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From urban hikes; to food and brews; to history, museums, and street art; a Richmond Virginia getaway is easy to enjoy because this cool, capital city has so much to offer. The only challenge you’ll encounter is fitting all the tempting sites, food, and fun into a few days. Fear not. Since Richmond is only two hours (or less) from the Northern Virginia, Washington DC area, you’ll just have to visit more often.
Here are 5 capital ways—and a whole bunch of places to go and things to do—to enjoy your Richmond Virginia getaway.
1. Take an Urban Hike
Richmond is blessed with a revitalized riverfront offering some of the best urban hiking around. The beautiful James River, an historic canal, and an abundance of bridges, provide a sweet, gritty backdrop to outdoor adventures.
The Footbridge and Belle Isle
The second largest island in the James River is a nice spot for a hike and to laze on the flat rocks looking out over the Hollywood Rapids. Getting there is part of the fun if you walk the 1,040-foot long footbridge suspended under the Lee Bridge. Once on Belle Isle, take the 1-mile trail around the island and check out the remains of a power plant and a Confederate gun emplacement. The island was also the site of a notorious Civil War prison camp where over 1000 Union soldiers died under horrific conditions. The island also offers mountain biking trails and rock climbing, and it’s a very popular destination on a warm sunny day.
Brown’s Island and the Canal Walk
Back on the downtown side of the river, follow the paved walkway east along Tredager Street and cross the bridge over the Haxall Canal to Brown’s Island. A popular spot for city events, the island is the start of the Canal Walk. The 1.25-mile walkway is marked with interesting medallions, statues, and exhibits that highlight the area’s role through four centuries of Richmond’s history. When you reach the Power Plant near 11th Street, you’ll see fantastic murals that were created during the first RVA Street Art Fest (now located in the Manchester neighborhood, April 22 -24 2016).
The Canal Walk continues on the city side of the floodwall, following the James River and Kanawha Canal through the early Shockoe Slip neighborhood. You’ll pass below the railroad lines at Triple Crossing. Richmond is the only city in the world with a triple main-line railroad crossing still in operation. Be sure to stop at the monument to Henry “Box” Brown, a slave who made a desperate and dangerous journey to freedom after his wife and three children were sold away.
The Canal Walk ends at the floodwall, but if you continue through the door you’ll reach the Virginia Capital Trail, a 52-mile dedicated, paved trail that runs from Richmond to Jamestown along the Route 5 corridor. Richmond is Virginia’s current capital, and Jamestown was its first, so the trail is well named.
2. Explore a Richmond Neighborhood
Richmond is full of unique neighborhoods, many of them connected by driving and walking trails that highlight history. The Richmond Slave Trail follows the port and slave markets that made Richmond the largest source of enslaved Africans on the east coast of America from 1830 to 1860. The 6.2-mile Richmond Liberty Trail connects many historic sites and is marked with a blue logo painted on the sidewalk. Shockoe Bottom is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, where restaurants, bars, and shops line the cobblestone streets. Drive or walk through the Fan District to see beautiful 19th and 20th century architecture on quiet residential streets, and drive down Monument Avenue, a wide boulevard with statues honoring Confederate leaders and Richmond native Arthur Ashe. At the western edge of the Fan, Carytown is a fun street lined with quirky shops and tasty food.
3. Immerse Yourself in History
A Richmond Virginia getaway can’t help but include history. Richmond is Virginia’s state capital; preserves important American Revolutionary sites; served as the Confederate Capital during the Civil War; and was a bustling center for manufacturing and trade. You could spend weeks exploring the historic sites of Richmond, but we’ve highlighted a few that are well worth a visit.
Hollywood Cemetery is the resting place of 18,000 Confederate dead, many of them reinterred from hasty burial at Gettysburg. A 90-foot stone pyramid surrounded by rows of headstones, honors the fallen. Hollywood is also the burial place of two US presidents—James Monroe and John Tyler—and Confederate General Jefferson Davis. There’s a wonderful view of the James River and Richmond skyline from the western side of the cemetery.
Virginia State Capital was designed by Thomas Jefferson in the Monumental Classical style. A 2007 renovation added an underground Visitors Center on the south side of the square where you enter the building. Visitors can explore on their own or join a scheduled tour. Don’t miss the life-size marble statue of George Washington surrounded by busts of 7 other Virginia-born presidents and Lafayette under the beautiful rotunda.
The Poe Museum recounts the life of Richmond-native and beloved author Edgar Allen Poe. The museum displays the largest collection of Poe manuscripts, personal belongings and memorabilia. Upstairs in the Exhibit House you can take a picture “under the floorboards” of the Tell Tale Heart or behind the bricks of The Black Cat. The Poe Museum hosts monthly “Unhappy Hours” beginning in April, and the shop has some great Poe inspired gifts.
St. John’s Church is the site of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech to delegates at the Second Virginia Convention including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Guided tours of the church, led by costumed interpreters, explain the ideas and Virginia events that led to the American Revolution. You can also tour the graveyard on a self-guided tour or with a guide. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, re-enactors bring the famous speech to life every Sunday afternoon.
Tredager Iron Works and the American Civil War Museum are located near Brown’s Island and the start of the Canal Walk. The Tredager Iron Works hosts the Visitor Center for Richmond’s many battlefields, and preserves the site of one of the largest and best equipped foundries in the nation. The adjacent American Civil War Museum does a wonderful job presenting the events and ideas that drove the Civil War before, during, and after the conflict. The museum presents each issue from three distinct viewpoints—Union, Confederate, and African-American.
4. Sample the Food and Craft Brewery Scene
Chosen by National Geographic as one of the top six places for food travelers in 2016, Richmond is justifiably proud of their vibrant food and drink scene. Getting to all of the places we wanted to try was a big challenge in a 3-day visit. On day two, we even split a meal at two different places (1st dinner and 2nd dinner) just to extend our dining options. Here are places we enjoyed tasty food and drink during our visit.
A generous Cuban breakfast at Kuba Kuba in the Fan District is a wonderful way to fuel up for a day of sight-seeing. We loved the Huevos Kuba, featuring eggs with Cuban Beef Hash and rice, and the Pork Roast Omelet packed with slow-roasted pork. For something sweeter, try the decadent chocolate croissant at Sub Rosa Bakery on Church Hill.
Lunch at Vagabond, near the State Capital, offers some unusual meats including rabbit and pigs head, but also serves delicious creations like a Curried Chicken Sandwich and Butternut Squash Soup. Additional seating downstairs accommodates dinner crowds attending a show at The National next door. Take a break from shopping in Carytown with lunch at Weezie’s Kitchen, a diner-style eatery that served a fantastic Oyster Po Boy. If you like veggies, order the Squash & Onions side—yellow squash deliciously accompanied with grilled onions and bacon.
Our dinner at the French-American Belle and James was elegant and tasty. We started with a Richmond specialty, pimento cheese fritters, and a couple of the tasty cocktails, then moved on to seared scallops and a beef special, followed by decadent desserts. Another night we split dinner at two locations. First dinner was a shared crab cake sandwich from the season’s opening night at the Hardywood Food Truck Court. Second dinner was an excellent fried catfish with shrimp and grits at Lunch. or Supper!, a popular, funky diner on Summit Ave.
Tasty Craft Brews
We stopped in the downtown Capital Ale House, just a block from our hotel, to sample from a nice line-up of Virginia brews. The Ardent Saison, Legend Brown Ale, and Hardywood Pilsner were immediate favorites. If you’re in town on a Thursday night in the warmer months, you can combine a visit to Hardywood Park Craft Brewery with dinner from the food truck park. It’s a fun, family-friendly scene and the line-up of beers was delicious—especially the Hardywood Foolery and the Raspberry Stout. Our last craft beer stop on this trip to Richmond was at Triple Crossing Brewing. The tasting room on Foushee Street has a small deck that’s a nice spot on a warm evening, and there are plans to open a larger space with a great view of the Richmond skyline.
5. Enjoy Richmond’s Art and Gardens
The VMFA opened in 1936, defying the difficult times of the Depression with a commitment to the value of public art. Years of careful acquisition and expansions have created a 13.5 acre campus with impressive collections of Art Deco and Art Nuveau, American, European, Asian, and African-American art. We were sorry to miss the museum’s collection of Faberge eggs, the largest outside of Russia, which is currently on tour. The glass-walled Best Cafe, with a view out to the Sculpture Garden and it’s cascading fountain, is a nice spot to relax.
USA Today readers voted the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden one of the top four gardens in North America, and it’s a beautiful stop on any Richmond Virginia getaway. 50 acres of gardens house an array of themed areas that offer beauty and fun to visitors of every age.
You’ll also find interesting, small gardens at the Poe Museum and Agecroft Hall. Agecroft Hall is a 15th century manor house that was moved to Richmond from Lancashire, England, by businessman T.C. Williams Jr. We were not able to join a house tour when we stopped by, but we did visit the lovely Elizabethan gardens that surround the house.
You could spend days exploring the vibrant murals that decorate buildings throughout the city of Richmond. From the huge to the hidden, in every mood and style, murals seem to pop up on every block. The Richmond Mural Project is your best guide to finding particular murals, or you can just wander the neighborhoods and streets and see what you discover.
We wanted a centrally located, comfy home base for our Richmond Virginia getaway, and the brand new Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown fit the bill. The hotel was recently opened in a former office tower that also houses a new Homewood Suites. Our corner room was spacious, bright, and very comfortable with a king-size bed, large desk, couch, and expansive windows offering excellent views of the city.
The lobby area includes plenty of seating and a breakfast area, and you can reach the Belle & James restaurant without even going outside. We were too early to enjoy it, but the hotel will be opening an indoor/outdoor rooftop lounge in May 2016 that should be a fabulous spot to enjoy a cocktail with impressive city and river views.
Because the hotel was so new, the parking garage was not finished, and it was pretty confusing reaching the lobby from our car. That issue will disappear when the garage is complete. The two hotel lobbies are only a floor apart so make sure you know which one holds your reservation. The Hampton Inn & Suites location was perfect for all of our exploring, and the comfy quiet room let us recharge for the next day’s wanderings.
We had our last Richmond Virginia getaway over 20 years ago, and we could not believe how much the city has changed. We can’t wait to return for more food, history, art, and urban adventures in this beautiful city by the river. Where should we go on our next visit?
For another take on fun things to do in Richmond Virginia, check out:
Visit Richmond hosted portions of our visit to Richmond, Virginia, including our lodging, museum entry, and some meals.