9 Fun Things to Do in Richmond, Virginia
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, Richmond has you covered with neighborhoods like The Fan and Shockoe Bottom and its location on the scenic James River. If you’re looking for a jumping off point for other cities on the East Coast like D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, Richmond’s situated perfectly.
While the city does have a rough history of being the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, as well as being the literal murder capital of the US in the ’90s, RVA has come a very long way. Crime rates are way down across the board, and people and businesses are moving back into the city. Even Monument Avenue, infamous for its statues glorifying Confederate leaders, has shed nearly all of them.
Today, Richmond is a vibrant, history city with excellent walkability and a growing food scene. Anchored by Virginia Commonwealth University and a wide variety of attractions and companies, there is something to attract and keep people of all types.
Read on for 9 Fun & Interesting Things to Do in Richmond, Virginia!
1. The Fan
If you’re coming to Richmond for the first time, you really haven’t seen the best side of the city until you’ve seen The Fan.
Named for the way in the streets “fan” out in this historic West End neighborhood, The Fan is Richmond at its most grandiose. Beautifully preserved rowhouses from the early 19th century line narrow, walkable streets, with gorgeous churches, synagogues, and museums spread throughout. I have traveled extensively around the US, and I can honestly say that The Fan is one of the most visually pleasing (I would even say underrated) urban neighborhoods in the US. While it may be on the smaller side, it can still alongside anything in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, or Washington Square in Baltimore. It is a walker’s and photographer’s paradise.
While You're There: The Food
There are myriad places to stop and grab a bite to eat. I can personally recommend Garnett’s Cafe, Beauvine Burger Concept, and Joe’s Inn as wonderful diners that serve amazing food at very reasonable prices.
But those are just a few options; there are restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world.
While You're There: Marcus-David Peters Circle (Formerly Lee Circle)
One of the highlights of The Fan is (or, depending on how you look at it, was) Monument Avenue. Monument Avenue is a long, tree-lined boulevard in The Fan that featured 12 monumental statues to Confederate leaders and generals. They stood for about 130 years until the summer of 2020, when the governor and mayor announced plans to take them down.
Richmond was the capital of the Confederate States of America, but keep in mind that these were statues glorifying generals who not only fought in defense of slavery, but also against what was at that time the United States of America. Why they were allowed to stand for so long is a concept that escapes me.
Luckily, 11 of the 12 statues along Monument Avenue have been successfully taken down. The only one remaining is the General Robert E. Lee statue at the former Lee Circle Roundabout. As of December 2020 it is heavily tagged with graffiti, and protesters (read: rational people) have unofficially renamed the grassy roundabout Marcus-David Peters Circle, in honor of a Richmond man who was killed by police.
If you want to see history in the making while also getting a look at the past, stop by Marcus-David Peters Circle.
2. The Canal Walk
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.
3. 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 3,000 years to Ancient Egypt, as well as more modern exhibits on art deco and contemporary musicians. It’s the crown jewel of Richmond’s cultural offerings.
200 N Arthur Ashe Blvd, Richmond, VA 23220
Cost: Free! Although special exhibits like Sunken Cities: Treasures of Ancient Egypt (running until January 18th, 2021) cost $20. Trust me, if you love history and archaeology, it’s absolutely worth it.
Carytown, located along Cary Street in the southwest part of the city, is Richmond’s own little bohemian district. For those of you familiar with South Congress in Austin, Carytown is Richmond’s version of SoCo.
This is where you’ll find most of the city’s antiques shops, consignment stores, and record stores, such as Deep Groove and Plan 9. You’ll also come across a wide variety of restaurants and entertainment options, such as the historic Byrd Theater.
5. Kayak the Rapids of the James River
The James River flows right by Downtown Richmond, out to the Atlantic Ocean. It was a major source of food for the local Native Americans, who fished by its banks for generations, and it was a power source for the industry that would spring up later in the 18th Century.
Today, there are all kinds of ways to enjoy the river, but a particularly unique way is to kayak them. Which might sound odd, considering you can do that in a lot of cities, right? Well, Richmond is the only city in the United States with Class IV white water rapids running through downtown!
Rapids are categorized from Class I to VI, with VI being extremely dangerous and often uncharted. Class VI are turbulent and do present some risk, but are perfectly manageable with the right guide.
While You're There: Potterfield Bridge and Climb RVA Free Climbing Wall
Coming right off the Canal Walk is the Potterfield Pedestrian Bridge, spanning the length of the James River from Downtown to Manchester. It’s the perfect place to catch views of the Downtown Richmond skyline. Walking across the bridge, you can hear the Class IV rapids roaring beneath your feet, lending equal parts excitement and calm.
At the far end of the Potterfield Pedestrian Bridge lies an old stone wall, a remnant of a railroad trestle. This stone wall has permanent climbing hooks set into the top which anyone can use to climb this old school rock wall!
If you don’t feel like going up the vertical way, you can always climb the steep wooden steps on the side up to the top. From here you have a great view of both Downtown Richmond and any of the climbers scaling the wall.
6. Belle Isle
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 city life, the zig-zagging walking trails are shrouded in trees and vines, and make you feel as though you’re miles away.
While You're There: Explore the Ruins of the Belle Isle Hydroelectric Power Plant
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. Many of those trollies were powered by this hydroelectric plant located on Belle Isle. It was in turn powered by the tide of the James River, sending out electric energy for miles around.
Unfortunately, this clean and reliable system of public transportation gave way to automobiles and buses around the 1940s. Today you can walk in and around the ruins of the old power plant on Belle Isle, as well as the steel factory that the plant also powered.
7. Shockoe Slip/Shockoe Bottom
Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom are two trendy, walkable neighborhoods immediately east of Downtown. Both of them are known for good nightlife, historic architecture, and cobblestone streets.
I’m a big fan of just wandering around and exploring, and Shockoe is the perfect area to do just that. There are plenty of shops to browse and architecture to enjoy. These neighborhoods are also well integrated with the Canal Walk.
The Shockoe neighborhoods have a range of eating options, from cheap bites like City Dogs and Tree’s Tacos food truck to popular late night hangouts like Margarita’s Cantina and a whole host of other options.
While COVID-19 has hit the city’s nightlife particularly hard, some popular clubs are Switch, Bello’s, and Kabana’s.
While You're There: The Poe Museum
One popular point of interest is the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, which is housed in the oldest extant structure in Richmond, an old stone house built circa 1740. While the writer himself never lived in the house, he did stand guard outside of it as a young soldier during a dignitary’s visit.
1914 E Main St, Richmond, VA
While You're There: Main Street Station
Consider stopping by the Main Street Station at the western end of Shockoe Slip. The large red brick structure, also known as “The Clock Tower,” was one of Richmond’s two main train stations for decades (the other being the Broad Street Station, which now houses the Science Museum of Virginia). After horrible flooding in the 1970s and a fire in the 1980s, passenger trains were rerouted to the suburban Staples Mill Station. Staples Mill may currently be the “main” train station in Richmond, but it possesses a tiny fraction of Main Street Station’s grandeur.
Luckily, some service has been restored to the old station. There are a few trains, typically one in the morning and one at night, that run to and from Virginia Beach, and to and from the Staples Mill Station, continuing north to D.C. and points beyond. You can take Amtrak if you’re in the mood for a daytrip, or just pop in for a stroll around the interior of the beautiful structure.
1500 E Main St, Richmond, VA 23219
8. Virginia Museum of History and Culture
Situated close to VMFA, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture details Virginia’s unique place in American history, from the time of Native American tribes to Colonization, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Civil Rights, and beyond.
Pro Tip: They also feature a used book sale in the front lobby.
428 N Arthur Ashe Blvd, Richmond, VA 23220
Cost: Technically Free, but they’re sly and encourage you to give a “suggested donation” of $10 at the entrance. I definitely believe it’s worth $10 but don’t feel obligated to donate.
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.
Today, the crown jewels of Maymont are the Italian Garden, featuring a large herb garden, and the Japanese Garden, complete with a tea house.
1700 Hampton St, Richmond, VA 23220
I hope this article has inspired you to pay the city of Richmond a visit! The longer I live here and the more attractions I visit, the more I’ll add to this list.
Please be aware that Virginia does take mask enforcements pretty seriously during Covid-19.
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