Shenandoah National Park harbors dark forests, fluttery mountain laurel and splashy waterfalls © Sam Spicer / Getty Images
As far as states go, Virginia was at the front of the line when they were handing out amazing attractions. From the Chesapeake shores to the Blue Ridge peaks, this gorgeous land harbors major historic sites, up-and-coming cities, romantic valleys, pre-Revolutionary villages and wine-tasting drives.
You can slurp fresh oysters, learn about US history’s most famous figures, hike to full-circle views, search for wild horses or simply lie out on a stunning beach. How do you tackle a state like Virginia, with its abundance of remarkable sites? Don’t worry: we’ve done the hard work and whittled down the choices to these 14.
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Virginia's Shenandoah Valley has abundance of outdoor activities, including hiking and horseback riding © Daniel Reiner / Shutterstock
Spend a lazy weekend rambling through the Shenandoah Valley
A Native American legend describes the Shenandoah Valley as a place where “the morning stars placed the brightest jewels from their crowns in the river," and it's truly a sight to behold. The plush, 200-mile-long valley is cradled between the rumpled peaks of the Blue Ridge to one side and the Alleghenies on the other, with the dazzling Shenandoah River meandering its length – a slow-moving ode to a laid-back escape
The best way to experience this mystical realm is simply to roam. I-81 cuts straight through, and it's pretty scenic for an interstate. But take the slower roads – Virginia Rte 11 is a good choice – and poke into little towns along the way: Luray, with its famous caverns; New Market, site of a Civil War battle fought by Virginia Military Institute cadets; and Staunton, full of splendid architecture, are all good choices.
Check out several museums, including the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, the Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg, showcasing early and contemporary quilt artisans, and the wacky American Celebration on Parade in Shenandoah Caverns, where parade floats go to die. You’ll find ample wines to sip along the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail, and beers along the Beerwerks Trail.
En route, sample Virginia's abundance of outdoor activities, including hiking, cycling, camping, fishing, horseback riding or simply gliding down the legendary river by kayak or canoe.
A "servant's house" at Monticello © Virginia Tourism Corporation
Learn about a former president at Monticello
You get a sense of Thomas Jefferson – statesman, architect, scholar, farmer, third US president – at his treasured home Monticello, just outside Charlottesville. Not only did he build the sublime French-Neoclassical residence, finally completing it in 1809, but he also filled it with items that provide modern-day insight into his dagger-sharp mind.
Jefferson's library collection crowds the bookshelves, and the house's staircases are narrow and tucked away because he considered them a waste of space. One of his many inventions, the Great Clock dictated the plantation’s schedule inside and out, and it’s still functioning today.
With its fabulous views, the hilltop house (Monticello means “little mountain”) sits at the heart of a one-time 5000-acre plantation, where Jefferson dabbled in agriculture. Tours don’t ignore his complexity – the man who wrote “all men are created equal” enslaved some 400 individuals at Monticello alone and likely had children with one of them, Sally Hemings.
In nearby Charlottesville awaits the Jefferson-founded University of Virginia, which shaped the ideals of higher education around the world. He designed the Academical Village, with its dorm-edged lawn and a rotunda-domed library devoted to communal living and learning. Charlottesville is a joyous, student-filled city, with bookstores, cultural events and farm-to-table restaurants. Base yourself at the eight-block Pedestrian Mall and wander at your will.
In Richmond the Mending Walls public art project addresses societal issues © Richmond Region Tourism
Explore up-and-coming neighborhoods in Richmond
Richmond has been around a long time. Incorporated in 1742, it became Virginia’s capital in 1780 – and the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Thomas Jefferson designed the Capitol building, and Patrick Henry rattled off his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech at St John’s Church. You can’t throw a history book here without hitting a monument or museum (not that that’s a bad thing).
But today this southern city is making waves not for its past but as an up-and-comer hub, with neighborhoods bursting with gastropubs, homegrown breweries and local boutiques, and outdoor adventures on the James River to boot. Henrico has 600 local restaurants and scores of shops, hotels and historic sites, while a plethora of breweries (Veil Brewing Co., Vasen Brewing, Ardent Craft Ales, etc.) await in Scott’s Addition.
The historic African-American neighborhood of Jackson Ward, home to dancing legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, has art galleries, the Black History Museum & Cultural Center and tons of local shops and restaurants. And there’s more – put on your walking shoes and wander this awakening city.
Hike to 360-degree views in Shenandoah National Park
Straddling the Blue Ridge between Front Royal at I-66 and Rockfish Gap near I-64, Shenandoah National Park harbors dark forests, fluttery mountain laurel and splashy waterfalls. You can drive its length along the 105-mile Skyline Drive, stopping at breathtaking viewpoints over the river-laced Shenandoah Valley to one side and the rolling green Piedmont hills on the other.
It’s especially gorgeous in autumn – and given the amount of bumper-to-bumper traffic you’ll encounter, you’ll have all the time in the world to study the foliage. Spring is gorgeous too, with budding dogwood and redbud trees, plus white-tailed deer, black bears and bobcats roaming its flanks.
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But the best way to experience this national park is on foot. It has 500 miles of hiking trails, including a 104-mile section of the famed Appalachian Trail. Favorites include White Oak Canyon at mile 42.6, a 4.6-mile wander past five waterfalls; Dark Hollow Falls at mile 50.7, a 1.4-mile trek ending at a beautiful waterfall; and the 4-mile hike to Rapidan Camp at mile 52.4, with Hoover’s restored summer White House as the focal point.
The park truly hits its stride with its trails climbing to 360-degree views, and a 2.1-mile round-trip trek up Hawksbill Mountain at mile 46.7 is perhaps the best of the bunch. The 1.5-mile hike up Stony Man from mile 41.7 is another good one. You can camp backcountry or at several campgrounds, or stay overnight at one of the park lodges.
Embrace history in the Colonial Triangle
Few places offer such a wide array of places important to US history as the Colonial Triangle, where three major sites – Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown – reveal stories of the nation’s earliest days of European settlement. The historic trio are connected by the Colonial Parkway, a tree-shaded roadway ideal for biking and scenic driving.
The desperate English struggled to survive at Jamestown, where they landed in 1607 and eked out a living. Here you can visit Historic Jamestowne, where the ruins of the original site are under archaeological excavation, and the adjacent Jamestown Settlement, a living-history museum with the reconstructed 1607 James Fort, a Native American Village and reproductions of the ships that brought settlers to these shores.
Nearby you’ll find the award-winning, 300-acre Colonial Williamsburg, a living-history museum that takes you back to the days when Williamsburg reigned as the Colonial Virginia’s capital. Historical shops, restaurants, and government buildings line reconstructed streets, where costumed interpreters break into roll-playing—ask a Black soldier how he self-liberated, or the woman with the cream-white silk hat the best recipe for gingerbread.
And if that’s not enough history, nearby you also have Yorktown, where the Revolutionary War ended. The immersive American Revolution Museum at Yorktown has artifact-filled galleries and a recreated Continental Army encampment out back. And, of course, you’ll learn all about October 20, 1781, the day British and German soldiers surrendered.
See wild horses on Chincoteague
The eponymous main town on this Eastern Shore island, Chincoteague (pronounced "shin-co-teeg") has salty, summery charm, with seafood restaurants, ice cream shops, B&Bs and beaches. But the major reason people flock here is to see the wild horses, which live on nearby Assateague Island.
No one knows exactly where they came from – some say they escaped a sinking Spanish galleon in the 17th century, others claim they descend from horses that 17th-century colonists released on the island to avoid taxation. Whatever the case, every July for the past 90-plus years, “saltwater cowboys” have gathered to round up the foals for the swim across the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague. It's an event made famous by Marguerite Henry in her 1947 children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, and always fun to watch.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge occupies the southern portion of Assateague, and you can see the wild horses there firsthand. A 3.2-mile wildlife loop is primo for biking and walking (it’s closed to cars until 3pm), and spotting migratory birds, such as snow geese and threatened piping plover, along the way. Beaches abound as well.
The changing of the guard takes place around the clock by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier © Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock
Pay respects to the fallen at Arlington National Cemetery
More than 400,000 stark-white tombstones stripe Arlington’s green hillsides, the burial place of veterans from the Revolutionary War to present-day conflicts. Originally the land belonged to Robert E Lee, but it became a Union cemetery after he fled to fight for the South in 1864, never to return. Today more than three million tourists pass through Arlington National Cemetery every year.
A tour begins at the visitor center, where you can pick up a map and catch a tram to visit the cemetery’s sites. (Or you can walk – be forewarned, it’s hilly!) Just up the hill is the gravesite of John F Kennedy Jr, where the 35th president lies beside his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, and his two brothers Robert and Edward; an eternal flame flickers 24/7. Nearby, stolid soldiers stand guard by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with the changing of the guard taking place around the clock in an elaborate ceremony.
All presidents are eligible to be buried here, though there are only two: JFK and William Taft. Other prominent Americans include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, heavyweight champ Joe Louis and astronaut and senator John Glenn. In Section 27, almost 4000 former enslaved individuals are buried on land that was once known as Freedman’s Village, Arlington’s first free neighborhood.
On the hill above looms Lee’s former home, Arlington House. It’s been reinterpreted to tell the fuller story of the Lees and the enslaved people who helped build the residence and worked here.
Take a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway
Smoky mist billows over the timeworn peaks of the Blue Ridge, an ancient range meandering from Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park to North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The sinewy, two-lane Blue Ridge Parkway ambles 469 miles along its length – nearly 200 miles of which are in Virginia. You have no choice but to slow down; the speed limit is 45mph, all the better for taking it all in.
Highlights include Peaks of Otter at milepost 85.6, where three shadowy peaks overlook Abbott Lake and its lodge, restaurant and historic farm; Roanoke Star atop Mill Mountain, a fun hike just off milepost 120; and historic Mabry Mill at milepost 176, a photographer’s delight. Along the way, you’ll discover a bygone world of trail-laced forests, forgotten farms and stupendous vistas.
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Spend time in the sun at Virginia Beach
Everyone loves a good beach, and you can’t ask for much better than sunny Virginia Beach and its not one but two coasts: the Atlantic and the Chesapeake. Expect golden sands, lapping blue waters and plenty of room to sunbathe, play volleyball and splash in the waves. Among its best beaches are secluded Sandbridge, family-friendly Chesapeake Bay and Croatan, popular among surfers.
When you’re tired of the sand, the 3-mile Virginia Beach Boardwalk awaits, edged with casual restaurants, four oceanfront stages and vendors offering bike and surrey rentals. A separate path is great for strolling, rollerblading and biking. A year-round slate of events adds more fun in the sun, including the East Coast She-Crab Soup Classic in April, the East Coast Surfing Championship in August and the Holiday Parade at the Beach in December.
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Delve into Civil War history at Manassas National Battlefield
If you’re searching for Civil War action, look no further than Virginia. As the capital of the Confederacy, located near the capital of the Union, Virginia tussled its way through more than 2000 “military events” – more than any other state in the country.
Some of the biggest battlefields are here, a top gun being Manassas National Battlefield Park (aka Bull Run), where two major battles unfolded in 1861 and again in 1862 – both Confederate wins. But it's perhaps best known for the whimsy of the Washingtonians who jumped in their carriages on the eve of Manassas I and brought picnics to watch the skirmish – they expected a slam-dunk victory, but ended up witnessing the first major engagement in the long four-year struggle.
Today the battlefield is an undulating green landscape, with hiking trails, historic sites and tours. Begin at the Henry Hill Visitor Center, where you can watch an orientation film and gather info. Take a self-guided walking or driving tour from here; guided tours are also available. Don’t miss the still-standing Stone House, which served as an aid station.
Slurp oysters in the villages of Northern Neck
Virginia oysters are fast becoming a national obsession, and you can slurp them down at their point of origin all along the Chesapeake Bay shoreline – there are eight dedicated routes extolling the beloved mollusks. That said, the best place to experience oysters is the Northern Neck, a peninsula east of Fredericksburg, where latter-day oystering villages – including Irvington and Kilmarnock – are sprinkled across the genteel stream-crossed landscape. While oysters still support the economy, these villages also buzz with art galleries, trendy restaurants and freshly painted inns.
Go to the source at Rappahannock Oyster Company, a mom-and-pop shop in Topping that ships its oysters nationwide. You can visit the oyster nursery, where babies (known as “spat”) grow in buckets, and dine plein air at Merroir restaurant, serving up the sweetest varieties of the local specialty. Or try them at Hope and Glory Inn’s oyster bar in Irvington, specializing in wine-and-oyster pairings.
You’ll also find oysters in different shapes and forms: as custom-designed jewelry in Kilmarnock, and as history at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, where you can check out historic workboats, including the skipjack Claud W Somers, once used for oyster dreading in the bay and now offering sails June through October. And here’s a really interesting one – in Weems, you can even see the shells mixed with the plaster covering the entire vaulted interior of Historic Christ Church, dating from 1735.
The clincher is the Wine and Oyster Festival, which takes place in Stratford Hall, typically in the fall, and features a score of local oyster growers (and chances to sample).
More than 200 buildings from Old Town Alexandria's earliest days edge its tree-shaded streets © L Barnes for Visit Alexandria
Stroll the historic streets of Old Town Alexandria
Virginia does pre-Revolutionary towns exceedingly well, and Old Town Alexandria, founded in 1749, is hard to beat. Centuries ago, George Washington wandered these streets, discussing revolutionary thoughts with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams at Gadsby’s Tavern (now a restaurant and museum) and attending services at the still-active Christ Church.
More than 200 buildings from the town's earliest days edge its tree-shaded streets, with historic houses providing glimpses of bygone days. French and Indian War strategies were hashed out at Carlyle House; the Freedom House Museum relates stories of enslaved individuals who passed through the nation’s second-largest slave-trading city; and the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum has a Harry-Potter-like potions-mixing attic.
But this is also a city that’s alive with a modern-day vibe, showcasing trendy restaurants and boutiques up and down humming King Street. At the foot of King, the Potomac waterfront offers buskers, waterside restaurants, pathways and parks, plus the Torpedo Factory Art Center, an actual former torpedo factory now housing 82 artist studios. It’s the kind of place to sit and stay awhile.
Plan a refined weekend getaway in Middleburg
A genteel country town centered on horses and wine, Middleburg is a weekender’s delight. Established in 1787, its one main street has historic buildings shoulder-to-shoulder, holding restaurants, cafés, boutiques, antique shops, galleries and the esteemed Red Fox Inn and Tavern. The rest of town comprises a few side streets, fun to investigate as well.
Many luminaries have found their way here, including Jackie O, who rode horses and lived on the outskirts of town; a plaque honors her at the garden next to the Pink Box (the village info center and museum). The Middleburg Spring Races draw thousands, as does Christmas in Middleburg, with a parade and the Middleburg Hunt & Hounds Review.
Two noted wineries await nearby: Chrysalis Vineyards, growing the world’s largest planting of the indigenous Norton grape, and Greenhill Winery, producing robust reds. Both have wine-tasting in farm winery settings. If wine’s not your thing, pop into Mt. Defiance Cidery & Distillery and Lost Barrel Brewing instead.
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Go back in time at Tangier Island
The only way to visit Tangier Island, in the middle of the Chesapeake, is by seasonal ferry from Reedville or Orancock (or Crisfield, Maryland). You’ll arrive at a lost-in-time isle, where prim New England–style cottages with white-picket fences dot the flat, marshy landscape, and the one pedestrian road is traveled by foot, bike or golf cart.
For centuries, locals have eked out a living oystering and crabbing, and you’ll discover fishers' shanties on the water, as well as crab traps, one grocery store and two restaurants. No movie theaters, though, or fast-food joints – or, well, anything modern, including mobile phone service.
If you listen carefully, you’ll pick up the slight Elizabethan brogue in the locals’ speech, a legacy of long-ago English settlement; most folks here trace their heritage back to the island’s founding families of the 17th and 18th centuries.
You can spend the day, or overnight at one of the few B&Bs. Whatever the case, have lunch at Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House, where island fare like clam fritters, crab cakes, hot corn pudding and pickled beets is served community style. Note: The entire island is dry.
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