City Guide: Richmond, Virginia
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Richmond, Virginia is a small city that punches well above its weight in terms of history, culture, nightlife, and nature. Whether you like urban or outdoors activities, RVA has you covered with neighborhoods like The Fan and its location on the scenic James River.
You can get a quick at-a-glance look at what Richmond’s about in my other post 9 Fun Things to Do in Richmond, Virginia. However, being that Richmond’s my new home and a very underrated destination, I wanted to expand on that. This City Guide will give you all you need to plan your visit to Richmond!
A Little Bit of History
Founded in 1737, Richmond is one of the oldest US cities. It also has a unique location in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US: it is alternately called either the “northernmost Southern city,” or the “southernmost Northern city.” Having said that, the city of 230,000 is undeniably Southern, having the dubious distinction of serving as the Capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. This dark legacy, living on in the statues glorifying Confederate leaders that were standing until very recently, is augmented by the fact that it was one of the most violent cities in the country in the 1990s.
Today, however, Richmond is a very different place. Almost all of the Confederate statues have come down, and violence is at a low that hasn’t been seen in decades. The population is growing, and more companies are moving to the city.
If you’re looking for a jumping off point for other cities on the East Coast like D.C., Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, Richmond’s situated perfectly! It’s both a prime destination in and of itself, as well as a good home base for exploring the rest of the Mid-Atlantic.
You can get a taste of what Richmond’s about by viewing my drone video below:
Best Time to Visit
Spring and Fall are the best times to visit Richmond. You’ll find reasonable temperatures and plenty of sunshine. The Fall months can be chilly, but the vibrant foliage more than makes up for it.
Summer is sunny and warm, but can be extremely humid, which may put off some visitors.
Winter is not as bad as places farther north, and snow is rare. But between the cold and wind and the lack of foliage, it is the least pleasant season to go.
Richmond is commonly divided into 5 parts: Downtown, West End, East End, Northside, and Southside. Each of those has a number of distinct neighborhoods. A lot of people call Richmond a “city of neighborhoods” and I can tell you from walking around that this is very true. I’ve broken some of the most interesting neighborhoods down below:
- The two major downtown neighborhoods are Monroe Ward and Jackson Ward.
- Shockoe Slip & Shockoe Bottom are two dense, urban neighborhoods clustered on the eastern side of Downtown.
- This is where, in many peoples’ opinion, Richmond really comes alive.
- The Fan, Richmond’s most famous neighborhood. So named for the way its streets fan out, covers 228 acres and features incredible architecture. Home to Monument Avenue (sans most monuments at the moment) and the Richmond Center for Architecture.
- The Museum District, immediately to the west of the The Fan, home to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Virginia History Museum, and the Science Museum of Virginia.
- Carytown, Richmond’s “Mile of Style,” replete with independent record stores, boutique clothing shops, and bars. Located south of the Museum District.
- Other cool neighborhoods include the Byrd Historic District, Oregon Hill, and Maymont.
- Church Hill is a rapidly gentrifying part of the east side of the city.
- A mixed bag of sorts, with some very nice areas, and some very run-down areas. As with the rest of Richmond, however, the bad areas are being revitalized.
- Scott’s Addition was once a large swath of industrial warehouses, but today has been massively revamped into a shining sea of breweries, cideries, and arcade bars. Scott’s Addition is rapidly becoming one of the more popular nightlife hangouts in the city.
- Can also include parts of Henrico County (pronounced hen-RYE-co)
- Much of Southside Richmond is heavily industrial, and certain pockets still have high crime.
- Manchester, across the James River from Downtown, is a former industrial hot spot that is increasingly becoming a community of cleaned up houses, murals, and coffee shops.
- Can also include parts of Chesterfield County
Richmond City is pretty compact, barely taking up 60 square miles of land. It’s not hard to get around the city proper (at least not by American standards), although the counties, particularly Chesterfield, are very different.
Richmond is served by Richmond International Airport (RIC), located about 20 minutes to the east in Sandston, Virginia. It’s not a huge airport so you will most likely need to connect. You may also find that it’s cheaper to fly into a nearby airport like Reagan National (DCA) or Dulles International (IAD) in D.C. or BWI in Baltimore. Luckily, Richmond is only 2 hours and change south of D.C., whether driving or taking Amtrak or Greyhound.
Richmond is served by two Amtrak train stations, but their situation is a bit unique.
The big downtown station is Main Street Station (RVM), aka The Clock Tower. There is also a much smaller station out in suburban Henrico County called Staples Mill Station (RVR).
Counter-intuitively, the Staples Mill Station actually handles the bulk of passenger rail service in Richmond.
This is because Main Street Station was severely damaged by flooding during Hurricane Agnes back in 1972, and then by fires in 1976 and 1983. It has since been repaired and made operational again, but it can only handle a fraction of the train traffic it was designed to. Having said that, it’s been adapted to serve as the departure point for a number of bus companies, and the city is making plans to bring it back to its former train travel glory in the future.
While Main Street Station is undoubtedly the cooler and more historic train station, you will probably find more flexibility in routes arriving at and departing from Staples Mill Station.
Fun Fact: Staples Mill is, by a good margin, the busiest train station in Virginia.
Main Street Station: 1500 E Main St, Richmond, VA 23219
Staples Mill Station: 7519 Staples Mill Rd, Henrico, VA 23228
Greyhound buses arrive and depart from the station by the Diamond on the Northside.
2910 N Arthur Ashe Blvd, Richmond, VA 23230
Megabus arrives and departs from the parking lot of Main Street Station.
Two major interstates run through Richmond: I-95 going north to south, and I-64 going east to west.
Navigating the City
Richmond is served by the Greater Richmond Transportation Company, or GRTC. They have a pretty good system of bus routes within the City of Richmond and some of the more developed parts of Henrico County. Only one bus route goes south into Chesterfield County.
GRTC also operates the Pulse, which is a premium bus rapid transit service running east to west along Broad Street.
As of January 2021, until further notice, all GRTC buses are completely free due to COVID.
A huge swath of the city running east to west from Shockoe Bottom to the Museum District, is one big long walkable urban environment.
The Canal Walk provides an excellent backbone to the city, and the James River Park System provides an extensive system of hiking trails to explore the city.
Richmond has very light traffic compared to a lot of similarly sized cities. Getting around in a car is not terribly difficult, although parking downtown and in the denser urban districts can be a challenge.
Broad Street is the main east-west thoroughfare in central Richmond. Other major streets include Main Street, Monument Avenue, and Arthur Ashe Boulevard. Numbered streets run north to south.
Be aware that there are a number of toll roads operating around the city, such as the Midlothian Turnpike, the Petersburg Turnpike, and the Mechanicsville Turnpike.
Richmond has been called a “foodie city” by various publications over the past several years, and I’ve found this to be accurate. Some of the most popular restaurants are as follows:
Wonderful diner with good food at good prices.
205 N Shields Ave, Richmond, VA 23220
Trendy burger joint with great milkshakes.
1501 W Main St, Richmond, VA 23220
One of Richmond’s premier Southern soul food restaurant, housed in a cool historic building. You get a good amount of food for your money.
415 N 1st St, Richmond, VA 23219
Another of Richmond’s best places to get authentic southern fare.
623 N 25th St, Richmond, VA 23223
Edgar Allan Poe-themed dive bar. The Commonwealth burger is one of the best I’ve had in my entire life.
2706 E Main St, Richmond, VA 23223
One of the best Mexican restaurants I’ve eaten at outside of Mexico or Texas. Be sure to order their house special quesabirrias.
6400 Midlothian Turnpike
For two people, order the Liquid Luau. You won’t be disappointed.
1200 N Arthur Ashe Blvd, Richmond, VA 23230
A popular Asian fusion restaurant with cool chairs.
11674 W Broad St, Henrico, VA 23233
A cool destination with good Thai food and excellent people watching.
2811 W Cary St, Richmond, VA 23221
For the money, some of the best Asian fast food you’re likely to have this side of the Pacific.
1201 W Main St, Richmond, VA 23220
A more understated Asian diner with good boba tee and a mix of foods.
11676 W Broad St, Henrico, VA 23233
Nile Ethiopian (currently only doing takeout)
Delicious East African fare, these guys can also go easy on the spice if you don’t want it authentically hot. Their Yirgacheffe coffee is aromatic and delicious.
306 N 29th St, Richmond, Virginia 23223
Part West African food, part soul food, Africanne on Main is a buffet that charges by the pound and sells homemade ginger drinks.
200 E Main St, Richmond, VA 23219
Candy Shops/Ice Cream Parlors
Things to Do
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is a truly world-class institution, one you could literally spend an entire day in. They have artifacts going back over 4,500 years to Ancient Egypt, as well as more modern art pieces. They have African masks and costumes dating from the 5th century through to the 20th, Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine artifacts, tapestries from the Renaissance, Medieval Asian Buddhist statues, and a whole room full of Faberge eggs.
VMFA is the crown jewel of Richmond’s cultural offerings. It serves as the anchor of Richmond’s Museum District.
200 N Arthur Ashe Blvd, Richmond, VA 23220
Cost: Free! Although special exhibits like Sunken Cities: Treasures of Ancient Egypt cost $20.
Virginia Museum of History and Culture
Situated right down the street from VMFA, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture details Virginia’s unique place in American history, from the time of Native American tribes and federations to Colonization, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, and beyond.
They also have a used book sale in the lobby.
428 N Arthur Ashe Blvd, Richmond, VA 23220
Cost: Free! Although they do ask you up front if you want to give the “suggested donation” of $10.
Science Museum of Virginia
The Science Museum of Virginia is housed in the former Broad Street Station, which used to be one of two major train station in Richmond. Out front is the Grand Kugel, the largest floating ball of rock in the world.
The exterior of the building is incredible, no question. It’s the interior where opinions diverge. The determining factor in how much you enjoy this museum seems to come down to one thing: whether or not you have kids.
The general consensus is that the Science Museum of Virginia is not necessarily bad, but not currently up to its full potential. It seems like a giant children’s museum, which is odd considering there is a Children’s Museum right next door.
Personally, I feel that if they went in a different direction with the Science Museum and made it more of an “adult” museum, like a mini Smithsonian, it would pack more of a punch.
2500 W Broadd St, Richmond, VA 23220
Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia
Richmond’s Black History Museum is housed in the former Leigh Street Armory, a veritable castle whose red bricks were placed by the hands of Black Union soldiers. The building also stands in the Jackson Ward neighborhood, an historically African-American cultural center.
The museum is, quite frankly, a little small. However, they pack a lot of information and a lot of interesting exhibits into that space.
122 W Leigh St, Richmond, VA 23220
The American Civil War Museum/White House of the Confederacy
The elephant in the room of Richmond’s history is its status as Capital of the Confederacy. The American Civil War Museum shines light on some of the darkest years of American history. Only a few blocks away is also the White House of the Confederacy, nerve center of the Confederate side of the Civil War.
Jackson Ward & Gambles Hill (Downtown)
1201 E Clay St, Richmond, VA 23219
Edgar Allen Poe Museum
The Poe Museum is a small museum housed in the stone house that Edgar Allan Pie himself lived in as a boy. That house, called “The Old Stone House,” is widely considered the oldest home in Richmond, having been built in 1740.
1914 E Main St, Richmond, VA 23223
Virginia Holocaust Museum
The Virginia Holocaust Museum is located along Cary St in the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood, directly across from a stretch of Canal Walk. It is sobering–in fact, their website advises against bringing kids under 6th grade–but very informative.
Out front is a replica of a railcar used to transport victims to the concentration camps, and the main entrance is lined on either side with bricks from the Warsaw Ghetto.
2000 E Cary St, Richmond, VA 23223
Parks & Rec
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Richmond was an important industrial center, conducting trade through a series of canals. While maritime trade has shifted to the Port of Richmond farther south along the James River, the old canal infrastructure remains. The Canal Walk pays homage to this industrial past while providing a great way to get to know the city on foot.
The Canal Walk snakes all along the Richmond riverfront and actually connects a lot of the areas on this list. It connects to the Capital Trail to the east, winds through Great Ship Lock Park and Chapel Island on the eastern edge of Downtown, goes through Brown’s Island, all the way out to the West Side. You can walk, run, or bike along its length and see a lot of the city.
One of the awesome things about Richmond is that it is very compact and walkable, and the Canal Walk is the perfect vehicle to show yourself around.
As you’re walking along, keep an eye out for the manhole covers along the route. These metal lids are inscribed with interesting facts about different parts of the Canal Walk. For example, you’ll learn about the “Triple Crossing,” the only known railroad intersection in the world in where three Class I railroads cross over each other.
Belle Isle is an island in the James River located just southwest of the city center. It can easily be reached by a number of bridges and trails from either side of the James and is vaguely connected to the south shore by a series of cascading boulder formations.
If you just want to go for a relaxing walk, there are few better areas in all of Metro Richmond. Even thought you’re very close to the hustle and bustle of the city, the zig-zagging walking trails are shrouded in trees and vines, and make you feel as though you’re miles away.
Belle Isle Hydroelectric Power Plant Ruins
On Belle Isle, you may come across the graffiti-covered ruins of a series of large industrial buildings. You’ve found the remains of the Belle Isle Hydroelectric Plant, which for decades converted the flow of the James Rive into electricity to power Richmond’s streetcar system.
Little Known Fact: Richmond, Virginia was the very first city in the world to have an extensive network of electric trolley cars. As far back as the 1880s, several lines criss-crossed the urban core.
Unfortunately, this clean and reliable system of public transportation gave way to automobiles and buses around the 1940s.
James River Park System
Because of Richmond’s compact layout, it does not have what you would consider a large central park. Instead, it has a series of smaller parks, lining the James River, all linked to each other by a series of walkways and urban hiking trails:
Pony Pasture Rapids
7310 Riverside Dr, Richmond, VA 23225 (parking lot)
3395 Landria Dr, Richmond, VA 23235
8600 Southampton Rd, Richmond, VA 23235
Maymont is a 100-acre park featuring arboretums, nature centers, and historic houses. Constructed per the wishes of a local philanthropist and his wife in 1893, they also decreed that the grounds be left to the people of Richmond upon their deaths.
There are two major sections of Maymont: the Italian Garden, and the Japanese Garden. The Italian Garden is at the top of the hill and features a large herb garden and stone steps winding d, and the Japanese Garden, complete with a tea house.
1700 Hampton St, Richmond, VA 23220
Pocahontas State Park
Over 12 square miles of heavily wooded glory! If you want a daytrip that gets you out into the middle of nowhere within a short drive, this is the park for you.
10301 State Park Rd, Chesterfield, VA 23832
Cost: $7 per vehicle parking pass; $10 on weekends from April to October
Short Pump Town Center
Stony Point Fashion Center
Unfortunately, this is one aspect of Richmond that was hit pretty hard. Virginia has enacted some pretty strict anti-COVID measures over the past year; for example, as of January 2021, there is NO alcohol consumption past 10 pm. Some places stop even earlier.
Having said that, there’s still plenty to do!
Circuit Arcade Bar
3121 W Leigh St, Richmond, VA 23230
Slingshot Social Game Club
3301 W Clay St, Richmond, VA 23230
Switch Pop-Up Bar
13 W Broad St, Richmond, VA 23220
1712 E Franklin St, Richmond, VA 23223
Sine Irish Pub
1327 E Cary St, Richmond, VA 23219
I hope you’re able to enjoy all that Richmond has to offer, even with the closures. Have you been to Richmond? Was there anything I missed? Let us know in the comments below!
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