Free Things to Do in Historic Richmond, Virginia
By Ginger Warder
You can spend a weekend in Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and see most of its historic attractions without spending a dime in admission fees.
I’ve lived in several states and several cities, but this is one of my favorite hometowns, partly because there are so many great free things to do in Richmond!
We Virginians may grumble about our state income tax, but it gives back in the form of beautiful parks, world-class museums, and tons of historic attractions. The real secret is that most of those are free to residents and visitors alike.
While Richmond is known primarily as the former capital of the Confederacy, it has been home to many other “firsts”: the first African American governor in the U.S., the first hospital, the South’s first television station, and the only city in the country with Class IV white water rapids running through its downtown.
George Washington designed the nation’s first canal system here, the Kanawha. Thomas Jefferson designed the state capitol. Richmond is the only city with a historic designated avenue filled with statues ranging from war heroes to hometown tennis great, Arthur Ashe.
Here are a few of our local favorite places to spend an afternoon:
Best Free Civil War Attraction
Spend an afternoon at the Tredegar Civil War History Center and Richmond National Battlefield Park. Don’t confuse this with the next-door American Civil War History Center, which charges admission, and park for free in the Belle Isle lot one block down the street.
The National Park Services Visitor Center is located in the Pattern Building, which once housed the molds for the cast-iron products made here, including half the cannons used in the Civil War.
A short movie and several maps and exhibits tell the story of wartime Richmond. Park rangers give a guided 30-minute tour that includes Brown’s Island, used as the headquarters for manufacturing gunpowder during the war.
There’s also a great Junior Ranger program for kids. They receive a workbook and have to hunt through the exhibits for answers.
Once they complete the booklet, they get a certificate and Junior Ranger patch or pin. After your tour, take the pedestrian bridge over to Belle Isle, once a prisoner of war camp for Union soldiers. It’s a great spot for hiking, biking, or enjoying a picnic lunch.
Best Free Historic Performance
Church Hill is the oldest neighborhood in the city and also home to historic St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry gave his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech during the Revolutionary War.
The historic re-enactment of that day is performed by professional actors and the show is free on Sundays. You can also explore the old cemetery and the gift shop here has unique and very affordable gifts and souvenirs.
Best Burger with a Side of History
You don’t want to miss The Jefferson Hotel, one of the nation’s few five-star, five-diamond luxury properties and a historic site in its own right.
The life-sized statue of the hotel’s namesake was done by Edward Valentine, and the Palm Court lobby, once home to a fountain full of live alligators, is ringed by Louis Tiffany windows.
Locals believe the grand staircase inspired the famous scene in the Southern epic movie Gone With The Wind, and there’s even a mini-museum in the lower lobby with a who’s-who display of famous guests and events.
But, the best-kept secret in town is the Filet Mignon Black Angus burger at the hotel’s casual restaurant, T.J.’s. This is the best bite of beef in town, with a generous helping of homemade fries and at $15, it’s a great deal. All the lobbyists and politicos hang out here after legislative sessions.
Best Park Worth Paying For
Richmond is blessed with an abundance of fabulous parks and most of them, like Maymont, are free.
However, Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is worth the price of admission ($13, adults $8 kids 3-12), especially in the summer when special evening programs offer live jazz, wine-tastings (Flowers after 5 on Thursdays), bring-the-pooch nights (Fidos after 5), and family activities (Families after 5).
The gift shop here is a paradise for gardeners and lovers of all things botanical, and the Tea House in the serene Japanese garden has elegant supper selections and stunning views of the gardens.
Carytown is the city's arts and culture center, with locally-owned boutiques and cafes, and it's a great place to take a stroll.
Carytown shops are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays. Restaurant hours vary, so it's best to visit the neighborhood's official website before planning your outing. If you're just interested in a leisurely stroll, however, Carytown is nice to visit at any time of day.
20 Free Attractions and sites in Richmond:
Beth Ahabah Museum and Archives
Belle Isle and Brown’s Island
Chimborazo Medical Museum
Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center
Guide to VA Historical Resources
Library of Virginia
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
Maymont Park and Maymont House Museum
Richmond Slave Trail
St. John’s Church Historic Reenactment (free on Sundays)
Virginia Historical Society (free on Sundays)
Virginia Holocaust Museum
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Virginia War Memorial
Ginger Warder is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.