Northern Virginians who visit the General Assembly may be in for a surprise this year. Richmond, the old gray lady of the Confederacy, is on the move.

It's no longer necessary to limit your choices on an overnight visit to a room (albeit refurbished) at the Hotel John Marshall, a stand-up lunch of hot dog and hard-boiled egg at Chicken's snack bar in the Capitol and return to your room in time for the evening news because there is nothing else to do.

Two mall-like centers have opened downtown, along with several fine restaurants, since the close of last year's session of the General Assembly.

The centerpiece of Richmond's renaissance is the Sixth Street Marketplace, the local version of Baltimore's Harborplace and Norfolk's Waterside.

Richmond planners eschewed the Rouse Co.'s successful formula of building on the waterfront (although a James River project is still planned), and gambled instead by putting the boutiques and restaurants in the heart of the old downtown at Sixth and Market.

It's too soon to tell if it will pay off (post-holiday crowds have not been large), but the Marketplace is an artistic success and is ideal for visitors, especially those who stay at the 18-month-old Marriott Hotel right next door.

The best design idea was to squeeze the Marketplace between the city's two major department stores, Thalhimer's and Miller and Rhoads, both of which can be reached from the mall.

The other new facility is called Main Street Station, a collection of about 50 shops, many of them outlet and off-price, in what once was a grand train depot in Shockoe Bottom, just east of the downtown area.

A new fleet of rubber-wheeled trolleys links the two shopping attractions, both of which include fast-food shops and restaurants.

A sure sign of downtown revitalization is the appearance of businesses formerly located exclusively beyond the central business district. That's what several restaurateurs have done recently, including owners of the Commercial Cafe, a landmark in the Fan district for more than 100 years, which has opened a second barbecue eatery in the Marketplace, and the Peking, with its elegant Peking Pavilion in Shockoe Slip.

The most ambitious of these ventures is The Aviary, located on the ground floor of the Dominion Bank Building at the corner of Ninth and Cary streets, a gleaming glass tower that is the first of what is to be a six-building complex known as the James Center.

The Aviary, under the same management as The Butlery, a West End culinary landmark, is a lobbyist's dream: sophisticated, pricey and within walking distance of the legislative chambers.

It features a decor of glass, brass and colorful papier-mache tropical birds that give it the look of a Gauguin museum -- and prices that may make you think you're in Washington, if not New York. If the waiting time is an indication, customers must think it's worth it. Call ahead, and be prepared to have a drink in the bar.

Speaking of museums, no trip to Richmond this winter is complete without a stop at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Its new West Wing, largely the gift of two families, the Mellons of Upperville and the Lewises of Richmond, has catapulted the museum to world-class status.

But back to those twin staples of any legislative session, eating and drinking.

Just beyond downtown, in the trendy Fan District, is Le Bistro Francais, the creation of Lain O'Ferrall, a political aficionado cum congenial host.

O'Ferrall, who was Charles Robb's finance chairman four years ago, got the idea for Le Bistro while having dinner in Washington's Le Fleur Restaurant.

His hometown needed such a quality French restaurant, he decided, so, bolstered by another martini, he asked to see the chef.

The rest, as they say, is history. The former Le Fleur chef is now O'Ferrall's partner in an informal, noisy, moderately priced bistro that is fast becoming the place to be seen.

And the old favorites are still around: The Tobacco Company and Sam Miller's Warehouse in Shockhoe Slip; P.T. O'Malley's and Traveller's (in the basement of Robert E. Lee's home) downtown, along with overpriced restaurants in the Commonwealth Park and Marriott hotels.

None of these fun-filled diversions is likely to be available, however, if the purpose of your trip is to attend a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee. Its new chairman, Arlington septuagenarian Dorothy McDiarmid, is a proponent of early-to-bed, early-to-rise, who favors before-breakfast hearings, some beginning at the infamous hour of 7 a.m.

But getting to Richmond is not yet half the fun. Part of the will-they-ever-get-it-done widening of Rte. I-95 has been completed, but it's still likely to be bumper-to-bumper part of the way.

An alternative is the train, but its limited schedule may not fit yours. The four daily trips do not include any morning departures from Union Station or Alexandria (the first one leaves Cameron Station at 2:52 p.m.), but they are convenient for coming down for an overnight stay and a morning hearing; the last return train leaves Richmond at 12:50 p.m. The roundtrip fare is a bargain $22.50 ($1 more from Union Station), although it's a $10-or-so cab ride from the suburban station here to the State Capitol.

Flying is another option, with a typical one-way fare of $50, plus an $8.50 limousine ride downtown. It's only a 40-to-50-minute flight from National to Byrd, although you're not there when you get there, as the Amtrak commercials put it. (The same can be said about the train to Richmond.) Three airlines that you may never have heard of connect the two cities: American Eagle, Henson and Wheeler.

Frequent bus service from Washington is available via Trailways and Greyhound. Roundtrip fare is $25.30 ($16.70 one way) for the two-hour, 15-minute trip. Trailways has the more convenient route -- its Richmond terminal is located two blocks from the Capitol. The Greyhound terminal is several miles from downtown, and requires a connecting ride on a city bus (No. 24, Lakeside, 65 cents) or cab. Greyhound has 18 daily trips from the District of Columbia, and eight from Alexandria (same price); Trailways has 15 a day from the District, including nine that stop at the Springfield Shopping Center on Backlick Road.

Groome Transportation, which uses vans, picks up passengers in front of the United Terminal at National Airport on the half-hour from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., and delivers to a West End motel. The fare is $23 one way. Tell the driver at National that you are going to the state Capitol, and a car will be waiting to take you there for an extra $6. Return trips from the motel here are on the hour between 6:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.