The US state of Virginia is a favorite travel destination for history buffs. It features Civil War battlefields, colonial settlements, and is the home state of eight presidents as well. Here you can stroll down cobblestone streets and admire the historic architecture. If you’re not into American history, there’s a fun food scene, cool museums, and lots of places to shop. To help you plan your trip, here are the 21 top things to do in Virginia.
The 21 Top Things to Do in Virginia
1. See Shenandoah National Park
This 200,000-acre park is great for mountain getaways. Less than two hours out of Washington, D.C., you’ll be able to hike on the well-known Appalachian Trail (just like your rovin’ writer once did.) You can also cruise the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive through the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. If you enjoy waterfalls, hike the two-mile Cedar Run Trail to the five natural waterslides known as Cedar Run Falls. Remember, local restaurants might have reduced hours, or even be closed during the late fall and winter. The entrance fee is $30.00 per vehicle.
2. Visit Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg is essentially a live history museum where visitors learn about life in the 1700s. Here costumed actors explain and demonstrate the work of such tradespeople as milliners, silversmiths, tinsmiths, and weavers. Your admission ticket to Colonial Williamsburg also allows you to visit the American Indian Encampment, where you can learn about how colonists interacted with those who come before them, and the Randolph Kitchen and Yard, which offers insight into life as a house slave. You can dine there too or in nearby Merchants Square.
3. Tour Alexandria
Veteran visitors confirm that Alexandria has something for everyone. Visit its Old Town district. Located on the Potomac River it offers both a water taxi service and romantic riverside dining. (Try the Chart House or Vola’s Dockside Grill!) Shopaholics should visit King Street for a variety of wares. Enjoy the art at the Torpedo Factory Art Center and learn something about history at the popular George Washington Masonic National Memorial. End your visit with a cold one at the Port City Brewing Company, the Aslin Beer Co., or Lost Boy Cider.
4. Hit Virginia Beach
Iconic Virginia Beach is family-friendly and offers everyone and anyone a truly timeless sandy seaside getaway spot. It includes a number of amusement rides, a popular, lively boardwalk, seaside yoga, several different water sports, statues, and beautiful beaches to boot. Visitors have a great choice of hotels and ample dining options as well. Other highlights here include the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center where kids can interact with sea creatures in the touch pool and the Military Aviation Museum that features numerous aircraft from World Wars One, Two, and beyond.
5. Check Out Richmond
Located along the James River, this capital city has striking architecture, cobblestone streets, and more. Visit in the spring or summer and stay at the Quirk Hotel or The Jefferson Hotel and you can walk to many of the museums and points of interest. “Must-see” places include the Poe Museum, Capitol Square, Libby Hill Park, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the mansion-turned-museum The Maymont. Richmond is also one of the world’s top “hipster cities” due in part to its foodie scene which offers a wide variety of dining options.
6. Enjoy Busch Gardens
This popular theme park is located less than five miles out of Colonial Williamsburg. The park has different zones focused on European countries. In France, you can ride the Griffon and be dropped 205 feet.
Board the Loch Ness Monster roller coaster in Scotland. If you’re hungry, dine at Das Festhaus in Germany and take in a live music show too. Animal lovers can stop by the popular Highland Stables to meet Clydesdales, black face sheep, and cows. Finally, cool off on the Escape from Pompeii water ride in Italy.
7. See Arlington National Cemetery
This famous, active cemetery is across the well-known Potomac River from the world-famous Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Over 14,000 veterans are buried here, some dating back to the Civil War. Known for its iconic white headstones, veteran visitors suggest seeing President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which contains the never-identified remains of a soldier from World War I. See the famous changing of the guard and take the guided bus tour to avoid hiking the entire 600 acres.
8. Visit Charlottesville
Charlottesville is perhaps most famous for being the home of Monticello which was once the home of Thomas Jefferson. It is also well-known for the University of Virginia. Still, there’s also a thriving arts scene here where you can see live performances at The Paramount Theater, IX Art Park, and assorted galleries.
There’s also the Downtown Mall, complete with buskers, patios, shops, and assorted eateries. Enjoy the outdoors? Pick your own produce at Chiles Peach Orchard. There are also the local wineries such as Jefferson Vineyards, Keswick Vineyards, and Pippin Hill Farm.
9. Sample Some Virginia Wine And Cider
Speaking of vineyards, there are actually over 4,000 acres worth of vineyards here, separated into eight individualistic American Viticultural Areas. Virginia offers numerous reds, rosés, reds, whites, and sparkling varieties. Indeed, you can schedule your wine tastings in 10 different areas with the help of the state’s wine website. If you want to try wines from the famous Winery at Bull Run, head west to Manassas. Not a fan of wine? No worries. Sample some cider at Sage Bird Ciderworks and Old Hill Cider.
10. See The Wild Ponies
Roughly 55 miles from Ocean City, Maryland, you’ll find Assateague Island. This isle spanning the border of Virginia and Maryland is best known for being the home of a healthy herd of approximately 150 wild ponies. Of course, if you are an exceptional equine aficionado, you have undoubtedly already heard of this unspoiled barrier island. Witness two separate herds of feral horses running free across beaches as soft as castor sugar. They’re managed by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and the National Park System. Visit in July during the yearly Pony Swim.
11. Tour Mount Vernon
President George Washington’s famous homestead Mount Vernon can be found about 10 miles south of Alexandria’s Old Town right down the surprisingly picturesque George Washington Memorial Parkway. Here you can tour the mansion and estate of George and Martha Washington. You will see the stables, the four gardens, the slave quarters, and such specialty buildings as the blacksmith shop and smokehouse. See George and Martha’s tombs, the filming locations from “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”, and visit the on-site museum and education center as well.
12. Explore Luray Caverns
You will discover the Luray Caverns in Luray less than 60 miles from Charlottesville deep beneath the very outskirts of Shenandoah National Park. This cave system includes an attractive array of limestone stalagmites and stalactites. You’ll also find large chambers with ceilings over 10 stories high.
Visit Dream Lake too. It is a pool with a surface that’s so glassy it actually reflects like a mirror. See the famous Great Stalacpipe Organ too, where a clever musician plays Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” by striking 37 different stalactites with rubber mallets.
13. Trace Some Civil War History
Virginia was the site of the Civil War’s first big battle, the infamous Battle of Bull Run, and its end, the Battle of Appomattox Court House. You can download free guides from the nonprofit organization, Civil War Trails’ website, and learn about the state’s war history. There are actually several guides and they focus on specific locations or themes, like the Black experience during the war or the Shenandoah Valley. Each of the guides includes maps and explanations of the subject’s significance during the war.
14. Hike Under The Natural Bridge
Nestled in Rockbridge County, the Natural Bridge is actually a 215-foot limestone gorge. The state park that surrounds it has seven miles of hiking trails. The Cedar Creek Trail, which is under one mile long, runs under the bridge and leads hikers by the local Monacan Indian Village. It’s actually a replica village where travelers can stop and learn a bit about Monacan history and heritage. You can tour the nearby Natural Bridge Caverns, the Natural Bridge Zoo, and Dinosaur Kingdom II as well.
15. See Staunton
Here in this little town, pronounced “STAN-tun” by the locals, you can visit the American Shakespeare Center and its Blackfriars Playhouse, which is actually a recreation of London’s renowned Blackfriars Playhouse, which burned to the ground back in 1666. You can take tours and even see the plays of William Shakespeare performed here all year. History buffs will want to check out the Frontier Culture Museum and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. Visit in late September, and attend the “Harry Potter”-themed event, Queen City Mischief & Magic.
16. Enjoy Great Falls Park
Great Falls is situated in McLean, almost 15 miles from Arlington. Right near the entrance, there are three different viewpoints where you can see the Potomac River’s waterfalls in the Mather Gorge. The majority of the hiking trails are rated easy to moderate.
If you’re looking for more of a challenge, hike the favored River Trail. The southbound route takes you along the edge of the gorge and offers exceptional views. The North River Trail takes you to the Riverbend County Park. Here you’ll find seasonal water fountains, restrooms, and a place for a picnic.
17. Learn Some More About Black History
Many Black Americans have lived in Virginia including Olympic gymnast Gabrielle Douglas, Black women’s rights activist Maggie L. Walker and presidential adviser and educator Booker T. Washington. There are landmarks, museums, historic sites, and hiking trails dedicated to Black history. There’s the Richmond Slave Trail, the Manchester Docks, and the famous First African Baptist Church. Take a driving tour through Northern Virginia’s Spotsylvania County to see such historic sites as the one-room Piney Branch School and the informative John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center.
18. Check Out Norfolk
Norfolk is a great place for fans of naval vessels. You can learn about Norfolk’s maritime history, the people of the Chesapeake Bay, and the story of the USS Wisconsin battleship at the Nauticus museum. Tour the ship itself and then hit one of the three local beaches and go swimming or kayaking.
Into art? Take a walking tour of Norfolk’s street art. Visit the Chrysler Museum of Art. Admission is free. Finally, sample some local seafood at Luce or A.W. Shucks Raw Bar & Grill.
19. Sample Something On The Salty Southern Route
Despite having a confirmed “multiethnic culinary scene,” Virginia is most famous for ham and peanuts. Visit Suffolk to see the first Planters Peanuts plant built back in 1913. If you visit in October, you can go to the yearly Suffolk Peanut Festival complete with fireworks.
Shop at the Virginia Peanut Company’s Franklin store and buy dill pickle, garlic, and butter toffee flavored peanuts. Dine on ham, pork chops, and other dishes at Taste of Smithfield. Stop and sample other dishes on the Salty Southern Route on Routes 460 and 58 too.
20. Explore The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
This top stop is located in Chantilly 30 miles away from the National Air and Space Museum. Here you can see an impressive array of air and space vehicles. See the distinctive Discovery space shuttle, the Enola Gay, and assorted World War II aircraft. Watch technicians work on restoring air artifacts in the memorable Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar. Other on-site attractions include hands-on discovery centers, flight simulators, and even an IMAX theater.
21. Experience Wolf Trap National Park For The Performing Arts
This 117-acre venue is the only national park dedicated to the performing arts. The Filene Center is praised both for its architecture and events. As many as 7,000 guests can enjoy dance recitals, live concerts, and even opera. Previous performers include Collision of Rhythm, Renée Fleming, the Maryland Youth Ballet, Darius Rucker, and Lindsey Stirling. Visit in the summer and you can attend the family-friendly, kid-focused Theatre-in-the-Woods program.