“Virginia is for Lovers,” according to the tourist advertising and bumper stickers. If you visit, you’ll find out for yourself it lives up to its hype! As the first of the 13 colonies, its historical sites go back to the earliest days of the country. The natural landscape offers mountains, country, seashore, and urban centers. Its combination of attractions is unique, all packed into one state. We’ve created a “must-visit” list of unique places in Virginia to get you started, but you’ll want to make more than one trip to see them all! Because these sites are so different from each other, there’s no way we could choose which ones are better than others, so we’ve chosen to list them in alphabetical order.
1. Appomattox Courthouse
Appomattox Court House is the site of one of the final battles of the Civil War, a victory for the Union. Subsequently, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, touching off surrenders across the South and effectively ending the Civil War. The house where the surrender took place has been preserved for the public, and the grounds are well-kept to give you a sense of what the battlefield looked like in 1865.
2. Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery is located on the estate of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It is one of two cemeteries maintained by the United States Army for the internment of deceased U.S. military personnel. Today some 400,000 veterans are buried there. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located there. Paying one’s respects at the cemetery can be an emotionally moving experience that reminds us of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.
3. Bacon’s Castle
Bacon’s Castle in Surry Virginia, built in 1665, is the oldest brick building in the United States. It is a rare New World example of Jacobean architecture. It became notorious as a stronghold used during Nathaniel Bacon’s 1676 uprising, known as Bacon’s Rebellion, though Bacon himself didn’t own it and probably never visited it in person.
4. Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic road winding through the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a subset of the larger Appalachian range. The drive is especially popular when the autumn leaves are at their peak but is beautiful any time of the year. The mountains get their name from a characteristic blue haze that gives them a romantic, misty look. It is one of the most unique places in Virginia, unlike any mountains you’ve seen in other parts of the country.
Charlottesville, in central Virginia, is famous as the site of Thomas Jefferson’s home and the University of Virginia, which he founded. Jefferson also had a taste for wine and grew grapes on his estate. Virginia’s modern wine country centers on Charlottesville, with some 80 wineries in the region. Wine tours are popular with locals and tourists.
6. Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
Built in 1964, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is a 17.6-mile scenic road that offers beautiful views of the Bay. It connects Virginia’s Eastern Shore on the Delmarva Peninsula with Hampton Roads on the mainland of the state – a route that previously required a ferry ride.
7. Chincoteague Ponies
Assateague and Chincoteague are barrier islands off the eastern shore of Virginia that host herds of several hundred wild ponies. They likely arrived on the island from shipwrecks of Spanish ships transporting them to the New World. Every July local wildlife authorities round them up and auction off the foals. These ponies gained extra fame from the perennially popular young adult book Misty of Chincoteague.
8. James River
The James River is contained entirely within the state of Virginia. It starts with two tributaries in the Appalachians and winds its way east across the state to Richmond, the state capital, and then on to Chesapeake Bay. Inner tubing and fishing are popular recreation on the river. You can even go whitewater rafting at the falls of the river within sight of downtown Richmond.
The site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World is Jamestown, Virginia, located on the James River near Colonial Williamsburg. It served as the first colonial capital. Visitors today can see ruins and archeological remains of the original settlement as well as reconstructed buildings that take you back in time to the very founding of the country.
10. King’s Dominion
Kings Dominion is a 280-acre amusement park about 20 miles north of Richmond. It’s a sister park to Kings Island in Cincinnati, with a name twist taken from one of Virginia’s nicknames: the “Old Dominion.” The park’s rides and attractions include 13 roller coasters and a 1/3-size scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. If you go, bring your bathing suit for the 20-acre water park.
11. Luray Caverns
Luray Caverns is a privately owned attraction with some of the most spectacular geologic formations you’ll find anywhere. Visitors can walk a 1.5-mile path through the caverns and can even carry small pets with them. The most unusual feature of the attraction is the Great Stalacpipe Organ which uses strikers affixed to stalactites of different sizes to create eerie resonating tones like those made by tuning forks.
12. Manassas National Battlefield Park
There were two significant battles fought around Manassas, Virginia. These are known as the Battles of Manassas or the Battles of Bull Run. Both ended in Confederate victories and dashed Union hopes of quickly capturing the southern capital, Richmond, and ending the rebellion. The park today offers hiking tours, a visitor’s museum, and restored buildings from the era. Over 700,000 people visit every year.
Monticello, located near Charlottesville, is the home of Thomas Jefferson. It was built according to his personal design based on his extensive travels in Europe and a study of classical Italian architecture. Touring the home, visitors will be impressed with the clever inventions Jefferson created. Tourists can also walk freely around the grounds and learn about antebellum plantation life, including the harsh realities of slavery. Incidentally, Monticello is featured on the back of the U.S. nickel coin.
14. Mount Vernon
A must-see for history buffs is Mount Vernon, the plantation home of George and Martha Washington. It is located about 13 miles from Washington, D.C., and is within biking distance of Alexandria, VA. Visitors can tour the meticulously restored mansion and grounds, viewing period furnishings and tools and some of the actual possessions of the President and his family.
15. Natural Bridge
Natural Bridge is a 215-foot-high arch that spans a 90-foot gorge of Cedar Creek. Geologists say it is all that remains of the roof of an underground cave carved out by the river. It’s easily accessible to people of all ages and abilities by way of a broad paved path along the scenic creek.
Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval station in the world. It supports 75 ships and 134 aircraft. Tourists are able to tour the USS Wisconsin, a decommissioned Iowa-class battleship built in the 1940s. Norfolk also hosts the Hampton Roads Naval Museum alongside Nauticus, a science center and museum also known as the National Maritime Center.
17. Parks – State and National
Virginia has 43 state parks in all parts of the state, including Staunton River, Sky Meadows, New River Trail, Lake Anna, Douthat, Belle Isle, and Bear Creek Lake State Parks. Nationally administered parks and monuments include Cumberland Gap, Fort Monroe, Prince William Forest, and the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. The state has numerous Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields and historic sites.
Located at the falls of the James River, Richmond offers the unique opportunity for whitewater rafting within sight of modern skyscrapers. It is the capital of the state and was the capital of the Confederacy for most of the Civil War. It has a great many historic sites, museums, and monuments. It’s the place to go for concerts, theater, shopping, and sporting events.
19. Shenandoah Valley
The 140-mile-long Shenandoah Valley is located in the upper western part of the state, separating the Blue Ridge Mountain range to the east from the Allegheny Range to the west. Both are part of the larger Appalachian chain. The main attraction for tourists is the gorgeous rural scenery with mountains on each side and rolling green farmland, horse ranches, and friendly small towns.
20. Smith Mountain Lake
Smith Mountain Lake in south-central Virginia is a major recreational attraction in the Piedmont region, the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Communities in some parts of the lakeshore are among the most exclusive and expensive in the state, but the lake is big enough to provide access to people of all income levels. If you get tired of water recreation, it’s worth your time to drive around neighboring Pittsylvania County. It’s the largest county in the state and was once the largest tobacco-producing county. In the countryside around small towns like Gretna, you can still see old log barns once used by well-known families like the Mattoxes for curing tobacco before sending it to auction houses.
21. Tangier Island
Tangier Island is a small island in Chesapeake Bay with a population of about 727. Rising sea levels attributed to global warming have now drowned 67% of the island and scientists anticipate eventually the entire population will have to be evacuated. Making their living mainly from harvesting oysters and crabs, Tangiermen as they are called have been isolated from the mainland for generations. There are no cars on the island; people get about by walking, biking, or driving golf carts. They are most noted for an accent similar to Cornish, a Celtic language spoken in southwestern England. Curious about what the Tangier Island accent sounds like? Check out this video:
22. University of Virginia
The University of Virginia was one of the projects Thomas Jefferson was most proud of. He located it in Charlottesville, not far from his plantation, and took an active role in every aspect of its design and construction. The centerpiece of the University is the Rotunda, intended as a sort of temple of knowledge with a library under its dome. Arrayed on either side of a central lawn are individual student rooms punctuated by several pavilions: two-story houses with the lower floor used for classes and the upper floor for professors’ housing. Visitors can see the restored room where Edgar Allen Poe stayed as a student.
23. Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center
Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center features 800,000 gallons of freshwater and saltwater tanks with over 12,000 animals of 700 different species. It also has some terrestrial species, such as Komodo dragons. Two of the tanks replicate the environment off the coast of Virginia at different depths.
24. Virginia Beach
Virginia is for beach Lovers! Your beach bucket list won’t be complete unless you visit Virginia Beach. You’ll find soft sand, a wide beachfront, affordable hotels, and a boardwalk for strolling, skating, longboarding, or biking. Virginia Beach has somewhat limited public beach access but plenty of hotels and resorts directly on the coast or just across the street from it.
Williamsburg was the colonial capital of Virginia. Starting in 1926 its houses and shops were meticulously reconstructed through a grant by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Generations of Americans have been charmed by the colonial style so much so that demand for it has heavily influenced the architecture of American homes built in the 20th century. One of the best things about Williamsburg is not only touring the homes and workshops but observing and talking with historical reenactors who demonstrate everything from loading a musket to glassmaking, to baking in wood-fired ovens.
26. Wintergreen Resort
Located in Nelson County, Wintergreen is predominantly known as a ski resort but functions all around the year as a mountain retreat. Unlike traditional ski resorts where lodges, restaurants, and shops are located at the base, Wintergreen built all its amenities on the mountain ridges where you can enjoy the spectacular views.
Of all the battlefields in Virginia, the most significant is Yorktown. This is the site where, in 1781, British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to combined American and French land armies supported by the French navy to prevent a British retreat. This was the last major battle of the American Revolution, forcing the British government to negotiate peace and recognize American independence.
What if You Only Have a Few Days?
As you can see, there’s much more to do in Virginia than you can accomplish on just one trip. What if you only have a few days and want to make the most of them? Here are our recommendations:
- If you like mountains, fly into Roanoke, rent a car, and drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway north to Afton. You can stop at Natural Bridge on the way. You can drive down into the Shenandoah Valley and stay in a town like Waynesboro, or camp in the Shenandoah National Park. If you have time, continue north to Luray Caverns.
- If you like lakes, fly into Lynchburg, drive your rental south on 29 through Altavista, Gretna, and Chatham in rural Pittsylvania County, get something to eat in a diner and chat with locals, then head west to Smith Mountain Lake.
- If you like the beach, fly into Virginia Beach and visit the Aquarium if it rains or if you need a break from the sun.
- If you like history, fly into Richmond and visit the State Capitol. Drive southeast to Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown. Yorktown is just 60 miles from the capital city and the other sites are on the way.
Whatever type of trip you choose when you visit Virginia, make sure to plan some time just to relax and enjoy being there. A relaxed way of life is part of the state’s charm. And if you miss anything, well, as the locals say, “Ya’ll come back again.”
Summary of the Most Unique Places in Virginia
In this table, note that Virginia has three main regions: the Appalachian Mountains in the west, the rural mountain foothills of the Piedmont, and the eastern Tidewater coastal plain.
|2||Arlington National Cemetary||Tidewater|
|4||Blue Ridge Parkway||Mountains|
|5||Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel||Tidewater|
|6||Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel||Piedmont|
|8||James River||Mountains, Piedmont, Tidewater|
|12||Manassas National Battlefield Park||Tidewater|
|17||Parks – State and National||Mountains, Piedmont, Tidewater|
|20||Smith Mountain Lake||Piedmont|
|22||University of Virginia||Piedmont|
|23||Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center||Tidewater|
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Pierdelune/iStock via Getty Images
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