Virginia is all about the history. The land was inhabited for 12,000 years before the English debarked in 1607, and the first African slaves were brought here in 1619, starting a plantation system that led eventually to the Civil War. In the 1700s, Virginia was home to such historic statesmen as Washington, Jefferson, Mason, Madison, and Monroe. Today, Virginia is a state of preservation and pride—museums and historic homes are everywhere—that also revels in the present. The food, wine, and craft beer scenes are red hot, and Virginians love to dance and make merry. Slow down, take the back roads, and create some history of your own.
When’s the best time to go to Virginia?
Spring and fall are Virginia’s prime seasons: comfortable, colorful, and usually sunny. The hot, humid summer means long, warm nights, ideal for alfresco dining, dancing, and concerts. Stay cool at the state’s many beaches, rivers, lakes, and pools. Winter tends toward the cold and dry, and with tourist sites less crowded, it’s a great time to visit museums and get cozy with history. Virginia’s weather is notoriously fickle, though, and temperatures can vary wildly from day to day. Keep an eye on the forecast and layer accordingly.
How to get around Virginia
Virginia is most easily toured by car. Interstate 95 brings East Coast travelers from the north and south. I-64 heads west from Norfolk through Richmond and Charlottesville, connecting at Staunton with I-81, which runs southwest the length of the state, from Winchester to Bristol. Both these routes are scenic, but Virginia also has wonderful back roads. Routes 15 and 6 from Charlottesville to Richmond, Route 5 from Richmond to Williamsburg, the Colonial Parkway linking Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown, and Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains are some of the best. Richmond, Norfolk, and Charlottesville airports are uncrowded and convenient, with rental agencies and cars located on-site. Amtrak runs several trains daily through Richmond, stopping downtown at grand old Main Street Station and a few miles north at suburban Staple Mills. Norfolk is the southern terminus of Amtrak’s Northeast from Boston, and trains from Charlottesville’s Union Station can take you to or from New Orleans, Chicago, New York, or Boston.
Can’t miss things to do in Virginia
Charlottesville’s must-see sites are Jeffersonian: the University of Virginia and Monticello. Its Downtown Mall offers great restaurants, shops, and concert venues in historic commercial buildings. Head out of town to enjoy nearby wineries, inns, and views. In Richmond, tour the state capitol, and spend some time contemplating the James River—perhaps from Historic Tredegar, Hollywood Cemetery, Maymont, or the Boathouse at Rocketts Landing. Devote a few hours to the stunning Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and neighboring Virginia Historical Society, then drive down Monument Avenue with its mix of mansions, shade trees, churches, and statues. Heading south on I-64, you can experience time travel at Colonial Williamsburg, the best large-scale historic site in the country, where restored and recreated buildings, costumed interpreters, and a beautiful, human-scale setting give a compelling sense of Virginia’s past. Norfolk being a Navy town, the waterfront is where the action is, with a traveler-friendly concentration of museums, dining, shopping, music, baseball, festivals, and boat tours of the busy harbor. A half-hour drive takes you to the fun and sands of Virginia Beach.
Food and drink to try in Virginia
Eat some seafood—blue crab, oysters, and fish from the Atlantic, Chesapeake, and the state’s dozens of rivers. Look for salty dry-cured ham (Smithfield is legendary), barbecue, biscuits, spoon bread, and chess pies. Williamsburg’s historic tavern restaurants offer time-honored Southern specialties and a fun immersion into the past. Virginia’s contemporary food scene is booming, as restaurants old and new reimagine the classics, often paired with bourbon-centric cocktails, local craft beers, and highly palatable Virginia wines.
Culture in Virginia
“Virginia is for Lovers,” goes the slogan, and it’s true. The state offers something for everyone to love. Climb or ski a mountain, relax on a beach or at a spa, take in a show or game, enjoy city excitement or small-town tranquility, and immerse yourself in history, festivals, and the arts. It’s a great blend of urban and rural, with distinct geographic cultures. The Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic Ocean, and Blue Ridge Mountains invite exploration. You can check out the watermen’s world at Tangier Island, go underground at Grand Caverns, surf-cast at Virginia Beach, explore Civil War battlefields, or hike more than 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Museums, historic homes, and historical highway markers are everywhere. Virginians love music, horses, boats, and sports—especially college basketball and football—and they’re always up for a party, so keep an eye out for the many annual festivals.
Virginia is ideal for road trips—major cities are only an hour or two apart. In Charlottesville, both UVA and Monticello are family-friendly, with lots to learn and plenty of room to roam. Downtown, ice-skate year-round at the Main Street Arena or do some hands-on exploration at the Virginia Discovery Museum. You-pick farms like Carter Mountain Orchard make for great outings, and there are wonderful day hikes nearby. In Richmond, downtown Capitol Square and riverside Historic Tredegar let you delve into the past and also run around outside. Maymont, a former estate, is fun for all with a mansion to tour, gardens, a petting farm, a nature center, and hills for a picnic and play. The Science Museum of Virginia is impressive, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is gorgeous, and active families will want to get out on the James River in kayaks, canoes, or inner tubes. Between Richmond and Norfolk, stop at beautiful Busch Gardens, a theme park–lover’s dream, and at Colonial Williamsburg to immerse yourselves in our revolutionary past. Start your Norfolk visit at Nauticus, with its interactive science and history exhibits and tours of the USS Wisconsin. A sail on the American Rover is a great way to see Norfolk’s busy harbor, and a game at waterfront Harbor Stadium is a blast for baseball fans. From Norfolk, a half hour’s drive takes you to Virginia Beach, where the options for family fun are endless.
Local travel tips for Virginia
It’s always nice to speak to people. Virginians are a friendly bunch and willing to freely share info and recommendations, so strike up a conversation and see where it leads you. And always check the forecast before you get dressed for the day.
Will Jackson is a freelance writer who loves art, architecture, cooking, eating, and any kind of watery place. He is an avid collector of travel brochures and likes to find the offbeat stories and venues that bring a city’s history to life.