Richmond, Virginia is a small city that punches well above its weight in terms of history, culture, nightlife, and nature. Whether you like urban or outdoors activities, Richmond has you covered with neighborhoods like The Fan and Shockoe Bottom and its location on the scenic James River. If you’re looking for a jumping off point for other cities on the East Coast like D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, Richmond’s situated perfectly.
If you’re coming to Richmond for the first time, you really haven’t seen the best side of the city until you’ve seen The Fan.
Named for the way in the streets “fan” out in this historic West End neighborhood, The Fan is Richmond at its most grandiose. Beautifully preserved rowhouses from the early 19th century line narrow, walkable streets, with gorgeous churches, synagogues, and museums spread throughout. I have traveled extensively around the US, and I can honestly say that The Fan is one of the most visually pleasing (I would even say underrated) urban neighborhoods in the US. While it may be on the smaller side, it can still alongside anything in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, or Washington Square in Baltimore. It is a walker’s and photographer’s paradise.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is a truly world-class institution, one you could literally spend an entire day in. They have artifacts going back over 3,000 years to Ancient Egypt, as well as more modern exhibits on art deco and contemporary musicians. It’s the crown jewel of Richmond’s cultural offerings.
200 N Arthur Ashe Blvd, Richmond, VA 23220
The Canal Walk
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Richmond was an important industrial center, conducting trade through a series of canals. While maritime trade has shifted to the Port of Richmond farther south along the James River, the old canal infrastructure remains. The Canal Walk pays homage to this industrial past while providing a great way to get to know the city on foot.
The Canal Walk snakes all along the Richmond riverfront and actually connects a lot of the areas on this list. It connects to the Capital Trail to the east, winds through Great Ship Lock Park and Chapel Island on the eastern edge of Downtown, goes through Brown’s Island, all the way out to the West Side. You can walk, run, or bike along its length and see a lot of the city.
One of the awesome things about Richmond is that it is very compact and walkable, and the Canal Walk is the perfect vehicle to show yourself around.
As you’re walking along, keep an eye out for the manhole covers along the route. These metal lids are inscribed with interesting facts about different parts of the Canal Walk. For example, you’ll learn about the “Triple Crossing,” the only known railroad intersection in the world in where three Class I railroads cross over each other.
While You’re There: The Pipeline Trail
For those who know, there is a second, secret trail that branches off from the Canal Walk. Accessible only by a short ladder, the Pipeline Trail is a narrow walkway constructed over an active storm water runoff pipeline that sits just feet above the James River.
If you climb down at various points, you can have a tiny little patch of riverside beach to yourself. It’s a fairly popular spot during the warmer months, so the earlier you get out, the better.
Right across the water from the beach areas is a Blue Heron rookery, and you can spot several of the birds up close.
Carytown, located along Cary Street in the southwest part of the city, is Richmond’s own little bohemian district. For those of you familiar with South Congress in Austin, Carytown is Richmond’s version of SoCo.
This is where you’ll find most of the city’s antiques shops, consignment stores, and record stores, such as Deep Groove and Plan 9. You’ll also come across a wide variety of restaurants and entertainment options, such as the historic Byrd Theater.
Richmond is undeniably a foodie city, specializing in southern comfort food but with representations from all over the world. A complete list of every restaurant and food truck worth eating at would take far too long to type out, but my personal favorites include ZZQ Texas Craft Barbeque, Fat Dragon, Joe’s Inn, Alewife, Perly’s, Poe’s Pub, Abuelita’s, and Sugar’s Crab Shack.
Belle Isle is an island in the James River located just southwest of the city center. It can easily be reached by a number of bridges and trails from either side of the James and is vaguely connected to the south shore by a series of cascading boulder formations.
If you just want to go for a relaxing walk, there are few better areas in all of Metro Richmond. Even thought you’re very close to the hustle and bustle of city life, the zig-zagging walking trails are shrouded in trees and vines, and make you feel as though you’re miles away.
While You’re There: Explore the Ruins of the Belle Isle Hydroelectric Power Plant
Unfortunately, this clean and reliable system of public transportation gave way to automobiles and buses around the 1940s. Today you can walk in and around the ruins of the old power plant on Belle Isle, as well as the steel factory that the plant also powered.
Bike the Capital Trail
Richmond is the capital of the Commonwealth of Virginia, but it wasn’t always. Prior to 1780, the capital was Williamsburg, on the eastern shore. The Capital Trail is so named because it connects the two cities.
Of course, the entire 52-mile ride is not for everyone, but that’s okay because you can enjoy any part of this trail. Officially starting where the Canal Walk begins and running east and then south, you can ride for several miles past the James River and Low Line and then out past Rockett’s Landing and into the countryside. There are some hills, but these gradually smooth out the closer you get to Williamsburg.
Kayak the James River
The James River flows right by Downtown Richmond, out to the Atlantic Ocean. It was a major source of food for the local Native Americans, who fished by its banks for generations, and it was a power source for the industry that would spring up later in the 18th Century.
Today, there are all kinds of ways to enjoy the river, but a particularly unique way is to kayak them. Which might sound odd, considering you can do that in a lot of cities, right? Well, Richmond is the only city in the United States with Class IV white water rapids running through downtown!
Rapids are categorized from Class I to VI, with VI being extremely dangerous and often uncharted. Class VI are turbulent and do present some risk, but are perfectly manageable with the right guide.
Shockoe Slip/Shockoe Bottom
Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom are two trendy, walkable neighborhoods immediately east of Downtown. Both of them are known for good nightlife, historic architecture, and cobblestone streets.
I’m a big fan of just wandering around and exploring, and Shockoe is the perfect area to do just that. There are plenty of shops to browse and architecture to enjoy. These neighborhoods are also well integrated with the Canal Walk.
The Shockoe neighborhoods have a range of eating options, from cheap bites like City Dogs and Tree’s Tacos food truck to popular late night hangouts like Margarita’s Cantina and a whole host of other options.
While COVID-19 has hit the city’s nightlife particularly hard, some popular clubs are Switch, Bello’s, and Kabana’s.
While You’re There: The Poe Museum
One popular point of interest is the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, which is housed in the oldest extant structure in Richmond, an old stone house built circa 1740. While the writer himself never lived in the house, he did stand guard outside of it as a young soldier during a dignitary’s visit.
1914 E Main St, Richmond, VA
While You’re There: Main Street Station
Consider stopping by the Main Street Station at the western end of Shockoe Slip. The large red brick structure, also known as “The Clock Tower,” was one of Richmond’s two main train stations for decades (the other being the Broad Street Station, which now houses the Science Museum of Virginia). After horrible flooding in the 1970s and a fire in the 1980s, passenger trains were rerouted to the suburban Staples Mill Station. Staples Mill may currently be the “main” train station in Richmond, but it possesses a tiny fraction of Main Street Station’s grandeur.
Luckily, some service has been restored to the old station. There are a few trains, typically one in the morning and one at night, that run to and from Virginia Beach, and to and from the Staples Mill Station, continuing north to D.C. and points beyond. You can take Amtrak if you’re in the mood for a daytrip, or just pop in for a stroll around the interior of the beautiful structure.
1500 E Main St, Richmond, VA 23219
Virginia Museum of History and Culture
Situated close to VMFA, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture details Virginia’s unique place in American history, from the time of Native American tribes to Colonization, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, and beyond.
Pro Tip: They also feature a used book sale in the front lobby.
428 N Arthur Ashe Blvd, Richmond, VA 23220
Cost: Technically Free, but they’re sly and encourage you to give a “suggested donation” of $10 at the entrance. I definitely believe it’s worth $10 but don’t feel obligated to donate.
Maymont is a 100-acre park featuring arboretums, nature centers, and historic houses. Constructed per the wishes of a local philanthropist and his wife in 1893, they also decreed that the grounds be left to the people of Richmond upon their deaths.
Today, the crown jewels of Maymont are the Italian Garden, featuring a large herb garden, and the Japanese Garden, complete with a tea house.
1700 Hampton St, Richmond, VA 23220