NORFOLK, Va.—Back in the colonial days of America, English settlers realized that the Elizabeth River in Virginia could become the lifeblood of a city. Its natural harbor and connection to Chesapeake Bay made it an important hub for trade.
Today, that city, Norfolk, still strongly embraces its identity as a waterfront town. Its gentle, flowing waters cast a spell on locals and visitors alike.
As one Norfolk resident said, “The river has a calming effect on everyone.” Easily accessible through streets that lead straight to the water’s edge, the river provides a momentary reprieve from whatever is troubling your mind. Here, you can let your guard down, get lost in the serene sunset views, and savor the quieter, less-chaotic rhythm of a small city.
But the city is not all looks. As one of the country’s earliest settled areas (the city is less than 60 miles from Jamestown and Williamsburg), Norfolk has a rich colonial history, seen in its military presence—the world’s largest naval station is housed here—and charming historic neighborhoods filled with colonial architecture, like the Ghent and Freemason districts.
Despite its village-like size, Norfolk has plenty to see and do. In the past few years, the city has witnessed a growing arts scene, contributing to the revival of some parts of town, and the emergence of fun eateries beyond steakhouses and chain restaurants.
Places to Visit
The Downtown Waterfront
Boasting excellent views of the Elizabeth River, Town Point Park is lined with a boardwalk along the waterfront for leisurely strolls. Also located on the park is the Nauticus museum, which houses an aquarium, a naval history museum (with exhibits tracing why Norfolk’s waterways became a strategic military position), and the USS Wisconsin battleship (which served in several conflicts, most recently Operation Desert Storm, before it was decommissioned). The entire battleship is open for people to explore and learn how naval officers spend time in such tight quarters.
Docked on the banks of the river is the Victory Rover, which brings visitors on a cruise ship to tour the harbor and the Norfolk naval station. A seasoned guide narrates how Norfolk’s port developed over time and explains the capabilities of different ships docked at the naval base.
Chrysler Museum and the NEON District
The Chrysler Museum of Art houses one of the world’s largest glass collections, with more than 10,000 glass objects from ancient civilizations to today. Some of the most memorable pieces are exquisite works of Tiffany glass. The museum also has a collection of ancient and contemporary art, including a poignant photo exhibit on women who took part in the civil rights movement. (The exhibit runs until Oct. 30.)
Across the street from the museum, the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio regularly offers glassmaking classes and free demonstrations of glass blowing.
A couple of blocks away, the city’s newly commissioned NEON arts district (transformed from an industrial part of town) gives artists space to showcase their work. The district is full of art galleries, live performances, and vibrantly colored mural art.
If you get hungry after all that art-viewing, stop by Zeke’s Beans and Bowls, a casual cafe with delicious, freshly pressed juices, Intelligentsia coffee, and an eclectic menu drawing from places around the world that the owners—who are avid surfers—have visited. One such dish is the Southern Loco Moco, a play on the Hawaiian rice dish, with sunny side up egg, Southern-style sausage gravy, and Spanish chorizo—a trifecta of creamy, piquant, and spicy ($6.50).
MacArthur Memorial and Downtown Area
The influential war general Douglas MacArthur is buried in Norfolk because his family’s roots lie here. The memorial houses an extensive exhibit that chronicles MacArthur’s career, from his early days in West Point Military Academy to commanding U.S. forces in the Asia–Pacific region during World War II and directing the occupation of Japan. The exhibit opens a window into the general’s private life, with family mementos like his wedding invitation card and gifts he received while in Asia.
The downtown area also has a large shopping mall named after MacArthur. The main thoroughfare, Granby Street, is home to many restaurants. Field Guide is a great spot for flavorful, veggie-filled salads, rice bowls, and sandwiches. The Marrakeshy bowl is a combination of crunchy textures (chickpeas, nuts, carrots, pickled red cabbage, leafy greens), creamy horseradish aioli, and pecorino cheese ($7.50). Add housemade soda and addictive sweet potato chips for a full meal.
The Ghent neighborhood, named after the Belgian city where the United States and Britain signed the treaty to end the War of 1812, is lined with boutique shops, restaurants, bars, and breweries. A walk through the area takes you past old townhouses still standing from the city’s era of seafaring merchants and sailors.
The Ten Top serves enormous sandwiches that satisfy, such as the Pulled Pork BBQ Sandwich, with Carolina-style, vinegar-based barbecue pork braised for eight hours, topped with fresh slaw and hot sauce ($7.95). This sandwich is so laden with fillings, you’ll have to eat it with a fork.
More Places to Eat
Norfolk’s proximity to Chesapeake Bay means access to amazing seafood. A.W. Shuck’s is an old-school seafood restaurant and local haunt that serves fresh shellfish, the daily catch, and grilled steaks. But you’re here to taste the sea’s bounty, like the Oyster Stew, a mighty heap of plump oysters and mashed potatoes in a cream chowder, sprinkled with bacon and vegetables ($12.95). Hearty but not overly rich, the dish highlights the sweetness of the oysters.
Todd Jurich’s Bistro
Todd Jurich’s Bistro takes a New American approach to local seafood, featuring seasonal fish and shellfish dishes influenced by the diverse cuisines that inform America’s palate. The she-crab “chowda,” the restaurant’s rendition of a classic Southern soup, goes for a tomato-based, peppery stew instead of the usual bisque-like preparation ($11). An appetizer of seared foie gras, called Our French Kiss, was also delightful. Paired with Armagnac-soaked cherries, goat cheese ice cream, and johnny cakes, the dish is an imaginative contrast of buttery richness with tart, sweet, and savory.
For the ultimate crab dish, get the Carolina Sea Bass and Lump Crab Norfolk, a slab of lightly seasoned, seared North Carolina sea bass beside a heap of the most unbelievably sweet yet briny crabmeat from the bay ($34). It’s drizzled with lemon butter for extra velvety texture. For dessert, try the homemade pecan pie, with a chocolaty filling and brown sugar cinnamon ice cream ($10).
Le Grand Kitchen
Le Grand Kitchen uses Virginia’s local produce to create fun, Southern-inspired dishes. The atmosphere, too, is casual and lively, with patrons of all ages.
For appetizers, you can taste the simple goodness of perfectly charred figs and peaches, mingling with blue cheese, hazelnuts, and mint ($10); funky pimento cheese on toasted brioche ($6); or a deviled egg “schmear”—cooked egg yolks blended into a smooth paste with smoked paprika and chives, addictive when spread on Ritz crackers ($6). The seasonal tilefish entree with Surry sausage, okra, sweet corn, clams, and padron peppers brings to mind New Orleans-style jambalaya, but with a more concentrated broth—full of smoky, oceanic umami ($22).
Make sure to visit this spot for breakfast. The sweet potato biscuits are ingenious, as the sweet potato prevents the pastry from becoming dry and crumbly, giving it a soft, chewy texture with a hint of sweetness. The Shorty biscuit sandwich, with over-easy eggs and cheese, is popular ($3.50), but the Dill Na Na is a fantastic combination of onion-potato frittata with tangy dill mayo ($4.75).
Doumar’s Cones and Barbecue
Stepping into Doumar’s is like traveling back in time to the height of American diners and drive-in restaurants. Surprisingly, the prices also haven’t changed much (all under $6). Since 1904, the restaurant has been serving North Carolina-style barbecue, hot dogs, burgers, and ice cream—made famous because its first owner, Abe Doumar, invented the world’s first waffle cone. To this day, the cones are made by hand ($2.10 for one scoop, $3.10 for two).