20 Things to Do in Virginia
By Janet Benoir – December 21, 2023
As you set your sights on Virginia, you’re embarking on a journey through the heart of American history. This state isn’t just abundant with tales from the past; it’s the starting point of eight U.S. presidents and a tapestry of Colonial settlements, Civil War sites, and illustrious presidential estates. Virginia’s urban landscapes boast a wealth of historic architecture, where every cobblestone whispers stories of yesteryear.
Yet, it’s not all history lessons—Virginia’s vibrant food scene, sophisticated museums, and expansive shopping opportunities are sure to cater to contemporary tastes. Before you map out your adventure, it’s essential to consider the latest travel advisories and guidelines—your experience may be shaped by new health and safety measures, a reality of conscientious travel in these times.
Your stroll down the oceanfront promenade at Virginia Beach will be a memorable experience. Amidst a selection of hotels, your dining choices are plentiful, featuring fresh seafood and more. Admire the various artistic statues that punctuate your journey. The expansive shoreline invites you to relax on its golden sands, partake in waterfront activities or dive into the waves for surfing and other water sports.
For a change of scenery, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is an excellent diversion from the beach, particularly for families. Observe sharks, seals, and participate in interactive experiences at the touch pool. If you’re interested in history and aeronautics, the Military Aviation Museum showcases an impressive collection of World War-era aircraft.
Your exploration of Williamsburg—often recognized for its meticulously recreated Colonial Williamsburg experience—takes you back to the 18th century. Here, you have the opportunity to interact with costumed interpreters who bring history to life amidst historic buildings and trades. Witness the weaving of elaborate fabrics, the crafting of delicate silverware, and the art of millinery.
Learn about the complex relations at the American Indian Encampment, highlighting the interactions between colonists and Native Americans. Gain a deeper understanding of the lives of enslaved people at the Peyton Randolph house, which includes the outdoor kitchen and yard.
Shenandoah National Park
Nestled approximately two hours from Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park offers over 200,000 acres of natural splendor, inviting you to engage in outdoor activities such as hiking and wildlife observation. Skyline Drive captures the essence of the park’s scenic beauty, with a 105-mile route dotted with overlooks providing breathtaking vistas.
As you consider lodging options, you might weigh between the convenience of nearby lodges and the rustic charm of camping within the park. Be mindful of the seasonal availability of local dining establishments and plan accordingly. Entry is reasonably priced at $30 per vehicle, granting you seven days of full access, and the park honors America the Beautiful passes as well.
In the heart of Virginia, your appreciation for history and culture can find solace in Richmond’s Museum District. Approximately 5 miles from the downtown area, this hub boasts the renowned Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and a suite of other educational attractions, including the Virginia Museum of History & Culture and the Children’s Museum of Richmond.
Should you decide to lodge at The Jefferson Hotel or Quirk Hotel in the downtown vicinity, you’re just steps away from an array of museums, such as the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, as well as the thought-provoking Poe Museum and the Virginia Holocaust Museum.
Arlington National Cemetery
Spanning over 600 acres on the cusp of the Potomac River, Arlington National Cemetery serves as a sacred final resting place for over 14,000 veterans, extending back to those who served in the Civil War. Amidst its neatly lined white headstones, you may wish to pay respects at the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy and the evocative Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
As you walk the hallowed grounds, the enormity of the cemetery may become evident. While personal vehicles are not permitted, you have the option of traversing the site on foot at no cost or taking a guided bus tour available through Arlington National Cemetery Tours. To locate individual gravesites, the complimentary ANC Explorer app proves invaluable for navigation.
Nestled just a short drive from Colonial Williamsburg, you’ll find an adventure steeped in European charm. Imagine a park divided into whimsical zones, each representing a slice of a European nation. In the Scotland area, brace yourself for the legendary Loch Ness Monster coaster. With its serpentine twists and turns, it will catapult you over the park’s waters in an exhilarating rush. For a gentler touch of whimsy, spin in the teacups at Turkish Delight located in Festa Italia.
In France, dare to conquer the Griffon coaster with its breathtaking 205-foot plunge, rocketing you forward at a staggering 75 mph. Immerse yourself in traditional Irish dance performances, or when hunger calls, make your way to Das Festhaus for a taste of Germany, complete with live tunes to accompany your meal. The Highland Stables offer a serene break, where you can meet an array of animals including blackface sheep, majestic Clydesdales, and Highland cows.
Nestled on the shores of the Potomac River, Alexandria’s Old Town offers a rich tapestry of experiences that cater to all tastes. If you’re seeking a waterside dining ambiance with a touch of romance, consider the praised establishments like Vola’s Dockside Grill and Chart House. For a seamless blend of leisure and scenery, the water taxi effortlessly carries you to the welcoming bustle of D.C.’s Georgetown.
Meander down King Street, where a diverse array of boutiques invites you to explore. From exclusive fashion outlets to unique thrift shops and niche stores, there’s no shortage of retail therapy. The curious and historically inclined can honor the past tracing the footsteps along Duke Street’s self-led exploration of the town’s African American heritage or by surveying the African American Heritage Trail.
Your journey through American history is incomplete without a visit to the historic home of George and Martha Washington, nestled just 10 miles south from Alexandria’s Old Town. Journey down the serene George Washington Memorial Parkway to reach this iconic estate. Once there, you have the opportunity to explore the expansive mansion meticulously preserved to reflect the Washingtons’ era.
The estate doesn’t just offer a glimpse into the domestic lives of the Washingtons but encapsulates their entire saga through the on-site museum and education center, appointed with extensive exhibits.
Civil War Guide
Virginia played a pivotal role in the American Civil War; it hosted both the initial significant skirmish in Manassas and the closing combat at Appomattox Court House. If you’re inclined to walk through the annals of war time, various trails crafted by nonprofit organizations will guide your journey. These complimentary guides, accessible online, thoroughly navigate you through the state’s rich history.
You can venture to Manassas National Battlefield Park to trace the steps of Civil War soldiers and explore the terrain where generals devised pivotal strategies. Notably, you’ll find references to figures such as Jackson and significant events like Yorktown’s siege, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Moore House. Moreover, head over to Richmond to explore further, including the historic White House of the Confederacy, now a part of the American Civil War Museum.
Nestled approximately 60 miles north from Charlottesville, Luray Caverns present a magnificent spectacle of naturally-formed limestone wonders. As you journey through this subterranean wonderland, encounter towering formations of stalactites and stalagmites that captivate the eye. The serene Dream Lake mirrors its surroundings perfectly, creating an illusion of depth that is both mesmerizing and photogenic.
The caverns not only offer visual splendor but auditory ambiance as well; the Great Stalacpipe Organ resonates melodious notes by gently striking the stone features. Navigate the 1.25-mile pathway threading through the geological formations—accessible yet requiring some caution, as the route can be challenging for those who have difficulty with mobility, despite having a step-free access point.
In the heart of south central Virginia lies a limestone marvel towering at 215 feet, known as the Natural Bridge, with Virginia’s Natural Bridge State Park encompassing its grandeur. As you navigate the nearly mile-long Cedar Creek Trail, you will walk beneath this awe-inspiring arch, witnessing the crafted Monacan Indian Village, which offers a glimpse into the history and heritage of the Monacan people.
Venturing near the Natural Bridge, the allure of exploration calls as the Natural Bridge Caverns beckon with a 45-minute subterranean adventure, spiraling 34 stories below the Earth’s surface. Not far from this natural spectacle, the Natural Bridge Zoo and Dinosaur Kingdom II offer unique experiences — the former allowing an encounter with diverse wildlife, and the latter a whimsical travel through time with sculptures depicting Civil War soldiers clashing with dinosaurs.
Nestled in the verdant landscapes of northern Virginia, Great Falls Park offers an array of picturesque trails and scenic overlooks for outdoor enthusiasts. The park’s entrance serves as a gateway to three distinct vantage points, each presenting a magnificent view of the Potomac River as it cascades down Mather Gorge. Families can take delight in the geologically diverse trails, which generally bear an easy to moderate difficulty level and are even accessible for strollers.
Further exploration leads you northward along the potent currents of the Potomac via the North River Trail, also charting out a 1.5-mile journey toward Riverbend County Park. Back at the visitor center, amenities including restrooms and seasonal water dispensers augment the comfort of your visit. Picnickers can relish their lunch amidst the grassy expanses and shaded tables. Situated in McLean, the park’s proximity to Arlington and Alexandria makes it an accessible retreat for city dwellers.
In Charlottesville, your experience transcends beyond the historical University of Virginia and the renowned Monticello, both testaments to Thomas Jefferson’s legacy. Indulge in the vibrant arts with performances at The Paramount Theater or explore creatives’ masterpieces at IX Art Park through varied live events.
Discover a diverse mix of shops and eateries, walk amidst street performers, and enjoy alfresco dining on this pedestrian thoroughfare. You can also venture into the rolling vineyards at popular locales like Keswick Vineyards, and embrace the serene beauty of Pippin Hill Farm and Jefferson Vineyards.
Virginia’s Vineyards and Cideries
Virginia boasts an impressive array of vineyards, spread over 4,000 acres and nestled within eight unique American Viticultural Areas. Your palate can relish a variety of wines, including sophisticated reds, refreshing whites, and elegant sparklings. Specifically, to experience the state’s viticultural diversity, indulge in commonly grown varieties such as petit verdot, cabernet franc, chardonnay, and the region’s distinctive viognier.
For those who prefer beverages crafted from apples, Virginia’s abundant apple orchards give rise to a thriving cider scene. The Shenandoah Valley, among other places, is a sanctuary for cider enthusiasts with popular spots like Sage Bird Ciderworks and Old Hill Cider.
Wild Horses of Virginia
On the picturesque border between Maryland and Virginia, Assateague Island presents a unique spectacle: bands of wild ponies freely roaming its landscapes. Virginia’s section of this island is home to a renowned group of approximately 150 wild ponies. These ponies are not without oversight, though; they are the responsibility of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, found within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Every July, the Pony Swim event captivates spectators, as Saltwater Cowboys swim the ponies across the channel to Chincoteague Island, which neighbors the refuge and houses the quaint town of Chincoteague. Here, a foal auction takes place, both to regulate the pony population and to support the fire company’s provision of veterinary care to these equine residents. Although this occasion attracts many visitors, tranquility can be found throughout the year.
In Staunton, affectionately known as the Queen City, the arts and history intermingle, providing a captivating experience. The American Shakespeare Center sits at the heart of this bustling small town, housing the remarkable Blackfriars Playhouse, a faithful representation of the original London venue. You are invited to attend the year-round performances of Shakespeare’s masterpieces or to participate in informative playhouse tours.
As autumn approaches, magic fills the air with Staunton’s “Queen City Mischief & Magic” event, perfect for those enchanted by the world of witchcraft and wizardry. The town transforms, featuring enchantments ranging from magic classes imitating the famed Hogwarts to challenging trivia and character interactions. Cap off your day at one of the local breweries, like Redbeard Brewing Company, known for its diverse beer selection, from crisp lagers to robust stouts.
Should your travels bring you to Virginia, the city of Norfolk emerges as a hub for navy aficionados. Gain insights into the substantial maritime legacy at the Nauticus museum—an educational adventure entwined with interactive experiences through Chesapeake Bay’s rich ecosystem and naval chronicles, including the venerable USS Wisconsin.
Beyond the museum’s allure, Norfolk invites you to its trio of beach parks offering an array of water-based leisure from a refreshing swim to paddle sports like kayaking. Culture seekers are well catered for with treasures like the Chrysler Museum of Art at no cost, or take a self-led journey amidst the vibrant street art. Culinary explorations can lead you to renowned seafood establishments—Luce and A.W. Shucks Raw Bar & Grill come highly recommended.
Salty Southern Route
In the heart of Virginia’s southeastern region, you will find a bounty of local fare, with peanuts and ham at the forefront of its culinary heritage. The town of Suffolk, renowned for erecting the first monumental Planters Peanuts factory in 1913, serves as a pivotal stop along this flavorful journey. Every October, Suffolk comes alive with the Suffolk Peanut Festival, where you can revel in a variety of entertainment from live music to thrilling rides and vibrant fireworks.
When the urge to take some savory goodness home strikes, consider the Virginia Peanut Company in Franklin, your go-to for peanuts in eclectic flavors like garlic and dill pickle. Not to be outdone, Plantation Peanuts of Wakefield offers its own twist with Southern barbecue and lemon crab peanuts. Meanwhile, the Taste of Smithfield presents an opportunity to taste not only its renowned ham but also delectable pork chops amid the comforts of a spacious dining setting.
Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
At the Udvar-Hazy Center, part of the Smithsonian’s extension near Washington, D.C., you can discover an array of air and space craft, including iconic specimens like the Discovery space shuttle and the historical Enola Gay. The collection also features a variety of World War II era aviation. Witness the intricacies of preservation at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, where experts meticulously care for various artifacts. The exhibitions are dynamic, with changes regularly updated on the center’s official online platform.
Facilities at the center enhance learning and entertainment, boasting an IMAX theater, flight simulators, and interactive discovery stations. Situated in Chantilly, the venue is just a short trip south from Dulles International Airport, approximately 30 miles from its sister site in D.C. After exploring the marvels of flight and space, dining options abound nearby, offering multicultural culinary delights.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts
Wolf Trap stands out as the only national park centered on the performing arts, spanning 117 acres and serving as an esteemed destination for entertainment. The main venue within the park, the Filene Center Pavilion, has the capacity to host up to 7,000 guests. Its architectural design has earned high praises, as have the reputable performers it attracts. Here, you might enjoy a variety of showcases, ranging from operas to full-scale concerts and dance performances.
Your experience may begin with a pre-show dinner in the upscale Tysons Corner, a short drive southeast of the park, offering a varied array of dining options catering to diverse tastes and budgets. Post-performance, upscale accommodations await at nearby hotels like the Ritz-Carlton or the Hyatt Regency. For those visiting with children, Theatre-in-the-Woods is an excellent choice, presenting performances tailored for the younger audience throughout the summer at 10:30 a.m.