What’s the most romantic city in the United States? According to Amazon.com, it's Alexandria, Virginia. Lined in cobblestones, steeped in history and decorated with dessert shops, Alexandria topped the online giant’s annual amore list this week.
The aesthetics of the city don’t factor into Amazon’s rankings—the company formulates its list using sales of romance-related books, music, movies and "sexual awareness products." Surely that means that the residents of the historic burg walk the streets in a lovelorn haze, right? Not so fast: Though it's tempting to imagine a city filled with devout Jane Austen fans waiting for their Darcy or Nora Roberts loyalists searching for that magical moment, local booksellers tell Smithsonian.com that they're surprised by the ranking, considering that they don’t sell many romance books.
“I can’t remember the last time we sold a romance,” Diane Wilson, owner of Already Read Used Books, tells Smithsonian.com. She pauses to check with another employee, who answers, “I have no idea.”
Priscilla Smith, the manager of Book Bank, echoes Wilson’s sentiment. She tells Smithsonian.com that her shop doesn’t even have a dedicated romance section. However, she points out that Alexandria is a well-educated city. Given that more than 60 percent of the population holds a bachelor’s degree or higher, Alexandrians could be more interested in reading than the average American. Or maybe its denizens are more comfortable ordering books fit for their pulsing libidos from the privacy of their Kindles.
Alexandria's reputation for romantic reading may be slightly exaggerated. But there certainly is real-life romance to be found in Alexandria. Just ask Patricia Washington, president of Visit Alexandria. She tells Smithsonian.com that whenever the city conducts surveys, Alexandria is always picked as a romantic place for people to go on dates or have a weekend getaway. Indeed, the Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine have called it a “Best Place for a First Date.”
Alexandria's mayor, Allison Silberberg, says that Alexandria is a great place to canoodle—and even get hitched. “Countless weddings and engagements happen in Alexandria," she tells Smithsonian.com—not surprising given that the city of approximately 150,000 hosts three million tourists every year. “It is a national treasure. Of course people want to get engaged, get married or be romanced in Alexandria because it withstands time. It's current and it's fun, but also historic." As one couple whose engagement photos in Old Town Alexandria made it all the way to the Washingtonian illustrates, the area has the historic bones, lush scenery and playful murals that resonate with love birds.
Alexandria’s romance starts with its historic setting. It was first settled in 1669, as a 6,000-acre land grant given to English ship captain Robert Howson by Sir William Berkeley, the Governor of Virginia. During the spring of 1779, it was officially incorporated and served as a shipping port for international trade. The town is littered with historic buildings that date back to the 1700s. Gadsby’s Tavern Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria was a favorite haunt of George Washington, and all of the first five presidents visited the establishment at one point or another. Across the street is Alexandria City Hall, first built by Benjamin Latrobe in 1817, the architect who designed the Capitol Building, where one of the oldest running U.S. farmer’s markets sets up shop each week.
King Street, the main drag in Old Town, preserves the city’s past while embracing present tastes. One can take a nostalgic trolley ride through its red brick streets, then jump off to sample a buzzy modern dining establishment. No less than Michelle and Barack Obama chose to spend their Valentine’s Day at the trendy Vermillion in Old Town back in 2012. The restaurant serves up sumptuously simple farm-to-table American fare in a quiet, intimate setting. Also in the area is La Bergerie, which cracked OpenTable’s list of 100 Most Romantic Restaurants in America for 2016. Already “totally booked” for Valentine’s Day, the restaurant woos with its elegant atmosphere and classic French plates.
Alexandria’s dessert selection also makes it a sweet place to hang. Alexandria Cupcake serves up a signature Rosewater cake topped with a fresh raspberry and Lavender Moon Cupcakery, which is geared toward a less-typical flavor palate, offers choices like Bourbon Butter Pecan and Blood Orange Dreamsicle. Other sugary spots for edible Valentines include Buzz Bakeshop and Blüprint Chocolatiers.
A walking tour of the historic district is available to those willing to walk off all that food. Couples with a braver constitution can elect to learn ghost stories during a nighttime, lantern-guided tour. If water is more your thing, there's always a stroll along Founders Park on the Potomac River. Sweethearts can also try their sea legs on a sightseeing cruise, which passes by Alexandria's Admiral Row, Old Town Yacht Basin and Jones Point Lighthouse.
If you're single in Alexandria—or can't make it there for V-Day—the library has you covered. Brack Stovall, the Branch Manager of Alexandria Library's James M. Duncan, Jr. Branch, tells Smithsonian.com that though Alexandria has its fair share of Fifty Shades of Grey readers (it's circulated over 400 times since 2009), a rising romance star is When Washington Was in Vogue: A Lost Novel of the Harlem Renaissance by Edward Christopher Williams, which has circulated 221 times since it was added to the collection. The most popular title in the library system is a classic tale of romance, too: Coming in at a total of 567 circulations is F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The city's romance readers may be hard to spot, but that doesn't mean Alexandria isn't a place for besotted bookworms.