Virginia almost makes it too easy to plan itineraries. Beach towns, mountain roads, history at every turn, fluffy biscuits, natural wonders: The challenge is choosing among so many excellent options. Here are some ideas to keep you thinking about this delightfully diverse state.
Cape Henry Lighthouse
In a state brimming with historic sites, Virginia Beach claims some big ones, starting with First Landing State Park, where in April 1607, European settlers made landfall before moving west and establishing Jamestown. Nearby is the Cape Henry Lighthouse, America’s first federally funded public works project (1792). George Washington authorized the project that Alexander Hamilton oversaw. Climb the 90-foot tower to see where the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay merge.
National D-Day Memorial
Bedford, tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a world away from the beaches of Normandy, but the Allies’ June 6, 1944, invasion of Europe touched this quiet town in dramatic fashion. Nineteen “Bedford Boys” died that day, meaning tiny Bedford, population 3,000 in 1944, suffered proportionally the nation’s worst D-Day losses. The 50-acre memorial, dedicated 20 years ago, explains the importance of the invasion and subsequent campaign across Europe to defeat Nazism.
Center on the Square
Roanoke’s Center on the Square is practically a one-stop shop. The seven-story downtown cultural center houses destinations that include the Mill Mountain Theatre, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, the Smith Children’s Museum and the Science Museum of Western Virginia. If you want more stimulation, drop into the Roanoke Pinball Museum and flip the bumpers on 60 playable pinball machines. A new pedestrian bridge is a link back to the quiet world of the famed Hotel Roanoke.
Booker T. Washington National Monument
Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856 on a Virginia tobacco plantation. His thirst for education led to his being founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, now Tuskegee University, and an author, orator and adviser to presidents. Reconstructed 19th-century farm buildings and the “Born Here, Freed Here” exhibit help tell the story of his roots. The Booker T. Washington National Monument is about 20 miles southeast of Roanoke.
Up and Coming
National Museum of the U.S. Army
Before there was a United States, there was an army that helped the nation get born, and the National Museum of the U.S. Army tells the whole story of that fighting force, now approaching 250 years old. It’s big — 1,390 artifacts in 11 galleries in a 185,000-square-foot building — in an easy-to-reach section of Fort Belvoir, just 20 miles south of the Capitol. It opened Memorial Day 2020.
Great Bridge Battlefield
A museum that opened in Chesapeake in 2020 explains “one of the earliest, smallest, shortest, least known [and] yet most important actions of the Revolutionary War.” Seven months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Great Bridge effectively prevented British control of Norfolk, the finest seaport between New York and Charleston, South Carolina. Be among the first groups to visit the Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways Park.
Turning Point Suffragist Memorial
Two destinations that now are permanent reminders of the quest for women’s suffrage are barely 10 minutes apart in southern Fairfax County in Lorton. They are about 20 miles from the White House, where many suffragists were arrested for their advocacy. The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial and the Lucy Burns Museum tell key parts of the struggle to secure the 19th Amendment. The museum is at the former prison, infamous for abuse of suffragists, that is now the Workhouse Arts Center.
Country music pioneers the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers saw the Sessions Hotel in Bristol when they participated in “the Big Bang of Country Music.” That’s the nickname of the 1927 Bristol Sessions that marked the start of commercial country music. The Carters and the Rodgers saw the Sessions Hotel buildings, which were then a grocery warehouse, a candy factory and a mill; today they are a lodging, dining and entertainment destination. The front door is on the Virginia side of State Street. Tennessee is across the street, and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is nearby.
Natural Bridge Hotel
It’s pretty cool when your hotel’s namesake was once owned by Thomas Jefferson. The Natural Bridge Hotel, now a Wyndham Trademark property and beneficiary of a recent renovation, is within walking distance of Natural Bridge, a beautiful 215-foot-tall Shenandoah Valley geologic formation that Jefferson owned. Jefferson had a rural retreat here that was quite rustic compared to Monticello in Charlottesville, about 80 miles away, and today’s Natural Bridge Hotel. A nearby recreation bonus is tubing on the James River.
The Blackburn Inn in Staunton — say Stanton to sound knowledgeable — is small, 49 rooms, but its history, notable architecture and strategic Shenandoah Valley location give guests plenty to remember. It was once a state mental hospital and a prison, which seems almost impossible considering its photogenic white columns and redbrick construction. It opened for willing guests in 2018. Check out the spiral staircase to a cupola that delivers a great view of Staunton and the countryside. Summer Fridays feature concerts under the stars.
New at Colonial Williamsburg
Just because history is Colonial Williamsburg’s stock in trade, don’t think there can’t be anything new. Consider the King’s Arms Tavern, one of America’s oldest restaurants, which served its first meal in 1772. A total overhaul of its interior design provides revised surroundings to enjoy heirloom carrot puffs, hunters game pye and chop of shoat. The carefully researched menu offerings would be familiar to George Washington, although prepared with today’s tastes and cooking methods in mind.
Want to make sure no one is hungry for a while? Then roll into the Roanoker Restaurant, which has been serving fill-you-up American cuisine since 1941. Fresh vegetables, meatloaf, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, corn sticks, pies and more are all homemade. Sandwiches, salads and omelets are offered, too. The Roanoker’s fluffy biscuits have received national acclaim, once even featured on NBC’s “Today.”