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Down by the Bay: The Perfect Weekend in Norfolk

By Nneka M. Okona

09.20.19

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Local-born artist Maizelle depicts Norfolk’s Jazz Age heyday in this work on display at the Willoughby-Baylor House.

Maizelle (American, b. 1940s) “Night at The Attucks Theatre,” 1993 Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist

Local-born artist Maizelle depicts Norfolk’s Jazz Age heyday in this work on display at the Willoughby-Baylor House.

The Virginia city honors its past while enjoying a joyous and art-filled reinvention.

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For much of the last century, the city of Norfolk in southeastern Virginia has mostly been known as home to the largest naval base in the world, Naval Station Norfolk. But in the past decade, Norfolk has experienced a renaissance, one where a burgeoning arts scene emerged along with craft brewers and restaurants fusing the influence of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean with a deft urban touch. Head to this underrated Southern city now to witness its reinvention.

Immerse yourself in art

Norfolk’s NEON Arts District, short for New Energy of Norfolk, spans several downtown blocks. With more than 87 colorful murals splashed on the walls of the neighborhood, you may want to take advantage of free walking tours, which take place once a month on Fridays. 

Within the NEON Arts District, the Chrysler Museum of Art  provides additional creative distractions. The Chrysler, founded in 1933, features a vast art collection displayed throughout 50 galleries, with free admission to the public. If you’re interested in learning about glassblowing, the museum’s Perry Glass Studio offers free hourlong demonstrations daily, except Mondays, beginning at noon.

Two of the Chrysler’s current exhibitions feature black artists. Tropikosa film by John Akomfrah, a British artist of Ghanaian descent, explores the role of Britain in the transatlantic slave trade. Norfolk-born Maizelle’s Celebrate Me Home—on display at the museum’s 1794 Willoughby-Baylor House—portrays the lives of black residents of the region, past and present.  (Tropikos on view through January 5; Celebrate Me Home through March 29, 2020.)

Visit the hard-won past 

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Even if you arrive simply to sightsee or to taste-test the booming beer scene, a trip to Norfolk will still reveal the impact of African Americans on the city, both past and present.

For a glimpse of Norfolk’s 20th-century African American culture, walk past the Attucks Theatre on Church Street, a historically black neighborhood. The Attucks, which celebrates its centennial in 2019, is the oldest black-owned, -financed, and -built theater in the country. In its heyday, when it was known as the Apollo of the South, entertainment greats like Dizzy Gillepsie, Smokey Robinson, and Duke Ellington performed on this stage. Tours of the theater are available upon request. 

A monument to black soldiers depicts a local man who fought with the black Civil War regiment portrayed in the movie “Glory.”

Just a 15-minute walk away, visitors can see a more solemn side of black history at the West Point Monument, one of the few memorials in the South to honor black veterans of the Spanish-American and Civil Wars. West Point Cemetery, where the sculpture stands, was once a potters’ field but since its dedication in 1885, it became the resting place of almost 100 soldiers. The monument depicts William H. Carney, a sergeant in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. Carney, originally from Norfolk, was the first black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor. 

Eating in the South’s Next Great Food Destination

Taste the local fare

With an emphasis on seafood and local produce, Norfolk’s food culture reflects its place on the coast. The cuisine has also absorbed the recipes and traditions of the enslaved people who passed through and the influence of the many immigrant cultures that have come to settle in this busy port town.  

While you’re touring the murals in the NEON Arts District, stop by La Brioche Bakery & Coffee for a latte and pain au chocolat or strawberry tart. In addition to pastries, patrons can also purchase meringues, sandwiches, and a proper French baguette.

Todd Jurich’s Bistro, a Norfolk classic, specializes in seafood dishes prepared with a bit of flair—like local roasted oysters topped with parmesan cheese, a Kentucky bourbon drizzle, and bacon, or the jumbo lump crabcakes with lemon beurre blanc.

For comfort food with Virginia flavor, Southern Eats is where to go, especially for Sunday brunch when it serves fried chicken alongside collard greens, potato salad, and sweet potato biscuits.

This town has dessert covered, too. Try black-owned Hummingbird Macarons and Desserts. The café, set in a pagoda with scenic waterside views and an upstairs patio space, has a selection of loose-leaf teas as well as some unique flavors of macarons you’re unlikely to have had before—black pepper raspberry, elderberry hibiscus, and banana Biscoff brûlée, for example.

And don’t miss a stop at Doumar’s, a local institution since 1904, when Syrian immigrant Abe Doumar invented a four-iron waffle machine that allowed him to create the world’s first waffle cones. Doumar’s still serves cones made with that original machine as well as barbecue pork sandwiches loaded with coleslaw and a vinegar-based barbecue sauce.

Explore an emerging neighborhood 

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In a small semi-industrial wedge of land between the residential West Ghent neighborhood and the Elizabeth River, a few breweries and restaurants make a tasty argument for more exploration. Smartmouth Brewing Company, Benchtop Brewing, and the Birch, named one of the best beer bars in the country by USA Today, have established a kind of craft beer district, serving liquid refreshment and elevated pub grub. Next door to the Birch, the Bakehouse at Chelsea bakes up bread, pastries, and pizza in wood-fired ovens, infusing the entire few blocks with the pleasant aroma of woodsmoke and baked goods. Torch Bistro, another pioneer in these low-rise blocks occupied by shipping and hydraulics companies, offers cocktails, wine, and casual food in a sprawling industrial space with outdoor seating and a fire pit.

The mantlepiece in the two-bedroom suite at the Inn at Four Eleven York hints at the building's cozy charms.

Stay small or go big

For a cozy local experience, choose to stay at the Inn at Four Eleven York, the rooms above the Restaurant at Four Eleven York. The Inn, in the historic Freemason District, has only four suites total with plush beds and linens, massive walk-in showers, and a complimentary wine and cheese happy hour each evening.

You can also opt to stay right in the midst of the downtown action at Hilton Norfolk The Main. In addition to its location and 300 comfortable guest rooms, the hotel is popular for its rooftop beer garden Grain, perfect for taking in skyline views of Norfolk.

>>Next: Plan Your Visit With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Virginia

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