From the stately mansions on Monument Avenue to the ramshackle rowhouses of historic Jackson Ward, Richmond is a city of contrasts — populated by everyone from tattooed creatives to fresh-faced families to old-moneyed blue bloods who can trace their local lineage back centuries. And lately there’s another group joining the mix: curious visitors drawn to the city’s emerging status as a trendy Southern capital.
Today’s tourists aren’t just trudging through Civil War battlefields and dusty museums trumpeting the city’s past as the capital of the Confederacy. Instead, they’re more likely to embark on a tour of Richmond’s craft breweries, kayak the James River’s rapids and sample fare from a flourishing food scene. Richmond will never shake off its past, but the constant pull between old and new — and high and low — is part of its inherent charm. Navigating the highs and lows is easy enough, and mixing and matching is encouraged.
Like any Southern city worth its salt, Richmond has a genteel side that’s been carefully refined over the centuries. You can catch a glimpse during the envy-inducing holiday home tours of the city’s historic Fan district or at the French bistro Can Can, where decked-out ladies of leisure meet for mimosa-fueled lunches.
Until recently, most well-heeled visitors to Richmond would consider staying at only one address: the five-star Jefferson Hotel, a 121-year-old chestnut where alligators once frolicked in the fountain. While the grand dame of the city’s hotel scene is still going strong, the recently opened Quirk Hotel has stolen the old girl’s spotlight. Situated on bustling Broad Street, the 60,000-square-foot hotel is in the heart of the city’s burgeoning gallery district, with “Top Chef” star Mike Isabella’s Graffiato right across the street (and plenty more restaurants within spitting distance). Filled with paintings, photography and sculptures by contemporary Virginia artists, the space reflects its humble beginnings as a funky little gallery, and in fact, the painstakingly restored building — which used to be a department store — might be considered a work of art in itself. Besides the 75 design-driven guest rooms, Quirk has a coffee shop, a chef-driven restaurant and a rooftop bar slated to open in the spring that will offer panoramic views of the city.
The surrounding neighborhoods are easily walkable. Jackson Ward, once called the Harlem of the South, is a historically African American neighborhood that’s now home to diverse eateries ranging from soul food and Korean to a GWAR fan bar (it’s owned by one of the locally based members of the outlandish thrash-metal band). And downtown is culture central, with galleries, theaters and the National, a rock club on Broad Street that books big-name acts.
A car is necessary to get to surrounding neighborhoods that are worth a visit, including Church Hill. One of the city’s oldest communities, complete with gaslights and cobblestones, Church Hill has recently transformed into one of Richmond’s hippest, too. When it comes to food, it’s arguably the buzziest place to grab a bite, with the Roosevelt being one of the most sought-after tables in town. Chef Lee Gregory has been nominated for a James Beard Award for his inspired take on down-home Southern favorites (and adaptations from the North, such as Southern poutine with pimento cheese).
On a similarly quiet street a couple of miles away, the speakeasy-style Rogue Gentlemen has drawn diners out of their comfort zone with $15 cocktails and inspired Southern fare from chef Will Longoria. Try the tobacco-smoked duck breast with duck liver mousse and whiskey caramel, or go all out with the tasting menu (minimum three courses). Want something truly decadent? It doesn’t get more wackily regal than L’opossum’s Fabergé Egg Bedazzled With Caviar (accompanied by “vodka laced accoutrements et les jiggles de la champagne rose”). Situated in the working-class Oregon Hill neighborhood, this jewel box of a restaurant boasts a delightfully eccentric menu.
When it comes time to walk off all those calories, Richmond is replete with highbrow pursuits that often come at a low cost. Take the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which got an ultramodern, $150 million renovation in 2010. Visitors can browse the museum’s 33,000-plus works of art spanning thousands of years — from ancient Roman artifacts to paintings by Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Admission is free, as are walk-in highlights tours and Friday Art & Wine tours. (Special exhibitions, such as “Rodin: Evolution of a Genius,” on view through March 13, do have an entrance fee.)
If the weather’s nice, Maymont, a sprawling 19th-century estate, is a popular destination for city dwellers. Admission is free and includes access to lovingly manicured Japanese and Italian gardens, an arboretum, and a nature center with a kid-friendly petting zoo. Donations are suggested to tour the mansion, a well-preserved example of opulent Gilded Age design maintained by the nonprofit Maymont Foundation.
Richmond has always been a bit rough around the edges —and proudly so. It’s no surprise, then, that the often-elegant city is also a haven for penny-pinching travelers who don’t want to sacrifice style.
Whereas budget-minded visitors were once relegated to chain hotels in the suburbs, now they can stay right downtown at Richmond’s first hostel. HI Richmond Hostel offers everything from single-bunk rentals in shared rooms to private family rooms. Breakfast is included, along with perks such as free WiFi, lockers, and bike and kayak storage for anyone planning to explore the city’s extensive James River Park System. With exposed brick walls, funky furnishings and locally inspired murals throughout the building, this place sometimes feels more like a boutique hotel than a hostel — and it’s nearly impossible to believe that the building was once a women’s detention center.
A few blocks from the hostel, Perly’s Delicatessen is the perfect place to belly up to the bar for a cheap cup of coffee and a fresh bagel trucked in from New York, plus any number of fairly priced Jewish specialties — the matzo ball soup is a game-changer. Around the corner, Saison Market is a good bet for cheap eats from 9 a.m. to midnight. Start the morning with a “nitro” coffee and an Alton Brown-approved chicken biscuit (get it Nashville-style hot with sausage gravy on top), or stop by later in the day to grab a bottle of craft beer or wine and a toma cheese plate to enjoy on the petite patio.
By taking advantage of specials throughout the week, even the thriftiest diners can eat (and drink) well in Richmond if they know where to look. Case in point: the Jefferson Hotel’s swanky Lemaire restaurant, where from 4 to 7 p.m. every day, bar guests can enjoy $5 classic cocktails and three-for-$20 appetizer specials. If you’re in town on a Tuesday, you’re in luck: Church Hill’s German-influenced Metzger Bar & Butchery has $1 local oysters all night, which you can wash down with a glass of Austrian wine and a bowl of potato soup with speck and black truffle. Just down the street, Stroops Heroic Dogs specializes in gourmet hot dogs (think orange-glazed pork belly with squash butter, pepitas and queso fresco) for $6. To finish things off on a sweet note, swing by Sugar Shack for a gut-busting maple bacon doughnut.
Carytown, made up of nine blocks of locally owned establishments, is the nexus of a budget-friendly Richmond itinerary. The neighborhood has vintage shops galore, coffee shops and the beloved Chop Suey used bookstore (complete with a friendly shop cat). Come nightfall, you can catch a flick for $1.99 at the historic Byrd Theatre, where they still play the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ before screenings on Saturday nights. The strip even boasts a craft brewery, Garden Grove Brewing, but visitors will have to hop in the car to find some of the city’s bigger beer destinations. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery hosts concerts and food truck rallies throughout the week, and Legend Brewery offers a view of the city skyline — the perfect place to watch the sun set on your Richmond adventure.
More from Travel:
201 W. Broad St.
Situated in a renovated department store, this recent addition to Richmond’s hotel scene combines a fresh art collection and Instagram-worthy rooms with a chef-driven restaurant. Rooms are stocked with snacks and beer from local purveyors. Nightly rates start at $199.
HI Richmond Hostel
7 N. Second St.
Budget travelers can afford to stay downtown thanks to Richmond’s first hostel. With stylish common areas and setups to suit singles, couples and families, HI Richmond turns the old stereotype of loud, grimy hostels on its head. Nightly rates start at $30 for shared rooms.
623 N. 25th St.
Reservations are recommended for this cozy Church Hill spot, wildly popular for dinner, cocktails and Sunday brunch. Start with a Yass Queen cocktail or browse the extensive list of wines from Virginia vineyards, then dig into a plate of roasted catfish with “dirty” farro and collard greens. Entrees start at $13.
626 China St.
Visit this quirky restaurant for a taste of Chef David Shannon’s “French soul food” — and to check out his collection of miniature replicas of Michelangelo’s David. Shannon was recently named a semifinalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic by the James Beard Foundation. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 5 p.m.-midnight. Closed Sunday and Monday. Entrees start at $18.
323 N. Adams St.
The sister establishment and next-door neighbor of Southern fusion restaurant Saison, the Market is open from morning to night and boasts a smaller but more affordable menu. Take time to browse the impressive craft beer collection and tchotchkes from a local vintage seller. Entrees start at $4. Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
200 North Blvd.
It’s easy to get lost in the sprawling halls of this free art museum, which encompasses more than 30,000 works of art. Rodin is the current featured artist, and in June visitors will see Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic,” a collection of portraits that explores themes such as race, gender and politics. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and until 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. Free.
2908 W. Cary St.
Built in 1928, this National Historic Landmark looks much like it did in the early days, complete with a grand mezzanine, gold leaf arches and a 21/2-ton crystal chandelier. Most nights see two showtimes, but the theater also plays host to local film festivals. Open daily, showtimes vary. Regular features $1.99.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery
2408 Ownby Ln.
Richmond’s beer lovers gather at this popular weekend spot to sip brews around picnic tables, hear live music and play cornhole. Try the brewery’s refreshing Cream Ale, or opt for a seasonal selection such as spring’s Peach Tripel or summer’s Virginia Blackberry. Taproom is open Wednesday-Friday 4-9 p.m., Saturday 2-9 p.m. and Sunday noon-6 p.m.