Norfolk is a city defined by water. With the Atlantic Ocean on one side, the Chesapeake Bay on another and the Elizabeth River on a third, “I feel like water is our strength here,” said Erin Goldmeier, media relations manager for Visit Norfolk.
Norfolk’s Downtown Waterfront on the banks of the Elizabeth is enjoying a renaissance. The Main by Hilton opened in spring 2017 with 300 guest rooms and three on-site restaurants, including a rooftop garden and lounge. The Norfolk Waterside Marriott and the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel, which sits directly on the river’s edge, were both recently renovated.
The Waterside District reopened in summer 2017. The eatery and entertainment complex fronts the river and features nearly 20 dining options, including Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse, Blue Moon Taphouse and Rappahannock Oyster Company.
In downtown, Nauticus is a waterfront museum that includes Battleship Wisconsin, one of the largest and last battleships the U.S. Navy ever built. Nauticus admission includes access to the Wisconsin, where visitors can take guided or self-guided tours.
Norfolk Harborfest is an annual three-day maritime festival that takes place at Town Point Park, next to Nauticus. The festival features live music, food, fireworks, a tug muster and a boat parade. Groups that can’t make it to Harborfest can arrange a harbor tour or a sunset cruise aboard the American Rover, a three-masted, top-sail schooner like those that sailed the waters in the 1800s.
Norfolk is also home to Naval Station Norfolk, which groups can tour year-round during 45-minute tours led by U.S. Navy personnel. A picture ID is required for all visitors over 18. Groups can also see the Naval Station from the water during a cruise on the Victory Rover.
Back on land, a few blocks north of downtown, the Neon District is Norfolk’s small but growing arts district. There, visitors will find galleries and studios, as well as the Chrysler Museum of Art, home to one of the largest collections of Tiffany glass. Next door, the museum’s Glass Studio does daily glassblowing demonstrations, and groups can arrange to take glassblowing classes and other workshops.
Burgeoning Virginia Beach
Virginia Beach is known as a beach town, but the city has more to offer than its boardwalk and resorts, including a booming culinary scene, up-and-coming cultural offerings and “a lot of early American history right in our backyard,” said Jim Coggin, Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau’s tourism sales manager.
Among the city’s most exciting news is the reopening of the Cavalier Hotel, which is “sort of the Grand Dame of Virginia Beach,” he said. The elegant seven-story, red-brick hotel was built in 1927 in a Y-shaped floor plan. Though it sits on the land side of Pacific Avenue, its hilltop location delivers views of the resort strip and the Atlantic Ocean. It reopened in March as part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection following a three-year, $80 million renovation. The Cavalier now has 85 rooms and three restaurants and houses the Tarnished Truth Distilling Company. Groups can arrange for a tasting of Tarnished spirits at the Hunt Room lounge or an afternoon tea at the Raleigh Room.
“They were at one time thinking about tearing the building down, and we’re so happy it was saved,” Coggin said.
The city’s burgeoning culinary scene includes new restaurants, several new breweries and Mermaid Winery, which is opening a new location in Virginia Beach that will complement its original tasting room in Norfolk.
Pleasure House Oysters is a farm that cultivates the famous Lynnhaven oyster. In addition to taking a boat tour, groups of 14 can opt for a Chef’s Table dinner that allows guests to enjoy a fresh meal on the Lynnhaven River, right in the marsh, and spend one-on-one time with oyster farmer Chris Ludford to learn about the history of the Lynnhaven as they sample oysters straight from the water.
A $2.5 million project to restore the 1719 Adam Thoroughgood House and build an education center was completed last fall. The house is a popular site for groups, which also enjoy visiting the 1792 Cape Henry Lighthouse.
Zeiders American Dream Theater will open this fall in its new location, which includes a 310-seat theater and a studio theater for 100 people.