Richmond, Virginia: Where History and a Great River Meet

The James River rapids, which flow through downtown Richmond, Virginia. Max Hartshorne photos.
The James River Rapids, which flows through downtown Richmond, Virginia. Max Hartshorne photos.

Nature, History, and Railroads: Enjoying Them All in Richmond, Virginia

By Max Hartshorne,
GoNOMAD Editor

The Italian Garden at Maymont, a public estate in Richmond, VA.
The Italian Garden at Maymont, a public estate in Richmond, VA.

The tourism tagline for Richmond Virginia boasts, "Easy to love." After a recent trip, I think the city's ubiquitous saying rings true. When faced with a four-hour layover at the city's airport, I tried to buy the New York Sunday Times, but it was sold out.

Undaunted, the young lady at the counter picked up the phone, called two other stands, and then went out and brought me my own copy from another store.

Civil War and More

Richmond is a true city of the south: modern in every way yet mindful of its rich Civil War heritage.

This medium-sized city has a surprising abundance of surprises. A vast array of parks, a thriving financial center, distinctive neighborhoods in full bloom and emerging, and, of course, enough history to make a Civil War re-enactor feel at home.

Maymont is the jewel of Richmond, with Italian gardens and acres to stroll or to have a picnic on a Sunday afternoon.
Maymont is the jewel of Richmond, with Italian gardens and acres to stroll or to have a picnic on a Sunday afternoon.

Eight major Civil War battles were fought within the city and in the surrounding countryside. The Hollywood Cemetery, perched high above the banks of the James River, holds the remains of Jefferson Davis and eight Confederate generals.

Visiting Hollywood early one early chilly Sunday morning, we were greeted by 78-year-old Betty Allen, our guide. Betty knows this place intimately; she even pointed out where she will be buried some day.

More than 1,800 Civil War combatants are buried in Hollywood. Perhaps the most striking memorial to the Confederate dead is the massive pyramid of 6-foot stones, built without mortar, that rises 55 feet above the remains of the 16,000 Confederate soldiers buried at Oakwood Cemetery. The soldiers are buried separately from the officers. The carnage and the emotional ties that these many reminders evoke of the Civil War make Richmond a poignant place.

The cemetery's entrance is within Oregon Hill, one of the nation's few preserved working class neighborhoods. The Hill has a mixed reputation among Richmonders: it is an almost exclusively white enclave and, as such, has earned a somewhat undeserved reputation as a segregationist haven.

It is, in fact, a highly mixed neighborhood of simple, often connected homes to workers, urban pioneers, and artists from nearby Virginia Commonwealth University. That said, you are likely to see Old Dixie flying from some porches.

Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery is a must-see for anyone who loves history. John Soos photo.
Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery is a must-see for anyone who loves history. John Soos photo.

Scattered VCU

The scattered VCU campus marks the perimeter of Oregon Hill and the approximate eastern end of The Fan, a largely prosperous section of the city named for the expansion of its streets and avenues from Cary to Broad Streets. Monument Street, with trees lining the middle, typifies the elegance of the Fan.

This wide avenue is broken up every few blocks statuary of famous Richmonders: Gen. Robert E. Lee, on horseback, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Gen. JEB Stuart, President Jefferson Davis and, at its far end, tennis great Arthur Ashe Jr. During the warm fall, this street is a real treat to drive or walk down. The western perimeter of the Fan is marked by Carey Street, a crowded street of small shops and restaurants. A great destination among the coffee shops and chic stores is the Byrd Theatre, a grand movie house where first-run films are offered at $1.99.

Up from Jamestown

Henricus Park near Richmond, VA.
Henricus Park near Richmond, VA.

Richmond was founded in 1607 by British explorers journeying up the James River from the first settlement in Jamestown, 90 miles to the east. The Citie of Henricus Historical Park and Dutch Gap Conservation Area, 15 miles south of the city center (down I-95), celebrates this earliest of Colonial eras with a recreated settlement village.

The natural beauty of the Gap is accessible as a bird watching area, with wooden stands set up so you can get a good sighting with binoculars. The park provides lots of literature and information on Virginia's early natural and human history. You can drive or hike through the 800-acre bird sanctuary through woodlands, waterways and peaceful calm.

The James River

But the best part of Richmond is the geography. The jewel is the sometimes placid and other times roiling James River. The river winds its way through the city's center with class 4 rapids and meandering currents. We saw kayakers dipping and paddling through the waves, even during a drought-plagued time of the year.

The city's recent revival has taken full advantage of this treasure, and some of the swankiest apartments on the market are the former tobacco warehouses that are now river view condos over the James.

Canal boats offer short tours between the places where locks once elevated boats for river journeys, and a walkway on top of the city's flood wall gives glimpses of bald eagles, Great Blue Heron and other species with Richmond's skyscrapers looming in the background.

Up from the James, near the Thomas Jefferson-designed state Capitol, The Museum and White House of the Confederacy, on East Clay Street, houses the world's largest collection of military, political and domestic artifacts and art about the Civil War. The museum has a dazzling array of Confederate flags, weapons, and personal effects.

The Capitol is a great attraction as well, ringed by monuments. The most imposing is at the gated entrance of the Capitol -- George Washington astride a horse. The Capitol, built in 1788, is a testament to Jefferson's genius (he brought much Classical Roman architecture to Virginia, including his home in Monticello) and has been the backdrop of many movies.

From the hills upon where the Capitol and many downtown high-rises stand, Shockhoe Slip and Shockhoe Bottom can be seen. The canals that lace through part of the Shockoe slip area downtown lends a foreign charm to Richmond.

Most of the bars and restaurants allow smoking, a big change from many parts of the US, yet nowhere I went seemed too smoky. Shockoe also has a restored canal there are almost no restaurants that are right next to the river. Tourists can ride in flat-bottomed boats in the barge canals and hear the history narrated by a Patriot, decked out in 1700s clothing.

On a smaller scale than Carey Street, shops and restaurants and offices line the cobbled streets of Shockhoe Slip. A few blocks away, Shockoe Bottom is a funky collection of clubs, bars, and restaurants. Up from the Bottom is Church Hill, the city's first neighborhood. This tree-lined community is a Boston-like neighborhood with grand, historic homes and St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry uttered his famous "give me liberty or give me death" speech.

Mountain biking in Richmond VA.
Mountain biking in Richmond VA.

Hiking and Biking

Richmond has truly embraced the outdoors, and a lot of the credit for this goes to Ralph White, the former city's parks manager. Originally from Maine, White took great pride in the riverside walkways, hiking paths, and rock-climbing facilities he helped create, and now manages with an attitude of benign neglect.

Take those rock-climbing areas-we asked him about the possibility of lawsuits against the city by wayward climbers. He replied: "We treat them like adults. We give them fair warning and illustrate what may happen if they fall, but the rest is up to them." Instead of putting up fences and patrolling with police to keep climbers out, they encourage safe climbing by making it accessible to all. Instead of barricades, the city puts in trash barrels and welcomes recreational climbers to try their skills.

The combination of fly fishing, rock climbing, and mountain biking has proven to be a winning combination, drawing many twenty-somethings to work in nearby office buildings and the huge Federal Reserve Bank who love the lifestyle the river and parks afford. The angler's prize is the huge shad and occasional sturgeon, which migrate up river to spawn.

Floodwall Hike

On a sunny, warm October day, we hiked along the city's floodwall, built several years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers after a series of disastrous floods. Then we continued on under bridges that linked the downtown area with the suburbs. At this busy crossing, railroad bridges are piled three on top of each other, an uncommon phenomenon that causes railroad buffs to take notice!

Below the Lee Bridge is a foot and bike path, suspended by wires underneath the larger highway bridge, joining Belle Isle with downtown. On Belle Isle, history and nature came together. More than 6,000 Union prisoners were held here in horrendous conditions during the Civil War, and 1,000 of them died from disease and other causes.

Carytown is the home of many locally-owned boutiques and cafes, and is a great place for a stroll in Richmond.
Carytown is the home of many locally-owned boutiques and cafes and is a great place for a stroll in Richmond.

Now the area below the bridge is a field of wild grass, bisected by hikers and mountain bikers, who pause to read the story of the infamous prison on placards. The ruins of an old ironworks still sit rusting to the side of the former prison.

Magnificent Maymont

A visit to Maymont, a historic mansion, and grounds built by a nineteenth-century millionaire and left to the city, is a wonderful way to spend part of a day.

The 100-acre estate features ornate Italian and Japanese gardens, barns full of livestock and petting zoos, and big cages of wild animals such as bear, bobcat, and birds. You can also view otters, huge fish in tanks and exhibits about the wildlife of Virginia in their modern nature center.

Maymont, with its acres of rolling lawns and lovely gardens, would be an excellent place to laze on a Sunday afternoon, or to take the kids for an afternoon.

Museums for Kids and Adults

Richmond boasts an extensive museum for Children, with lots of interactive displays and attractions. Among these is a tour of the stomach, a kid's kitchen with pint-sized frying pans, food and appliances and other ways to entertain the little ones.

Recent exhibits include the James River Water play Exhibit, that explores canal life circa 1850 and present day with huge catfish in wall aquariums and otters splashing about in another glass walled area. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts ranks among one of the finest in the country. It has an eclectic collection, from Fabrege eggs to modern art.


Richmond has more than 400 restaurants. Among our choices:

The impressive lobby of the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond VA.
The impressive lobby of the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond VA.

The city's swankiest accommodations are at the Jefferson Hotel, a magnificent Five Star property with a grand entrance hall and a sumptuous rotunda and 264 rooms. Local millionaire, Lewis Ginter, intent on making it as grand as he could and naming it after his hero, built the hotel in 1892.

The Jefferson, whose vaulted lobby has 70' ceilings, offers a great splurge: their groaning Sunday buffet spread out over the entire spacious lower lobby, offers just about everything you can imagine for about $39 per person. Worth a treat!

For those on a budget, the Quality Inn on Carey Street offers clean, simple rooms well under $100 a night. The Inn has a small exercise area, offers a modest breakfast buffet and is within walking distance of downtown and the Shockoe sections.

More Richmond Fine Dining

Comfort, 200 West Broad St. As the name implies, easy-going foods like pasta, oysters, and a delicious broiled chicken. Funky atmosphere and hearty portions.

Millie's Diner. 2603 East Main St. 643-5512. A converted diner near the Church Hill neighborhood, Millie's delivers tasty and eclectic gourmet selections and has a good wine list. There's usually a line out the door.

Bottoms Up Pizza
. 1700 Dock St., 644-4400. For unusual pizzas, late night eats, and fine beer from the local Legend brewery, this is a good bet in Shockoe Bottom.

Mamma Zu', in the Oregon Hill neighborhood, is an unlikely destination for gourmands. It is housed in a brick bunker with all the charm of, well, a brick bunker. But the food is authentic Italian with an emphasis on seafood. One recent visit, I had an arugula salad piled high with parmesan shavings and an oyster stew with three plump oysters as a centerpiece. The service is acerbic but the food is top-notch.

GoNOMAD Photo Gallery: Richmond Virginia

Maymont, Richmond VA.
Maymont, Richmond VA.
Fountains at Maymont in Richmond, VA.
Fountains at Maymont in Richmond, VA.
The Italian Garden at Maymont, a public estate in Richmond, VA.
The Italian Garden at Maymont, a public estate in Richmond, VA.
South of Richmond, VA
South of Richmond, VA.
Belle Isle, VA.
Belle Isle, VA.
Inside the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, VA.
Inside the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, VA.
Max Hartshorne

Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.