Some towns have a distinct personality that you can feel rising up from the ground, pouring out of storefronts and homes. Everything feels as if it belongs to this particular place, that it couldn’t exist as comfortably anywhere else. These places are the cities that its residents like to protectively and passionately claim as their own, the kind of places that always seem much smaller than they really are.
Richmond, Virginia is this sort of town.
Richmond’s heart and soul has developed over many years as the capitol of an old southern state that is also home to the number one public arts school, a quickly growing local and organic food scene, and a whole host of tattoos (the city was ranked 3rd most tattooed U.S. city in 2011). Richmond has a sense of rural charm, but yet, also an urban cold shoulder that hovers around bodies biking, driving, and walking through the streets. Imagine Alabama-raised and well-bred actress Tallulah Bankhead as a place on a map. In recent years, the city has had a big growth of interesting restaurants and forward thinking business establishments, but for an outsider in town for a visit, most of the can’t miss attractions are the established ones.
Everywhere has as a history — good, bad, or ugly. Richmond has a little bit of it all; its past is decidedly more interesting and littered with history than a majority of other cities, which is why we suggest starting your day at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in the Church Hill neighborhood. A young Poe spent some time in the city and this museum has a ridiculous amount of Poe memorabilia housed in an appropriately eerie stone house. While in the neighborhood, head seven blocks over to St. John’s Episcopal Church. Religious or not, it’s an interesting spot. Built in 1741 and marking the site where Patrick Henry gave his nation-shaping “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech, the architecture alone is breathtaking. The area as a whole, seeped in history, makes for an incredibly peaceful morning.
Transiting from the past to the present, Richmond offers something in the middle. While all the talk about recycling and reusing is predominately focused on being environmentally sound, our favorite Virginian city is applying such an ideal by breathing new life into old settings. Two of the best outdoor attractions are Maymont and Belle Isle. Maymont is a 100-acre estate that the family who owned the property called home until 1925. Now the main draw for tourists and locals is the grounds, with different themed gardens and animal trails winding through the land. You’ll easily forget that you are in a metro area, much like being in a small scale Central Park. Belle Isle is an island with a (not so pleasant) history as a prisoner of war camp during the civil war, however, it’s now a city park. Giant rocks in the James River serve as host to a massive hangout spot in the summer months, and bikers and hikers swear by the paths throughout the wooded island.
One last must see spot is the old timey Byrd Theater. Located on the main drag of the shopping district, Carytown (which is the perfect area for an afternoon browsing locally owned shops and restaurants), this grandiose movie house dates back to 1928 but now plays second-run box office toppers every night for $2. If you have the option to go on a Sunday, we suggest you do! Before the start of the flick a Mighty Wurlitzer organ rises up from underneath the stage and plays a few classics. We also love the over-the-top grand Jefferson Hotel, with famous former visitors such as Woodrow Wilson and The Rolling Stones, not to mention it’s infamous Sunday brunch. It can make for a pricey outing, but if you consider you’ll eat enough to feel full for the entire week, you’re really saving by partaking in this Richmond tradition.
Of course we support all kinds of culture, not just the historic. The VMFA has a recent wing addition packed with American and modern art that is a nice juxtaposition to the rest of the museum, which features tons of classic works. Along with it, check out the Virginia Center for Architecture, which is a former private residence designed by John Russell Pope turned museum, with free admission.
Not to be upstaged by all the history within in the city’s parameters, you’ve got to stop in on spots like Need Supply Co., selling designers big and small from local and afar. Also try the French restaurant with a beautiful space, Can Can Brasserie in Carytown, the sort of Japanese place, Sticky Rice (the bucket of tots is a late night favorite), and Lamplighter Roasting Co. in the Fan neighborhood for a quick coffee or sandwich. Other stand out dining spots are Strange Matter, with a dive-y atmosphere and vegetarian friendly menu on the VCU campus, and Balliceaux, for classy surroundings and slightly unusual fare like twice fried tostones with mojito salsa and buttermilk cumin dip in the Fan. Both places also double as music venues. Proper Pie Co., in the same neighborhood where you checked out the Poe Museum and St. James, has a tiny space but a large chalkboard filled with both sweet and savory pies to choose from. If organic, local, and seasonal is your thing then a must stop is the Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe in Shockoe Slip. The menu changes several times a year, but always features an amazing grilled cheese.
On your way out of town, make a quick swing by Rostov’s, where you can grab freshly roasted coffee to go. Fittingly, the Richmond blend is our favorite of their tea selection. Drinking tea may be a long practiced past time, but the orange peel and clove makes it taste welcomingly new and oh so RVA.
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