Past and present, this historical city charms with cultural, creative and culinary panache
Rolling down Caroline Street and reeling off dates of the Civil War, trolley driver and tour guide Kathy Quann can hardly contain her enthusiasm for Fredericksburg, as she spouts out tales of the Revolutionary War and a bit more about the father of our country, George Washington.
“Usually, around our patriotic holidays, a lot of people will come in wanting to learn about George Washington,” Quann says.
Aboard Quann’s 75-minute-long tour, you’ll not only see beautiful buildings of the 19th century, but you’ll also learn why certain homes were built with particular dimensions to avoid higher taxes. You’ll see where slaves were sold on the streets and hear varied tales of that boy named George who grew up to be the first president of the United States.
Fredericksburg is where Washington spent a few of his formative years—as a boy and into his teens. “We’re George Washington’s hometown,” says Julie Perry, the visitor services manager at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center.
The trolley tour passes by Kenmore, the home of George Washington’s sister, Betty, and slips past the Mary Washington House, the home of Washington’s mother. You’ll also see the circa-1760 Rising Sun Tavern, which belonged to Washington’s younger brother, Charles.
“Fredericksburg was a really important colonial town,” Perry says. “And, of course, the colonial importance of our town is part of what contributed to its Civil War importance.”
Crisscrossing roads and alleys, Quann details seemingly countless Civil War stories, like how Fredericksburg changed hands multiple times and may be best known today for the Confederate victory at the Battle of Fredericksburg Dec. 11–15, 1862—a decisive win for Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“Fredericksburg was a very strategic location,” Quann says. “We had the river here. We had the rail line.”
The University of Mary Washington, named after George Washington’s mother and chartered in 1728, calls Fredericksburg home. With more than 5,000 students, and located just off I-95, the college lies about halfway between Richmond and Washington, D.C., along the banks of the Rappahannock River.
“For the ships, this was the furthest inland on the entire East Coast they could go, which is why they built the town here,” Quann says. “It’s also why Fredericksburg was one of the busiest international seaports on the East Coast leading up to the Revolution.”
At one point, Quann pauses the trolley tour at an old train station that now houses The Bavarian Chef, a restaurant offering sips and savors of authentic German flavors—from wiener schnitzel and rheinischer sauerbraten to reuben sandwiches and giant pretzels that are meant to be shared. The Bavarian Chef is among dozens of the city’s restaurants, including Foode, with its emphasis on fresh ingredients, and Capital Ale House, which boasts an endless array of ale and beer.
Just a few doors away, on Caroline Street, Goolrick’s Pharmacy claims to be “the oldest continuously operated soda fountain in the U.S.,” according to Rita Mauck, a store manager. The pharmacy dates to 1867; the soda fountain was added a few decades later. “So a lot of people, when they walk by, they remember places like this,” Mauck says. “There used to be one of these on every corner.”
Goolrick’s stands near the Fredericksburg Visitor Center in a downtown district that boasts more than 100 boutiques, antique shops and art galleries. “When you’re here in our downtown area you’re a part of our community,” Perry says. “It’s a working, living, breathing town, and I think it feels different than a colonial amusement park. You get to experience the past and the present all at the same time.”
About a block off Caroline Street, the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center offers Railways and Roadways, a permanent exhibit about the history of the area’s railroads, interstates and highways. You’ll also find a recently-added exhibit titled British Heritage, American Style on the craftsmen living and working in the Fredericksburg area from the years 1730–1860, featuring furniture, paintings, silver and printed material from the museum’s decorative arts collection.
That sprawling museum is one of the city’s many surprises, says Andi Gabler, owner of two-room The Schooler House Bed & Breakfast on Caroline Street.
“It’s amazing,” Gabler says. “The Civil War? These cute little shops and great little restaurants? Usually, people are surprised that we have so much and that it’s so nice.”
Guests come for one night, but often fall in love with the city and want to stay longer, Gabler says. “And they all said, ‘We had no idea.’ We don’t have just one little thing. We have everything.”