Virginia captures the attention of history-loving travelers. Here, you’ll find Colonial settlements, Civil War battlefields and presidential homes (Virginia’s the home state of eight presidents, after all). In the cities, you’ll find historic architecture and cobblestone streets. Modern travelers will appreciate the state’s bountiful food scene, chic museums and plentiful shopping. Ready to plan your trip? Read on below for a list of the best things to do in Virginia. (Note: Some tours and excursions may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. New policies may be in place, including capacity restrictions and parking reservation requirements. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Shenandoah National Park
Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., residents often flock to Shenandoah National Park for a mountain getaway. You can reach the park in about two hours from the nation’s capital, giving you access to more than 200,000 acres of hiking, waterfalls, wildlife viewing and scenic drives. Visitors particularly rave about Skyline Drive, a scenic road that runs through the length of the park. The 105-mile thoroughfare features plenty of overlooks to admire the scenery. When you’re ready to stretch your legs, you’ll have more than 500 miles of hiking trails to explore. Experienced hikers often trek the 9.4-mile Old Rag Circuit, a strenuous trail with rock scrambles that leads to a gorgeous summit overlooking the park. For an easy hike, stroll along a portion of the Appalachian Trail. The famous trail runs through Shenandoah and park visitors can walk along it for a 2-mile round-trip hike. You’ll find plenty of lodges and vacation rentals near Shenandoah or you can save some cash and set up a tent in one of the park’s campgrounds. Keep in mind, however, that local restaurants may have limited hours – or be closed entirely – during the late fall and winter. If you plan to stay for a weekend during these seasons, bring your own provisions. Shenandoah National Park’s entrance fee is $30 per vehicle; passes are valid for seven consecutive days. The park also accepts America the Beautiful pases.
Williamsburg has become synonymous with Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum that shows what life was like in the 1700s. An admission ticket to Colonial Williamsburg gives travelers access to sites like the American Indian Encampment, which discusses how Native Americans and colonists interacted, and the Randolph Kitchen and Yard, which offers insight into the lives of enslaved people at Peyton Randolph’s home. (Randolph was a two-time president of the Continental Congress.) The venue also showcases a myriad of trade demonstrations, including weavers, tinsmiths, silversmiths and milliners. Travelers particularly enjoyed the costumed actors scattered throughout the museum who provided great history and added authenticity. Though there are a few places to dine on-site, you may be better suited heading to nearby Merchants Square to refuel, particularly if you want something other than traditional pub fare for lunch. The shopping center has a combination of upscale options and family-friendly haunts like Mellow Mushroom and Baskin-Robbins. Following a restful night at the lauded Williamsburg Inn or Kingsmill Resort, drive about 10 miles southwest to Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement to learn more about Virginia’s Colonial life.
Alexandria, particularly its Old Town district, has a something for everyone. Its location along the Potomac River offers romantic waterside dining options – Vola’s Dockside Grill and Chart House earn excellent reviews – as well as a water taxi service that transports visitors from Alexandria to D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Shoppers should wander King Street for its plethora of boutiques. You’ll find everything from high-end clothing stores to thrift stores to specialty shops. History buffs will likely enjoy walking up to the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, exploring the city’s Black history along a self-guided walk down Duke Street or wandering the African American Heritage Trail. Take time to enjoy the city’s art scene by strolling through rotating public art installations, visiting the Torpedo Factory Art Center (a collection of studios where artists both create and sell their art) or by timing your trip to coincide with an art festival, such as Art on the Avenue in October in the Del Ray neighborhood. Top off your day with a drink at a local establishment like Port City Brewing Company, Aslin Beer Co. or Lost Boy Cider. Book a room at The Alexandrian, Autograph Collection on King Street to stay in the heart of the action, or at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Alexandria Old Town for easy access to D.C.’s Metro train system.
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Previous travelers said a walk down Virginia Beach‘s boardwalk can’t be beat. Though there are many hotels and minimal shopping, beachgoers appreciated the ample dining options as well as the various statues along the route. Naturally, the biggest draw for the area is the beach. A wide swath of golden sand offers plenty of space for sunbathing or exercising (seaside yoga, anyone?), while the water beckons to surfers, wave jumpers and boogie boarders. Families will no doubt want to spend their days at the beach, but when the kids need a break from the sun, head over to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Here, little ones can see sharks and seals, interact with creatures in the touch pool and observe the aquarium’s oyster reef. Alternatively, check out the Military Aviation Museum. The museum displays aircraft from World Wars I and II, as well as Army and Navy crafts. There’s also an outdoor dinosaur park that features a collection of prehistoric sculptures. When it’s time to bed down or refuel, Atlantic Avenue will be your best bet. This major street runs through the city’s Oceanfront District and features ample hotels and restaurants.
Museum lovers will relish a trip to Virginia’s capital. The city’s Museum District sits about 5 miles northwest of downtown and is home to the famed Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Children’s Museum of Richmond, Science Museum of Virginia and the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. If you choose to stay at The Jefferson Hotel or Quirk Hotel, both of which are located downtown, you’ll have a selection of museums nearby. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the Poe Museum and the Virginia Holocaust Museum are all within walking distance to the hotels. Between museum stops, check out Richmond’s dining and brewery scenes. No matter where you go, you’ll find an assortment of cuisines from comfort food and barbecue to Japanese and Italian fare. Spend time outdoors if you visit during spring and summer. Richmond’s location along the James River makes kayaking and paddleboarding popular activities. If you prefer to stay on land, head to Belle Isle – a hidden gem, according to most travelers – for its hiking and biking paths.
This theme park sits about 5 miles southeast of Colonial Williamsburg, making it an easy add-on to your Williamsburg itinerary. Each zone of the park is based on a European country. In Scotland, hop on the Loch Ness Monster coaster for a wild ride that zooms you over the park’s river. Whirl around in teacups on Festa Italia’s Turkish Delight. Try the Griffon in France, which drops visitors 205 feet at its start then zips along the rails at 75 mph. Catch a show featuring traditional dancing in Ireland. When hunger strikes, head to Das Festhaus (loved for its German food and beer) to listen to live music while you dine. Afterward, visit the Highland Stables to meet black face sheep, Clydesdales and Highland cows. Cool down in Italy with the Escape from Pompeii water ride or head to nearby Water Country USA for waterslides, pools and lazy rivers. As with most theme parks, tickets can be expensive (they start at $90 per person), but you can save some coin by purchasing a combo ticket good for both Busch Gardens and Water Country USA.
Arlington National Cemetery
A trip to Virginia wouldn’t be complete without visiting Arlington National Cemetery. The cemetery – which sits across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. – is the final resting place for more than 14,000 veterans, some of whom served in the Civil War. While you’ll see the rows of iconic white headstones wherever you look, past visitors recommended taking time to find President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which holds the unidentified remains of a World War I soldier. It’s at this tomb that you’ll be able to watch the famous changing of the guard. (Note: The timing of the changing of the guard varies depending on the season. Check the cemetery’s website for updated information.) You can take a guided bus tour with Arlington National Cemetery Tours for a fee or walk through the cemetery on your own for free. If you wish to find a specific gravesite, download the free ANC Explorer app to help you navigate. Travelers enjoyed the walk, but noted that there is a lot of ground to cover because of the sheer size of the site (it spans more than 600 acres). You cannot drive through the cemetery. Luckily, Metro has a stop dedicated to the cemetery on its Blue line. Keep in mind: Arlington National Cemetery is an active cemetery. As many as 30 burials are performed each weekday and eight on Saturdays, so it’s important to be respectful when visiting.
Savvy travelers know Charlottesville is home to more than just the University of Virginia and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (though past vacationers said you’d be remiss to skip either attraction). The central Virginia city boasts an impressive arts scene. Catch dance performances, concerts and shows at The Paramount Theater or stop by IX Art Park for live performances, craft shows, films and more. Art galleries and studios are scattered throughout the region, too. After getting your fill of the arts, stroll through the Downtown Mall. It’s lined with shops, buskers and restaurants with patios. Families should take to the countryside to visit Chiles Peach Orchard for pick-your-own produce. Meanwhile, couples and groups should head out to one of the local wineries. Keswick Vineyards, Pippin Hill Farm and Jefferson Vineyards are a few popular spots. What’s more, Charlottesville is a great destination for any budget. Travelers can choose to stay at high-end hotels like the Omni Charlottesville Hotel, book a quiet cottage or reserve a spot at a local campground.
Sample Virginia wine and cider
Believe it or not, Virginia is a great state for growing grapes, which means you’ll find excellent wine. There are more than 4,000 acres of vineyards across the state, which is divided into eight distinct American Viticultural Areas. You’ll find a large sampling of rosés, reds and whites (think: cabernet sauvignon and riesling) as well as sparkling varieties. Petit verdot, cabernet franc, chardonnay and viognier (a signature grape for the state) are all common varietals in Virginia. To maximize your time, plan your wine outings around one of 10 regions in Virginia. Guides are available on Virginia Wine’s website. If you’re planning on spending time in Alexandria or D.C., venture west to Manassas and sample wines from The Winery at Bull Run. It repeatedly wins accolades from the Virginia Governor’s Cup, the top competition for Virginia winemakers. In the Shenandoah Valley, travelers say Bluestone Vineyard is a can’t-miss stop for delectable wines and incredible scenery. Not into wine? No problem. Thanks to the state’s many apple orchards, several cideries call Virginia home, many of which are located in the Shenandoah Valley (Sage Bird Ciderworks and Old Hill Cider are two favorites) and around Charlottesville (try Bold Rock or Castle Hill Cider).
See the wild ponies
About 55 miles south of Ocean City, Maryland, you’ll find an island best known for one thing: horses. Assateague Island stretches across the Maryland-Virginia border and each side is home to a herd of wild ponies. Virginia’s herd of 150 ponies lives at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge under the care of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company. The most popular time to see the ponies is during the annual Pony Swim in July. During this event, Saltwater Cowboys drive the herd from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island (where the town of Chincoteague sits) to auction the foals. The auction serves to limit the size of the herd; some auctioned foals are even returned to the herd to live in the wild. Proceeds from the event benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which provides veterinary care for the ponies. Past horse lovers said the event is a great (albeit busy) time to visit the island. If you want to see ponies without the crowds, try hiking the refuge’s almost 2-mile Woodland Trail or walking along its Service Road (but don’t worry, the Service Road is closed to vehicles). Chincoteague Island – across the channel from the wildlife refuge – offers accommodation options ranging from hotels to campgrounds. Restaurants line Maddox Boulevard, but keep in mind several of these places are takeout only, with picnic seating out front.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon is conveniently located for those visiting Alexandria. The president’s homestead sits about 10 miles south of Old Town down the picturesque George Washington Memorial Parkway. During a visit to the estate, you’ll be able to tour George and Martha Washington’s mansion as well as the grounds, which include stables, four gardens, accommodations that belonged to enslaved people and a variety of specialty buildings like a smokehouse and a blacksmith shop. Additionally, an on-site museum and an education center boast more exhibits about Washington’s life. You’ll also be able to visit George and Martha’s tombs here. If you want additional insight, sign up for one of the themed tours. Tours cover everything from the lives of the enslaved people who were forced to work at the estate to filming locations from “National Treasure: Book of Secrets.” You will need to purchase separate tickets to tour the mansion (available by guided tour only) and visit the grounds. Nevertheless, previous visitors said touring the home and grounds are a must-do. Others advised future travelers to budget a day to experience it all: many spent more than three hours exploring. Before you leave, stop by the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant, which dishes up tasty Southern fare like fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, and chicken and waffles.
“Amazing,” “must-see” and “beautiful” are just a few terms past visitors used to describe Luray Caverns, which are located about 60 miles north of Charlottesville. The system features a dazzling array of limestone stalactites and stalagmites (eye-catching rock formations), clear bodies of water (Dream Lake reflects just like a mirror) and chambers up to 47 feet tall. You can even hear the caverns thanks to the Great Stalacpipe Organ, which creates tunes by tapping the rock formations. The 1.25-mile paved walkway winds through the system. There’s a step-free entrance to the caverns, but those with mobility difficulties may need assistance along the hilly path. Following your exploration beneath the earth’s surface, stop by the area’s museums, such as the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, Shenandoah Heritage Village and Toy Town Junction – included with your admission to the caverns. You can also choose to climb the on-site ropes course or search for your own jewels at Gem Sluice (each for an additional fee). Just down the road from the caverns is the town of Luray, where you’ll find a few shops and restaurants. Before you tour the caverns, stop by Baby Moons for a pastry or visit Gathering Grounds after your exploration for sandwiches, salads and pie.
Trace Civil War history
Virginia’s importance in the Civil War is indisputable. It was the site of the war’s first major battle (Battle of Bull Run), as well as the home of the war’s conclusion (Battle of Appomattox Court House). Civil War Trails, a nonprofit organization, created several guides to help visitors explore all of Virginia’s war history. Guides – free to download from the organization’s website – are dedicated to certain themes or locations (such as the Shenandoah Valley and the Black experience during the war). Each features a map of sites, short explanations of each place’s significance and a detailed analysis of the area’s importance to the war. Previous historians were particularly fond of northern Virginia’s Manassas National Battlefield Park, citing the well-kept grounds and pleasant walk. Meanwhile, Richmond explorers enjoyed seeing the White House of the Confederacy, which is part of the American Civil War Museum. Keep in mind Civil War sites are spread across the state. Do your research before you go to map out sites near your destination.
This small town in south central Virginia is best known for the Natural Bridge: a 215-foot limestone gorge that looks like a bridge. The surrounding state park features 7 miles of hiking trails. The nearly mile-long Cedar Creek Trail travels beneath the bridge and takes hikers past the Monacan Indian Village, a replica site that teaches visitors about Monacan heritage and history. The half-mile Skyline Trail and 3-mile Blue Ridge Trail both offer excellent views of the surrounding mountains. The park also features a Children’s Discovery Area that teaches children about the environment through play. Near the Natural Bridge, the Natural Bridge Caverns invite visitors to take a 45-minute tour that takes guests on a descent 34 stories into the earth. About a mile north of the Natural Bridge, you’ll find both the Natural Bridge Zoo and Dinosaur Kingdom II (a sculpture park featuring Civil War soldiers doing battle with prehistoric beasts). You’ll need to purchase tickets to the park, zoo, caverns and Dinosaur Kingdom II. The Natural Bridge Historic Hotel & Conference Center offers packages to cover your lodging and attractions, but past guests warned of dated rooms and lackluster service. However, if you’re a Wyndham Rewards member, you can save some coin by booking your room at this hotel with points. Alternatively, reserve accommodations at The Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center, Curio Collection by Hilton or Shirley’s Bed and Breakfast. Both sit about 45 miles south of Natural Bridge in Roanoke.
The Queen City may be a small town, but it’s bursting with charm. Here, you’ll find the American Shakespeare Center and its Blackfriars Playhouse, a meticulous recreation of London’s Blackfriars Playhouse, which burned down in 1666. Productions of William Shakespeare’s plays, as well as tours of the playhouse, are available year-round. Historians will likely want to swing by the Frontier Culture Museum to see what life was like for European colonists or learn more about President Woodrow Wilson at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. Fans of witchcraft and wizardy should book a trip for late September, when the city hosts its “Harry Potter”-themed event, Queen City Mischief & Magic. Local shops and restaurants sell specialty wares during the weekend event, and there are a host of activities like magic lessons with Hogwarts professors, trivia events and meet-and-greets with costumed actors. Wind down after your day on the town with a beer from a local brewery. Fan-favorite Redbeard Brewing Company offers everything from lagers to IPAs to stouts. Then, splurge on dinner at Zynodoa, which dishes up tasty Southern fare that consistently wins rave reviews. When you go, make sure you pronounce Staunton correctly: locals call it “STAN-tun.”
Great Falls Park in northern Virginia is a popular option for families who love the outdoors. Near the park’s entrance, you’ll find three viewpoints to admire the Potomac River’s crashing waterfalls in Mather Gorge. Most of the trails have an easy to moderate rating – great options for young hikers – and some can even accommodate strollers. If you and the kids want more of a challenge, try the beloved River Trail. The southbound route runs atop the edge of the gorge, promising great views of the river. There are a few sections of rock scrambles; the trail is about 1.5 miles one-way. Alternatively, take the North River Trail, which leads to Riverbend County Park. This trail runs north along the Potomac and is also 1.5 miles one-way. You’ll find restrooms and seasonal water fountains at the visitor center; there are tables and grassy areas where travelers can enjoy a picnic lunch as well. Great Falls is located in McLean, about 15 miles north of Arlington and 25 miles northwest of Alexandria. Note: The parking lot often fills up by 10 a.m. on the weekends. When the lot is full, the park entrance closes and no street parking is allowed. Past hikers recommended getting there as early as possible to secure a spot and avoid crowds. You’ll need to pay a fee to enter the park (about $20 per car). The park also accepts America the Beautiful passes.
Learn more about Black history
Educator and presidential adviser Booker T. Washington, businesswoman and Black women’s rights activist Maggie L. Walker and Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas are just a few Black Americans who once called Virginia home. Throughout the state, you’ll find historic sites, landmarks, museums and trails dedicated to preserving Black history. In Richmond, explore the area on foot down the Richmond Slave Trail. The self-guided walking tour leads visitors from Manchester Docks – a major hub during the trade of enslaved Africans – then winds its way through the city to visit former slave markets, the First African Baptist Church and burial sites. Northern Virginia’s Spotsylvania County has a 75-mile driving tour highlighting its important Black history sites. Stops include Piney Branch School (a large one-room schoolhouse for Black children) and the John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center, where visitors can learn about the history of a high school that taught Black children from 1909 through 1968. At Monticello in Charlottesville, listen to a talk about the history of slavery at the estate and explore an exhibit all about Sally Hemings’ life. Hemings was an enslaved woman at Monticello who bore six of Jefferson’s children and negotiated for their freedom. Visitors were particularly fond of the display about her life. To find out more sites to visit on your vacation, visit the Virginia tourism board’s website.
Navy enthusiasts should plan to make Norfolk their primary destination for a Virginia vacation. At the Nauticus museum, travelers can learn about the city’s maritime history through a series of exhibits that detail everything from the Chesapeake Bay’s inhabitants to the history of the USS Wisconsin battleship. Afterward, pop next door to tour the Wisconsin itself (included in your admission fee to the Nauticus). Travelers – especially families – enjoyed both the museum and the ship for the engaging, informative displays. Hoping to take a dip? The city is home to three beach parks for swimming, kayaking and other recreational activities. Meanwhile, culture hounds should peruse the free Chrysler Museum of Art or embark on a self-guided walking tour of the city’s street art. When it’s time for a meal, you’ll find plenty of seafood restaurants (Luce and A.W. Shucks Raw Bar & Grill are two favorites). If you want to explore the city’s beer scene, consider buying the Brew Hop Pass. For a fee, you’ll get access to special discounts and promotions at participating breweries.
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Chow down on the Salty Southern Route
While Virginia has a multiethnic culinary scene, it’s best-known for two homegrown products: peanuts and ham. Specifically, southeastern Virginia has the largest concentration of these two foods in the state. In fact, Planters Peanuts’ first large plant was built in Suffolk in 1913. As such, Suffolk is a popular stop on the route. Time a trip for October to attend the annual Suffolk Peanut Festival. The festival hosts a series of concerts, rides and fireworks displays, among other events. If you want to take some nuts home, stop by the Virginia Peanut Company’s Franklin store to stock up on flavored peanuts, such as garlic, dill pickle and butter toffee. Plantation Peanuts of Wakefield (located in Wakefield) also has flavored peanuts, including Southern barbecue and lemon crab. For succulent ham, visit Taste of Smithfield (of Smithfield ham fame) to sample its ham, pork chops and other Southern cuisine. Naturally, diners enjoy the ham served here, but also compliment the airy dining room. The stops along the Salty Southern Route are primarily located on Routes 460 and 58; Smithfield is set off Route 258. A complete list of stops is on the route’s website, and you can anticipate traveling about 110 miles if you plan to visit each city along the route. You won’t find many hotels along 460, but you’ll find several hotels in Suffolk. For a wider array of lodging options, head to Norfolk (which is about 20 miles east of Suffolk).
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Affiliated with the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the Udvar-Hazy Center features its own collection of air and space vehicles. Visitor favorites include the Discovery space shuttle, the Enola Gay and World War II crafts. In addition to the aircraft exhibits, visitors have the option to watch employees restore and fix artifacts in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. The pieces being restored rotate; you can find out which items are currently in the hangar on the center’s website. An IMAX theater, flight simulators and discovery stations with hands-on activities are also available on-site. The Udvar-Hazy Center is located in Chantilly, just south of Dulles International Airport. It’s approximately 30 miles west of the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. Several restaurants that serve everything from burgers to tacos to Indian cuisine are located south of the museum. You’ll find a number of hotels in Chantilly and around the airport. Among many suites hotels (think: Embassy Suites and Extended Stay America), you’ll find a Westin, a Hyatt Regency and a Crowne Plaza.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts
As the sole national park devoted to the performing arts, the 117-acre Wolf Trap is a beloved entertainment venue. Past guests were often repeat visitors and complimented both the Filene Center’s architecture and the talented artists who perform there. The Filene Center pavilion can accommodate up to 7,000 spectators. Shows include opera, concerts and dance. Performers have included Renée Fleming, Lindsey Stirling, Darius Rucker, the Maryland Youth Ballet and Collision of Rhythm. Before a performance, visit Tysons Corner for dinner. This posh area of northern Virginia – just southeast of Wolf Trap – has restaurants to suit any palate and budget. Following your evening, head back to Tysons to bed down at either the Ritz-Carlton or the Hyatt Regency. If you’re visiting with little ones, consider attending the Theatre-in-the-Woods at Wolf Trap. The program runs kid-focused shows at 10:30 a.m. multiple times a week during the summer. Families will enjoy both a show and activities as part of the program. Tickets to all shows at Wolf Trap have fees, which vary by performance. Though performances run from May through September only, visitors can access the park year-round for free. Two easy to moderate trails (1.5 and 2.5 miles long) run through the park. Park rangers also lead backstage tours of the Filene Center in the offseason (October to April).