The Commonwealth of Virginia is steeped in history and tradition. It's the birthplace of America, where English settlers established the first permanent colony in the New World in 1607. Since that time, the state has played a lead role in nearly every major American drama, from the Revolutionary and Civil wars to the Civil Rights movement and the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Virginia's natural beauty is as diverse as its history and people. Chesapeake Bay and the wide sandy beaches kiss the Atlantic Ocean. Pine forests, marshes and rolling green hills form the soft curves of the central Piedmont region, while the rolling Blue Ridge mountains and stunning Shenandoah Valley line its back.
There's loads for the visitor to enjoy, including world-class tourist attractions such as Colonial Williamsburg, a wealth of outdoor activities, a foot-tapping mountain-music scene and an ever-growing network of wine, beer and spirit trails to follow.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Virginia.
Historic SiteColonial Williamsburg
Image by Thomas Faull/Getty Images RF The restored capital of England’s largest colony in the New World is a must-see attraction for visitors of all ages. Colonial Williamsburg is a living, breathing, working history museum in Virginia, with a painstakingly-researched environment that brilliantly evokes 1700s America. It contains 88 original 18th-century buildings and several hundred faithful reproductions, as well as an impressive museum complex. Townsfolk and ‘interpreters’ in period dress go about their colonial jobs, emulating daily life. Laudably, the park doesn't gloss over America's less glorious moments. Today's re-enactors debate and question slavery (52% of the population of 18th-century Williamsburg were slaves), women’s suffrage, the rights of indigenous Americans and whether or not it is even moral to engage in revolution. You can even stay in colonial houses at the center of the Historic Area for a fully-immersive experience. History of Colonial Williamsburg Williamsburg was founded as the capital of the Virginia Colony in 1699 and was Britain’s largest settlement in the New World. It was named after England's reigning monarch, King William III, and was the center of the religious, economic and social life of the state. It was also a center of political activity during the American Revolution. The capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond following the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776, and Williamsburg entered a long period of stagnation and decay. The Reverend William Archer Rutherfoord Goodwin began the preservation and restoration effort that resulted in the creation of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s. The Episcopal priest and historian did so by obtaining the support and major financial commitment of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the wealthy son of the founder of the Standard Oil monopoly. The restoration and recreation of Colonial Williamsburg was seen by the city as a way to celebrate rebel patriots and the early history of the US. What to do at Colonial Williamsburg You’ll feel as if you've traveled back in time in the Historic Area, where most original buildings, homes and shops have been reconstructed on their original foundations. Prominent buildings include the Capitol, the Governor's Palace, the Courthouse, the Raleigh Tavern and the Magazine. You’ll see rare animal breeds and lovingly-restored gardens that add to the authenticity of the experience. You can also take a leisurely carriage-ride ride through the area by horse-drawn carriage. The Art Museums are well worth a visit, with colorful and whimsical folk art made by amateur artisans on display at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, and objects that are both useful and beautiful in The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Arboretum will appeal to nature-lovers as it features 25 period species of oak trees and more than 30 historic gardens. As well as the regular attractions, Colonial Williamsburg puts on special programming for holidays and commemorative seasons throughout the year. Tickets and other practicalities Colonial Williamsburg is located in Williamsburg, Virginia, and is part of Virginia's Historic Triangle, which includes Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. Amtrak serves the Williamsburg Transportation Center with a connecting train from Washington, DC. The center is just blocks from the Historic Area and offers car rentals and taxi service. Park for free at the Visitor Center and take the complimentary shuttle to the Historic Area or walk along the tree-lined footpath. There is also free parking at the Art Museums. A program detailing the day’s events will be given to you with your ticket, which helps when planning your time at the site. Walking around the historic district and patronizing the shops and taverns is free, but entry to building tours and most exhibits is restricted to ticket holders. Single-day tickets cost $44.99 and children aged 6-12 pay $24.99, and they allow visitors to access a selection of guided sites, historic trades and gardens, as well as staged performances on the Charlton Stage and in the Hennage Auditorium and Art Museums. Three-day tickets cost $54.99 with children aged 6-12 paying $29.99 and all tickets can be booked online here. Expect crowds and lines, especially in summer. There are a number of taverns and a bakery where visitors can dine, and there's also a bakery in the Art Museums. Where to stay Colonial Williamsburg has several options for on-site accommodation, including four hotels - Williamsburg Inn, Williamsburg Lodge, Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel & Suites and Griffin Hotel. Visitors can also stay at Colonial Homes in the heart of the Historic Area, which have been reproduced to be true to the time period of Colonial America. Accessibility at Colonial Williamsburg Discounted admission tickets are available at on-site ticketing centers, and the Visitor Center, hotels, restaurants, museums and shops are largely accessible. Interpreters in the Historic Area can provide directions to accessible areas, and special parking arrangements can be made, as needed. Colonial Williamsburg’s shuttle buses are wheelchair accessible. Folding wheelchairs may be rented from the Visitor Center. While ramps and wheelchair lifts are available at selected exhibitions, many of the historic buildings require at least a few steps. Visitors with disabilities may request reasonable accommodations or modifications to assist them in accessing Colonial Williamsburg’s programs, services and facilities. Headsets with adjustable volume control are available for programs in the Hennage Auditorium of the Art Museums. Colonial Williamsburg will contract a signing interpreter to accompany hearing-impaired guests through the Historic Area, and requests for this service must be made at least two weeks in advance. Further information on accessibility can be found here.
Historic SiteMount Vernon
If George Washington showed up today at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, he would find things essentially as he left them when he died in 1799. The mansion’s rooms have been meticulously preserved with his own furnishings or period likenesses, including his study, his bedchamber and the New Room, one of the grandest rooms in colonial America. But above all, Washington was a farmer at heart. On 500 hilly acres surrounding the mansion, you’ll find four gardens, a working farm and the restored quarters of enslaved people who worked the plantation. A not-to-be-missed education center offers interactive exhibits and videos that trace Washington’s life and legacy. History George Washington’s father, Augustine Washington, built a small house on the property in 1734. The future president’s half-brother, Lawrence, lived there until his death from tuberculosis in 1752, when his widow leased the house to the young Washington (and he inherited it upon her death). Washington renovated the house to what we see today, including raising the roof to make it two-and-a-half stories, and adding the north and south wings, the cupola and the piazza. At nearly 11,000 square feet, the mansion was 10 times the size of an average home in colonial Virginia. As much as he loved it, Washington barely saw the estate between 1775 and 1783, when he was serving as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. After the war, he returned to Mount Vernon, expanding the plantation to nearly 8000 acres. His home life was interrupted again while he served as the United States’ first president (1789-97). At the end of his service, he returned to Mount Vernon, where he died. The house fell into shambles until 1858, when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association bought the estate and about 200 acres for $200,000. The association continues to own and operate the estate. Highlights of Mount Vernon Ford Orientation Center Just beyond the main entrance, the Ford Orientation Center offers resources to help plan your visit. A variety of short films provide background, including Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River, challenges he faced in building a new nation and how Mount Vernon was saved from dereliction. Allow at least three hours for a property visit. The mansion From the orientation center, follow a tree-shaded pathway to the mansion, where you’ll line up on the Bowling Green (front lawn) for your visit. As you make your way through the rooms, guides describe highlights. Look for family portraits, the Washington coat of arms and the key to the Bastille that Washington received from the Marquis de Lafayette in 1790. You’ll end on the terrace overlooking the Potomac River, where you’ll want to pull up a rocking chair and take in the splendid view. Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center Twenty-three state-of-the-art galleries and theaters delve into George Washington’s life and legacy at this relatively new museum and education center. You’ll watch his progress from being a surveyor, learning to lead in the French and Indian War and expanding his plantation at Mount Vernon before he went on to head the ragtag Continental Army, win the Revolutionary War and become the first president of the United States. You’ll learn about his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759 (and see a display of her gold silk damask wedding dress). One fascinating gallery uses futuristic forensics to create three life-size figures of Washington, at ages 19, 45 and 57. The Revolutionary War Theater takes you into the throes of war with 4D effects, including falling snow, fog, flashing lights and a rumbling cannon. Another gallery explores Washington’s dependence on enslaved people for Mount Vernon’s success, including personal stories of several residents. And this is where you’ll find Washington’s famous false teeth—in reality they were not made from wood but ivory, gold, lead and human teeth (which may have been pulled from enslaved people). Allow at least an hour to see all the exhibits. Gardens Four gardens serve different purposes, including a formal garden used to entertain the Washingtons’ guests; the greenhouse, where Washington cultivated tropical plants (including limes and lemons for fancy dinners); a kitchen garden; and a small botanical garden, where he experimented with new plant varieties. Farm A four-acre farm demonstrates what life was like on Washington’s one-time 8000-acre plantation. People in costume work in the fields and harvest crops. Farm animals run around including Hog Island sheep, Dominique Chickens and Red Devon cattle. There’s also a replica of a cabin where enslaved people would have lived. The tombs George Washington died on December 14, 1799, and, although Congress wanted him laid to rest within the newly built U.S. Capitol, he was buried at his request at Mount Vernon. A brick tomb in a woodsy enclosure holds him, Martha and other family members. It’s a quiet place to contemplate the life and times of the father of the US. Other practicalities There’s a food court, colonial-style restaurant and gift shop near the entrance. Several companies offer seasonal boat trips to Mount Vernon, including the City Cruises Mount Vernon Sightseeing Cruise, departing from Washington, DC’s Wharf and from Alexandria, Virginia. You can also hop on a bike and pedal along the scenic Mount Vernon Trail (10 miles from Alexandria). George Washington’s Distillery Washington also was a whisky distiller, boasting one of the nation’s largest distilleries at the time. Located 2.7 miles from the estate’s main entrance, it burned down in the 1800s but was faithfully recreated in 2007 and is open to visitors. Did you know? Although the mansion looks like it’s made of stone, it’s not. Washington “rusticated” the exterior, a less expensive method of producing a stone look by using yellow pine siding sprinkled with sand. Tickets and other practicalities · 15 miles south of Washington, D.C. · Public transportation: Metro (yellow line) to Huntington, then hop on the Fairfax Connector bus 101 · Price: $28 adults, $15 youth (6-11), children under 5 free. General admission includes audio tour. Buy tickets online in advance to save time (and money). · Separate reservation must be made for a mansion tour · Variety of other tours offered daily, including an in-depth mansion tour · Distillery open Sat-Sun Apr-Oct by tour only; adm $10
CemeteryArlington National Cemetery
Sprawling across hills above the Potomac River in Arlington, Virginia, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for America’s most revered military veterans, along with war correspondents, military nurses, chaplains, and more. Some 400,000 snow-white gravestones line up in meticulous order, including service members from every one of America’s major wars, from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan. Here, too, is the eternal flame lit for John F. Kennedy, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Arlington House, once the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Today, three million people a year come to Arlington to pay their respects. History of Arlington National Cemetery George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, established Arlington Estate in 1802. His son-in-law, Robert E. Lee, was living there with his family when, at the start of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army, abandoning the property. The U.S. Army seized the land on May 24, 1861, to defend Washington, D.C. Three forts were built on the property during the war, and beginning in 1863, a Freedman’s Village was established for freed and escaped enslaved people. On May 13, 1864, as local cemeteries ran out of space, Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs, Quartermaster of the U.S. Army, ordered Arlington Estate be used as a cemetery. Arlington officially became a national cemetery on June 15, 1864, measuring 200 acres. It was segregated by race and rank until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military. At first, being buried at Arlington was not considered an honor. It was a place for service members whose families could not afford to bring them home. The first Memorial Day (originally called Decoration Day), was held at Arlington on May 30, 1868. This tradition contributed to its reputation as the premier national military cemetery. The event drew so many people that, in 1873, an amphitheater was built to hold the official cemeteries. The cemetery has grown from its original 200 acres to its current-day 639, one of the world’s largest national cemeteries. Nevertheless, about 95,000 burial spots remain, and with 22 million living Armed Forces members eligible, there is concern about running out of space. As such, new restrictions of who can be buried at Arlington are being implemented, and land is being acquired to expand the burial site. How to visit Start at the Welcome Center, which offers a cemetery overview. Here you can sign up for a shuttle tour that stops at various sites throughout the cemetery, including Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, John F. Kennedy’s gravesite, and Arlington House. You can also walk, though the cemetery’s hills can be challenging. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated on November 11, 1921, is a large white sarcophagus that contains three unidentified soldiers: one from each World War and another from the Korean War. An unknown Vietnam vet lay beneath the tomb for more than a decade, until DNA testing identified him in 1998; Air Force 1st Michael Blassie was reinterred in his home state of Missouri at his family’s request. The tomb is guarded 24/7, rain, shine or snow. The sentinels are rigorously trained volunteers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, commonly called the Old Guard. Only the best of the best can apply for this hard-to-get position. The changing of the guard is a somber ceremony that takes place every hour from October through March and every half-hour from April through September. The sentinel marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the monument’s sarcophagus, waits 21 seconds, then takes another 21 steps back. (Twenty-one represents the highest symbolic military honor: the 21-gun salute.) The gravesite of John F. Kennedy After being assassinated in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was laid to rest at the cemetery just east and downhill from Arlington House. His wife, Jacqueline, his brothers Robert and Edward and two children are buried alongside the president. The eternal flame flickering at the site was Jackie’s idea. All presidents are eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, but to date, only two are here: JFK and William Howard Taft. Also here are boxer Joe Louis, who served in the Army during World War II; Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the architect of D.C. and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Arlington House Robert E. Lee’s former residence has been preserved with some original furnishings and is open for public tours. It was recently reinterpreted to represent the stories of the enslaved people who built the mansion and whom the Lee (and Custis) families kept. The sections Arlington is divided into 70 different sections. White Civil War soldiers occupy Section 13, while Section 27 holds African-American soldiers and more than 3,800 freed African Americans (their headstones are inscribed with “civilian” or “citizen” instead of dates and terms of endearment). Sections 18 and 19 contain the graves of Spanish-American War soldiers. Section 60 is the most recent, where Iraq and Afghanistan casualties are buried. See the site map here. How to get buried here The requirements to be buried at Arlington are stringent, but most soldiers who died while on active duty and veterans who have been honorably discharged are eligible for burial. Every weekday, up to 30 funerals take place, with a small number of services conducted on Saturdays. Wait times can be long. How to find a grave ANC Explorer is a free mobile app that you can use to locate any grave at the cemetery, as well as burial records and front-and-back photos of the headstones and memorials. Directions to find each one are also provided. Women in Military Service for America Memorial The neoclassical ceremonial wall just outside the cemetery is the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Inside you’ll find exhibits, an education center, a theater, and computerized register of military women. The views from the roof, overlooking Arlington National Cemetery’s gravestones to one side, Memorial Bridge and the Washington to another, are astounding. Getting here and other practicalities By pubic transport, you can get the blue line Metro to the Arlington Cemetery stop. On the DC Circulator it's the Dupont Circle line. It's free to enter and is open from 8am. It closes at 5pm October to March and at 7pm from April to September.
National ParkShenandoah National Park
One of the most spectacular national parks in the country, Shenandoah is a showcase of natural color and beauty: in spring and summer the wildflowers explode, in fall the leaves burn bright red and orange, and in winter a cold, starkly beautiful hibernation period sets in. White-tailed deer are a common sight and, if you're lucky, you might spot a black bear, bobcat or wild turkey. The park lies just 75 miles west of Washington, DC.
MuseumVirginia Museum of Fine Arts
Richmond is a cultured city, and this splendid art museum is the cornerstone of the local arts scene. Highlights of its eclectic, world-class collection include the Sydney and Frances Lewis Art Nouveau and Art Deco Galleries, which include furniture and decorative arts by designers including Eileen Gray, Josef Hoffmann and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Other galleries house one of the largest Fabergé egg collections on display outside Russia, and American works by O'Keeffe, Hopper, Henri, Whistler, Sargent and other big names.
The house at Monticello is an architectural masterpiece designed and inhabited by Thomas Jefferson, founding father and third US president, who spent 40 years building his dream home. It was finally completed in 1809. Today it is the only home in America designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. The centerpiece of a plantation that once covered 5000 acres, it can be visited on guided tours (ground floor only), while its grounds and outbuildings can be explored on themed and self-guided tours.
UniversityUniversity of Virginia
Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, and designed what he called an 'Academical Village' embodying the spirit of communal living and learning. At the heart of this 'village' is the Lawn, a large gently sloping grassed field fringed by columned pavilions, student rooms, the Standford White–designed Old Cabell Hall (1898) and Jefferson's famous Rotunda, modelled on Rome's Pantheon. Together, the original neoclassical and Palladian-style university buildings and Jefferson's Monticello comprise a Unesco World Heritage Site.
ParkAppomattox Court House National Historic Park
At the McLean House in the town of Appomattox Court House, General Robert E Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S Grant, in effect ending the Civil War. The park comprises more than two-dozen restored buildings; a number are open to visitors, and set with original and period furnishings from 1865.
Contains the world's largest collection of manuscripts and memorabilia of poet and horror-writer Edgar Allan Poe, who lived and worked in Richmond. Exhibits include the first printing of 'The Raven,' Poe's vest, his pen knife and a work chair with the back cut off – they say his boss at the Southern Literary Messenger wanted Poe to sit up straight. Pesky know-it-all. Stop by on the fourth Thursday of the month for the Poe-themed Unhappy Hour (6pm to 9pm April to October; $8).
Whether it’s a guided tour of a historic landmark, private tasting of local delicacies, or an off-road adventure — explore the best experiences in Virginia.