Norfolk, Virginia, is home to the largest naval base in the world, so you might assume it is just a regular ol’ military town, but after a weekend visit I was surprised to find that this area just off the Chesapeake Bay is beautiful, historic, and a great destination for a quick escape. The area is a mix of corporate headquarters like General Dynamics and non-profits like PETA, home to five colleges like Old Dominion University, and, of course, full of sailors. And somehow this random mix seems to work just fine.
What to do in Norfolk
- What to do in Norfolk
- Chrysler Museum of Art
- Chrysler Museum of Art’s Glass Studio
- Nauticus & U.S.S. Wisconsin
- Norfolk Botanical Garden
- Kayak the Hague and Elizabeth River
- American Rover River Cruise
- Annual Town Point Virginia Wine Festival
- The Virginia Arts Festival
- The Green Onion
- Byrd & Baldwin
- Freemason Abbey
Home to the world’s largest naval installation, Norfolk’s history is intimately tied to the sea. The renovated downtown harbor, especially Waterside Festival Marketplace with its many shops and eateries, has a family-friendly feel. In fact, more than two dozen mermaid sculptures decorated by artists dot the downtown, a fun way for kids to map the town. Norfolk, a mere 20 minutes from Virginia Beach, also makes a good break for beach-bound families as well as for those embarking on cruises. Because more and more ships are sailing from Norfolk, a new cruise terminal is slated to open in 2006.
The area is becoming known for its festivals and conferences, so if you’re in town for one of those, or are just there for a weekend getaway, here are some ideas on things to do and see in Norfolk.
Chrysler Museum of Art
Don’t be fooled, this is not a car museum. This museum opened in 1933 as the Norfolk Academy of Arts and Science. Today, the 7,000 square foot facility has 32,000 pieces of art including 8,000 pieces of glasswork. Walker P. Chrysler Jr. collected fine art for seven decades, and then, in 1971, he donated nearly 10,000 pieces to the museum, which was later renamed the Chrysler Museum. The museum is set to temporarily close for renovations during 2013, but in the meantime, you can find the artwork at the Moses Myers House, the Norfolk History Museum, and at other museums and galleries in the Hampton Roads area.
Chrysler Museum of Art’s Glass Studio
Just across the parking lot from the museum is a state-of-the-art glass-making facility that is one of a kind in the Mid-Atlantic region. Daily visitors can see free demonstrations, and the studio also offers classes for glassmakers of all levels.
Nauticus & U.S.S. Wisconsin
Take time to discover Nauticus, an interactive science and technology center located on the waterfront. It’s also the home of the retired battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin, which you can explore first-hand.
Norfolk Botanical Garden
The botanical garden is directly beside the airport, which makes it a good stop during a layover or for a leisurely afternoon stroll through some of the 40 themed gardens. Each year, more than 250,000 visitors come to explore the 155 acres by foot, boat, or tram. To see the most blooms, visit between mid-April and mid-November.
Kayak the Hague and Elizabeth River
Tour Norfolk from a different view… on the water! Local kayaking shops like Kayak Nature Tours book adventures for those who want to explore Norfolk and other areas around Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads. If you leave from the Hague waterway along the Ghent district, you’ll be able to see the Chrysler Museum, PETA’s headquarters, NOAA’s headquarters, the U.S.S. Wisconsin battleship, and other parts of the Elizabeth River.
American Rover River Cruise
Sailing the waters of the Hampton Roads area since 1986, the American Rover takes travelers out on tours April through October. The ship is a three-masted topsail schooner and is 135 feet in length. Take a cruise during the day or enjoy a two-hour sunset cruise that sets out from the waterside.
Annual Town Point Virginia Wine Festival
Considered the largest outdoor wine festival in Virginia, the Town Point festival hosts more than 30 vineyards from across the state. Visitors bring blankets, chairs, and picnics to enjoy while they sip their wine.
This festival was born more than 25 years ago, and today close to a half-a-million tourists come to see the great tall ships that visit the Norfolk waterfront. Visitors will learn about nautical history and maritime events. This is a family-friendly event with plenty of activities and entertainment for all ages.
The Virginia Arts Festival
Started in the spring of 1997, the Virginia Arts Festival brings music, dance, and theater together for visitors to enjoy. Many world-class artists from each genre make the trip to join in, from Cuban dancers to Grammy award-winning violinists.
The Green Onion
Four things are great about The Green Onion. The food is yummy. The portions are large. The atmosphere is inviting. And the staff, especially Erin, who says she’s been there forever, and Bridget, the longtime bartender, are truly nice people (i.e., some southern charm with a little fun funk). Start with the cheese platter and some wine before moving on to one of their delicious sandwiches or salads.
If you meet anyone who has lived in Norfolk at any point since the beginning of the 1900s, they’d likely recommend stopping by Doumar’s. Abe Doumar created the world’s first ice cream cone at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Since then, the Doumars have been hand-rolling ice-cream cones for customers every morning. Big Al, Abe’s son, still shows up every day at work (in his bowtie and suspenders) to roll his portion of cones and then tell a few stories of the good ol’ days.
Byrd & Baldwin
If you like steakhouses, then look no further. Byrd & Baldwin Brothers Steakhouse opened in 2006 and makes for a memorable dining experience while in Norfolk. The building is circa 1906, which adds some charm, but the perfectly cooked steak is what will stop you in your tracks. Plus, the wait staff is delightful and extremely helpful for those like me who can never decide what to order (although ordering steak is a given).
If you’re looking for a restaurant that’s elegant yet casual, visit Freemason Abbey. This restaurant has been a local favorite for more than 20 years. You eat inside of a renovated church that is nearly 140 years old. Go for brunch, lunch, or dinner, and children are welcome here, too.
For other ideas on things to do, see, and eat, check out the all the suggestions at VisitNorfolkToday.com.