Northern Virginia is something of an enigma to people from outside the state. Those who don’t understand what “NoVa” means have a hard time understanding why super cultured, super liberal, beautifully landscaped Northern Virginia– aka “NoVa”– is so different from the rest of Virginia, which is much more rustic, agrarian, and rural by comparison.
This guide to a handful of surprisingly cool things to do in Northern Virginia demonstrates what is so special and unique about the region.
Basically, the loose constellation of D.C. suburbs known collectively as “Northern Virginia” comprises what is essentially the cultural epicenter of Virginia.
Towns with over 1 million residents– which would be cities in any other state!– boast some of the best museums, art galleries, theaters, restaurants, spas, and outdoor recreation centers that the state has to offer. This guide gives you both a bird’s eye view and an insider’s look at the best things to do in the region.
People who live in the area (my extended family included!) are constantly discovering new, fun things to do here. Virginia is for Lovers, as the state slogan goes, because it is a beautiful and enchanting place to explore.
Below, we spotlight a handful of these surprisingly cool things to do in Northern Virginia. Many of these activities are truly wonderful, and their websites don’t do them justice.
Bookmark this list for easy reference later— and if you live locally, consider this your new Northern Virginia Bucket List!
Udvar-Hazy National Air & Space Museum in Chantilly
The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy National Air & Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia is, frankly, awesome. Even though it falls under the Smithsonian umbrella, this is not your traditional museum. The wide, sprawling campus of this museum-inside-an-air-hanger cloaks the interior archive in an air of mystery; when you drive up, you have no idea what to expect until you get inside.
They have the WWII plane that dropped the atomic bomb, an actual spaceship that’s been in space, cool fighter jets of all varieties and ages, etc. They even have a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the kind of plane the president uses to fly around the world at top speed. (It can make the trip from California to New York in half the time of commercial airlines, for example. Pretty stunning!)
There are two levels, so you can observe everything from a suspended view in the air or below on the ground. Look, but don’t touch, of course.
The staff here are super friendly and knowledgable, and guided tours are available for those who want the most educational experience. Otherwise, feel free to meander at your own leisure. There’s a lot to take in, and you could easily spend half a day here.
Ultimately, the National Air & Space Museum is a super family-friendly destination that’s great for kids, machine buffs, and aviation lovers. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the country.
Dig-Your-Own Peanuts in Delaplane, Virginia
Virginia is the so-called Peanut State, and as such it’s one of the few places in the country where you can harvest– or rather, dig, your own peanuts!
In pastoral peanut fields like the hilltop farm at Hollins Farm in Delaplane, Virginia, you can dig-your-own peanuts for roasting, cooking, making your own farm-to-table peanut butter, and more. It’s super fun, especially for plant lovers, foodies, and agro-tourism buffs.
Peanuts are harvested each year in the Fall, so you can add it to your Autumn To-Do list alongside apple picking and pumpkin carving.
Read more about how to dig your own peanuts, and how to roast them after picking, here.
Visit George Washington’s Mount Vernon (Tour George Washington’s Distillery, Explore The Kitchen Garden, & Dine at The Mount Vernon Inn)
Picnicking on the Bowling Green and exploring the robust kitchen garden and orchards at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate is a lovely, family-friendly affair. In Spring and Summer, the entire estate is in bloom and lush with greenery, which makes it an ideal time to bring a blanket and lounge under the shade of an ancient tree on the main lawn. (Above shown.)
George Washington’s Distillery and Gristmill, however, is a must for history buffs who want to experience a completely unique historical locale outside of D.C. proper.
^ This somewhat hidden gem is relatively undiscovered given that many area history buffs know about Mount Vernon (George Washington’s former estate which is now a popular tourist destination), but fewer people actually make it to the distillery other than those who live locally and know what’s up.
^ Here, you can tour the archival, small-batch spirit production facility, but only from April-October. As of this writing, it’s only open on the weekends. You can even purchase George Washington’s whiskey from the on-site shop! (Not for the faint of heart, FWIW.)
After your visit to the faithfully reconstructed working distillery, swing by the lively Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant and enjoy the flavors of early America in a colonial setting. They do a great weekend brunch, too!
Hiking in Great Falls National Park
Great Falls National Park is a lovely place to hike in the spring, summer, and fall, when the weather really showcases all that is beautiful and lush about Virginia. The air is crisp and it’s a great place to watch white water kayakers out in full force– or to do it, yourself.
Great Falls is the marquee destination within the park. This landmark can be accessed through the gentle, easy River Trail— but the Billy Goat Trail is also ideal for avid hikers. (Though admittedly the Billy Goat Trail is on the Maryland side of the park.)
Lots of people tend to come here on weekends in the Summer and Fall, but the falls are beautiful in just about any season.
For the classic experience, park near the Nature Center and hike along the River Trail to Great Falls. That’ll give you the quintessential view of the famous landmark, without too much direct sun or strain. It’s a beautiful, meandering walk below the canopy along the river’s edge. For a nice fresh-air jaunt with friends, it’s one of the region’s best places to hike.
^ This entry point also accesses all the most picturesque loops.
More Details + FAQ
Apart from the Billy Goat Trail, you can do most hikes in Great Falls National Park wearing regular sneakers without much traction, as it’s mostly flat along the water’s edge. FWIW, we like the view of the Falls from scenic overlook #3 the best. (See image above.)
During the busy season, you can Uber or rideshare to any of the park’s many access points. If you’re driving yourself, go to the Nature Center and park there, or on a nearby neighborhood street if that lot is full. (It’s very walkable.) There is a $15 entry fee per car, but you don’t have to pay if you park on a neighborhood side street.
PSA: GPS can get a little wonky in Great Falls, but no matter where you enter the park, the trails will eventually converge. View a map of the park’s best hiking trails, here.
Explore Old Town Alexandria (Dine, Shop, or Take A Monument River Cruise on The Old Town Alexandria Waterfront)
Between the charming historic architecture and the awesome, well-attended Saturday Farmer’s Market, there’s a lot to explore in downtown Alexandria.
King Street is the main epicenter of activity, in terms of history and entertainment. This walkable mile in the heart of downtown features over 200 independently owned restaurants and shops, from antique dealers and florists to crepe-makers, bookshops, clothing boutiques, and quaint little ice cream and cupcake shops.
The Potomac Riverboat Company offers an amazing waterfront monuments tour that goes from Alexandria to D.C.. In the summer, it’s insanely pretty.
A visit to the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town Alexandria, meanwhile, is a must for art lovers! It has 82 working artists’ studios and 7 galleries on-site, all showcasing local talent across multiple mediums, from painting and sculpture to printmaking, jewelry making, and welding.
Overall, Old Town is home to some of the area’s best– if a bit more traditional– restaurants. For starters, check out The Majestic Cafe or King & Rye for a representative taste of the local food scene. They also do excellent brunch, which is something of an art form in these parts. (For more casual/quirky dining, head to the Alexandria neighborhood of Del Ray.)
Jeni’s Ice Cream of Alexandria is a popular summer destination, and Alexandria Cupcake is to ALX what Georgetown Cupcake is to D.C.. Fleurir Chocolates, the resident local chocolate shop, also sells gorgeous Virginia- and D.C.-inspired chocolate right next to the Goodies Frozen Custard, a 1950s-inspired frozen custard shop that showcases a gorgeous collection of raised bed tulips in the spring.
For shopping, be sure to check out Old Town Books and the Made in ALX Store, featuring a wide range of products from local makers, including handcrafted spices, artisan crayons, apparel, home decor, stationery, jewelry, and more!
Fall Apple Picking + Pumpkin Picking at Stribling Orchard
A Fall visit to Stribling Orchard in Markham, Virginia is a tradition for many Northern Virginia families. Here, you can pick pumpkins and apples in the glorious Autumn sun before stopping by the Harvest House to shop for house-made cider, local honey, jams, jellies, salsas, and hot sauces, as well as local cheese, eggs, Virginia peanuts, and fresh baked goods.
Outside, kids (and curious adults!) have the opportunity to visit with farm animals and bask in the cool Fall weather. It’s a lovely place to get outside and into nature during everyone’s favorite season.
Plus, you can bring home fresh produce to make pies, jack-o-lanterns, and other baked goods. It’s a must-stop for apple lovers!
Related: These are the 5 Best Farms for Apple Picking and Pumpkin Picking in Northern Virginia. In the Fall, it’s a particularly beautiful outdoor activity that draws people from all over region.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts
Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts is located in the beautiful Wolf Trap National Park in Vienna, Virginia. Here, you can picnic and see some of the best live music acts in the world surrounded by nature during the spring, summer, and fall seasons. (There’s also an indoor venue for the winter months, as well.)
Featured artists past and present include Diana Ross, Sting, Brandi Carlile, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell, Darius Rucker, Harry Connick Jr. and his band, Halsey, and many more. The foundation also hosts various plays, comedy programming, and operas– from Shakespeare to Puccini to Steven Martin and beyond– as well as artists-in-residence.
The architecturally stunning Feline Center amphitheater was constructed from Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine in order to aesthetically blend with the park’s lush 117 acres.
The venue’s more than 7,000 seats overlook the performance stage while also looking out towards the park’s tall trees and rolling hills under open skies. (There are also covered seats and picnic seating available.)
^ The kids’ programming here, at the onsite Children’s Theatre–in-the-Woods, is also lovely. The summer programming in particular spotlights a globally diverse roster of music and dance performances in child-friendly formats, from Indian Kuchipudi dance to Flamenco.
Ultimately, Wolf Trap is easily the most beautiful concert venue in Northern Virginia. Locals, city folk from D.C., and people from all over the world make the pilgrimage every summer to enjoy shows in its idyllic natural surroundings. It’s lovely!
Check out Wolf Trap’s calendar of events here.
Explore Luray Caverns
Wandering around this astounding natural feature is an other-worldly experience. Luray Caverns is the largest underground cavern system on the East Coast, located in Luray, Virginia (about 1.5 hours east of D.C.).
Parking is usually free, and entry is about $30 per person– though seasonal pricing can fluctuate. Check the website for the latest visitor information.
Luray Caverns is also an ideal location for observing Fall foliage, especially if you drive there via Skyline Drive, the scenic local highway that takes you through Shenandoah National Park. Coincidentally, Fall is also the best time of year to visit Luray Caverns as that’s when the combination of nice weather + only moderate crowds makes the experience most pleasant.
On your way home, you can also stop at Cooter’s in Luray, VA to visit the Duke’s of Hazzard Museum. (Here, they periodically have free Bluegrass concerts and car shows, in case those are of interest.)
Have Dinner at Founding Farmers
We love the food and vibe at this pioneering Farm-to-Table restaurant in Tysons, which also has locations in Reston and DC. Founding Farmers Tysons is one of the best, uniquely “Nova” restaurants that showcase the All-American, farm-to-table, family-friendly finesse that the regional foodshed has to offer.
Local, regionally sourced meat, produce, eggs, dairy, and grains are showcased across their menu, and when I say everything is made from scratch, I mean everything.
^ They even bake their own bread, grind their own beef, churn their own ice cream, and distill their own booze in-house! As a result of this enduring thoughtfulness, Founding Farmers is now one of the most booked restaurants in America according to OpenTable.
Ultimately, we love the tender, succulent salads and the Fried Chicken & Jefferson Donut (a local classic!) as well as sumptuous appetizers like the blue cheese bacon dates, fried green tomatoes, and skillet cornbread.
Yes, the emphasis here is on American comfort food (specifically foods that are “authentic to Virginia”)– but they also have fresh, modern additions like avocado toast, spicy ahi tuna poke, handmade gnocchi, boutique enchiladas, brie baked with onion jam + crisp apple, or scallops meunière with butternut risotto.
There’s also a full steak and seafood menu, as well as a meatless portion of the menu for vegetarians. (Mushroom Gruyère Reubens, anyone?) And did we mention that the deviled eggs are some of the best in the world?
In addition to having excellent food, the Tysons farmhouse is also close to Wolf Trap National Park and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens (see below), so it’s a great spot to dine before or after your next adventure.
Visit The Springtime Tulip Fields at Burnside Farms
Burnside Farms in Nokesville is a gorgeous place to get out with friends or family for a day of frolicking in the flowers. This super-photogenic springtime wonderland opens in late April every year, and there’s usually a mad dash for weekend tickets, so plan to buy them early or go during the week.
Entry to the tulip fields includes unlimited access to the grounds and (as of this writing) five flowers per person, which guests can pick from over 200 varieties of tulips and 30+ varieties of daffodils.
Whether it’s purple feathered parrot tulips you’re after or classic pink Easter-like tulips, Burnside Farms has a color and variegation to fit any flower lover’s personal style. They also offer 6 weeks of sunflower picking in the Summer, as well. (<—- This is something of a new trend among flower-lovers, BTW.)
On-site, there’s also a moonbounce for kids as well as select farmstand treats like flavored honey sticks and popsicles available for purchase. Plus, each row of tulips is adorned with flags from the different provinces of the Netherlands, as well. This makes for an intriguing and educational sight line up the hill when you first enter the field.
After wandering around and picking tulips like a scene from the Sound of Music, visitors wrap their tulips (and optional bulbs, which can be purchased for $1 and planted in the ground at home) in charming brown bouquet paper, which makes for a pretty photogenic bundle.
And fortunately, Burnside Farms doesn’t spray their tulips, so those with small children can feel confident getting down and dirty with the roots as you attempt to pick a tulip with a bulb intact. (They have baskets for picking but you are also welcome to bring your own.)
For best results, grab the stem firmly and as close to the ground as possible before pulling it straight up to reveal a bulb that looks similar to a clove of garlic. Then, you can take that bulb home and plant it in the ground for tulips that will bloom annually– a perfect little reminder of spring for years to come!
Picnics are allowed and encouraged (BYO) and there are portable restrooms on-site. Dogs are not allowed (tulips are toxic to dogs), but baby strollers are. That being said, this is a perfect place for a cheery family photo-op!
Best of all, as long as you purchase tickets in advance, you can stay in the fields as long as you like! As the website aptly notes, “It’s almost like Holland in Virginia!”
Before you leave Nokesville, consider visiting The Little Goat Farm at The Lake for Goat Yoga or Baby Goat Snuggles. This is a great activity for kids and animal-loving adults, alike. If you can tack it on to your tulip adventure, you can make a whole day of it!
Read more about Burnside Farms Festival of Spring here.
Goat Yoga with Beth Wolfe
Speaking of goat yoga: one of the best places to try this bucket list experience in Northern Virginia is with Beth Wolfe, a trauma-informed yoga practitioner who offers lovely animal yoga classes to support various charities. Her events typically take place in DC-adjacent areas like Arlington, Alexandria, and Del Rey.
Goat yoga, moreover, is exactly what it sounds like. You practice some gentle yoga poses while local baby goats run around and, occasionally, jump up on your back. It’s light on the yoga and heavy on the play, and ideal for animal lovers looking for photo ops.
In addition to teaching group and private classes in Arlington and Alexandria, Beth’s warm, welcoming approach to yoga makes this “goatsperience” all the more memorable. (And true goat yoga experiences like this are hard to find in urban areas, unless you’re somewhere like Maui.)
All goat yoga events are typically Bring Your Own Mat. (And keep in mind that goats can sometimes pee or have accidents, so make sure you’re not too precious about whatever mat and clothes you bring.) At a recent goat yoga event in Arlington, the farm that supplies the goats even brought farm-raised eggs for sale after the class!
There’s also plenty of punny, goat-themed yoga attire for sale, so each event tends to feel really convivial and grounded in a sense of community. Best of all, the funding from these pop-ups usually goes to support community charities and life-saving organizations like The Trevor Project.
Ultimately, this is a super unique experience that’s worth booking ahead of time, as these events are limited and can fill up. Check the events page for a look at upcoming pop-ups and other goat-related programming.
Beth also offers unique events like BINGOAT (bingo + goats!), yoga with puppies, and yoga inside the National Building Museum. Read more about her Goat Yoga classes here.
Get Afternoon Tea (Or Macarons!) at Mocatinas in Leesburg, VA
Mocatinas in Leesburg, VA is such a fun, adorable dessert shop!
They offer a cute “Elevensies” tea service throughout the day (served with your choice of house macaron as well as warm scones with butter & jam) and a traditional English-style high tea service, which you need to book in advance. (For wine drinkers, they also offer a Rosé Tea Service that also books in advance.)
For both, guests can choose from a wide variety of caffeinated and non-caffeinated loose-leaf teas that are served in a matching pink kettle and teacups for the optimum Alice in Wonderland effect. Little bouquets of pink roses adorn the marble tea tables, and bauble-y chandeliers and light fixtures cast their glow on Instagrammably pink walls. Hip indie music, meanwhile, plays ambiently over the speakers.
The tea room as well as a private 21+ “club” where they serve wine is upstairs– think pink neon signs and a rose-lined flower wall.
Downstairs, Mocatinas displays the cutest menu of macarons (caramel pretzel or Teddy-Graham-topped s’mores macarons, anyone?) as well as a novelty candy shop, featuring everything from giant whimsical lollipops to cotton candy, and chocolate truffles sold by the each.
They also have quaint outdoor seating in a private garden patio with adorable pink Adirondack chairs perfect for toddler-aged kids. (And there are notably *pink* high chairs inside for those with small children, too.)
Plus, there’s lots of family-friendly programming, from a kids and teens reading club to free cotton candy and local market pop-ups on Saturdays. (Follow Mocatinas on Instagram for the latest updates on their programming.)
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens (Especially During Cherry Blossom Season!)
The Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, Virginia, are beautiful in the Spring and early Summer, which are the best times of year to go. There are a number of pretty hiking and equestrian trails throughout the acreage, as well as paved and dirt roads that are handicap and stroller accessible.
The rolling hills and wild meadowland of hidden area gem reminisce in places of upstate New York art parks like Storm King, and the cactus-filled greenhouse has beautiful views across the property’s lush 95 acres.
In the summer, there are free classical music concerts (most recently: every Sunday in September!) and the shaded woodland areas are a lovely place to wander with a stroller– or a friend locked in deep conversation.
Walk around the pond for a glimpse at snapping turtles and gorgeous, absolutely GIANT lotus flowers– the latter is one of the most photographed botanical features on the property. Or, lounge on hand-made wood furniture and watch the birds flit along the shoreline.
It’s generally very quiet here– even when groups are taking family photos or getting married on-site– and there are seemingly always hidden pockets of seasonal flowers blooming. From giant red hibiscus to dapper yellow daisies, voluptuous pink crepe myrtle, and cheerful digitalis, there are little pops of color everywhere, and it all changes with the season.
Intrigue in Every Season
In the spring, the cherry blossoms, azaleas, lilacs, and crabapple trees bloom beautifully. In the high summer, expect heat-loving warm weather blossoms like hibiscus and an extensive collection of multi-colored daylilies.
Fall foliage, meanwhile, can be as striking as the numerous Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies that make themselves at home on the property. (This large, dramatic butterfly is Virginia’s state insect!)
Ultimately, the mission of the Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is “to collect and display plants native to the Potomac River Valley and plants from around the world… [as well as] to provide educational opportunities in gardening, horticulture, botany, and conservation of plant diversity; and to provide a place of aesthetic beauty to foster the stewardship of nature for public enrichment.”
Food and drink are not permitted on-site, but there are nice bathrooms, a cute little gift shop, and extensive community artifacts as well as educational materials in the welcome center.
CBD Renew and Restore Massage at the Ritz-Carlton Tysons
The innovative CBD massage at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner is worth traveling for.
The spa is inspired by nature, incorporating ingredients like avocado, brown sugar, fresh berries, seaweed, and cherry bonsai seeds into their treatments– but the CBD massage (featuring hemp-infused body products) takes this vision to another level.
Capturing the burgeoning national interest in hemp and cannabis products for stress relief, this hemp- and CBD-infused massage begins with a personal consultation to establish your unique areas of concern. Then, a skilled massage therapist will determine how to best incorporate hemp-infused topical products that will leave your body feeling renewed and restored.
Whether it’s a deep-tissue trigger point massage or something more gentle and relaxing that you’re looking for, this massage pleases all. Opt for a 50-minute or an 80-minute treatment (go longer if you really want to treat yourself in this immersive experience).
As of this writing, the spa is only open Thursday through Sunday. If you go on a Thursday, you can stay for “Sushi Thursdays” at Entyse Wine Bar + Lounge afterward. They also do a great brunch with cold-pressed juices and fresh seasonal ingredients. Not a bad self-love combo for a weeknight!
Don’t Miss This Hip Local Lunch Spot
Or, if you go during the day, stop at nearby Flower Child for an excellent healthy lunch on your way home. This clean, hip, farm-to-table import from Arizona makes excellent no-nonsense salads, veggie bowls, protein dishes, and more, with gorgeous homemade sauces and allergy-friendly organic ingredients. We love it!
Visit The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum (They Even Have a Harry Potter Potions Tour!)
The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum in Alexandria evolved out of a family-owned business that was first founded in 1792. Here, visitors can explore various wooden chests of botanical powders, potions, vintage tools, and exotic raw materials like “unicorn root” that were once used to make medicine. It’s very cool!
As one of America’s longest-running family businesses, the shop was continually in use for 141 years. (This is where George Washington’s personal physician shopped for medical supplies!)
With its painstaking dedication to preservation, the Apothecary Museum captures the history of pharmacy in America with rarified authenticity. The main room of this preamble to a traditional “pharmacy” is preserved exactly as it would have looked in 1860. The windows, the ornate woodwork, the paint mixing palette on the second floor, and even the powders in the glass bottles are original!
Today, the museum is open for self-guided and guided tours, which leave every quarter past the hour until 30 minutes before closing. (The specific hours of operation change seasonally; check the website for hours.) Either way, guided tours last approximately 30-45 minutes.
A Magical Apothecary: Harry Potter Tours
Less frequently, the museum also offers super popular, quick-to-sell-out “The Real Science of Harry Potter” tours that operate under the title, “A Magical Apothecary.”
They also offer various “Geek Tours” themed around pop culture touchstones like the TV series Outlander and the concept of a “mad scientist”.
For these tours, advance ticket purchase is recommended, as space is limited and they do sell out. Otherwise, swing on by this hidden gem in Old Town Alexandria and get your magical medical mystic on, anytime.
~ Honorable Mention ~
A few other gems worth mentioning.
Take a Stroll Through Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery might sound a little, um, dark– but you don’t need to plan your visit on Halloween. This surprisingly inspiring cemetery is humbly uplifting– and a brilliant feat of landscaping as well as monument construction.
For the best experience, plan to visit in the Spring when the weather is nice and the iconic cherry blossom trees are in bloom. On-site, look for notable graves like Former Presidents, Sports Figures, Supreme Court Justices, and Astronauts.
Ultimately, it’s a unique, contemplative place to stretch your legs and spend time outdoors in quiet reflection with friends or family. And, it’s free!
Explore The Arlington County Fair
The Arlington County Fair is an annual community festival held during the final weeks of August in Arlington, Virginia. At this DC-adjacent summer party, you can expect to find plenty of the usual suspects: candy apples, funnel cake, corn dogs, fried Oreos, floats, arepas, empanadas… as well as lots of local beer, refreshing adult drinks, Thai tea, fresh made lemonade, smoothies, and soft serve.
Also: a giant bubble foam party! (Great for kids!) Mobile axe throwing! (Great for adults!) And things like plenty of live entertainment, games with prizes, and watching the sunset on the Ferriss Wheel are all not-to-be-missed.
The experience can be as cute or kitschy as you want to make it, but there’s no doubt about it: this fair offers all the classic, quaint trappings of an old time-y county fair, and it’s great for families.
Plus, there’s plenty of local and international cuisine on display, from fattoush salad to Polish sausage, Caribbean jerk chicken, steamed buns, and more. (The sheer variety of it all makes for a great culinary educational experience.)
And, if you want to try unique novelty treats, like butterfly chips or sangria “snoballs”, this is the place to do it.
Ultimately, the Arlington County Fair is a late-summer community event worth checking out, whether you’re visiting the area from elsewhere or a local trying to complete your neighborhood Bucket List. For a full schedule of events, check out the fair’s website, here.