Old Dominion’s most famous city is probably the state capital, Richmond, but the oft-overlooked Virginia Beach is the state’s most populous city—and an amazing tourist destination. Combining all the attraction of a seaside resort with historical importance, pride and a bit of Southern charm, Virginia Beach offers visitors plenty to see and do on the shores of the Atlantic, where the ocean meets Chesapeake Bay. Whether your idea of a relaxing vacation includes lounging on a sunny beach, fishing in a scenic park or learning more about the aquatic creatures who make their home here, Virginia Beach is the place for you. Virginia Beach attracts thousands of visitors each year and it’s not hard to see why. With festivals, great regional shopping, and plentiful outdoor activities—including a boardwalk, hiking, camping and boating in state parks—there is something to whet every appetite and pique every interest. Here are just 10 ideas of what to include on your Virginia Beach itinerary.
10. Explore Aquatic Life at the Marine Science Center
Given Virginia Beach’s proximity to the Atlantic and the sea’s important role in the area’s history and culture, it only makes sense that it would be home to an aquarium funded by both the city and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center Foundation. The aquarium is home to more than 800,000 gallons of aquatic exhibits in 4 different exhibit areas, including one focused on the Chesapeake Bay area. The exhibits are immersive and interactive, as part of the aquarium’s mission is to help educate the public and advocate conservation of vulnerable habitat and endangered species.
The Bay and Ocean Pavilion focuses on demonstrating the various types of aquatic ecosystems that occur in Virginia, from rivers to oceans. The exhibit includes a touch pool, where visitors can get up close and personal with some of the creatures. The Restless Planet exhibits are intended to show how aquatic forces have shaped Virginia over time. In the Marsh Pavilion, visitors can see river otters, seahorses and snakes. There is also an aviary, which showcases waterfowl and is home to about 70 individuals representing approximately 30 species.
9. Visit Thoroughgood House
In the neighborhood of Thoroughgood, you can visit one of the oldest colonial homes still standing in Virginia and indeed anywhere in the U.S. The house, once thought to have been built in 1636, dates to 1720 and much of the current structure was laid down by Argall Thoroughgood, the great-grandson of Adam Thoroughgood, one of the earliest colonists and a renowned community leader in Virginia Beach. Argall died during construction and the house was finished by his wife, Susannah, and his son John, who added many of the features the house is known for. The house has been restored 3 times, in 1923, 1957 and again in 2011. Since the late 1950s, the house has served as a museum.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is known for extensive wainscoting and paneling, as well as a dramatic spiral staircase. Guided tours of the house are given hourly on the half-hour and the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. The parlor and the passage have been furnished as they may have been circa 1720.
8. Attend the Neptune Festival
This annual festival has been held each year since its inception in 1973. The first festival attracted 50,000 visitors; today, 500,000 attendees revel in the streets of Virginia Beach during the final weekend of September. The event is free, with the exception of a sandsculpture viewing tent, which charges an admission fee. The Boardwalk Weekend is host to the North American Sandsculpting Championship, so the price is worth it to see the best of the best! Other attractions include a parade, a volleyball tournament, a surfing tournament and 5- and 8-kilometer races.
The festival was created by Richard Kline, then-president of the city’s chamber of commerce, to celebrate Virginia Beach’s heritage. The festival has since grown to include many local artists who showcase their crafts and sell to tourists looking for a unique momento. Daily concerts now happen at designated festival stages scattered throughout the boardwalk area. Food is plentiful as well and visitors can delight in sampling everything from crabcakes to authentic Italian cuisine! A fireworks display is usually scheduled for the Saturday night of the festival.
7. Check out the Cape Henry Lights
Two lighthouses stand at Cape Henry, one of the most important signals in the history of the United States. The lights are used to warn the considerable shipping traffic that moves through the area on the way to ports in Chesapeake Bay and on nearby rivers. The first lighthouse was built in 1792 and was the first lighthouse authorized by the federal government of the United States. In 1881, a newer structure was built following concerns about the stability of the original building.
The 2 lighthouses stand side-by-side on the coast. The 1792 tower was designed by John McComb Jr., and is constructed of Aquia Creek sandstone, the same as used in the White House. It was damaged during the Civil War, but restored in 1863. A lightning strike in the 1870s cracked the foundation and led to the construction of a new, higher tower, 350 feet to the southeast. The old tower remains standing today and is used as a daymark and for triangulation. The new tower was fully automated in 1983 and remains operational today. The lighthouse is open to the public and you can enjoy the view from the observation deck.
6. Stroll the Boardwalk
As you may have guessed from the Neptune Festival entry, Virginia Beach is home to a fantastic boardwalk. The famous area is a 3-mile long strip along the coast with fantastic oceanfront views. A number of hotels and attractions are linked by the concrete path. It functions as an entertainment district for tourists and beach-goers, offering up concerts and other performances such as magic shows and juggling. The boardwalk is also a great area for people-watching. The number of outdoor cafes only adds to the area’s appeal. Cyclists can use the bike path and surreys can be rented for use on the boardwalk. The esplanade is also handicap accessible, and many ramps lead down to the sandy shore.
The hotels along the strip are famed for their ocean views. With several museums also located along the boardwalk, the area is also considered by many to be the “heart” of Virginia Beach. There are also numerous monuments and sculptures along the strip, as well as the Virginia Legends Walk, which showcases some of the state’s most famous citizens, including Ella Fitzgerald and Thomas Jefferson.
5. Conquer Mount Trashmore
Driving toward the ocean along I-264, you’ll likely notice a huge hill rising from the horizon to 60 feet and stretching along for 800 feet. This is the highest point in Virginia Beach, a man-made hill called Mount Trashmore because, well, it’s made out of compacted layers of solid waste and clean soil.
While that might sound disgusting rather than attractive, Mount Trashmore is surrounded by a 165-hectare park that includes 2 lakes (Lake Trashmore and Lake Windsor) where fishing is permitted and a skate park. The park is an example of landfill reuse; the area was a dump site until the early 1970s when it was converted to a park. Since its conversion, the park has become one of the more popular parks in Virginia Beach, with an average of 1 million visitors per year. The park boasts several walking trails, including a “mountain” trail that takes you up to the tip-top of Mount Trashmore. There are several playground areas for children and basketball and volleyball courts. The park is open 7 days a week from 7:30 a.m. until sundown.
4. Discover Henry Town
Discovered in 1955, Henry Town is an archaeological site that was only recently determined to be the Henry Town settlement referred to in several early colonial documents. The town was first described in a 1613 letter. Other documents from about the same time mention several forts at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, one of which might have been Henry Town. Excavation of the site since 1955 has revealed artifacts that date to around 1635, suggesting connection with Adam Thoroughgood and his plantation.
Currently, the site is being recreated and will eventually feature more than a dozen structures that replicate an early English colonial setting, such as the one believed to be at Henry Town. The area will also feature an outdoor stage and performances of historical dramas. The constructions are expected to cost around $700,000 and will turn the site into both a museum and a tourist destination commemorating early colonial times and one of the earliest established towns in Virginia.
3. Shop at Lynnhaven Mall
One of the largest malls in the Virginia Beach area is the super-regional Lynnhaven Mall, an enclosed shopping center that opened in 1981. Since then, the mall has served as an important economic retail location for Virginia Beach. The mall, with over 1 million square feet of retail space, is one of the largest malls not just in Virginia, but along the entirety of the East Coast.
The mall is currently undergoing renovations, as the mezzanine is being dismantled and a vacant space, once occupied by Lord & Taylor department store, is being demolished. These renovations debuted a new food court and an open atrium in late 2014. The mall’s carousel, which had greeted shoppers since the building’s opening, was removed to make way for another 29,000 square feet of space. The mall also features an outdoor pedestrian plaza near the AMC theater, which is known as “the Inlet.” The mall features 3 anchor stores and around 180 shops in total. While the shops that are in the mall have changed over the decades, a number of luxury goods, department stores and services have locations in the mall. Apple, AMC theater, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Macy’s and H&M all have locations currently.
2. Explore the Tidewater Arboretum
The Tidewater Arboretum is a great place to spend a sunny afternoon and enjoy a relaxing hike. The 5-acre park is maintained by Virginia Tech’s Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center. The arboretum was founded in the 1970s and is home to 12 theme gardens and small, woody plants that thrive in the Southeastern Virginian climate. The arboretum is open daily and admission is free. About 1,000 different plants have been planted in the park since its inception.
The arboretum was founded with an eye to promoting the types of plants that can be found in small gardens in urban areas in Virginia Beach. Arranged by scientific name and family, the plants showcase what’s available in the nursery trade and being propagated by Virginia growers. It’s also a quiet and relaxing spot, a haven of nature, in the midst of an urban industrial park, which demonstrates how nature and green spaces can be incorporated into city landscapes.
1. Visit First Landing State Park
The first planned park within the state of Virginia, First Landing State Park is near the site of the first landing on April 26, 1607. Located near Cape Henry, the park boasts over 19 miles of trails that are popular for biking and hiking. Swimming and fishing are also popular at this seaside park. Camping facilities are available for a fee. Boating and picnicking are other activities commonly enjoyed by the park’s 1 million annual visitors. It is the most popular state park in Virginia and has also been designated on the National Register of Historic Places.
Due to its location as the site of the first landing, the park also offers several educational history programs, as well as nature programs designed to enhance understanding and appreciation of the ecosystems in the area. Some of the land includes cypress swamp area and lagoons, bays and marshes are also encompassed by the park’s area. Guided kayak tours are available, enabling exploration of this unique area.