Part of both the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern regions of the United States, Virginia is best known for the Colony of Virginia, the first permanent English colony in the Americas. Today, most tourists are interested in seeing the state’s famous historic sites, coastal areas, and national parks.
Full of history, VA has roots dating back to the discovery of the New World. Throughout the centuries, Virginia would also become the state with the most Civil War battlefields and the place where both the American Revolutionary and Civil War ended. While history is an important part of tourism, many people travel to Virginia to explore the great outdoors.
Full of wondrous landscapes, the local geography shifts from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the low coastal barrier islands of the Outer Banks. Shenandoah National Park is the most famous natural attraction in Virginia, but others that have become tourist destinations are Assateague, Chincoteague, Luray Caverns, and the Natural Bridge.
Whether you’re heading on a family vacation or heading solely for the historic tours, there are hundreds of destinations, activities, and attractions for travelers to explore as they make their way through The Old Dominion.
Livin’ La Vida Virginia
Visit Virginia’s Top Towns and Cities
History of “Old Dominion”
The first written documentation of Virginia began in the 1500s when Spanish explorers reached the coast and were met by Algonquian, Iroguoian, and Siouan tribes. English colonization of the land would not begin until 1607, when the first permanent English settlement, Jamestown, was built in North America.
Struggling with food in the beginning, the Virginia Colony would become the wealthiest and largest of the Thirteen Colonies. Relying heavily on tobacco, many local plantations used slaves from West Africa to work the fields. By 1776, Virginia had joined the 12 other colonies to declare independence from Great Britain.
Less than 100 years later, it would become the largest state to join the Confederacy in 1861. It was during the Civil War that Virginia was broken into two states by the Unionists with West Virginia being created in 1863.
Similar to many states, Virginia’s economy was devastated by the war and it was slow to recover during the Reconstruction era. Tobacco would again be an important product in helping Virginia stabilize their economy. Even with the end of the Civil War, race issues would be prevalent throughout the state until the mid-1960s.
Jim Crow Laws that segregated whites from blacks were passed in Virginia. Major supreme court cases that deal with race in the state include Morgan v. Virginia and Loving v. Virginia. Since the days of segregation, Virginia has moved on to become a diverse state.
More famously, the state is famous for its work with space exploration and the US government. With advancements in space travel, Space Adventures in Northern Virginia is the world’s only company that caters to space tourism. Additionally, the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defense, is located in Virginia’s Arlington County.
Capital City of Richmond
Founded in 1737 by Colonel William Byrd, Richmond is the capital of Virginia. Home to 204,214 as of 2020, it’s the fourth most populous city in the state. Going by the nickname, “RVA”, the city landscape consists of low-lying hills, flat Tidewater, and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.
Some people also called Richmond the “River City” because of the James River that runs through both the capital and the state. For anyone traveling along the East Coast, Richmond is a “must-see” destination. A diverse range of historic sites dates back to pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial times.
Specifically, there are many historic attractions related to the Civil War. Although most of the antebellum architecture was burned by the Confederates after their defeat, there are a few buildings that remain standing.
For additional educational activities, travelers should check out the Virginia State Capitol, Church Hill Historic District, Tredegar Iron Works, Richmond National Battlefield Park, and John Marshall House.
Popular museums include the Virginia Museums of Fine Arts, the Maymont Estate, the White House of the Confederacy, and the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.
To take a break from the indoors, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is the perfect place to go to take a leisurely stroll. The James River-Kanawha Canal is also a popular area for sightseeing, shopping, and dining. Visitors can tour the canal on their own or book a private 40-minute historical tour instead.
Virginia Beach, The Largest City in Virginia
On the southeastern coast and home to 459,470 as of 2020, Virginia Beach is the state’s largest city. Often described as “suburban”, the city has become a major resort destination because of its miles-long stretches of beach. Along the oceanfront, there are hundreds of hotels, restaurants, and shops.
However, Virginia Beach’s activities don’t end with dining and shopping. There are hundreds of things to do while visiting this city. No matter the age, all travelers will love spending time in this coastal city. Major attractions in Virginia Beach include the First Landing State Park, Boardwalk, Sandbridge Beach, Cape Henry Lighthouse, and False Cape State Park.
To see award-winning exhibitions, the best places to go are the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Virginia Beach Surf & Rescue Museum, and the Military Aviation Museum. For summertime thrills, the Ocean Breeze Waterpark and Atlantic Fun Park are the top family-friendly attractions in the city.
Chesapeake, The Second Largest City in Virginia
A mix of rural and urban, the second largest city in Virginia is Chesapeake. As of 2020, 249,422 people lived in Chesapeake. Despite its larger size, the city isn’t as popular as a tourist destination when compared to Richmond and Virginia Beach. Still, a fair share of people visits the city to see attractions like the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge or the harbor area.
Other attractions in the city include the Chesapeake Arboretum and the Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal. Adding to this coastal region are the local shops and restaurants. Visitors can visit the Greenbrier Mall for some retail therapy or dine out at the Cutlass Grille, which serves an infusion of American and Jamaican cuisine.
Williamsburg, A Restored Historic City
One of the state’s best small towns and most unique places to visit in Virginia is Williamsburg. Supporting a population of 15,425 people as of 2020, the city is famous for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Rebuilt and restored, Colonial Williamsburg is a living-history museum that covers 173 acres.
Preserving some of the oldest parts of the city that date back to the late 1600s, the city now acts as an open-air museum with historical reenactors. Unlike other living history museums in the world, Williamsburg had been a living town prior to it being turned into a museum. The old post-Colonial-era buildings were removed to ensure a uniform, historic appearance.
Visitors who wish to walk around Colonial Williamsburg may do so free of charge. Admission is only required if you enter the buildings and view demonstrations. Moreover, Colonial Williamsburg hosts re-enactments of major historical events. All actors are in period costumes and speak using Old English.
Arlington, Home of the Pentagon
On the Potomac River, Arlington is home to 238,643 people as of 2020. Situated right across the river from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, the city hosts many governmental branches. The largest is the Pentagon, which is the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Defense. Arlington National Cemetery is also located within the city.
These two destinations are major landmarks and tourist attractions. Visitors are permitted inside the Pentagon with a tour. However, tours must be booked a minimum of 14 days prior to your planned arrival and they are only open to U.S. citizens.
Arlington National Cemetery is another popular destination, whether visitors have a family member buried on the grounds or not. By far, the most famous attraction in the cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Shenandoah National Park
The top attraction in Virginia is Shenandoah National Park. With more than 500 miles of trails, including a 101-mile-long section of the Appalachian Trail, millions of visitors head to the park each year. The most famous hiking spot in Shenandoah is the Dark Hollow Falls Trail, which leads to the 70-foot-tall Dark Hollow Falls.
Visitors who want to see the falls will have to walk less than 1 mile and for those that want to continue, the path goes on to connect to the Rose River fire road. Aside from the hiking trails, the national park has many waterfalls, biodiverse wildernesses, and panoramic views.
Skyline Drive is the main road that winds throughout the park and it meanders through valleys and along the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Popular activities in the park include backcountry camping, horseback riding, biking, fishing, and rafting. Additionally, Shenandoah is one of the most dog-friendly national parks in the US.
Shenandoah National Park is just one of 22 national parks in Virginia. With a wealth of destinations for outdoor lovers, visitors can explore all the nooks and crannies of this diverse state. Great Falls National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Colonial National Historic Park, and the Appalachian Trail are just a few more natural wonders worth visiting in Virginia.
Places like Great Falls and the Appalachian Trail are perfect for escaping from the crowds and heading into the thick forests. Meanwhile, areas like the Colonial National Historic Park tend to be more crowded because it includes sites like Jamestown and the Yorktown Battlefield.
Spanning more 112 miles (or 3,315 miles using NOAA method), Virginia’s coastline includes beaches (and top beach towns), tidal rivers, barrier islands, and tributaries. There are dozens of places to stop along the Chesapeake Bay but one of the most unique is Assateague Island.
Managed by the National Park Service, Assateague is a barrier island shared between Virginia and Maryland. Most of the island is located in Maryland, but Virginia does have just over 12 miles of the island within its borders. Altogether, the island is 37 miles long.
In Virginia’s portion of the island, the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is famous for its herd of wild horses, picturesque beaches, and the Assateague Lighthouse. Activities permitted in the park include hiking and car camping. The two most popular areas to visit in Assateague are the State Park and National Seashore.
Uniquely, Virginia is the state that gets to claim the distinction of having the most, eight in total, presidents born on its soil. Some of these presidential homes have become tourist attractions. The most famous of them are Mount Vernon, Monticello, Highland, and Montpelier.
Sitting in the northern region of the state on the Potomac River, Mount Vernon was the home of George Washington. Atop a mountain overlooking the city, Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is just outside of Charlottesville. Visitors to Monticello will love seeing the main house and expansive gardens.
Also outside of Charlottesville, and just 2.5 miles from Monticello, is Highland, the home of James Monroe. Covering 550 acres, visitors can book a tour to view the property’s main farmhouse and manicured gardens.
Similarly located to the two aforementioned estates, Montpelier is the home of James Madison. Offering unique access to tourists, there are a number of trails that wind through the property to visit historic Civil War sites and grounds.
“Virginia is for Lovers”
With a treasure trove of attractions, Virginia is one of the best states to head to if you want to relive history and learn about the past. From colonial historic sites to presidential homes, visitors can walk in the footsteps of some of America’s founders.
When you want to take a break from exploring the past as well as the crowds, all you have to do is head to the coast or mountains to escape into unforgettable natural wonders. Perfect for travelers of all ages, your trip to Virginia will be extraordinary.
While exploring the “Mother of States”, be sure to unwind at one of Virginia’s hot springs.
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