chairs I found at The Charleston Museum in South Carolina).
There are three gardens to explore at Mount Vernon: Fruit Garden, Lower Garden, and Upper Garden. The Lower Garden is beside the animal enclosure where animals typically used on the plantation are kept for viewing today. My favorite was the Upper Garden with a peaceful walk along a crushed gravel trail through the formal garden beside the Greenhouse.
Washington’s will stipulated that upon his death a new tomb should be built at Mount Vernon where he, his wife, and his family would later be interred. Today visitors can explore the old and new tombs on the estate.
When George Washington died in 1799, he was initially interred in the Old Tomb. But before his death Washington realized this old tomb was in bad condition. Today visitors can see the location of the Old Tomb.
The New Tomb was completed in 1831 and the bodies of George and Martha Washington where interred there forever. Visitors can walk to the tomb located south of the Fruit Garden, about ten minutes from the mansion.
Reynolds Museum and Education Center
Hot and humid? Raining? Just plumb tired and need a rest? The Reynolds Museum and Education Center is the perfect place for you! With a whopping 23 galleries, the Revolutionary War 4D Theater, and an interactive theater, you’ll certainly have a lot to do there.
The museum was an amazing walk through Washington’s life. Hundreds of artifacts and entire scenes from history were on display in the museum. One of the coolest scenes was the life size George Washington on an equally life size horse from the Revolutionary War. But my favorite piece in the museum was a simple painting depicting George Washington’s first expansion of the original house built by his father.
One of the most popular indoor attractions at Mount Vernon is the Revolutionary War 4D Theater. Prepare yourself for canon fire, harmless smoke, and snowflakes as the fourth dimension comes to life during a thrilling experience. It is a recent addition to the estate so the video and effects were top notch.
Distillery and Gristmill
The distillery and gristmill are located on a satellite portion of the estate about three miles from the main entrance along Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. Access to the site is included in the price of general admission. If you don’t want to drive or didn’t drive to begin with there is a shuttle to take visitors between the sections of the estate.
Once there you’ll see authentic recreations of the gristmill and distillery once used by George Washington on the plantation. The gristmill is a gorgeous stone building with a ginormous wheel that you’ll frequently find turning under the power of water. Step inside for one of the most in-depth looks at how a gristmill functions in the country.
The distillery was the most surprising thing I discovered at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. I had no idea Washington made whiskey and sold it to the general public! The fully-function recreation of the distillery shows you how whiskey was made in the late 18th century!
Great news! The vast majority of everything to see and do at Mount Vernon is fully accessible. There are some limits, but for the most part this is one of the most accessible historic sites I have come across yet.
Begin with the curbside drop off directly in front of the main entrance to the estate. There are no shuttles between the parking lots and entrance, so this is the best option for those with wheelchairs and walkers.
The Ford Orientation Center, where your adventure at Mount Vernon begins, and the Reynolds Museum and Education Center are fully accessible. However, only the first floor of the Mansion is accessible. This will still allow you to see about 70% of the tour, but unfortunately you will miss the bedroom where Washington died.
Through the Historical Area there are a few accessible paths. The primary route is beside the North Garden directly to the Mansion. Other paths around the outbuildings and through the formal gardens are passable on a surface of crushed gravel but be careful on wet days.
Just in case you need it Mount Vernon offers free non-motorized wheelchairs and walkers for visitors.
Getting to Mount Vernon
The most direct route to Mount Vernon is along Mount Vernon Memorial Highway at U.S. Highway 1 in Alexandria. There are a few exits you can take off Interstate 95 to reach this highway.
But my favorite way to get to Mount Vernon is to take the 25-mile George Washington Memorial Parkway. The National Park Service parkway begins at Exit 14 off Interstate 495 west of Washington, D.C., continues along the Potomac River through Alexandria, and ends at the roundabout at Mount Vernon. Along the way the Parkway passes several other NPS monuments and memorials, Gravelly Point Park, and Jones Point Park.
But the absolute coolest way to visit Mount Vernon? Take a three-hour scenic boat ride! Spirit Cruise’s Spirit of Mount Vernon cruise boat departs Washington, D.C. just after 8 a.m. for a two-hour cruise along the Potomac River, and then leaves Mount Vernon around 1 p.m. for a two-hour return cruise.
A more affordable and quicker option is to ride on the Mount Vernon Cruise with the Potomac Riverboat Company. This 50-minute cruise departs Alexandria, makes a stop at National Harbor, and then sails down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon.
If you choose to drive to Mount Vernon one the greatest advantages of this historic site is the free parking. There are two massive parking lots on either side of George Washington Memorial Parkway with about a 5 to 15-minute walk to the main entrance. There is a curbside drop off area in front of the main entrance to make it easier for accessibility and families. Sorry, dads, but you have to walk back from the parking spot.
Where to Eat
Take a guided tour, sit on the front porch watching the Potomac River, and go for a walk through the gardens and the next thing you know you’ll be hungry. Fortunately, there are two great places to eat on the property so you don’t have to leave when the rumble in your belly starts.
The Food Court Pavilion is located near the main entrance across from the Ford Orientation Center. The pavilion offers food throughout the day including breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Papa Johns has a shop set up inside where you’ll also find hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, and desserts. There is plenty of indoor seating with large tables.
The Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant is located next door to the pavilion. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner throughout the week and brunch on Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. The diverse menu includes everything from hamburgers and sandwiches to pork chop and roasted duck. The dining room at the restaurant is quite gorgeous with patterned wallpaper and white linen tablecloths.
Where to Stay
There is actually so much to do at Mount Vernon that I strongly recommend spending the entire day exploring it. The historic site does not offer two day passes so you might as well do everything in one trip! Okay, maybe not everything. But you can try and you’ll be tired afterwards.
If you want to make a weekend trip out of visiting Mount Vernon, I recommend staying in nearby Alexandria about twenty minutes away.
My first night in Alexandria I stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites on Richmond Highway. This is my top recommendation for hotels in Northern Virginia because of easy access, outstanding room, and proximity to everything. The hotel includes an outdoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, and a fantastic breakfast.
The Alexandrian is a top-rated posh hotel in Alexandria’s Old Town historic district. It’s located within walking distance of many attractions in the city and takes only minutes to drive out of town.
Closest to Mount Vernon
The Best Western Mount Vernon is just four miles from Mount Vernon. With comfortable rooms, free on-site parking, and a decent breakfast in the morning, it is a no-frills great place to spend the night.
TownePlace Suites by Marriott across the street is a step above with an outdoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, and a One Bedroom King Suite with a sleeper sofa that makes it better for traveling families.
I am always a fan of Hampton Inn hotels and this one makes a great place to stay. It has a rather nice indoor swimming pool and fantastic breakfast in the morning. In fact, that breakfast is exactly why I was late getting to Mount Vernon when I stayed there!