Richmond, Virginia is one of those cities that everyone has heard of, but not necessarily visited. It's not a well-known southern foodie destination like Savannah or Charleston, nor does it have the trendy appeal of Chattanooga or the timeless pull of New Orleans, but Richmond is a destination to pay attention to. First, it's the state capital of Virginia, and let's not forget Richmond's broadly recognized claim to fame: Patrick Henry made his historic "Give me liberty or give me death" speech in 1775. But there is a lot more.
Here are some fun––and mostly free––activities to keep you busy in Richmond throughout the year.
- The Virginia State Capitol - This elegant legislative building was designed in 1788 by Thomas Jefferson and Charles-Louis Clérisseau. Its impressive architecture was heavily influenced by Maison Carrée, a French building of Roman design. Set in the middle of a beautifully landscaped 12-acres, it is flanked by statues of prominent figures from early U.S. history. During the Civil War it served as the Confederate capital. This national historic landmark is the perfect place for a lunch break, sunny afternoon picnic, or jaunt with your dog. Bonus points if you spot the statue of Edgar Allan Poe.
- Maymont Park - Here you'll find 100 acres of both raw and cultivated natural beauty. Its original owners, James H. and Sallie Dooley, lived in a striking mansion (for which both guided and unguided tours are available) on the estate until their deaths, at which point Maymont was bequeathed to the public. Rolling hills, landscaped gardens, and nature exhibits populate this serene public park. Take a gander at rescued bald eagles and black bears that are no longer able to survive in the wild, or explore the Japanese garden where koi will witness your attempts to meditate (no judgement though).
- The Virginia Capital Trail - The trail offers 52 miles of paved biking paradise from Richmond to Williamsburg. As you whiz down this winding trail, try to slow down enough to read the historic landmark signs dotted along the way. If you're based in Richmond, I recommend heading towards Williamsburg starting from Dorey Park. The trail is less crowded and strays farther away from the road at that point than it does if you begin your ride in downtown Richmond. You'll pass lush foliage and gently rolling farmland as you wind your way south, often without seeing another soul for miles. No bike? No problem. There's plenty of outfits willing to hook you up with a sweet 2-wheeler.
- Ellwood Thompson - This local grocery store extraordinaire caters to the health- and environmentally-conscious. If you're looking for a casual bite to eat, a relaxed jazz performance, or even some spiritual enlightenment, you've come to the right place. Their Beet Cafe frequently features local bands or experts hosting classes on anything from aromatherapy to Chinese acupuncture. Plus, Ellwood Thompson's prepared food bar makes Whole Foods' offerings pale in comparison, with an ever changing array of skillfully prepared foods catering to vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores alike. Even those who scoff at the idea of seitan as an entree (um, hello, it's delicious) will surely be impressed by items like vegan chicken parmesan and braised pork ribs made from ethically raised porcine. Pro tip: if you're hungry hit the hot bar before shopping or else you'll end up buying half the store...as I have been known to do on occasion.
- Monument Avenue - This nationally renowned boulevard is lined with jaw-droppingly gorgeous turn-of-the-century mansions and interspersed with majestic statues of noted historical figures. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson (the original icon for the hipster beard) are just a few of the famous denizens depicted in bronze along the route. Do yourself a favor and get someone else to drive down this distinguished avenue so you can properly appreciate the stunning architecture without risking your (or someone else's) life or limbs.
- Historic St. John's Church - This historic site doubles as one of the nation's oldest churches that's still in use today and the site of Patrick Henry's famous speech. Erected in 1741, this meticulously-restored church offers guided tours where you'll learn just how critical Henry's speech was the to the birth of a young nation, as well as fascinating historical facts about the city of Richmond. If you happen to visit on a Sunday, reserve a spot to observe the reenactment of the oft quoted speech, performed by actors portraying George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the celebrated Henry himself.
- Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden - Here you'll experience a historic property boasting 50 acres of exquisitely designed gardens. If you happen to visit Lewis Ginter at night during the holiday season, much of the outdoor space will be cheerfully lit with festive lights and illuminated depictions of storybook characters. It's definitely worth braving the cold for - and it doesn't hurt that you can buy hot drinks and snacks along the way. You can plan your visit for any time, as they have exhibits year round that align with the seasons. Meander down the Woodland Walk, a shaded path hidden away from the rest of the open air gardens and bordered with lush foliage, or build up an appetite gawking at the Edible Display Garden. (Well, I worked up an appetite anyway. If you're expecting burgers in trees you'll probably be disappointed.) If it's too cold to tromp around outside, warm up in their 11,000 square foot conservatory. You'll get to admire painstakingly crafted displays of exotic and unusual florae, as well as the more traditional, perennially appealing plant life.
- Carytown Shopping District - A picturesque stretch of local boutiques, eateries, and businesses. As soon as you set foot on the mile-long stretch of Cary Street you may experience a sensation not unlike lust. Your heartbeat will speed up with excitement at the grand expense of irresistible stores and you'll find yourself smiling for no reason. Well, actually, there is a good reason: it's freakin' adorable. Peruse trendy high-end garb and bags at Roan, or scoop up a vintage DVF dress at Clementine. Even if you aren't really someone who goes gaga over luxury scented candles and bar tools that could pass as art, definitely stop by Mongrel. A purveyor of everything from cheeky tea towels to mustache wax to Richmond memorabilia, this is a place where you could easily spend an hour just browsing.
- Richmond Wine Station - A wine retailer and bar with a unique imbibing experience. The Richmond Wine Station is like a tapas restaurant for wine: it boasts 64 wines dispensed automatically from machines stationed throughout the space in three different size pours. Simply swipe your refillable card at the machine, choose your wine and pour size, and pour your own wine. Eats are available to accompany the wine (as are some craft beer selections for those who have yet to embrace oenophilia). Grab a glass and get tasting!
- Lucy's Restaurant - An under-the-radar dining establishment with a cult following. Located in the historic Jackson Ward district, you'll love this cozy space owned by married restaurateurs Amanda and Jason Lucy. Choose from options like creamy sweet potato hummus with fried kale or crispy fried overs served over bacon collard greens (taste the south!) for an appetizer, and agonize over the mouthwatering entrees. With items like Non-Spaghetti and Meatballs (spaghetti squash pasta topped with artichoke, spinach and avocado "meatballs") and Berkshire Pork Chop with Smoked Smashed Potatoes you may be tempted to come back for second helpings.
This is just a small sampling of what Richmond has to offer. You could spend days educating yourself at one of its many museums, or indulging your inner Bacchus at a local winery or two (or three).