Located midway between New York and Florida, Virginia is the gateway to the South. From the boardwalk and nightlife at Virginia Beach, the gentle Chesapeake shores and the remote, pristine beaches of Chincoteague, Tangier and the barrier islands to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive in the west. Virginia is several holidays rolled into one, quaint main street communities and exciting cosmopolitan cities, including quiet rest and relaxation to energetic city-life. Hike the Appalachian Trail, shop for designer bargains at the outlets and dine at a trendy restaurant all in the same day.
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NEIGHBOURHOODS NOT TO MISS:
River District, Richmond: Ten years on from the completion of Richmond’s Canal Walk project, the River District is now a vibrant area for entertainment, dining and nightlife. The buildings range from the 1700s to 2007 and it’s that blend of old and new that appeals to visitors on a canal cruise as they hear about the area’s history.
King Street, Alexandria: Alexandria may be one of the US’s most historic towns, with some beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture, but it’s bustling King Street, easily accessible from DC by Metro, that is a major attraction for visitors. Use the free King Street Trolley to drop in to some shops, boutiques, restaurants and the Torpedo Factory Art Center on the Potomac River waterfront. Nicholas Cage fans might recognise the George Washington Masonic National Memorial from the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
Downtown Charlottesville: Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe all used to frequent the area around Court Square where the town’s first taverns and shops evolved. Nowadays, it’s a magnet for visitors, locals and University of Virginia students with its lively arts and dining scene and unique shopping, where historic brick buildings, tree-lined pavements and eclectic stores create a sophisticated yet funky vibe. A walking tour will give you a feel for the area’s rich history.
Clarendon, Arlington: Arlington may be best known for its famous cemetery, but Clarendon is where to go for nightlife and eating out. Offbeat, and reckoned to be the hippest of Arlington’s ‘urban villages’, Clarendon is packed with eclectic restaurants and nightspots, such as the Iota Club & Café, which has earned great reviews for its food and selection of hometown and national performing artists. Locals from DC head out to Clarendon to sample the huge variety of food from Texan to Thai, Chinese to El Salvadoran.
Main Street America is alive and well in the Capital Region. Here’s your chance to mix with the locals while discovering the small-town charms of Virginia.
Cape Charles: If you’re into the maritime life, this is the place for you. Sited at the southern tip of the ocean- and bay-surrounded Eastern Shore peninsula, it offers marinas, a beachfront park, fishing and golf. Stay in the Victorian-era Cape Charles Hotel Historic Inn, dine on local seafood and take an excursion on the 1913 Bay Creek Railway. For further adventures, drive across the 17.6-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to Virginia Beach and Norfolk.
Fredericksburg: Conveniently sited between Washington, DC, and Virginia’s capital, Richmond, this colonial-era city encompasses the farm where George Washington spent his boyhood, the homes of his mother and sister, and a museum devoted to local lawyer and later US president James Monroe. Take a ghost tour, go canoeing, visit Civil War battlefields and stop by the Rising Sun Tavern, where ‘tavern wenches’ regale visitors with a lively interpretation of 18th-century tavern life. Enjoy a frozen custard at Carl’s, a local favourite since 1947.
Galax: This picturesque ‘World Capital of Old Time Mountain Music’ which is set along south-west Virginia’s Crooked Road music trail – has been home to the colourful Old Fiddler’s Convention, held each August since 1935. Look out for music gigs in venues around town and, on Friday evenings, for live airings of an old-time and bluegrass music radio show in the historic Rex Theater.
Lexington: Set in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, this charming, 18th century college town is a Mecca for Civil War buffs. Visit the tomb of General Robert E Lee in the chapel of Washington & Lee University and the statue of General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson on the adjacent Virginia Military Institute campus. Then continue to his home and grave and the impressive VMI museum to General George C Marshall, author of the post-World War II Marshall Plan.
Washington: Laid out in 1749 by young surveyor George Washington and known as ‘Little Washington’ in deference to the nearby US capital, this charming, northern Virginia village may have fewer than 200 residents but is widely known as the home of the Inn at Little Washington, America’s first five-star, five-diamond inn and restaurant. Enjoy a gourmet meal, shop the local galleries or enjoy the rustic beauty and rolling countryside of surrounding Rappahannock County.
POWERFUL MONUMENTS AND MEMORIALS:
The Capital Region is full of inspiring monuments and significant historic attractions.
In gracious Richmond, state capital and site of the ‘Southern White House’ HQ for the Confederacy, the city’s old warehouse district at Shockoe Slip is abuzz with shopping and dining distractions, while the excellent Museum of the Confederacy explains the North-South conflict.
Inland, the magnificent homes of early Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison nestle in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson’s mountaintop Monticello, just outside Charlottesville, is a joy both in position and illustrating the nature of a hugely-talented and self-taught architect, farmer and Man of Letters. The new visitors centre provides a 21st-century introduction to the remarkable man and his home.
Overlooking the Potomac River near Alexandria, Mount Vernon was the home of the nation’s first President and is America’s most visited presidential home. Visitors can tour Mount Vernon and the many outbuildings, including the working farm, kitchen, distillery, stables and greenhouse on the 500-acre estate. It’s easy to reach from downtown DC along the scenic George Washington Memorial Parkway, or by boat from Alexandria or National Harbor. Stop along the way for a dining or shopping expedition along the cobbled streets of Alexandria’s Old Town district.
GLORIOUS PARKS AND GARDENS:
Virginia offers many options for garden tours and National Park visits.
Every April, Virginia celebrates Historic Garden Week when more than 250 private and public homes and gardens open to the public.
Colonial Williamsburg’s cool green spaces, tidy flower gardens, trimmed boxwood hedges and big shade trees complete its 18th-century townscape. Among its grandest gardens are those surrounding the Governor’s Palace. At Christmas, plant materials are used to make some of the most beautiful and anticipated decorations in the country.
No garden enthusiast should miss Monticello, the stunning hilltop estate and historic house that was home to the third US president, Thomas Jefferson. A keen horticulturist, Jefferson cultivated more than 150 varieties of 31 species of fruit and in the 1,000ft-garden terrace he grew more than 330 vegetable varieties.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, ‘America’s favourite drive’, runs for 469 miles through Virginia and North Carolina. The parkway follows the Appalachian Mountain chain and provides some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, ranging from 650 to 6,000 feet in elevation. A hundred species of trees, a variety of flowering shrubs and wildflowers as well 54 different mammals and 59 species of birds live along the parkway. Look out for a host of special events to mark the Blue Ridge Parkway’s 75th anniversary in 2010.
FUN ON THE WATERFRONT:
The Capital Region gazes at its reflection in the famed Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary, spanning 200 miles from the Susquehanna River to the Atlantic Ocean.
The bay has a stunning diversity of experiences, from long, sandy beaches, towns of clapboard houses, gentle fishing and crabbing to swimming, boating, watersports and waterside villages.
Virginia beach - beach life doesn’t get much livelier, with the world’s longest pleasure beach – all 35 miles of it – hosting a feast of fun, sun, music events and entertainment annually, including the American Music Festival, the largest outdoor musical event on the east coast.
A virtually undiscovered ecological treasure, Virginia Beach is home to one of the last great salt marsh habitats on the east coast, with mile upon mile of waterways just waiting to be explored. You can kayak with dolphins on the ocean waves, or hike through the beauty of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Visit the Virginia Aquarium, with its stunning new Restless Planet exhibition featuring four immersive habitats and 6,000 animals, including Komodo dragons, exotic cobras and hedgehogs.
Best for horsing around: Assateague Island’s wild ponies have roamed its pristine beaches, pine forests and salt marshes since the 1600s. You can see the ponies on boat tours from May-October. The annual pony swim across the causeway to Chincoteague Island is watched by 40,000 spectators each July.
Best for bay exploring: The Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network connects you with 150 exceptional parks, wildlife refuges, museums, sailing ships, historic communities, trails and more. Gateways are the special places where you can experience the authentic Chesapeake.
Best Lakeside Retreats: Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke offers 500 miles of shoreline and is surrounded by the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, making it one of the most popular and scenic destinations in Virginia.
Amidst the mountainous landscape of the Shenandoah Valley, the new Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, is a work of art itself, with its layered structure of steel, zinc and glass. Smart galleries display 19th and early 20th century American art, new media and photography, as well as decorative arts.
In Norfolk, Virginia, the Chrysler Museum of Art is home to impressive European and American paintings and sculpture, a world-renowned glass collection, Art Nouveau furniture, as well as African, Asian, Egyptian, Pre-Columbian and Islamic art. In the words of New York Times art critic John Russell, the Chrysler boasts objects "...any museum in the world would kill for."