From its neon-lit Boardwalk to secluded seaside state parks, Virginia Beach is a study in contrasts.

The city’s lively Oceanfront district tends to attract the most visitors thanks to its high-rise hotels, mini-golf operations and souvenir shops. Yet more intrepid travelers will appreciate the city’s thriving cultural and arts scene, craft breweries and miles of pristine hiking trails. Whether you’re an adventure seeker, traveling with kids or just craving some down time in the sun, here are some of the best things to do in Virginia Beach. 

Embrace the kitsch on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk

Loud, bustling and lined with busy shops and restaurants overlooking the city’s wide public beach, the 3-mile-long Boardwalk is Virginia Beach at its most iconic. Stretching from 2nd to 40th streets along the Oceanfront, the Boardwalk features a dedicated bike path that’s used by cyclists and rollerbladers, along with four oceanfront stages where you can often catch live music during the warmer months. Head inland a block or two for even more restaurants, bars, arcades, mini golf courses and music venues.

Live the life aquatic at the Virginia Aquarium

The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center is home to hundreds of species ranging from seals and sea turtles to Komodo dragons, snakes and otters. Check the calendar for special events like Sensory Friendly Mornings and Sharks After Dark. And once you’ve had your fill of fish, head outside to the Aquarium’s Adventure Park for ropes-course climbing and tree-to-tree zip lining.

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Escape the city in Pungo

Though it’s just a few miles from the city center, bucolic Pungo feels a world away. This agricultural community boasts over a dozen farms where you can pick your own produce or flowers; berry season is an especially big deal here. Situated in a turn-of-the-century cottage, The Bee & The Biscuit is worth the drive alone for its legendary brunch – try the Bay Crab Benedict with a mimosa flight. Be sure to stop by Pungo Board House to get the latest on the best local surf spots.

The exterior of the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach, Virginia – one of the few remaining grand hotels at the seaside resort town
Built in 1927, the beautifully restored Cavalier is a grand resort of the old school © James Kirkikis / Shutterstock

Get some throwback grandeur at the Cavalier Hotel

Built in 1927 and recently restored to its original grandeur, the Cavalier Hotel has hosted everyone from presidents (10 of them!) to Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the fully renovated hotel and beach club houses farm-to-table restaurant Becca as well as the more rustic Hunt Room. In the hotel’s basement, Tarnished Truth Distillery has won accolades for its whiskey, moonshine and gin. If you’re staying at the hotel, you can take advantage of its South Beach–style pool and beach club. 

Browse contemporary art at MOCA

The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA for short) is a non-collecting art museum – which means their gallery spaces here are always evolving. Admission is free, and new exhibitions arrive every few months. From young local upstarts to internationally acclaimed artists like sculptor Maya Lin, you’ll find work by an inspiring range of talent to peruse at MOCA.

Enjoy the view from the Cape Henry Lighthouse

Built in 1792 near the “first landing” site where English colonists disembarked en route to Jamestown, the Cape Henry Lighthouse is the fourth-oldest lighthouse in the country, and the first authorized by the US government. In fact, George Washington himself authorized the construction of the lighthouse after the Revolutionary War, with Alexander Hamilton overseeing the project. A second lighthouse was built nearby in 1881, and visitors can see both today at the Fort Story military base. The original Cape Henry lighthouse is open to the public seven days a week and can be climbed by visitors ages 5 and up.

Sip your way along the Virginia Beach Beer Trail

Whether you’re looking for a midafternoon pint or a lively night out in Virginia Beach, you’ll find plenty of local breweries to satisfy your thirst for adult beverages. Near the Oceanfront, the dog-friendly Smartmouth Pilot House operates out of a restored post office and is known for its “Nostalgically Ridiculous” series of beers – think sugary cereal in beer form. Commonwealth Brewing in Chic’s Beach has lots of outdoor space and a laid-back neighborhood vibe, while Vibrant Shore specializes in adventurous microbrews in the Vibe District. Back Bay Brewing has two locations: an industrial-styled tasting room at the Oceanfront, and the Farmhouse, a picturesque spot with plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the surrounding gardens.

Rainbow light effects reflected on the cypress swamp of First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach, VA
The terrain at First Landing State Park ranges from from lagoons and maritime forests to cypress swamps © Realest Nature / Shutterstock

Sleep on the sand at First Landing State Park

Virginia’s most-visited state park, First Landing boasts an impressive history dating back to 1607, when English colonists first landed here. There are legends of the pirate Blackbeard taking refuge in the park’s Narrows in the 1700s, and troops patrolled the waterways both during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Today, it’s a refuge from the city, with 20 miles of trails and unique habitats ranging from swamps and lagoons to maritime forests. You can camp right on the beach or in one of the park’s cabins or yurts, but there is a catch: the park is located beside a military training center and visitors are warned that they may experience “unusual sights and loudness” at any time of the day or night.

Go hiking at Mount Trashmore

This park is a real dump – and that’s the beauty of it. Built in the 1960s, Mount Trashmore was the first landfill park in the US. What started out as a 640,000-ton pile of garbage is now a beloved local green space featuring two giant hills, two lakes, a water-wise garden, a skate park and an epic playground. The park is especially popular with local fitness fanatics who can be found running the perimeter trail and scaling the steep stairs. 

See what’s fresh in the Vibe Creative District

The perfect antidote to the tourist-driven Oceanfront area, Virginia Beach’s Vibe Creative District highlights the city’s thriving cultural community. You could easily spend an entire day here, starting with a Pungo latte and Texas breakfast tacos at Three Ships Coffee. Discover local artists and makers at shops like North End Bag Co., a small-batch bag-manufacturing company, and the Old Beach Farmers Market, open every Saturday. Grab a bite to eat and sip some natural wines at the Instagram-famous Pink Dinghy, then cap off your Vibe adventure with ice cream from local institution Lolly’s Creamery.

After paddling out to a sandbar and beaching his kayak, a young man enjoys playing with his dog on a a nice autumn afternoon
Rudee Inlet at the south end of Virginia Beach offers waterfront restaurants, and opportunities for kayaking and other water sports © Anne Katherine Jones / Shutterstock

Get out on the water at Rudee Inlet 

If you’re in the mood for water sports or waterfront dining in Virginia Beach, Rudee Inlet is your go-to destination. Situated at the south end of the Oceanfront, this marina is where you’ll find fishing charters, Jet Ski rentals and parasailing. As for waterfront dining, get a taste of local seafood at restaurants like Big Sam’s, Rudee’s and Rockafellers

Watch the sun set over Chesapeake Bay at Chic’s Beach

For a quieter, older-school beach experience, head toward the gentle waters of Chesapeake Bay to an area affectionately known as Chic’s Beach. This neighborhood surrounding the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel has a 2-mile-long stretch of beach that’s popular with locals, especially families with small kids. Best of all, this is one of the few spots on the East Coast where you can watch the sunset over the water.

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