Virginia Holiday Planning Guide
The home of the first permanent English colony in the New World, Virginia is a prime holiday destination for those looking to immerse themselves in American heritage. Proud of its colorful history, distinct culture, and southern drawl, Virginians see their state as the place where the imaginary line between the north and the south is drawn. With scenic beauties as diverse as its people, Virginia is a land of rolling hills, rugged mountains, lush valleys, dense forests, and secluded beaches along picturesque bays. Bordered on the east by the Atlantic and the west by the Appalachian Mountains, with rolling farmland in the middle, the state offers countless places to visit for history buffs, nature lovers, and passionate foodies.
Places to Visit in VirginiaWilliamsburg
: Formerly the state's colonial capitol, Williamsburg undoubtedly stands as one of the top places to visit in Virginia, thanks to its historic 17th-century city center, wealth of tourist infrastructure, and knowledgeable reenactors that bring the town to life.Virginia Beach
: Bustling Virginia Beach, stretched out along the ocean for nearly 56 km (35 mi), features a popular boardwalk, tons of waterfront eateries, beautiful historic sites, and lots of beaches open to the public.Arlington
: Right across the river from the nation's capital, Arlington functions much as an extension of Washington, D.C., and plays host to a number of important monuments and sites, including the Pentagon, national cemetery, and several memorials to the U.S. military.Richmond
: A true "Southern" city, energetic Richmond can certainly make visitors feel at home with its hospitality, and this former capital of the Confederate States of America entices travelers thanks to a wonderful contingent of city parks, riverfront stretches, and lively locals.Charlottesville
: Once home to Thomas Jefferson, charming Charlottesville lies near the Blue Ridge Mountains' forested foothills, and boasts quaint streets packed with cafes, bars, and gorgeous Jeffersonian-style buildings.Alexandria
: Connected to Washington, D.C. via the capital's metro system, classy Alexandria is one of the state's most historic spots; in addition to its vast array of galleries, antique stores, local markets, and eateries, the birthplace of George Washington also bursts with 17th- and 18th-century homes.Luray
: Tucked away between the green hills of the Shenandoah Valley, Luray certainly feels a long way from faster-paced eastern part of the state, and the town lands on many a Virginia itinerary thanks to its world-class cave system and easy access to outdoor activities.Lexington
: Known primarily as the home of the prestigious Virginia Military Institute, Lexington stands as a city of beautiful red brick buildings, including the historic former home of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Chincoteague Island
: Peaceful beaches, serene harbors, and amazing coastal scenery are not all that Chincoteague Island has to offer; its most famous visitors, the free-running Chincoteague ponies, cross from a neighboring island and run right through town.Norfolk
: Site of the largest naval base on the planet, Norfolk also stands as Virginia's second-largest city, and despite its military infrastructure attracts plenty of visitors with its quaint Victorian- and Georgian-era homes and bustling harbor.
Things to Do in Virginia
Popular Virginia Tourist AttractionsColonial Williamsburg
: Set within the city's historic heart, Colonial Williamsburg transports you back in in time as you wander through its 18th-century streets, explore its lively shops, and delve into the midst of America's independence struggle through a cadre of convincing reenactors.Busch Gardens Williamsburg
: Add some thrills to you Virginia vacation by visiting Busch Gardens, a world-class amusement park that boasts more than 50 rides and a range of other attractions, ranging from heart-pounding roller coasters to a wildlife reserve housing thousands of animals.Arlington National Cemetery
: Containing nearly 400,000 graves, the extensive Arlington National Cemetery serves as the final resting place for soldiers and veterans from the nation's conflicts stretching all the way back to the American RevolutionThomas Jefferson Foundation
: With a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello makes a solid addition to a Virginia itinerary, playing home to the third president's gorgeous plantation home perched on a hilltop and plenty of other historic buildings.Virginia Beach Boardwalk
: Stretching for nearly 5 km (3 mi) down the Atlantic Coast, Virginia Beach Boardwalk provides fantastic access to entertainment venues, eateries, hotels, and the area's famed golden sands.Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
: Tons of historic, rare, and gigantic aircraft surround the hangar at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, home to a real-life space shuttle, experimental Nazi jets, and the "Enola Gay," the craft that dropped the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.Luray Caverns
: Filled with a vast array of jaw-dropping limestone formations set within a subterranean cave system, Luray Caverns dazzle visitors with stalactites and stalagmites as high as 18 m (60 ft), along with incredible draperies and even a working limestone organ.Jamestown Settlement
: Designed as a living history museum, Jamestown Settlement offers an array of replica 17th-century buildings and recreations of colonial life, including a Native American village, costumed staff, and recreations of the colonists' sailing ships.George Washington's Mount Vernon
: Perched above the Potomac River, George Washington's Mount Vernon is the site of the first president's 17th-century plantation home, complete with the historic mansion, restored period rooms, and even the tombs of George and Martha Washington themselves.Historic Jamestowne
: The reconstructed walls, buildings, and fort infrastructure at Historic Jamestowne stand upon the the site of Virginia's very first colony and offer a great deal of archeological insight into the colonists, Native Americans, and slaves that lived in the area.
Planning a Virginia Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Virginia with Kids
Virginia tourist attractions remain relatively evenly distributed, and the state boasts plenty of locations worth your while on a family holiday. The capital city plays home to tons of sites both historic and modern, as well as a range of excellent accommodation. It also serves as a solid base from which you can explore the region with the little ones. The surroundings of Newport News
, Virginia Beach, and Norfolk make for an appealing alternative with excellent access to the wonders of Williamsburg
, Jamestown, and Yorktown
. These historic cities occupy a prime spot on many Virginia itineraries, and are more or less can't-miss destinations for anyone visiting the state for its historic appeal and wealth of attractions.Alexandria
, along with the neighborhood of Rosslyn, are excellently placed for exploring Washington, D.C. across the Potomac River, and conveniently lie upon the capital's extensive metro network. Though Luray
may not offer tons in terms of things to do in town, its access to the beautiful nature and kid-friendly outdoor sites of the western part of the state is top-notch, and it makes for an excellent base for delving into the wilds of the Shenandoah National Park
in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Things to Do in Virginia with Kids
Thanks to the state's rich coastline, you'll find plenty of great sand beaches, which serve as a solid outlet for youthful energy and hyperactive little ones, and offer a welcome break from sightseeing in Virginia. Buckroe Beach and Park
, Sandbridge Beach
, and Cape Charles Beach
are local favorites, while the actual sand
is packed full of useful amenities in addition to a golden shore. If the ocean seems a bit too cold for swimming, head to Water Country USA
, a warmer alternative. For thrill rides and old-fashioned theme park fun, world-famous Busch Gardens is hard to beat, while Kings Dominion
also offers rides in conjunction with a waterpark and plenty of live performances.
Virginia's educational institutions are also among some of the state's finest traits, featuring well-regarded attractions like Metro Richmond Zoo
, Virginia Living Museum
, and Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
. On the historic side of things, kids can get a huge kick out of Jamestown Settlement
and Colonial Williamsburg
. For a real treat, try touring the immense USS Wisconsin BB-64
, a retired World War II-era U.S. Navy battleship.
Outdoors, the Blue Ridge Mountains offer tons of opportunities to stretch your family's legs by exploring Mary's Rock Summit Trail
, Old Rag Mountain Hike
, and the vehicle-friendly Skyline Drive
. Luray Caverns
and Shenandoah Caverns
also make for unusual geological oddities sure to capture the kids' imaginations.Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
plays home to a number of outdoor attractions in Virginia, most of which are perfect for a family outing. Chincoteague Bay Field Station
runs educational programs, presentations, and exhibits designed to teach kids about the diverse ecosystems of Virginia's barrier islands. Alternatively, tons of boat tours ply routes in and around the island's waterways and marshes.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Virginia
Though public transport in the Washington, D.C. metro area can work well for families, consider renting a car for your Virginia vacation if you plan on traveling outside the national capital. As in the rest of America, road networks are solid and cars remain the most reliable mode of travel.There is simply no replacing the flexibility you gain in terms of visiting sites and cities by having your own vehicle. Many museums and paid-admission historic sites also offer variations on family passes and group tickets. Keep an eye out for package deals that include entry for one or more people into a selection of different attractions.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Virginia
Cuisine of Virginia
Virginia cuisine is full of hearty goodness, and you'll find that there are tons of tasty dishes awaiting you there. The state shares plenty of regional favorites with the rest of the American South, and classics like grits, barbecue, okra, and biscuits represent just a few of the familiar eats you might find on your trip in Virginia.
The state certainly boasts its own local grub, along with a wealth of area specialties. Perhaps most notable is the famed Smithfield ham. Sometimes known alternatively as "Virginia ham," this delectable meaty specialty is protected by law, and can only be produced in the town of Smithfield
. Breakfast is taken very seriously in Virginia, and while ham occasionally graces the menu along with eggs and grits, sausages play a starring role in most morning meals. Many varieties are flavored with sage for an extra twist. Brunswick stew--a common dish harkening back to the colonial era--can warm you up even during winter travels, thanks to its hearty mixture of vegetables and meat, usually chicken or rabbit. Vegetarians can opt for peanut soup, which makes for an interesting and savory accompaniment to a meal.
Along the coast, seafood remains king, and ending your Virginia holiday without sampling some of the bounty of Chesapeake Bay would be almost unforgivable. Clams, scallops, oysters, and all sorts of fish, from haddock to shad, appear on menus all around the state's coastal areas. A can't-miss local specialty comes in the form of the region's famous blue crabs; try them served up in a variety of delicious ways, including in crab cakes, served with and dipped in a side of butter, or even pan-fried whole during the soft-shell season. Top off your seafood with a liberal dosage of "Old Bay" seasoning, a brand of spice mixture that holds almost legendary status in this part of the United States
If you include the verdant Shenandoah Valley
on your Virginia itinerary, be sure to indulge in the region's poultry, as the turkey and chicken dishes, including stews, pies, and roasts, are top-notch. Often times, this succulent meat is served with or followed by Shenandoah Valley apples, known as some of the state's, and the country's, best.
For dessert, chow down on marble cake, colonial-era favorite mixing dark and light batter, or enjoy a shoofly pie, a rich molasses treat also from the Shenandoah Valley. Fried and simmered peaches are also a delectable option. You can wash down your tasty meal with a nice glass of renowned Virginia wine, produced with particular acclaim in the northern part of the state, or a bottle of hard cider produced from those famous apples.
Shopping in Virginia
Shopping districts in Richmond
, Newport News, Norfolk
, and other large cities boasts plenty of well-known brands and stores, from fashion retailers to grocery chains. The state also features a number of outlet malls and shopping centers, like Williamsburg Premium Outlets
and Leesburg Corner Premium Outlets
. For a standalone shopping mall, consider Lynnhaven Mall
, Fairfax Mall, and the Virginia Center Commons.
You'll find while sightseeing in Virginia that the state's towns and urban centers also offer countless specialty stores, along with tons of craft shops and local galleries. The venerable Williamsburg Pottery
is perhaps one of the best-known, but Charlottesville
, Arlington, Alexandria, Lynchburg
, and Luray all feature gift shops and craft stores of their own. Williamsburg itself is a fantastic place to pick up some colonial-themed souvenirs, and features scores of charming galleries and period shops hawking all sorts of interesting antiques and keepsakes.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Virginia
History of Virginia
The territory of modern-day Virginia was long occupied by Algonquian-speaking Native American tribes, many of which consolidated into a federation under the leadership of Chief Powhatan in the late 16th century. During this same period, Queen Elizabeth I of England granted a charter for a permanent settlement in the New World, culminating in the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. In honor of the "Virgin Queen," the colony was named Virginia. After a few hardscrabble decades, the first African servants and slaves arrived in the colony. England's territory grew, and European towns rose up out of the coastal swamps. To learn more about this historical period, add Colonial Williamsburg
to your Virginia itinerary.
The years that followed saw the Native Americans lose much of their land both by force and by agreement with the expanding European colonists. In 1699, the colonial capital moved to Williamsburg, which became an epicenter of English rule in the New World. Leading up to the move, in 1693 authorities founded the renowned College of William & Mary
--America's second-oldest university. In 1732, the shores of Chesapeake Bay saw the birth of a man who would rise to become one of Britain's, and later America's, greatest generals and the first president of a new nation--George Washington. Pay a visit to Washington's ancestral home by visiting Mount Vernon
During the 18th century tensions rose between Great Britain and the New World colonies. Virginians, including famed figured like Patrick Henry, took up the cause of resistance to unfair British laws and, later, independence. Virginia joined the colonial Continental Congress, and declared its independence in 1776, becoming one of the newborn country's original 13 states. As the Revolutionary War raged across the eastern seaboard, the capital moved to Richmond to better protect it from a British naval attack. In 1781, General George Washington and his French allies struck a killing blow to British rule in America, forcing the surrender of British General Cornwallis after the Siege of Yorktown. Stop by the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
to get a glimpse of the battle's monumental importance.
As the nation fragmented during the first half of the 19th century over the issue of slavery, plantation- and slave-based Virginia was on the front line of the debate. The state seceded from the United States and joined the rebellious Confederate States of America in April of 1861. Many major battles of the bloody American Civil War took place upon Virginian soil, many of them involving the famed Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by native son Robert E. Lee. One of the first, the 1861 Battle of Manassas saw Stonewall Jackson and other Southern leaders send the Union army home in disarray, shattering the belief that this would be a quick and simple war. Fierce struggles also took place at Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg in the following four years. Make sure to visit Manassas National Battlefield Park
or Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park
during your tour of Virginia in order to see the sites of these consequential battles.
Virginia suffered terribly during the Civil War, witnessing unimaginable bloodshed and seeing many of its great industrial cities reduced to little more than rubble. On April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House
, Robert E. Lee and his army finally surrendered to then-General Ulysses S. Grant.You'll find that Virginia Museum of the Civil War
, Pamplin Historical Park
, and The American Civil War Museum- White House and Museum of the Confederacy
are all fantastic places to visit in Virginia if you wish to immerse yourself in this period of national history. The post-war Reconstruction saw Virginia readmitted into the Union, though segregation and disenfranchisement of freed African-Americans continued and would not be remedied until the successes of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964 and 1965.
On September 11, 2001, Virginia fell victim to the terrorist attacks carried out on that day. A hijacked airplane was flown into The Pentagon
, smashing into the side of the building, destroying a section of the facility, and killing 189 people. Despite this, the building continues to serve as the headquarters of the Department of Defense. You can honor the victims by adding Pentagon Memorial
to your Virginia trip planner.
Landscape of Virginia
A sizeable portion of Virginia is dominated by a coastal plain known as the Tidewater, a lowland region stretching westward from the shores of Chesapeake Bay. Gorgeous scenery abounds, and the region's geography is highlighted by numerous peninsulas, inlets, and bays formed by the mouths of the state's mighty rivers, including the James River, the Rappahannock, and the wide Potomac. While on your Virginia trip, you may want to visit the Eastern Shore, a small peninsula separated from the rest of the state's mainland. This small region is riddled with small estuaries and salt marshes, its rich coastal ecosystems protected by numerous barrier islands, the most famous of which is the popular Chincoteague Island
Eventually plains transition into the limestone foothills of the Piedmont, which in turn transforms into the forested slopes and vast openness of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Within this limestone-heavy region, you'll find natural wonders like the 65.5 m (215 ft) high Natural Bridge
. On the other side of the mountain range, which runs like a spine down the western portion of Virginia, lie the verdant lands of the Shenandoah Valley, part of the larger Great Appalachian Valley that spans much of the United States' eastern coast. At the very western tip of the state, up against the Kentucky border, you'll find a small section of the Cumberland Plateau, dotted with sandstone cliffs, waterfalls, and the occasional gorge.
Holidays & Festivals in Virginia
Regardless of where your Virginia itinerary takes you, keep an eye out for listings, signboards, and ads advertising local events and special gatherings, which range from get-togethers like the Poquoson Seafood Festival in October to celebrations of Jamestown's founding at May's Jamestown Day. In addition, there are numerous local farmers markets, craft fairs, and county carnivals to keep you entertained. As is the case across the nation, Virginia celebrates major American holidays and festivals, including New Year, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, with plenty of fanfare taking place in towns both large and small for most of these days. Celebrations like the 4th of July take on special significance in Williamsburg
and other sites related to the American Revolution.
Virginia Travel Tips
Climate of Virginia
Though it certainly experiences four distinct seasons, much of Virginia features a climate classified as subtropical, with hot summers and relatively cool winters. Humidity in Virginia, as with much of the eastern seaboard, can be rough while traveling in the summer months. Be sure to drink plenty of water in June, July, and August, the hottest and stickiest months. Thunderstorms are very frequent, particularly in the west, and extreme weather is occasionally a problem for the state. Although the chances of running up against severe conditions during your Virginia vacation are slim, keep in mind that hurricanes and accompanying tropical storms can definitely put a damper on your day out.
Transportation in Virginia
As is the case throughout much of the United States, Virginia boasts a solid transportation network that allows you to travel just about anywhere in the state with relative ease. Tons of state highways crisscross the region, connecting Richmond, Newport News, Virginia Beach, and Norfolk with the Washington, D.C. metro area in the north and the inland parts of the state in the west. Interstate 95 and Interstate 81 both run north-south across the state, while the famed "Beltway," Interstate 495, rings the nation's capital. Interstate 64 is likely your best bet to drive between the east and west during your Virginia trip. Although renting a car and going by road is undoubtedly the best way to make the most of your time in the state, Virginia does feature a decent network of public transportation. Around the D.C. metro area, including Alexandria and Arlington, you can take advantage of the capital's excellent subway network. Elsewhere, local buses are generally the best way to get around town, although Norfolk boasts a small light rail system. To hop between cities, climb aboard an intercity bus, generally run by Greyhound.