The stately Southern granddame of Richmond has been Virginia's state capital since 1780. Although a bastion of history, it also has all the hallmarks of a lively and modern urban centre. Acting as an ideal gateway to the rest of the state, a range of attractions is within easy reach and visitors can enjoy the neighbouring sights and sounds of the ocean, mountains, battlefields, historic colonial Williamsburg, or even drive into Washington DC to visit the nation's capital.
Richmond has played an enormous role in American history, particularly as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Today visitors can enjoy a host of monuments, battlefields, cemeteries, and museums that hark back to the days when Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee held out against the Union. This is not a city stuck in the past, however, and there are numerous modern attractions including an active nightlife, plenty of restaurants, bars, and outdoor concerts. A stroll along the attractive Canal Walk and the restored Haxall and Kanawha Canals is a great way to relax. There is also the option to catch a boat, some tours include an historical narration, or there is the 'drive yourself' option.
The cityscape is an interesting combination of modern high rise office complexes housing financial institutions, Fortune 500 Companies, government offices, hospitals and universities, and the more charming cobblestone, gas-lit streets flanked by 19th-century warehouses, and a 300-year old farmers' market, filled with the scent of ripe fruit and fresh flowers.
Richmond's Capitol Square is an oasis of old trees and green lawns in the heart of the downtown area, perched on a hilltop. The magnificent centrepiece is the neo-classical State Capitol building, designed by Thomas Jefferson, which has been in continuous use since 1788. In the Capitol's Rotunda stands Virginia's most treasured artwork, the life-sized statue of George Washington sculpted by Jean Antoine Houdon, for whom Washington posed.
Another highlight of the square is the Governor's Mansion, home of Virginia governors since 1813. The mansion, which has been restored, still contains its original woodwork, plaster cornices, and ornamental ceilings and is open for tours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays (first floor only). Other historic buildings in the square include the old Bell Tower, dating from 1824, which houses a visitor centre providing tourist information about Virginia; and the Neo-classical Old Finance Building.
There are a few notable statues within the square, including General Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson, Governor William 'Extra Billy' Smith, and poet Edgar Allen Poe. On nice days, visitors can stroll around the Colgate Darden Memorial Garden, a pretty pedestrian walkway along the north-eastern side of the square.
Civil War buffs flock to the Museum of the Confederacy, which houses the most comprehensive collection of Confederate artefacts, personal memorabilia, and art to be found anywhere in the United States. The exhibits include 550 battle flags, 215 uniforms, including those of well-known officers, and 1,000 military buttons. Art works on display include E.B.D. Julio's heroic painting, 'The Last Meeting of Lee and Jackson'.
Beside the museum is the White House of the Confederacy, the 1818 mansion in which Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family lived during the Civil War. It is still furnished with original items. Visitors have to join a tour to see the White House. These depart regularly throughout the day.
Between 1861 and 1865, Union armies repeatedly set out to capture Richmond, strategic capital of the Confederacy, and end the Civil War. Three of those campaigns came within a few miles of the city. The park commemorates 11 different sites associated with those campaigns, including the battlefields at Gaines' Mill, Malvern Hill, and Cold Harbor. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln made a historic visit to the battlefields of Richmond days before his assassination, urging an end to the war.
Established in 1936, the park protects 763 acres of historic ground. There is a visitor centre in the Tredegar Irons Works on Richmond Riverfront Canal Walk at the corner of Tredegar and 5th Streets. Here, visitors can watch a film depicting the battles around the city and get information about self-guided tours of the battlefields. There are roughly seven miles (11.2km) of well-maintained walking trails around the battlefields.
Richmond boasts an exceptional Fine Arts Museum, which presents a panorama of world art from ancient to modern, including the largest public Fabergé imperial Easter egg collection outside of Russia, consisting of roughly 150 jewel-encrusted creations made for Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II. The Museum is also home to a collection of English silver, one of the world's leading collections of the art of India, Nepal, and Tibet, and six Gobelin Don Quixote tapestries.
St John's Church has stood on Richmond Hill above the James River since 1741, and is known for having been the venue for the second Virginia Convention in 1775, attended by George Washington and other historic personalities. The church is also where legendary Pocahontas was baptised and married to John Rolfe. The wooden building is still home to its original pulpit and some exquisite stained-glass windows. Between May and September, living history performances are given every Sunday recreating the historic Second Virginia Convention. Informative tours explore the historic significance of the church building and grounds.
The hands-on Virginia Science Museum allows visitors to touch, feel, observe and explore the impact of science on their lives, covering everything from astronomy to computers, and crystals to flight engineering. Permanent exhibitions include Foucault's Pendulum, Gravity Alley, Electriworks, Watt Wall, and the fun Imagination Playground. Live demonstrations are given daily on each level: Level One has programmes aimed at younger children, while the Levels Two and Three demonstrations include animal dissections. Other special events are held regularly, with schedules available on the website. The Science Museum is housed in a soaring historic building, the former Broad Street Station designed in 1919 by John Russell Pope. The fascinating and fun museum is complemented by a 275-seat Ethyl Universe Planetarium and Space Theatre that screens Omnimax films on the domed screen, as well as providing multimedia planetarium shows.
Richmond has a humid subtropical climate, with hot, humid summers and mild winters. Late May heralds the start of warm summer days, and the peak summer months, between June and August, can be very hot and humid, with temperatures ranging between 65°F (18°C) and 100°F (38°C). Some relief from the summer heat is provided by rain showers, with July the wettest month of the year. Days stay warm to mild through to October, when autumn is marked by nights once again becoming chilly. December and January are the coldest winter months, with temperatures ranging between 28°F (-2°C) and 51°F (11°C). Light snowfalls occur from the end of November, but most snow falls in January.
The Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) runs the public bus system that serves the Richmond metropolitan area. Those who don't want to fuss with exact change can buy a Go-Card at almost any convenience or grocery store. The bus routes access most of the major cultural attractions in Richmond and are therefore useful for tourists. Richmond is well supplied with more than 40 taxi companies, with cab ranks outside most major hotels, the airport, Amtrak, and the Greyhound terminal. The city also offers plenty of walking tours and is relatively compact and easy to negotiate on foot. It is worth hiring a car to explore the outlying regions, but not entirely necessary if staying in town, traffic is usually fairly light and parking relatively easy to find which makes driving in Richmond a pleasure.
The capital of Virginia, Richmond is not only rich in American history, but is also a modern urban space where visitors will find something to suit every taste.
In terms of history, Richmond certainly delivers. Home to some incredible museums and historical sites, such as St John's Episcopal Church, The Museum of the Confederacy and the Virginia Historical Society, those with an interest in the American Revolution and the Civil War will be very happy here. The State Capitol is a favourite with visitors.
For those with less interest in history and more in the arts, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts houses a world-class collection of classical American and European sculptures and paintings. Visitors will also enjoy the River District where trendy restaurants can be found occupying century-old warehouses and bands entertain crowds on the lawns of Brown's Island. For lovers of science and the more left-brain thinkers among tourists, the Virginia Science Museum will not disappoint.
Whatever their interests, there is something to keep all visitors to Richmond entertained and those travelling with kids will find the city very family-friendly.
Following the Blue Ridge Mountains for 100 miles (161km) through west Virginia, the Shenandoah National Park is a nature reserve where tens of thousands of animals, including deer and black bears, roam among about 100 species of trees on the forested slopes.
More than 500 miles (800km) of hiking trails snake through the area from the azalea-trimmed Skyline Drive, the 105-mile (169km) long road that runs through the park from the Piedmont Plateau, providing wonderful vistas of the Shenandoah Valley from its overlooks. Services and visitor centres are available on the drive, but are closed during winter.
Wildflower weekend is celebrated in May, and ranger-led tours and programmes are offered between April and October. There are also special activities for kids as part of a 'junior rangers' programme; a schedule is available from the park's website.
The sedate town of Lexington, 138 miles (222km) west of Richmond in the Shenandoah Valley, contains one of the most picturesque downtown areas in America, its fine old buildings having been preserved and restored so it appears that the clock stopped here in the 1800s.
Tourists visit the town simply for its ambience, and perhaps to pay tribute to Civil War General Robert E. Lee, who after the war served as president of the Washington and Lee University and was eventually buried in Lexington along with his famous horse, Traveller.
Apart from the University, which has one of the oldest and most attractive campuses in the country, Lexington is also home to the Virginia Military Institute, one of whose graduates was General George C. Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Institute now has a museum dedicated to his memory.
There are many fun outdoor activities and attractions to enjoy in Lexington. To enjoy the local scenery, visitors can drive along several scenic routes, including Appalachian Waters Scenic Byway, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Rockbridge Rides. Geocaching, hiking, canoeing, horseback riding, and golf are all popular activities. Local orchards, wineries, breweries, and coffee roasteries also offer tastings in the scenic greater Lexington region.
One of Virginia's most popular tourist attractions and the highlight of any historical Virginia tour, is the colonial estate of George Washington, Mount Vernon. The plantation has been restored to look just as it did during Washington's era, having been purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1858 and kept as a historic monument ever since. Consisting of 500 acres (202 ha) situated on the Potomac River, the gardens, mansion, and other buildings are open to the public, where costumed employees demonstrate life in the 18th century. Visitors can even tour Washington's Tomb, which holds ceremonial wreath-layings at 10am and 2pm.
In 2007, Mount Vernon was given permission to reopen Washington's distillery, which now produces its own whiskey, available only at the Mount Vernon Gift Shop. The estate offers tours of the mansion and grounds, sightseeing cruises on the Potomac River, and special tours showing scenes from the movie National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets. Mount Vernon is a popular excursion from Washington DC, and draws more than one million visitors each year.
Monticello was the estate of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence. The distinctive neoclassical building of the main house was designed by Jefferson himself, and he continued to improve and add to it throughout his life, over a period of 40 years. Jefferson died with massive debts, forcing his children to sell of most of the furnishings, and then the plantation itself. The house itself, made up of 43 rooms, is furnished with a blend of the original furniture and period pieces.
Jefferson's time at Monticello is surrounded by controversy regarding his treatment of his slaves, and particular relationship with one named Sally Hemings. Monticello has several multimedia exhibitions that deal frankly with the president's slave ownership, and archaeologists are constantly researching the subject.
The outbuildings and gardens are all open to the public, and offer some stunning sights with beautifully-cultivated flower gardens filled with cabbage roses, foxglove, lilacs, and more. The gardens are also home to the Center for Historic Plants, a project started by Jefferson himself.
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