Virginia’s capital city knows a thing or two about stories, with a rich history spanning more than four centuries and a diverse palette that continues to proudly color its cobblestone streets. I arrive in the Southern city for the first time in mid-August for a 48-hour visit, unsure of what to expect — beyond checking off a long list of shops and restaurants — and with the excitement of discovering an old city through fresh eyes.
Amid vibrant neighborhoods, delectable dining and palpable local energy, I meet the new Richmond.
Over the past couple of years, the city has emerged as one of the East Coast’s must-experience destinations thanks to its distinct offering of big-city amenities with charm, hospitality and ease, including nationally-acclaimed restaurants and a flourishing arts scene all set against the backdrop of one of the country’s most historic towns.
It quickly becomes apparent, as I hop from shop to gallery and coffeehouse to museum, that I’m exploring a hotbed of creativity. As I meet locals along the way, I excitedly realize that it’s a hyper-creative class of female entrepreneurs who are painting the town with newfound style.
On Broad Street in the heart of the city’s designated Arts District, the Quirk Hotel has helped pave the way for Richmond’s evolution. Housed in a 1916-era building (that was first a dry goods store, then a toy and bicycle shop), the city’s first design-driven hotel artfully blends history with style. Co-owner Katie Ukrop opened the hotel with her husband in 2015, extending on her vision (and aesthetic) from the Quirk Gallery, a leading part of the city’s art scene for the past decade.
In perfectly pink-hued fashion, the 74-room hotel, which showcases an extensive permanent art collection in addition to several rotating exhibits, now houses the idyllically-curated gallery as well as a coffee bar, rooftop terrace and award-winning restaurant Maple & Pine, where I had one of the most memorable (and beautiful!) meals of my life.
Ukrop has had a front-row seat to the emergence of Richmond’s new creative energy, which she says “has been nurtured and shaped by some pretty amazing and dedicated artists and galleries [that] have molded Richmond into a city that’s full of opportunity, [where] everyone seems to have the opportunity to explore their artistic pursuits and dreams.”
It’s that spirit of dreaming and daring that led Courtney Mailey to open Virginia’s first urban cidery five years ago. With a background in historic preservation and economic development, she was drawn to Richmond’s rich stories and is uplifted by its new vitality, which she calls “a turning point.” Blue Bee Cider is now located in the historic Scott’s Addition neighborhood among likeminded businesses in the “brewing district.” Staying true to her passion, Courtney repurposed the former city stables complex, built in 1940, fully reconstructing it from old granite street cobbles to become the cidery’s new home. In lovely serendipity, what is old is new again.
It quickly becomes apparent, as I hop from shop to gallery and coffeehouse to museum, that I’m exploring a hotbed of creativity.
Richmond plays to that sentiment beautifully, taking me on a color-and-style-fueled spree across its dozen of distinct, local, women-owned vintage boutiques including Rosewood Clothing Co., Blue Bones Vintage, Na Nin Vintage and Addison Handmade & Vintage, a rustic space overflowing with delicately curated details in the city’s Fan Neighborhood.
I fall in love with a dress and a handcrafted necklace by Aimee Munford (Garnett Jewelry) and meet co-owner Lauren O’Connor. It’s she who reaffirms my impression that Richmond’s creative female entrepreneurs have anchored the city’s new style. The next day, with her recommendations, I continue my handpicked/handmade journey in the Church Hill neighborhood at Gather Home + Garden and Tiny Space and pay a visit to Dear Neighbor, which I’ve been admittedly stalking on Instagram.
Co-owner (and Drift/Riot jewelry designer) Kristy Santelli Cotter’s vision for the store was to bring back the art of gift-giving and quality handmade goods with a focus on brand and design — in this exquisite space, her vision shines. I return to the hotel with a toteful of inspiration.
With my husband in tow, rest assured, shopping is not the only way I wander. Savoring Richmond is one of the surest ways to get a sense for the city, which has quickly cemented itself as a mecca for foodies from across the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the culinary scene, too, seems to be styled with a feminine touch.
An early breakfast includes a sampling of Heather Horak’s freshly baked Polish kolaches at Craft Kolache. That evening, we celebrate a day well spent with a toast at chef (and co-owner) Brittanny Anderson’s Metzger Bar & Butchery, where the women-filled kitchen indulges us in a delectable multicourse feast of rustic, German-inspired seasonal dishes. The next day, we welcome Sunday with a whimsical brunch at Laura Lee’s — Richmond restaurateur Kendra Feather’s fourth restaurant.
Named after Feather’s mother, Laura Lee’s is a modern reinterpretation of the fern bars of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which were intentionally designed to provide a welcoming, comfortable and inspirational dining place for women. As I take in the colorful artwork-lined walls and a sip of my spritz, it becomes clear that she has done just that.
My visit to Richmond comes to an end at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA)’s Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style exhibit, which seems to be fitting. As I dream aloud alongside haute couture in a world-class venue, I relish the opportunity of seeing Richmond write the modern chapter in its centuries-long story. Next spring, when Broad Street welcomes the VCU Institute for Contemporary Art, it will no doubt cement the city as a hub for all things creative.
In the words of one of Richmond’s leading creatives, herself:
“We’re coming to a point where it’s getting hard to keep up with all that’s changing. At the same time, though, Richmond is still familiar, comfortable and reliable. If you’re really in search of inspiration, you know just where to look. And you never have to go very far.” – Katie Ukrop, Quirk Gallery & Quirk Hotel
Have you been to Richmond?
Images via Valeria L. Palmertree