"Virginia is for lovers," the tourism slogan goes and that´s especially true for lovers of history and nature. Here you'll see colonial settlements as well as Civil War battlefields and presidential residences (eight presidents have hailed from here, mostly early in the USA´s history). Its cities are a mix of historic architecture and cutting-edge modern culture and amenities including great dining; its relatively modest coastline is nonetheless packed with appealing beaches; and its nature offerings are some of the best along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. There´s a lot going for the Old Dominion State, but the following five stand out especially:
On the western side of the Potomac River across from Washington DC (in addition to being a short drive, there´s water taxi service between here and the District´s Georgetown neighborhood), the main appeal of this city of nearly 160,000 is its colonial core, Old Town Alexandria. Dating back to the city´s founding in 1749, it has red-brick sidewalks and even a few cobblestone streets lined with quaint brick, stone, and clapboard houses. Highlights include the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, dating back to the 1920s and dedicated to the Freemasons´ most famous U.S. member; the historic brick Christ Church, consecreated in 1753; the Georgian-style Carlyle House, also built in 1753 for a Scottish merchant; and the 1852 Greek-Revival Athenaeum, now housing an arts center. You can also discover the city's black heritage on a self-guided walking tour along Duke Street as well as an African-American heritage trail. Also don´t forget to take a selfie at the Hollensbury Spite House, completed in 1830 and considered the USA´s “skinniest” house at just 7½ feet wide. Finally, right up the Potomac, you´ll definitely want to visit George Washington´s estate Mount Vernon.
Amidst it all, there´s plenty of delicious dining amidst charming surroundings along main drag King Street as well as waterside (where Vola's Dockside Grill and Chart House receive rave reviews); also make sure to visit 252-year-old Gadby´s Tavern, still conserving its colonial feel. For liquid refreshment, check out Aslin Beer Co., Lost Boy Cider, and Port City Brewing Company.
King Street is also home to a plethora of boutiques and vintage shops selling all manner of apparel and accessories, and near the street´s eastern end browse the artists´ work for sale at the Torpedo Factory Art Center (yes, a former munitions factory of the U.S. Navy).
For overnighting, I´d recommend The Alexandrian (a Marriott Autograph Collection property) on King Street to stay in the center of everything and for more convenient access to DC's Metrorail system the Embassy Suites by Hilton Alexandria Old Town.
Just five miles southeast of Colonial Williamsburg (see below), this 42-acre amusement park is divided into ten “villages” inspired by a a half dozen European countries/cultures. Just a sampling: in Banbury Cross (representing England,), you can catch a show in a replica of Shakespeare´s Globe Theatre. Aquitaine, themed after Belle-Époque France, has among other things the Griffon roller coaster, with a 205-foot drop and speeds up to 75 miles per hour. Down beer and Teutonic specialties at Germany- themed Rhinefield´s Das Festhaus along with a taking a ride on the “haunted-ski-lift” Alpengeist roller coaster. Take in a show of traditional dance and a spin on the Finnegan´s Flyer swing ride in Killarney (for Ireland). In San Marco (themed on Renaissance Italy) you´ve got pasta, Turkish Delight whirling cups, and the exciting water ride Escape from Pompeii. And thrill to another cool coaster, the Loch Ness Monster, in Scotland´s Heatherdowns, as well as getting up close to Anheuser-Busch´s famous Clydesdale horses and other critters at the Highland Stables. In addition to all that, there´s a kiddie section themed after Sesame Street plus a water park called Water Country USA. Tickets aren´t cheap – beginning at $90 per person – but still a relative bargain compared to many other theme parks out there.
Williamsburg is a theme park which pioneered “living history” more than 80 years ago is still one of the world´s best of its kind as well as still the largest, presenting not just the classic clapboard and red-brick architecture of the18th-century´s British colonies but also an interactive taste of what life was like back then, through hundreds of docents in period costumes engaged in period trades (such as weaving, blacksmithing, weaving, candle making, and so forth) and other activities. Other aspects of that era are covered by the American Indian Encampment, which examines the ways in which Native Americans and colonials interacted with each other, and the Randolph Kitchen and Yard, which offers an insight in the life of slaves in the household of Peyton Randolph, twice president of the Continental Congress.
Beyond that, choices abound for eating (from budget to high-end) and overnighting, as well, including several colonial-style taverns as well as more contemporary fare at nearby Merchants Square. Lodging options range from motels to the more upscale likes of the colonially themed Williamsburg Inn as well as Kingsmill Resort, and Great Wolf Lodge.
Quite a few visitors also make time for Historic Jamestowne, on Jamestown Island just 15 minutes away. This U.S. National Park Service historic site covers the first permanent English settlement in the Americas, founded in 1607 and becoming the capital of the Virginia Colony until the capital was moved to Williamsburg. You can visit on your own or take guided tours, some with special emphasis such as on the history of the slaves first brought over from Africa.
(And for more about Colonial Williamsburg on Tripatini, click here.)
The state capital (pop. around 250,000) boasts not just a myriad museums and historical sites but also an increasingly robust cultural, dining, and even craft brewery scene. The Museum District about five miles northwest of downtown is home to the likes of the renowned Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia Museum of History and Culture, the Children's Museum of Richmond, the Science Museum of Virginia, and the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. Plus downtown you´ll also find the Black History Museum, the Cultural Center of Virginia, the Poe Museum (dedicated to the 19th-century U.S. master of the Gothic Edgar Allen Poe), and the Virginia Holocaust Museum. There are plenty of historical homes and other sites as well – and one definitely not to miss is the White House of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. Richmond boasts plenty of fun in the great outdoors, as well, including kayaking and paddleboarding on the James River as well as biking and hiking on Belle Isle, an under-the-radar gem.
Dining venues – from simple to very fancy indeed – range from barbecue and Southern cuisine to ethnic options, and for overnighting I´d recommend downtown´s regal, historic Jefferson Hotel and the modern Quirk Hotel.
In the north of the state just an hour from Washington DC, this long, narrow, 124 square-mile (322-sq-kilometer) swath of the Blue Ridge Mountains (above and top) is a nature lover´s paradise. Some visitors just drive scenic, 105-mile Skyline Drive (the entrance fee is $30 per car, good for seven consecutive days) while others get out into the woods to hike and bike along more than 500 miles (805 km) of trails, along the way taking in various waterfalls such as Overall Run, at 86 feet (26 meters) the park´s highest. A section of the famed Appalachian Trail runs through here, and nearly four dozen other trails range from short and easy to strenuous (an example of the latter being the nearly-ten-mile Old Rag Circuit, with rock scrambles leading up to a peak with stunning views): except in winter you can also opt for ranger-led hikes. And along the way you might spot wildlife such as foxes, deer, racoons, beavers, skungs, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, and even black bears (plus, needless to say, plenty of bird species, some 200 of them). Other popular activities include horseback riding and trout fishing, as well as swimming, kayaking, canoeing, and tubing the Shenandoah River.
Apart from pitching a tent at various (dog-friendly) campgrounds or in the back country, there are also cabins for overnighting as well as even a couple of resorts. There are plenty of places to eat, as well, from “grab and go” to take-out to full-service dining, although they may have limited hours or even be closed in late fall and winter, and you might want to bring your own victuals.
Down on the southern coast at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, with a population of around 460,000, this resort city is especially popular with families, spring breakers, and surfers. At the core of allure is of course the titular sandy stretch counted by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the longest pleasure beach in the world” – a total of around 14 miles (23km). The boardwalk which runs along three of those miles is lined with restaurants, cafés, shops, hotels, and other establishments, and in warm weather also offers plenty of live music and street performers. And in from the beach, you can find more of everything along VB´s main drag, Atlantic Avenue.
Beyond the sands, highlights include the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, home to some 700 marine species and showcasing the state´s offshore as well as watery onshore environments. Tanks and touchpools; boat tours: virtual reality pods: even a rope-course/zipline “adventure park” all make for a great educational outing for all. Another star is the Military Aviation Museum, especially focusing on the two world wars and including the chance to take a spin in a 1941 Boeing Stearman PT-17 open-cockpit trainer. Culture vultures will enjoy the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, and history buffs a number of historic homes to visit, as well as the nearby Cape Henry Lighthouse – the USA´s first, built in 1792. Nature lovers also get their due in places like Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where they can hike and bike trails through more than 14 square miles (37 km2) of barrier islands, dunes, freshwater marshes, maritime forests, ponds, and beaches.