Virginia, also known as “Old Dominion,” is full of history and natural wonders that make it a great place to visit or live. The state’s largest cities feature everything from beaches to ski resorts, so everyone is bound to find a place with activities that fit their interests.
While some people choose to explore one of Virginia’s picturesque small towns, others will find a home in one of the more densely populated cities. These big destinations are full of shops, restaurants, work opportunities, and tourist attractions.
Here are the ten biggest cities in Virginia, in order of the highest to lowest populations:
Virginia Beach, VA
With 459,373 residents at the time of the 2020 US census, Virginia Beach is Virginia’s largest city by population. In addition to being a residential hub, the city is also a desirable spot for tourism.
There are hundreds of hotels, restaurants, shops, and other attractions along the beaches and within the city center. Tourism highlights include the Boardwalk, Ocean Breeze Waterpark, Town Center, and False Cape State Park. People from across the state of Virginia and beyond enjoy visiting these classic coastal attractions, as well as the beaches themselves.
Virginia Beach is located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, and it has many different beaches. It’s among the best beach town in the state. These include the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, Sandbridge Beach, and Croatan Beach. Whether you want to swim and hop waves or just relax in the sun, these beaches are sure to keep you entertained.
Residents of Virginia Beach appreciate the combination of living in a place that is both suburban and very busy with things to do. Different neighborhoods can give an escape from more touristy areas, while still offering plenty of attractions and entertainment opportunities.
Virginia’s second biggest city is Chesapeake, which is home to just under 250,000 people, as of the 2020 census. It’s also just a half-hour drive away from Virginia Beach.
Despite being such a large city, Chesapeake is not as popular of a tourist destination as other cities on this list. It’s known for being much calmer and also includes more rural and residential areas than comparable cities.
Most tourists going to Chesapeake visit to see some of the area’s natural beauties. These include the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal. There are also over 80 public parks throughout the city that are perfect for outdoor activities.
In addition to the outdoor recreation opportunities, locals have access to countless shops and restaurants in the area, including the Greenbrier Mall. This conveniently-located coastal city is perfect for visitors looking for a calm destination with beautiful nature, as well as residents who want to combine this nature with plenty of businesses and things to do.
This is another one of Southeast Virginia’s popular coastal cities, found close to Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. It features many beaches and nature areas ready to entertain its tourists and locals alike. Norfolk had 237,591 residents in 2020.
The city consists of about 66 square miles, including 7.3 miles of public beaches along the Chesapeake Bay. These beaches draw in countless visitors. Norfolk also has more than 100 different parks, as well as additional water access on the shorelines of rivers and lakes.
The arts and culture scene is also a huge draw of the city. Those interested in performing arts can visit the Virginia Opera, Virginia Symphony, and Virginia Stage Company. For visual arts, check out the Chrysler Museum of Art.
Another unique aspect of Norfolk is its military history and importance. This city contains the world’s largest naval base. It is also home to the North American Headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). These are intriguing to tourists, as well as a major sense of pride for locals.
In Northern Virginia, many of the cities include numerous corporate offices, as well as residents who commute to Washington, D.C. for work. Arlington is the perfect example of a Virginia city with close ties to D.C., and it had a population of 236,434 as of 2020.
Arlington is located on the Potomac River, which separates the city from Washington, D.C. While D.C. is a busy, bustling city with numerous bars, restaurants, and museums, Arlington is more suburban and focused on corporate businesses and apartment buildings.
In general, it also has larger homes and better schools than the nation’s capital. The two cities are well-connected through public transport, though they have significant differences and contrasting styles of living.
Because of this connection with D.C., as well as Arlington’s own unique attractions, this city (and county) is a notable tourist attraction. The Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Defense headquarters, is located in Arlington. It also has the Arlington National Cemetery, where many American military heroes are buried.
Virginia’s capital city, Richmond, is the state’s fifth-largest city. Also nicknamed “RVA” and the “River City,” Richmond is home to 226,670 people in 2020. It’s located on the James River and has lots of gorgeous nature.
Its landscape can be described as having low hills and flat Tidewater, as well as views of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. A major outdoor attraction in Richmond is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens, where tourists and locals can explore over 50 acres of gardens through classes, expositions, and special events, in addition to a classic visit.
Historic sites also attract many tourists to the Richmond area. Many places, such as Cold Harbor Battlefield and Fort Brady, hold great importance from during the Civil War. Other notable Richmond historic sites include Church Hill Historic District, Hollywood Cemetery, and John Marshall House.
Richmond museums such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture contribute additional educational opportunities. The Virginia State Capitol is a final major historic site in Richmond. It was originally designed by Thomas Jefferson, and since 1788, this has been the meeting place for the Virginia General Assembly.
Newport News, VA
Newport News is a coastal city home to 185,916 people in 2020. It’s also located in the Hampton Roads area, like many other large Virginian cities, and is best known for its history, educational opportunities, and shopping and dining scene.
Newport News was founded soon after Jamestown, Virginia, giving it a rich history and many notable historic sites. These include the USS Monitor Center, the Newsome House, and Lee Hall Mansion, among other historic homes, monuments, and other sites related to the Civil War and African-American history.
Potential Newport News residents will be delighted to learn that its educational opportunities are also top-notch. Its public schools frequently win national awards, and it also has many well-regarded private schools and alternative schools. Public universities in the area include Christopher Newport University, Old Dominion University, and Norfolk State University.
Similar to other nearby large cities, Newport News is a hub for shopping and dining. The historic downtown area has many smaller shops, and City Center at Oyster Point is another major shopping and dining area.
Any visitors looking to check out everything Newport News has to offer may want to consider purchasing a One City Pass. This pass gives admission to many of the area’s top attractions, including the Virginia Living Museum and The Mariners’ Museum and Park.
Similar to Arlington, Alexandria is a Northern Virginian (NoVa) city with easy access to Washington, D.C. In 2020 Alexandria recorded 159,097 residents. Tourists and locals both often use Alexandria as a home base for exploring throughout NoVa.
It’s easily accessible to the nation’s capital through public transportation, making it simple to commute to the city for a day of work or sightseeing alike. Alexandria can be used as a calmer place to stay when visiting or working in the D.C. area, or, it can also be its own major attraction.
Old Town Alexandria is one of Alexandria’s most popular areas. This neighborhood has a charming, historic feel, as well as many unique local shops and cafes. Other major attractions in Alexandria include historic sites such as the Freedom House Museum, the African American History Trail, and Jones Point Park.
Many people also find Alexandria to be an ideal place to call home. It’s known for having stellar schools, as well as a calmer and less urban lifestyle than many of the D.C. neighborhoods and suburbs. Whether it’s your gateway to the nation’s capital or its own getaway, Alexandria might just be the perfect Virginia city for you.
Hampton is in the middle of the Hampton Roads region of Southeast Virginia. It’s both a popular vacation destination and a fabulous place to live. Its 137,131 residents, as of the 2020 census, benefit from Hampton’s location near other major cities, as well as the city’s own attractions.
Because it is just a quick drive away from cities such as Newport News, Norfolk, and even Virginia Beach, Hampton is conveniently located to countless large employers and tourist attractions. It’s an awesome home base, whether you’re just visiting or planning to live in the area long-term. Hampton is also just two hours away from Richmond and four hours from Washington, D.C.
It’s often recognized as a convention city, with its flagship gathering site being the Hampton Roads Convention Center. Visitors also come to Hampton for general sightseeing and tourism. This city has many museums, entertainment opportunities, and unique historic sites.
Its location, with the Chesapeake Bay on its north and east and the Hampton Roads Harbor on its south, also makes Hampton a great place for outdoor recreation. Relax on one of its many beaches or participate in some fun water activities such as boating and jet skiing.
Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains in Southwest Virginia, Roanoke is one of the largest cities in its area, with a population of just under 100,000 in 2020. This city is a hub for outdoor recreation opportunities thanks to its location, and it’s home to many different, trendy neighborhoods with a variety of shopping and dining experiences.
Whether you’re a thrill seeker or someone who enjoys the calmness of nature, Roanoke’s outdoor opportunities are sure to interest you. Enjoy the scenery as you drive through the mountains, or spend some time hiking and camping instead. When it comes to fun, people love Roanoke County’s Explore Park, which offers tubing, mountain biking, camping, hiking, and an aerial adventure course.
Roanoke and neighbor Salem both have charming, traditional downtown areas that consist of boutiques, restaurants, and occasional markets. Other notable historic neighborhoods in Roanoke include Wasena and Grandin, which each have entertainment opportunities, including the chance to try locally crafted beers and wines.
When in Roanoke, don’t miss checking out its iconic neon signs. Most notable is the Roanoke Star, which can be found on top of Mill Mountain and has become a major symbol for the “Star City”.
Just a bit smaller than Roanoke, with a population of 98,015 in 2020, Portsmouth is Virginia’s tenth-largest city. It’s another spot located in coastal Southeast Virginia, and in particular, it’s across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk.
Olde Towne Portsmouth is one of the city’s top tourist attractions, as it is both a historic site and a place for shopping, dining, and sightseeing. Wander down the boardwalk, take a walking tour of period homes, and even attend a concert or other event at the Atlantic Union Bank Pavilion. Stop by the business district for great shops and restaurants.
Outside of this bustling main city area, much of Portsmouth is more suburban and calm. It showcases a lot of parks and natural resources that residents and visitors both enjoy. The 93-acre Portsmouth City Park includes a large golf course, as well as picnic shelters, tennis courts, and retrieval piers for boats and jet skis.
At Paradise Creek Nature Park, you can explore the restored wetlands through a stroll on the walking trails. Or, check out Hoffler Creek Nature Preserve, the perfect place to kayak past some beautiful views.
There is truly something for everyone in the state of Virginia. Most of the state’s largest cities are concentrated in the southeast, around Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach, but there are plenty of other bustling centers of business, culture, and tourism throughout the rest of the state as well.
In particular, nature lovers are sure to enjoy Virginia’s mountains, beaches, and abundant natural beauty. Even when living in or visiting a big city, you’re never far away from gorgeous landscapes and opportunities for adventure. “Virginia is for lovers.”