At a glance, Richmond isn’t exactly a “destination” city. It’s the capital of Virginia with a population around 220,000. It’s a couple hours from the beach, an hour plus from Washington DC, and it’s got a nice little river running through it. It doesn’t scream, “VISIT ME” the way Paris, New Orleans or Barcelona might.
Don’t be fooled. That pretty little river is the James River, which the first English-speaking settlers used to get inland and start, you know, making America. When Thomas Jefferson was the governor, he pretty much invented the separation of church and state. Edgar Allen Poe thought up most of his crazy stories while living in Richmond.
Fortunately, Richmond understands that you can’t eat or drink antiquity. It also recognizes that Southern cuisine is delicious and beer isn’t just a blue-collar drink anymore. Richmond is a college town, constantly infusing this old dominion with fresh perspectives. The restaurant scene is exploding, the art scene is thriving, and the locally sourced everything is happening.
A lifetime in Virginia’s capital would be a fulfilling one. Or, if you just have a day, here are some tips for making the most of it.
History for breakfast
Start in the Church Hill District, which is essentially original Richmond. Grab some Joe and a chocolate croissant at Sub Rosa, a quaint little café with great options for breakfast or lunch. You can either eat inside or take your pain-au-chocolat with you as you walk through the historic streets. A few blocks away you’ll find St. John’s Church, the site of Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. Most every block will have a building with some historical significance, but even amidst all the preservation efforts, you can see the city developing and staying progressive. Right across the street from Sub Rosa is Tricycle Gardens, one of the urban farms that’s working to get healthy, locally sourced food into some of the more impoverished areas.
Southern comfort for lunch
Looking at a map, Virginia is more or less in the dead center of the East Coast. Once you arrive in Richmond and talk to a couple of people, it becomes clear that you’ve arrived in the South. As such, you should expect to meet charming people, see a couple Confederate flags that still need to come down, and eat some very good food.
Moving downtown from Church Hill, you’ll find more restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Eat at every single one of them, or, if you’re the type of person who just eats lunch once a day, head to Comfort. Catfish, fried green tomatoes, macaroni and cheese, pulled pork, squash casserole, fried okra, southern food southern food southern food. Sip a sweet tea or fresh squeezed lemonade along with your meal. Hard to make a wrong choice at this establishment, and a great way to get a taste of The South.
If you’re still itching for some history before or after lunch, swing by the 17th Street Farmers Market. It was one of the first public markets in the country, and one of the largest slave auction sites in antebellum America. Keep in mind that Richmond was the capital city of the Confederacy, so some of its fascinating past isn’t exactly a source of pride. Still, the market is old, interesting, and sells fresh veggies. This also puts you a few blocks from the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, complete with artifacts from his childhood and interesting tidbits that the casual Poe fan might not have known.
Elegance for Dinner
Should you be lucky enough to stay at The Jefferson Hotel, it might be hard to leave your room long enough to see the town. Built in the mid 19th century, this beautiful building is in the heart of downtown, close to almost everything, and as classy as they come. If you want to be classy too, get a reservation for afternoon tea, served Friday through Sunday from 3pm until 4:15pm, and enjoy finger sandwiches and pastries while you sip your Earl Grey as light seeps through stained glass windows and gently illuminates a marble statue of Thomas Jefferson. If that sounds ridiculous and you need more than just a cubic inch of sandwich to sustain yourself, go to TJs (a bistro also located in the Jefferson), where the fare ranges from brown butter seared scallops to cheddar baked grits.
Whatever the food choice, touring the hotel will be the perfect pairing. Just walking the central staircase, from the entrance by the lobby down to the gift shop below is a very scenic way to spend 15 minutes. The Jefferson is a truly elegant lodging option, and while staying there is ideal, just visiting is worth it as well.
Party 'til the cows come home
If you finish your dinner and still have a little gas in your tank, Richmond does not disappoint. The college town situation provides its share of rowdy nightlife, but Virginia also finds itself among the top craft brewery states. After all, what’s a better tip of the cap to the forefathers of the United States than small batch brewing? Little breweries in Richmond like Legend, Garden Grove and Triple Crossing would make the American founders proud.
You can spend a full day touring each brewery individually, or just head up Broad Street and stop at Mekong. With seemingly infinite beers on tap and tasty bar food to boot, this can easily be your only stop for the evening. Taste dozens of locally brewed beers or stick with your hometown favorites, because Mekong pretty much has it all.
If beer is not your drink of choice, you’ll be fine. You can find bourbon aplenty since, as we’ve covered, you’re in The South. Wine is also gaining popularity in the region, and fancy bars with trained mixologists line the streets of downtown.
The best vacation you hadn't planned on taking
Telling your friends that you’re going to Richmond might not impress them, but when you get back and recount everything you got to do, they’re sure to be jealous. It would take weeks upon weeks to really get a handle on all the city has to offer, but it doesn’t take more than a few hours to see that Richmond is a great place to visit.
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