With his proven success leading a ragtag group of patriots to win the Revolutionary War and drafting the constitution of the newly formed United States, George Washington steadfastly secured his place in history as America’s first president. And that’s why, in a city full of free memorials, museums, and other sights, it’s absolutely worth the time, effort, and cost to travel about 15 miles south of the nation’s capital to spend a day at Mount Vernon.
From the mansion where America’s first president lived to the slave cemetery a few feet away from the graves of George and Martha, these are the best things to see and do on a visit to this Founding Father’s home in Mount Vernon.
George Washington’s Mansion
When George was a toddler, his father began building a modest home. And when the future president’s older half-brother passed away two decades later, a 22-year-old George took the reins. Over the next 45 years that Washington lived at Mount Vernon, he added to the home, turning it into the nearly 11,000 square foot, two-and-a-half-story, 21-room mansion that can be toured today.
General admission to Mount Vernon includes a guided tour of the mansion. However, entrance to the mansion is timed, so it’s best to purchase your tickets in advance and plan the rest of your visit to Mount Vernon around your scheduled home tour.
There is a lot to take in when touring the home, which is ten times larger than the average colonial Virginia home. However, your tour guide will certainly tell you all about:
- The majestic New Room (including how it got its name)
- George Washington’s study (his 18th-century man cave)
- The Washingtons’ bedroom (where George passed away from a throat infection in 1799)
- The dove weathervane atop the cupola (commissioned by Washington to symbolize his desire for peace in the new nation)
But one of my favorite experiences was learning about a key mounted on the wall of the central hall. The key was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington’s friend and fellow revolutionary. It once unlocked the door to the infamous Bastille prison, whose destruction is considered the start of the French Revolution.
Pro Tip: To view the upper floors of the home, you’ll have to climb stairs. See the Mount Vernon website for accessibility information including recommended paths and handheld devices for guests with limited vision and hearing.
A Variety Of Outbuildings
In stark contrast to the mansion, be sure to visit the overseer’s and slave quarters. Because he was often away from Mount Vernon serving his country, George Washington hired an overseer for each of his five farms. In exchange for a modest annual salary of $133.33 -- plus lodging, meals, and laundry service -- the overseer at Mount Vernon was given the 18th-century equivalent of a studio apartment. And for a life of backbreaking forced labor, the hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children at Mount Vernon lived with 20 or more people in the same space.
In a world without indoor plumbing, the “necessary” was the Cadillac of outhouses back in the 18th century. Instead of a deep dirt hole where human waste would be deposited, the outdoor facilities at Mount Vernon used a system of drawers that could be removed for proper disposal and cleaning.
Other buildings to explore for a glimpse of life at George Washington’s Mount Vernon include the blacksmith shop, carriage house, stable, spinning house, and storehouse.
Gardens And Greenhouse
If you stand on George Washington’s front porch, you’ll see a large curved expanse of lush green grass known as the bowling green. While many of our homes feature green lawns today, in the late 1700s it was a rarity that reinforced the Washingtons’ wealth.
Flanking the bowling green are the upper garden (to the right) and the lower garden (to the left). The lower garden was designed to produce edibles for the kitchen, but the upper garden was created to grow flowers and be a place of beauty.
Speaking of beauty, it’s hard to miss the impressive red brick building with a row of cathedral glass windows that stands on the northeastern edge of the upper garden. In this massive greenhouse, the first president was able to successfully grow coffee beans, healing aloe plants, citrus trees, and other non-native plants through the cold Northern Virginia winters.
George Washington’s Final Resting Place
Since his death at the end of the 18th century, George Washington has been interred in two places at Mount Vernon. Overlooking the Potomac River, the old vault was the original burial plot for POTUS 1, his wife, and 20 other family members. But George Washington realized that the family vault required extensive repairs, so his last will and testament requested that a new tomb be constructed.
About three decades after his death, the bodies of America’s original president and first lady were moved to their current resting place. With two cream-colored obelisks that look like miniature Washington monuments, George and Martha are now buried in a small brick building just to the west of the old tomb.
Slave Cemetery And Memorial
While it’s a beautiful and historic place to visit, the truth is that George Washington’s Mount Vernon was constructed and operated by hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children. And although 12 American presidents owned slaves, several things set George Washington apart from other slave masters.
Despite the fact that he owned hundreds of human beings, George Washington struggled with the idea of slavery, spoke out against the institution, and expressed his desire to end the practice. And more importantly, he ultimately took action. In the will he penned in his home office, Washington stipulated that his slaves would be freed upon the death of his wife, Martha.
And when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association identified the location of the slave cemetery in 1929 by adding a memorial marker -- just steps from where George and Martha are buried -- it was believed to be the first tribute of its kind at an American historic site. In 1983, architecture students from Howard University added an updated memorial to the Slave Cemetery to honor the enslaved people who were forced to spend their lives toiling at Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant
While you can certainly dodge scores of school children and opt for a fast-food style meal at the Mount Vernon Food Court Pavilion, there is an alternative, and I highly recommend it! For just a few dollars more, you can enjoy a delicious sit-down meal at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant. No matter which salad, sandwich, or entree you select, be sure to add a cup of George’s favorite soup to your order.
Made with a recipe that dates back to George and Martha’s time at Mount Vernon, the peanut and chestnut soup is amazing, no matter how unusual it may sound.
Pro Tip: An admission ticket is not required to dine at the Mount Vernon Inn, so if your itinerary doesn’t allow you to spend a day exploring the estate, you can always stop by for dinner (and a cup of that amazing soup)!
Other Tips For A Fantastic Visit To Mount Vernon
While the D.C. Metro is an affordable, easy-to-navigate way to get around the capital city, getting to Mount Vernon without a car can be more challenging. Here’s how to get there via subway and bus from Washington, D.C.
In addition to a guided tour of George Washington’s mansion, access to the outbuildings, and entrance to the museums, your general admission ticket also includes access to the distillery and gristmill. If you visit between April 1 and October 31, these additional sights are a short shuttle ride from the main estate.
The best time for a visit to Mount Vernon is in the spring, summer, or fall, when you’ll be able to best admire the beauty of the grounds and see the animals.
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