Our Favorite Things To Do in Richmond, Virginia
If you hear Virginia as a twangy banjo riff, then think of Richmond as a grooving bassline. Planted between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the state's coastline, it appears in tune with its reputation as a polished, modern city with deep ties to American history. But inside its preserved buildings, along the James River, and within its charming neighborhoods, you'll find the offbeat side of Richmond. Attracting new—and increasingly young—residents, Virginia's capital now resonates with innovative entrepreneurs, hospitality heavyweights, and culture creators.
"This city has always been a vibrant place," says Matthew E. White, who's a musician and founder of Spacebomb Records, a Richmond-grown music label. "But now, we're starting to see a whole generation that's staying here, and they are making a big impression nationally. I think that people are slowly but surely recognizing that there's something really interesting going on in Richmond."
Under the soaring, vaulted arches of the Quirk Hotel's lobby, dotted with azalea-pink velvet chairs and sofas, it's not hard to imagine the Italianate building's pretty past life as a department store. Today, not only is it a must-book for visitors, but it's also a natural congregating spot for those living and working in Richmond's Arts District.
Maple & Pine, the property's restaurant, isn't cloistered away; instead, it's integrated seamlessly into the hotel's scene. Marble tables interlock with the wave-shaped banquettes, and intimate groups gather over Rappahannock oysters on the half shell served with a cocktail sauce-inspired Bloody Mary sorbet and colorful salads composed of locally sourced veggies. Upstairs, many of the rooms feature bed frames made from the building's original, century-old wood beams, while the walls—everywhere from the bathrooms to the hallways—display work created by local artists. Don't skip the gift shop, a part of the Quirk Gallery, where the souvenirs are as curated as the prints, paintings, and photos.
A few blocks away, The Jefferson Hotel endures as a lodging landmark with its ornate lobby, reminiscent of an opera hall. Built in 1895 and designed by the same group of architects who planned part of The New York Public Library, the hotel has had a notable guest list, including 13 Presidents as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Elvis Presley. But it might be even more famous for the alligators that lived in a marble pool near the reception desk until the 1940s.
When chef Jason Alley announced earlier this year that he would donate 100% of the net proceeds from his Comfort restaurant to a nonprofit fighting hunger in the area, it was a generous move picked up by national media. But to the rest of this city, it wasn't entirely unexpected. "Richmond is unique in how different communities interact with each other," says Noelle Archibald, a cofounder of Lamplighter Coffee Roasters. "People here have very broad interests that intersect, and they're really engaged."
Richmonders' tastes also echo that sentiment with neighborhood favorites ranging from Cuban cafe Kuba Kuba and gastro-dive Helen's (both set in the Fan District) to Perly's, a freshened-up Jewish delicatessen downtown. This deli's Instagram-worthy boards (artfully layered with smoked salmon, everything bagels, and fuchsia beet-stained hard-boiled eggs) stand up to any of those from New York City's renowned Russ & Daughters.
At L'Opossum, the paper lantern-lit domain of chef David Shannon, a cheeky approach to formal classics (menu items include "An Ebullient Bowl of Bouillabaisse" and "C'mon Simone, Let's Talk About Your Big Halibut") has earned them James Beard Award-semifinalist status.
WATCH: The South's Best Restaurant: L'Opossum
This distinction is shared by Sub Rosa Bakery, where brother-sister owners Evrim and Evin Dogu (the children of Turkish immigrants) mill their own stone-ground flour from Southern-grown grains and bake homemade bread in a wood-fired oven. Evin's morning selection of delicious chocolate croissants and pastries filled with fig and Manchego cheese provides reason enough to schedule a wake-up call.
Other insider recommendations: soul food kitchen Mama J's; Bamboo Cafe, with its Cheers-like vibe; Greek go-to Stella's, also offering a specialty grocery across the street; pimiento cheese-stuffed arepas and grain bowls at Goatocado; RappahannockOyster Co. for happy hour; and hot spot Little Nickel, with tiki drinks and "vacation food" such as Hawaiian Nachos and Octopus Tostada.
Richmond's renaissance continues to percolate at Lamplighter Coffee Roasters, where the city's movers and shakers meet to pore over future plans and college students brew new projects. Since its opening in 2009, Lamplighter has grown to include a trio of locations, but the Summit Avenue spot, with floor-to-ceiling garage doors, is known for its bright and buzzy feel.
Switch coffee for cocktails at The Roosevelt's intimate bar, where a classic old-fashioned is stirred together with the same attention as their original offerings like The Seersucker—with Maker's Mark bourbon, house-made sweet tea syrup, Angostura bitters, and a charred lemon cube.
For beer buffs, a pint crawl is easy to organize. Ardent Craft Ales' convivial courtyard is only blocks from a cluster of other breweries, some of more than 20 in the city, including Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, The Veil Brewing Co., and Blue Bee Cider.
"Richmond's style is funkier than I expected, but that's what makes it so attractive," says interior decorator Elly Poston Cooper, a Southern Living Contributing Editor who moved here last year. On Addison Street, boutiques combine elegance and earthiness, especially at Na Nin, where shoppers browse pieces by brands like Ace & Jig hung on lacquered pine branches. Here, owner Kate Jennings also sells her own line of fragrances, named after songs like "Landslide" and "Jolene." Down the street, Yesterday's Heroes remains a favorite of resident vintage enthusiasts who love its curated collection that avoids the chaos typically found in resale shops. At Rosewood Clothing Co., you'll feel like you're in the walk-in closet of a well-dressed friend. Don't overlook locally created items like necklaces by Jacqueline Davis' Surface Handmade, which are sought after by national retailers. In Carytown, Need Supply Co. has exploded from a denim-focused boutique into an online lifestyle retailer for popular brands like Aēsop, Clare V., and Farrow.
The effect of Virginia Commonwealth University's widely recognized music department (especially its jazz program), mixed with more established scenes in gospel and funk, reverberates at record stores like Deep Groove. Here, you can discover vinyl from such Richmond-based artists as Resound, Natalie Prass, and Andy Jenkins, who have all released albums under the Spacebomb Records label.
Richmond is known for its historic sites like St. John's Church (where Patrick Henry famously said, "Give me liberty or give me death!") and the Virginia State Capitol building (designed by Thomas Jefferson). But the city has recently been receiving
"When it comes to the Civil Rights Movement and African-American history, almost all roads lead through Richmond," says operations manager Mary C. Lauderdale. Now housed in the restored Leigh Street Armory downtown, the museum's exhibits embrace more complex stories about the contributions of African-Americans in Virginia. "The response we've seen in this location has been phenomenal," says Lauderdale. "It has really impacted the community positively."
During the summer, Belle Isle (an outcropping of smooth, flat rocks in the middle of the James River) becomes a natural gathering spot where groups of friends gab on picnic blankets, kayakers paddle nearby, and mountain bikers pedal across the footbridge stretching overhead. Set against Richmond's skyline, it provides the best view of this dynamic Southern city.