One pleasure of living in the Richmond area is how easily you can go someplace completely different. Not far from the city are beaches and mountains, big cities and small towns, raw nature and grand gardens, early history and dreams of space.
Virginia is full of treasures to discover or revisit, so we picked a roughly 100-mile radius as the crow files to spotlight 30 destinations worth exploring ("roughly" and "as the crow flies" are generously defined, since your starting point by car can vary).
Of course, these aren’t the only places worth a look. And we left off some icons you probably already know – for example, the homes of founding fathers George Washington (Mount Vernon) and Thomas Jefferson (Monticello), the restored capital of Colonial Williamsburg, the thrills of Busch Gardens.
Instead, we looked for a variety of intrigue and delight at many points on the compass. Some still might be familiar favorites, but we hope we’ve found a few that are new to you.
Be sure to check with each destination for details on admission prices and hours, which may vary seasonally. And then enjoy the discovery.
Hidden in plain sight amid the sprawl of Northern Virginia is Occoquan. Though nearly 300 years old, this Prince William town is as new as the 300 artists and craftsmen who bring their creations twice a year to the Occoquan Arts and Crafts Show. The Mill House Museum tells the story of the town in a fieldstone building that was the miller's office in the 1700s, when Occoquan was a milling town. If you've been caught in traffic on southbound Interstate 95 at Exit 160, you may have admired the marinas on the Occoquan River waterfront. It's even nicer to explore the river from the boardwalk in town. More than 50 restaurants and shops can easily satisfy your hunger for food or something new to take home.
For a bird's-eye view of history, art and nature, think Culpeper. About a half-hour east of Shenandoah National Park, this Culpeper County town is one of the few places where you can get a rarefied view of the landscape from a biplane (for a rarefied price, of course). Keeping your feet on the ground, you can find one-of-a-kind shopping and farm-to-fork dining in the award-winning downtown, as well as vineyards and a moonshine distillery nearby. Venture out for Civil War history at Brandy Station, where the Confederate march to Gettysburg began with the largest cavalry action of the war. Some 53 acres were recently preserved there by the Civil War Trust in possible preparation for state park status. Hiking, biking, canoeing, fishing and horseback riding are great ways to enjoy the countryside.
* Culpeper Tourism & Visitor Center, 111 S. Commerce St. in Culpeper; (540) 727-0611, visitculpeperva.com
You can ham it up in Smithfield in more ways than one. Of course, you can eat ham in the town made famous by its namesake product. You also can follow the Porcine Parade, a trail of eight lifesize statues of market hogs painted by local artists. At the Isle of Wight County Museum, you can see the world's oldest ham (1902) as well as the world's largest ham and oldest peanut. If bronze statues are more your style, explore the collection of George Lundeen public art – share your thoughts with Thomas Jefferson as he writes with a quill pen, look over the shoulder of Ben Franklin to read his broadsheet, or snuggle with the Valentine Couple. The visitors center is also home to the Arts Center@319, a gallery/gift shop that includes resident artists. Established in 1752 as a Colonial seaport, Smithfield seems old until you consider that nearby in Isle of Wight, St. Luke’s Church was built in 1632, making it the oldest existing church of English foundation in America.
* Smithfield & Isle of Wight Convention & Visitors Bureau, 319 Main St. in Smithfield; (757) 357-5182; genuinesmithfieldva.com
When you yearn for the big-city life, there's an easy option at the edge of our 100-mile orbit. The nation's capital is close enough for a day trip, especially by train, but it's far enough away that its infamous traffic doesn't snarl Richmond drivers on a daily basis. A list of 100 free things to do includes the National Zoo and some of the nation's best museums of art, history and science.
* (202) 789-7000; washington.org
Old Town Alexandria
Well, it's not really a big city, but Old Town Alexandria is on a Metro line, and it was incorporated into the original outline of the District of Columbia in 1790 (returning to Virginia in 1846). Layers of history in Old Town Alexandria extend from George Washington's annual birthnight ball at Gadsby's Tavern to the ongoing art projects at the Torpedo Factory. In between, there's a generous dose of Civil War drama, as told in the new PBS series "Mercy Street" about an Alexandria hospital during the war (filmed in Richmond and Petersburg to depict Old Town). Brick sidewalks and cobblestone alleys lead to independent stores ranging from Scottish regalia to a doggie boutique, nine historic sites within 1 square mile and a much-praised culinary scene.
* Visit Alexandria, 221 King St. in Alexandria; (703) 746-3301; visitalexandriava.com
Buggs Island Lake and Lake Gaston
Travel Interstate 85 to the North Carolina line, and you'll travel between two lakes created by electricity-generating dams on the Roanoke River. The larger of the two – Buggs Island Lake (or Kerr Reservoir), to the west of South Hill – is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is mostly in Virginia. Occoneechee State Park and several wildlife management areas protect much of the shoreline, which may have wide fluctuations in water level because of water management policies. Lake Gaston, to the east of Bracey, is owned by Dominion Resources and is mostly in North Carolina. Private property follows most of the shoreline. Each lake has a notable summer event. Clarksville's Lakefest in July at Buggs Island was one of the top 20 events in the Southeast last year. Lake Gaston's signature event is the Crossing in August, when swimmers race a mile to the other side at the Eaton Ferry Bridge.
* Buggs Island Lake: Clarksville Lake Country Chamber of Commerce, 105 Second St.; (434) 374-2436; clarksvilleva.com
* Lake Gaston Regional Chamber of Commerce, 2357 Eaton Ferry Road in Littleton, N.C.; (252) 586-5711; lakegastonchamber.com
When Thomas Jefferson first viewed Natural Bridge in 1767, he was inspired to call it "the most sublime of Nature's works ... so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing as it were up to heaven." By 1774, he had became its first owner in the New World. The bridge, which towers about 215 feet above Cedar Creek in Rockbridge County, is actually the sole remnant of a cavern that collapsed. It's wide enough that cars can drive across it on U.S. 11. But to really appreciate it, you have to stand at its base and look up, as Jefferson did. The bridge formation had been privately owned since Jefferson's time, but in 2016 it became a state park; the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund took over its operation in 2014, with plans to operate the hotel and caverns while turning over the bridge itself to the state.
* 6477 S. Lee Highway in Natural Bridge; (800) 543-1410; naturalbridgeva.com
Great Dismal Swamp
In Southeastern Virginia, this national wildlife refuge is a remnant – a big one, at more than 110,000 acres – of an expanse that once covered more than a million acres in Virginia and North Carolina. More than 200 species of birds have been identified in the refuge, plus roughly 100 butterfly species and dozens of mammals (from the oft-seen white-tailed deer to black bears and bobcats). The 3,100-acre Lake Drummond is one of the few interruptions in a forest area thick with pine, red maple and other types of trees. Hiking, biking, an auto tour, boating, fishing and countless photo opportunities await.
* Headquarters at 3100 Desert Road in Suffolk; (757) 986-3705; fws.gov/refuge/great_dismal_swamp
In this Page County town in 1878, a group of local men discovered the caverns, which today feature lighted walkways leading visitors through massive rooms with 10-story ceilings, towering stone formations, crystal-clear water and other natural wonders. The Great Stalacpipe Organ gently taps the formations throughout the caverns to make music. The Double Column brings together two basic cave formations – a stalactite from the ceiling and a stalagmite from the floor – into one huge feature inside Giant’s Hall. Dream Lake offers a stunning mirror of the surroundings, yet isn’t even 2 feet deep. Crystalline deposits form draperies, frozen waterfalls and other stunning shapes that reflect eons of nature’s artwork.
* 101 Cave Hill Road in Luray; (540) 743-6551; luraycaverns.com
Belmont (Gari Melchers Home and Studio)
One of the most successful painters of his time (late 19th and early 20th centuries), Gari Melchers had celebrities including Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain among his portrait subjects. More than 100 years later, he's been largely forgotten except at Belmont, the historic home where he lived with his wife, Corinne, just north of Fredericksburg. Built in the late 1700s and subsequently enlarged, Belmont is furnished entirely with Melchers’ furniture and art collection. His studio there is one of the few preserved in its original state. The combination qualifies it for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios consortium. The museum shop is the home of the Stafford County Visitor Center.
* 224 Washington St. in Falmouth; (540) 654-1015; http://garimelchers.umw.edu
In Charles City County, Shirley Plantation – Virginia's first plantation – has been owned and operated by 11 generations of the same family since 1638, making it America's oldest family-owned business and farm. What's just as amazing is that it has retained its charm and grandeur through the centuries. Original family furniture, portraits, silver and hand-carved woodwork join original family stories to make it a place to remember.
* 501 Shirley Plantation Road in Charles City; (804) 829-5121; shirleyplantation.com
Magnificent homes of wealthy planters were built in Southside Virginia, too, and for proof you only need to tour Prestwould Plantation near Clarksville. It was created in 1794 by Sir Peyton Skipwith and his second wife, Lady Jean Skipwith, who was the sister of his first wife. Reflecting her passion for gardening and botany, she decorated her new home with English botanical wallpapers. When her daughter-in-law redecorated in 1831, French scenic wallpapers were added – and amazingly, those wallpapers remain. Slave life on the plantation was extensively documented, and a stone house where two slave families lived is among the restored outbuildings.
* 429 Prestwould Drive in Clarksville; (434) 374-8672 (open seasonally)
Red Hill (Patrick Henry National Memorial)
While Revolution-era politician and orator Patrick Henry is known for his Hanover County roots and his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech in Richmond, he retired to this plantation in Charlotte County and is buried there. Red Hill houses a large collection of Henry memorabilia, and the grounds overlooking the Staunton River Valley include historic buildings as well as a reconstructed family home on its original site, plus Henry's restored law office.
* 1250 Red Hill Road in Brookneal; (434) 376-2044; redhill.org
The Mariners’ Museum and Park
One of the largest maritime museums in the world, the Mariners' Museum and Park brings the delights, mysteries and artifacts of the sea to Newport News. From the beauty of wooden sailing ship figureheads to the rusted surface of the USS Monitor's ironclad sides, the museum fills 90,000 square feet with maritime wonders. The USS Monitor Center, a state-of-the-art exhibition and conservation lab, houses 210 tons of artifacts from the Civil War ship that famously fought CSS Virginia (also called the Merrimack) to a draw in Hampton Roads in 1862. Other highlights include leading collections of maritime art and photography, model ships and navigation instruments, including a chronometer that may have traveled with Capt. James Cook.
* 100 Museum Drive in Newport News; (757) 596-2222; marinersmuseum.org
Frontier Culture Museum
Virginia's common heritage in the 1800s was largely a combination of English, Irish, German and African influences. To show the background of each ethnic group, this museum in Staunton imported authentic farm buildings from those places of origins. Interpreters demonstrate the skills of each group in the 1600s and 1700s, often through foods cooking on the hearths or being harvested in the fields. American farms of the 1700s and 1800s reflect how the traditions melded.
* 1290 Richmond Road in Staunton; (540) 332-7850; frontiermuseum.org
Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center
In King William County, learn about Pamunkey Indians from the Stone Age to the present in a museum whose roof is shaped like the longhouses in which ancestors lived. The tribe, which has a 1,200-acre reservation on the Pamunkey River, finally won recognition from the federal government last summer and then faced an appeal last fall. The museum is closed except by appointment during the winter. When it reopens in the spring, look for a mastodon tooth from the Paleolithic Period, displays of arrowheads and flints, pottery in traditional and contemporary styles, a ceremonial leather jacket and leggings, and a stone axe engraved with the date 1703.
* 175 Lay Landing Road in King William; (804) 843-4792; facebook.com (search for Pamunkey museum center)
Adjacent to Lafayette Park in Norfolk, the zoo has been collecting animals for 115 years. By 1910, it already had monkeys, sea lions and a bear. Now its 53 acres of exhibits next to the Lafayette River include more than 500 animals representing more than 100 species from around the world. Baby lions and tigers are expected in the spring. Zebra, giraffe and siamang families include young animals. "Asia – Trail of the Tiger" opened in 2011 with Malayan tigers, tapirs, binturongs and siamangs. Previous additions include "Africa – Okavango Delta" in 2002, with large habitats for zebras, giraffes, lions, elephants and rhinos; a prairie dog habitat in 2004; a zoo train in 2008; and a kangaroo exhibit in 2009.
* 3500 Granby St. in Norfolk; (757) 441-2374; virginiazoo.org
Virginia Safari Park
At Natural Bridge, more than 1,000 animals from around the world roam the 180-acre safari park. Visitors stay inside their cars to watch and possibly get a close-up view by feeding the animals from the car window, using buckets of feed purchased at the park. The setting seems to suit endangered white rhinos, considering that two baby rhinos were born late last year to different mothers. Both will be on view when the park reopens in mid-March. The Safari Village experience includes a kangaroo walkabout for close interactions, a tiger territory for safe observation of Bengal tigers, and a giraffe feeding area.
* 229 Safari Lane in Natural Bridge; (540) 291-3205; virginiasafaripark.com
Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
In Virginia Beach, visitors can take an 800,000-gallon aquatic journey from the seashore to the Atlantic depths and through coastal habitats representing prehistoric conditions in Virginia during different epochs. More than 300 species in the massive aquarium habitats include loggerhead turtles, cownose rays, cobia, lookdown fish, sand tiger sharks, seahorses, harbor seals and river otters. The National Geographic 3D Theater and Adventure Park expand the opportunities for excitement.
* 717 General Booth Blvd. in Virginia Beach; (757) 385-3474; virginiaaquarium.com
Virginia Living Museum
In Newport News, the haunting howl of a red wolf, the diaphanous beauty of moon jellies, the mystery of fish with no eyes, even the slightly creepy attraction of a horseshoe crab tell the story of Virginia's natural heritage from the mountains to the sea. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016, the Virginia Living Museum combines aspects of a native wildlife park, science museum, aquarium, botanical preserve and planetarium. It's home to more than 250 species of animals and 450 species of plants in indoor and outdoor exhibits. The current traveling exhibit brings in large-scale robotic bugs for extra excitement.
* 524 J. Clyde Morris Blvd. in Newport News; (757) 595-1900; thevlm.org
The first English settlers who managed to hang on in the New World were at Jamestown, a place you can explore in both state and national parks. Historic Jamestowne is the national park on the site of the actual settlement. In partnership with Preservation Virginia, which owns the ground on which the original fort was built in 1607, Historic Jamestowne tells a fascinating story through archaeology. Jamestown Settlement is the state park that offers hands-on experiences in a reconstructed fort, ships and Powhatan Indian village, plus an extensive museum.
* Jamestown Settlement: 2110 Jamestown Road near Williamsburg; (757) 253-4838; historyisfun.org
The concluding battle of the Revolutionary War occurred at Yorktown in 1781, when British forces surrendered to American general and president-to-be George Washington. The site is commemorated at state and national parks, both of which are part of the same organizations as their counterparts at Jamestown. Yorktown Battlefield, the national park, includes the battlefield itself as well as the Nelson House, home to a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and the Moore House, where the surrender negotiations took place.
* Yorktown Victory Center: 200 Water St. in Yorktown; (757) 253-4838; historyisfun.org
* Yorktown Battlefield: 1000 Colonial Parkway in Yorktown; (757) 898-2410; nps.gov/york
Manassas National Battlefield Park
Until Manassas, where the first major battle of the American Civil War unfolded in the summer of 1861, both Union and Confederate leaders were convinced that the war would be short because the other side would run away. Neither did. In fact, Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson earned his nickname at Manassas for his resolute stand. Four years of bloodletting ensued, more of it on Virginia soil than anywhere else.
* 6511 Sudley Road in Manassas; (703) 361-1339; nps.gov/mana
Robert Russa Moton Museum
In Farmville, the former Moton High School, now a National Historic Landmark, documents the significance of the all-black school by telling its compelling and inspirational story inside its former classrooms. In April 1951, students walked out to protest substandard conditions at the school, which held some classes in tar paper shacks. The strike, led by 16-year-old Barbara Johns, led to a lawsuit by civil rights lawyers Oliver W. Hill Sr. and Spottswood W. Robinson III that became part of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling desegregating U.S. schools. Moton students were 75 percent of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education. The museum is the anchor of the self-guided Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail.
* 900 Griffin Blvd. in Farmville; (434) 315-8775; motonmuseum.org
Fort Monroe National Monument
In Hampton, the military story begins with the arrival of wooden ships in the 1600s and continues through the space age. Two sites cover the territory. Fort Monroe, now a national monument, was a pivotal point for African-American history. In 1619, the first Africans documented in the English colonies were brought to Old Point Comfort (future site of Fort Monroe) on the way to Jamestown to be sold as servants (indentured or enslaved). In 1861, enslaved Africans found freedom at Fort Monroe when the commander classified them as "contraband of war" and refused to return them. The Casemate Museum is inside the moated stone fort, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned after the Civil War.
Virginia Air & Space Center
The Virginia Air & Space Center is the visitors center for NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base. It documents more than 100 years of flight with more than 30 aircraft, including the Apollo 12 command module and NASA's new Orion spacecraft.
* Virginia Air & Space Center: 600 Settlers Landing Road in Hampton; (757) 727-0900; vasc.org
National Museum of the Marine Corps
In Prince William County, the museum tells American history through the eyes of Marines across more than 200 years, from the first Revolutionary War recruits authorized by the Continental Congress in 1775 through the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The museum is closed through the end of March so that an SBD Dauntless aircraft can be hung in the Leatherneck Gallery and a UH-34D helicopter can be added to a new Vietnam War tableau. A museum expansion in progress will open in four phases, starting in 2017.
* 18900 Jefferson Davis Highway in Triangle; (877) 635-1775; usmcmuseum.com
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum
In Staunton, the birthplace of the most recent president to hail from Virginia celebrates the legacy of the nation's 28th chief executive. You may recognize Wilson's name from the Interstate 95 bridge over the Potomac River in Northern Virginia or the school of public affairs at Princeton, where he was president of the university. Wilson was born in Staunton in 1856 while his father was minister of a Presbyterian church – and even though the family moved when Wilson was a year old, he claimed the city as his own. Recent protests at Princeton focused on Wilson's racist views that helped roll back Reconstruction. At his library, the focus is on his efforts such as the Federal Reserve Act and Child Labor Reform Act, his leadership during World War I and his attempt to establish the League of Nations.
* 20 N. Coalter St. in Staunton; (540) 885-0897; woodrowwilson.org
The last of the Founding Fathers to have his home restored was James Madison – father of the Constitution, architect of the Bill of Rights and fourth president of the United States. Only in the past 10 years did the Orange County estate peel away the pink stucco additions to become once again the red-brick mansion where Madison put together his framework for governing the new United States of America, his thoughts possibly lifted by the view of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. His wife, Dolley Madison, was an accomplished hostess for Thomas Jefferson's presidency before her own husband's term, inspiring the title of first lady for those who would follow in her path. Restoration continues with a focus on constructing a framework for the South Yard complex where Montpelier slaves worked and lived.
* 11350 Constitution Highway in Montpelier Station; (540) 672-2728; montpelier.org
Within view of Monticello, James Monroe built his more modest Ash Lawn-Highland in 1793. He would follow the path of fellow Virginians George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison into the White House in 1817, giving the state claim to four of the nation's first five presidents. Monroe, twice minister to France, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. He served as secretary of state under Madison and as president became known for his foreign policy initiative that banned further European colonization in the Americas. His home's furnishings show the influence of his time in France, including classically inspired French pieces imported during the reign of Napoleon.
* 2050 James Monroe Parkway in Charlottesville; (434) 293-8000; ashlawnhighland.org