Occoquan, Virginia, a little village on the Occoquan river only about a 30 minute drive from Washington, DC, is the perfect place for a quick day trip. This historic town of 900 people is hidden below a busy highway bridge (Route 123), nestled at the river’s edge. It is situated downriver from the rapids caused by the geological feature called the Fall Line, the subject of several of my other blog posts for Fredericksburg (VA) and Great Falls in Potomac (MD).
Once you exit Route 123 and descend the hill towards the riverside, you’ll feel like you entered into another time period. 19th century homes and shops line the city’s streets. There are cool little cobblestone alleys bisecting the grid and forming nooks even quieter than the town around it. If you’re there at night, or early in the morning, your way might be lit by the light of gaslamps.
Occoquan’s economy has completed its transformation from industrial center processing the region’s timber, grain, and tobacco to a tourist center selling scented candles, Christmas ornaments and yarn. But the town doesn’t feel theme-parky or fake. The pure quaintness of the town, frozen in time almost, seems genuine. What convinced me were the people manning the shops and restaurants along Mill Street and its offshoots. Everyone was so nice and enjoyed running their establishments in such a nice setting away from the hustle and bustle only a short drive away.
The town is also very pet-friendly, as I found out on a recent trip with my dog Annie. I took her in to a bunch of places whose owners welcomed her with a smile and a dog biscuit.
If you go, here are my suggestions:
Try parking your car on Washington Street, the first street main street you’ll come to as you get off 123. Parking is free in the town.
2) Walk along Mill Street and hit the shops
It’s called Mill Street because Occoquan had a few mills back in the day processing grist (flour) and tobacco. You’ll see many shops and restaurants along this strip, since it’s the main drag in the town. Most of them, if not all, are dog-friendly and have water bowls and even treats outside for your dog.
Grab a treat for your pet at Fetch Pet Bakery (305 Mill Street). Combine that with an ice cream at Wolfe & Beane Ice Creamery, which occupies the same deck near the river. I bought a few dog bones at Fetch and got a 10% discount for owning a rescue dog. If you’re a resident of Occoquan, or a veteran, you also get a 10% discount (even if you stroll in there with the purest bred fanciest dog money can buy).
If you’re into Christmas decorations, you’ll be in heaven. The Golden Goose (302 Mill Street) seemed to be the center of it all and was already overflowing with wreaths and candles and the smell of evergreen over a month before Christmas.
3) Walk across the footbridge near the Mill House Museum
Unfortunately the footbridge was closed the day I was there, but once it’s open, you’ll be able to walk across the river to a pathway through the woods and take that perfect picture of Occoquan. If you want a really good vantage point of Occoquan, get off Route 123 right before you get on the bridge (coming from the north). On the way back, visit the Mill House Museum for a quick education on the town’s economic history.
4) Grab a bite to eat
I didn’t eat this time around, but last time I visited Occoquan I ate at the Secret Garden Cafe, which as its name suggests, has a very quiet and secluded outdoor eating area nestled between a steep hillside and neighboring shops. The simple menu features a good selection of sandwiches and soup.
5) Get a coffee and chill out
One of my favorite things to do in the late afternoon is to drink coffee and read. Being told by the Secret Garden Cafe waiter that they didn’t allow dogs on their patio, I tried the place next door, Tastefully Yours Gourmet Food Market and Cafe. Amazingly, the owners let me bring my dog inside and even sit down to eat in the dining room with her. I also had the choice of eating outside on their little patio but since it was chilly I ate inside. Their coffee was really good as was the cranberry muffin. I also bought a ball of cheddar cheese from their shop before leaving.
6) Go Hiking
On the way back, or on the way to Occoquan, stop at one of the nearby parks for a hike and to take in the nice views. There are a few to choose from, including (in order from northwest to southeast along the river) Fountainhead Regional Park, Sandy Head Regional Park, Occoquan Regional Park the Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I only visited Fountainhead and had a nice time walking Annie along the first trail by the parking lot. I also walked down to the river and took in the view. The river is so wide at this point that I first thought I was look at a lake. There are a lot of activities to choose from on the river here, including kayaking, Stand Up Paddle-boarding, mini-golf, archery and fishing.