When you think of taking a trip to a Southern City — Charleston, Savannah, and St. Petersburg readily come to mind. But Richmond, Virginia, located just two hours by car from Washington D.C., is quickly joining the ranks of “must visit” Southern places.
Two years ago, our youngest daughter moved to Richmond, got engaged and decided to get married in her new hometown. The wedding’s October date found my husband and I winging our way across the country to a city we’d only explored briefly on a Christmas visit. But October seemed the perfect time for a wedding and a chance to tour this fascinating, historic part of the country.
Although other Virginia cities, such as Williamsburg and Charlottesville, may get more attention, Richmond has much to offer. Founded in 1737, it became the Virginia capital. The impressive capitol building, designed by Thomas Jefferson, claims the honor of oldest continually operating legislative building in the United States.
During the Civil War, horrific battles were fought around Richmond, and the Confederacy made the city its capital. Visiting the many museums and battlefields in Richmond can enlighten and educate the public about this terrible time and reinforce our understanding that this must never happen again. The White House of The Confederacy, Jefferson Davis’ home during the war, and the Museum of the Confederacy next door, are definitely worth visiting. The museum features one of the biggest collections of Confederate photographs and artifacts from the Civil War, including the hat that General Robert E. Lee wore when he surrendered the South at Appomattox.
Driving around downtown Richmond with its streets lined with old brick buildings, reminds me of Portland, Oregon. It appears to be a city ready to welcome national attention. One of its oldest neighborhoods, Shockoe Bottom, runs along the James River. It was originally home to large tobacco warehouses. Today, tourists can visit the Edgar Allan Poe Museum and a Holocaust Museum. A wide array of restaurants also makes this district a great place for lunch or dinner.
If you’re still on a Civil War quest, don’t miss the Tredegar Iron Works, which operated from 1840 until the 1950s when it burned down. Today, the National Battlefield Park Visitor Center is found in Tredegar’s Pattern Building and the American Civil War Center nearby serves as an historic education center that views the war from the Union, Confederate and African American Perspectives.
On a hill overlooking the James River, sits the famous Hollywood Cemetery. It offers a beautiful garden resting place for Presidents James Madison and John Tyler, six Virginia governors, two Supreme Court justices, 22 Confederate generals and thousands of Confederate soldiers. The Hollywood Cemetery has become the second most visited cemetery in the United States behind Arlington in Washington D.C.
My daughter told me not to forget to mention her favorite historic spot, The Valentine Museum, devoted to art, history and culture. Donated to the city in 1892 by Mann S. Valentine, the house, gardens, galleries and original owner’s sculpture studio, offer a glimpse into the life and style of Richmond’s well-to-do in the 19th Century.
Richmond has much more to offer than what some Southerners might refer to as the “Recent Unpleasantness.” The city has a thriving art scene, including the world class Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Enjoy their varied exhibits from world renowned artists and then wander outside to see their amazing sculpture garden. If you get hungry, find the museum’s Amuse Restaurant, reached by a glass elevator located in the lobby.
If you’re looking for a fun family function that everyone will enjoy, drive out to the city-owned Maymont Estate. Both young and old will enjoy the breathtaking gardens, and zoo for rescued animals, like bears, red foxes and even a vulture or two. Plus, you can tour the Romanesque-inspired Maymont Mansion, hike the hills of this beautiful 100 acre estate, and best of all – it’s free!
For those arriving in Richmond by plane, I suggest you rent a car at the airport because if you stay long enough, you may want to drive outside the city to visit historic Williamsburg, less than an hour away. While there you can also stroll the campus of William and Mary University, the second oldest college in the United States, or visit Yorktown and Jamestown. Also well worth a day trip is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home and estate, which is only an hour and a half away.
Now where should you stay in Richmond? I would suggest that you find a hotel downtown. We splurged because of the wedding and stayed at the famous Jefferson Hotel in the heart of the city. Yes, it can be a bit pricey, but when you walk in and see a huge statue of Thomas Jefferson in the lobby rotunda and their grand staircase (thought to be the prototype for “Gone with the Wind”), you know you’ve arrived at a special place.
The Quirk, and The Graduate hotels offer contemporary style and great rates, but so do the more corporate venues like the Hilton, Omni, Courtyard and Hampton Inn, to name a few. It’s nice to have a larger hotel that will offer a concierge to help you plan your visit.
For those who do not have a great deal of time to spend in Richmond, but want to hit the highlights, the city offers a number of fun tours. For a two-hour city tour the Historic Landmark Trolley will introduce you to Richmond’s most fascinating neighborhoods. For those wanting adventure, Richmond Landmark Segway features city, cemetery, and street art tours. If you’re dying to see one of Virginia’s first Plantations, circa 1614, you can take a three-hour trolley tour to the Shirley Plantation along the banks of the James River. When in the house don’t miss the original glass window that has initials and dates etched on it. It turns out the family brides would scratch the glass with their bridal diamonds to prove they were real!
When should you visit Richmond? I would suggest that fall or spring afford the best weather for touring anywhere in the South. Richmond experienced snow last winter, and the summers, like most southern cities, can get very hot and humid. However, because of its more rural, inland location, Richmond actually has a “real fall” where the leaves turn brilliant colors. So, no matter what time of year you decide to visit this unique Southern city, Richmond welcomes visitors and wins them over with its gracious Southern charm.