Fun things to do in Southwest Virginia include fantastic outdoor adventures and activities, rich arts and culture, cool cities and ...
These Northern Virginia hidden gems offer beautiful places, fascinating history, and unique things to do at lesser-known destinations. They’re perfect for a locals outing or a day trip for Washington DC visitors. Our list of great places to visit in Virginia includes family fun, adult outings, cool photoshoot locations, interesting history, and special sites for every age.
After 20 years in the region we are still surprised by the diversity of places to visit and things to do in Northern Virginia. Popular spots like Great Falls Park and Shenandoah National Park call us back regularly. But we also love to follow the road less traveled and uncover new local experiences.
Our Northern Virginia hidden gems are in two groups: natural gems and history-focused places. However, many of these destinations include both nature and history. Links offer additional information, tips, and photos to help plan your outing.
Natural Northern Virginia Hidden Gems
Northern Virginia is a happy place for nature-lovers. We have bays, rivers, and wetlands; rolling hills across the Virginia Piedmont; and the foothills and peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to explore. These beautiful places in Virginia are fun for active outings and include some of our favorite places to take pictures and create happy memories.
1. Bear’s Den Overlook, Bluemont
A half-mile uphill hike from a parking lot in Bluemont leads to rocky Bear’s Den Overlook. Here you can enjoy a beautiful westward view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. The rocky outcropping offers lots of spots to sit and enjoy lunch or a great sunset view. You can also reach the overlook from the day use area of the Bear’s Den hostel. If you want a longer and more challenging hike to a view, try Raven Rocks just across Route 7. Combine your visit with a stop at nearby Purcellville for tasty dining, shopping, and craft beverages. Or check out the eastward view with a brew at Dirt Farm Brewing. Free.
2. Bull Run Mountains Conservancy, Broad Run
The Bull Run Mountains Conservancy preserves unique nature and history of the most easterly mountain chain in the Virginia Piedmont. While the popular overlook is permanently closed due to erosion, there are still many miles of hiking trails to explore. Before your hike, check out the dramatic ruins of Chapman’s Mill. The former mill is thought to be the tallest stacked stone building in the United States. It was gutted by fire in 1998, but you can still enter the building and take photos. Free.
3. Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve, Alexandria
It’s easy to visit this unique Northern Virginia hidden gem by bicycle or car. The Mount Vernon Trail, a paved bike trail along the Potomac River, passes through the marsh. Or you can park at nearby Belle Haven Park and walk out to the marsh. A .7 mile dirt trail follows the banks of the Potomac River. You’ll enjoy nice views of the marina, Woodrow Wilson Bridge, and National Harbor in the distance. The level, easy trail ends with a long boardwalk and viewing platform over a tidal marsh and across the river. Dyke Marsh is also a popular destination for birdwatching. Free
4. Difficult Run and Cross County Trail, Great Falls
The Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail extends for over 40 miles across Fairfax County. The trail begins at the Potomac River in the north, and ends at the Occoquan River in the south. Along the way it passes through many of Fairfax County’s best parks and stream valleys. Our favorite stretch of the CCT follows Difficult Run and enters the eastern section of Great Falls Park before arriving at the Potomac. The trail is shady and the river offers a place to cool your feet in summer. In the Fall, foliage colors the banks and reflects in the stream, creating lovely photoshoot locations. Free.
5. Great Marsh Trail, Mason Neck
The Great Marsh Trail is a paved, 3/4-mile accessible trail that is part of the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge on Gunston Road. There is a large platform at the end of the trail with expansive views of the 250 acre Great Marsh, one of the largest fresh water marshes on the Potomac River. This is a beautiful spot to watch for birds, including the many bald eagles that nest in the protected marsh. Extend your visit with a stop at Mason Neck State Park for beautiful birding, hiking, and boating. Free.
6. Huntley Meadows Park, Alexandria
Huntley Meadows Park brilliantly transformed a former asphalt testing facility into one of the most beautiful marshland habitats in our busy region. Visitors stroll a long, ADA-compliant boardwalk allowing close-up views of the many birds, amphibians, and other wildlife in the park. Climb the Observation Tower, one of our favorite romantic spots in Virginia, for beautiful views and a rest. Free.
7. Meadowlark Botanical Gardens, Vienna
Meadowlark Botanical Gardens is a Northern Virginia hidden gem we return to throughout the year. The gardens grow, transform, and fade, but the parks 95 acres and paved paths always offer peace and beauty. A children’s garden, gazebo and pond, and small bridges entertain families; and the Korean Bell Garden adds cultural interest. $3.00 – $6.00, depending on age; free in winter.
8. Potomac Heritage Trail
The Potomac Heritage Trail (PHT) covers over 800 miles from Washington DC to Pennsylvania, with local segments following the banks of the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. Close to the DC, we like the stretch from Theodore Roosevelt Island to Windy Run. More popular segments pass through Great Falls and Riverbend Parks. Free.
9. Prince William National Forest, Triangle
It’s odd to think that part of the national park system can be a Northern Virginia hidden gem, but we frequently meet locals who have never visited Prince William National Forest. Those who do visit will enjoy 37 miles of beautiful hiking trails, a 9-mile scenic loop drive, and paved and gravel bike roads. There is also interesting history from the parks days as a “relief camp” for low-income DC children. Camping is available in historic cabins or open sites. $7.00 per vehicle for a five-day pass, waived on national free entrance days
10. Seneca Regional Park, Great Falls
An entryway of woven branches welcomes hikers, birders, and equestrians to the beautiful woodland and riverside trails at this Northern Virginia hidden gem. One section of the Potomac Heritage Trail passes an historic section of 1700’s stone wall from George Washington’s Patowmack Canal. Near the parking area, signs explain details of an historic calvary crossing during the Civil War. Free.
Historic Northern Virginia Hidden Gems
11. Balls Bluff Battlefield Park, Leesburg
The battlefield at Balls Bluff was the site of the first Civil War engagement to take place in Loudoun County. Today, the park has an excellent interpretive trail that explains how the battle unfolded. Other trails include sometimes steep, wooded hikes to the river and a segment of the Potomac Heritage Trail. The park also includes one of the smallest National Military Cemeteries in America. Nearby Red Rock Wilderness Overlook also offers wooded hiking along a bluff and down to the Potomac River. Free.
12. George Washington Distillery and Gristmill, Mount Vernon
Step back in time for a close-up look at businesses built by George Washington in the 18th century. The George Washington Distillery and Gristmill faithfully recreates two of Washington’s profitable businesses using period methods and materials. Today, the gristmill grinds wheat and corn just as Washington’s workers and enslaved people did. Nearby, the only authentic 18th-century distillery in the United States creates fine whiskey, brandy, and other spirits using the arduous methods of Washington’s time. The distillery and gristmill are open seasonally, from April 1 through October 31. Admission is $5.00, or you can purchase a ticket that also includes admission to George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
13. Historic Downtown Clifton, Virginia
Clifton’s compact downtown is a Northern Virginia hidden gem blessed with interesting and well-marked history. Clifton makes a perfect day trip, with several delicious restaurants, good hiking, and a winery to explore. The downtown is a National Historic District, and a stroll up Main Street leads to houses and businesses marked with signs offering interesting tidbits about the people who lived and worked in them. Free.
14. Gunston Hall, Mason Neck
At Gunston Hall, the family home of George Mason IV, you can enjoy a guided tour of the mansion and reconstructed outbuildings, and explore 550 acres of grounds and hiking trails. As you explore the history and beauty of Gunston Hall, you’ll learn about George Mason’s lasting impact on Virginia and the very beginnings of our American democracy. Mason was among the first to call for such fundamental American liberties as religious tolerance and freedom of the press, ideals that became the foundation of the United States Bill of Rights. $10 with discounts for seniors and children.
15. Lake Anne Van Gogh Bridge, Reston
The Van Gogh Bridge is one of the most beautiful photoshoot locations in Northern Virginia. And this hidden gem is just one of several picturesque art installations at Reston’s original village center, Lake Anne. The Lake Anne Plaza opened in 1966 to national acclaim and was even compared to Venice’s Piazza San Marco by an architecture critic. Concrete artworks are built into the plaza and surrounding pathways and underpasses. This lovely bridge and a nearby swing offer pretty spots to enjoy the view and take pictures. Local Reston restaurants at Lake Anne include a brewery and a coffee shop/wine bar. Free.
16. National Museum of the Marine Corps, Triangle
Anyone traveling busy route I-95 will notice a dramatic 210 foot stainless steel mast, angled to mimic the flag-raising on Iwo Jima, that soars from the National Museum of the Marine Corps. But too few locals stop to explore the excellent immersive displays and multi-media experiences that tell the story of the strength and heroism of the Marines Corp throughout history. Displays capture important moments of American history from the perspective of Marines who participated in them, from an assault on Iwo Jima by Higgins Boat, to a frozen mountain pass in Korea, to the aftermath of battle in Vietnam. Free.
17. Pope-Leighey House, Alexandria
The Pope-Leighey House was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, recognized by the American Institute of Architects as “the greatest American architect of all time,” to encourage living in connection to, and harmony with, nature. Designed for middle-class family living, it reflects Wright’s belief that garages, attics, and basements were unneeded structures that encourage excessive consumption and cluttered living. Guided tours explain how every design detail contributed to Wright’s vision of happy family living. Open April to December, tours are $15, or $20 for a combined tour with Woodlawn Plantation.
18. Snickersville Turnpike, Aldie to Bluemont
The Snickersville Turnpike (SR 734) is a quiet, two-lane road, that passes farms and fields, and preserves much of it’s early character. George Washington travelled the road as a surveyor, and by 1786 it was the first operating turnpike in America, praised by Thomas Jefferson as a success. A monument erected by survivors of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry marks the site of one of the bloodiest cavalry battles of the Civil War. The Turnpike passes three general stores along the drive, including the Philomont General Store, which has been in continuous operation since 1913. Free.
19. Stabler Leadbetter Apothecary, Alexandria
One of the most unusual Northern Virginia hidden gems is frozen in time—preserving and displaying it’s original 1933 contents. The Stabler-Leadbetter Apothecary was frequented by Martha Washington and Robert E. Lee (or their servants) and everyday residents in the bustling port of Alexandria. Glass bottles line the shelves, filled with the same exotically named medicines and herbs they contained when the business abruptly closed. The glassware, the furnishings, the fabric, and even the contents of the containers-unicorn root, dragons blood, “worm destroying drops,” and more—are all original. $5.
20. Occoquan Regional Park and Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton
Occoquan Regional Park is a popular spot for boating and fishing along the Occoquan River. The area is part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, explored by Smith in 1608. The park is also home to the last of nine Beehive Brick Kilns, used by prisoners from the former Occoquan Workhouse. Many of the red bricks produced here were used in public buildings throughput Washington DC. This was also the site of a critical turning point in the long fight for women’s right to vote. A future National Turning Point Suffragist Memorial is planned for 2020. In the meantime, the Workhouse Arts Center Prison Museum has an exhibit about the events at Occoquan that helped turn the tide and gain support for women’s suffrage. Free.
Our 20 picks for Northern Virginia hidden gems are great destinations for family time, a solo escape, or a DC day trip. If you’re a local, keep the list handy for inspiration the next time you’re looking for something to do near home. Please share you feedback and favorite Northern Virginia hidden gems in the comments below.
This article was published in 2017 and updated in 2019.