Welcome to Norfolk, a 400-year-old port city in the heart of the mid-Atlantic. Bordering one of the world’s largest natural harbours, this historic city is home to a young, hip population who love Norfolk’s walkable downtown area, waterfront parks, and enticing array of restaurants, clubs, and arts venues. Toss in the city’s historic sites, add a dozen fantastic festivals, mix in sports and music, and you have the ingredients for a Southern city that charms.
Norfolk’s rich history is easy to discover — thanks to a self-guided tour called the Cannonball Trail. Just grab a map at the tourist office and start walking. Sidewalk medallions and narrative plaques keep you on track, and you can relive 400 years of history on a two-hour walk.
One of the most popular sites in town is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (built in 1739), which survived Lord Dunsmore’s attack during the Revolutionary War — two-thirds of the city did not. You can still see a cannonball lodged in the brick wall surrounding the churchyard. The historic trail also incorporates Norfolk’s role in the Underground Railroad, a network of sites offering safe haven for runaway slaves en route to Canada during the 1800s.
Overlooking the Elizabeth River, Town Point Park in Downtown Norfolk hosts lively festivals all year long like Harborfest, held every June since 1976: a four-day celebration known as the area’s largest dock party. Besides music, food, and fireworks, festival-goers line up to watch the Parade of Sail — tall ships and schooners that sail into the harbour and welcome you aboard for tours and chats.
Next to Town Point Park is Nauticus, the National Maritime Museum, a ship-shaped attraction that focuses on the region’s waterways and how they contribute to Norfolk’s economy and quality of life. It’s also home to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which celebrates Norfolk’s long affiliation with the U.S. Navy. On permanent display beside Nauticus is the Battleship Wisconsin, a decommissioned ship — 877 feet — which saw battle in WWII and the Korean War. Norfolk is also home to the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk.
Another can’t-miss city attraction is the Chrysler Museum, which reopens in spring 2014 after extensive renovation including new ‘green’ updates. Besides its world-renowned art collection — including one of the largest, most comprehensive glass collections in the world — the Chrysler recently opened the doors to its state-of-the-art Glass Studio, which offers demos and classes. Every third Thursday, the studio hosts an after-hours gathering: an eclectic mix of visual, culinary, and performing arts.
Restaurants abound in Norfolk. From steakhouses to cosy bistros, endless choices promise a wide variety of fare whether you crave the latest fusion cuisine or comfort food. From downtown, hop on the city’s new light rail system — known as The Tide — and hop off in Norfolk’s Ghent, an historic neighbourhood where you can sit on sunny terraces and sip a local, handcrafted beer — perfect with a juicy burger at Kelly’s, small plates at Pasha Mezze, or a healthy vegetarian meal at Luna Maya.
Header photo: Sunset on the Norfolk skyline © Missy Schmidt
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Have you visited Norfolk’s nautical attractions? Where would you recommend in the city? Share your thoughts with us below.
Written by Peggy Sijswerda
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About the author: PeggyPeggy Sijswerda
Peggy Sijswerda lives in Virginia Beach and edits and publishes two regional magazines: Tidewater Women and Tidewater Family. She freelances on the side, combining her passion for travel, her love of writing, and her insatiable curiosity about everything from architecture to zydeco. Currently she’s planning a trip to Andalusia, where she will follow the brandy route and try not to get lost. Her Dutch husband, Peter, and their three sons sometimes accompany Peggy on her adventures, but she also loves traveling solo. She recently completed a memoir, Still Life with Sierra, which follows Peggy and her family as they lose themselves in Europe for six months, trying to find home.