Norfolk, Virginia, is best known as the home of the world's largest naval-base complex (Naval Station Norfolk), which has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. It was also an important port city in the colonial period: St. Paul's Church, built in 1739, still stands, as does Fort Norfolk, the only remaining fort along the East Coast authorized by George Washington.
Norfolk has experienced a downtown renaissance. Establishments that once bordered on seedy have been transformed into charming restaurants, swank nightclubs and an upscale urban mall. Many of the entertainment venues sit along the waterfront and take advantage of Norfolk's prime location and seafaring heritage.
As with any port town, Norfolk attracts a mixed, eclectic lot—boaters cruising the Chesapeake Bay, officers tending to the East Coast's largest naval fleet, artsy bohemian types sipping chai in the Ghent District and martini drinkers in posh clubs along Granby Street. Any good sea captain witnessing Norfolk's rise to fame has yarns to tell of this storybook port and once-again thriving community.
Norfolk is one of a handful of cities that rests on the bay area known as Hampton Roads, or the Tidewater, which also encompasses Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Hampton, Williamsburg, Chesapeake and Newport News. Situated on the Elizabeth River close to the Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk is a haven for recreational boaters, cruise ships, cargo ships and, of course, the U.S. Navy.
Norfolk's downtown waterfront serves as the hub for all social and cultural activities. Waterside Festival Marketplace and Town Point Park are central points for recreation along the river. Several hotels are situated in this area, making it convenient for visitors to dine, shop, listen to live music or dance the night away without being too far from their accommodations. Ferries to Portsmouth, dinner cruises and scenic boat tours depart from the Waterside Marina next to the marketplace. Just a few blocks north along the river, the battleship USS Wisconsin is berthed next to Nauticus, The National Maritime Center.
Just inland from the waterfront is the Freemason District, with rows of 18th- and 19th-century town houses along cobblestoned streets. North of the Freemason District is Ghent, an eclectic neighborhood that is home to the Harrison Opera House, the Chrysler Museum and the NARO Expanded Cinema. Along Granby Street, 21st Street and Colley Avenue are many good gourmet restaurants and pedestrian-friendly stores—including some of the region's best antiques shops.
On the north side of Norfolk, along the Chesapeake Bay, sits the area's first resort destination—Ocean View. Forgotten for many years and falling into disrepair, the area has been revived, encouraging the development of lavish homes along inland parks and casual restaurants along the bay. The calm waves there are especially suited to families with small children.
Festivals, art shows and beaches are again attracting visitors. Norfolk's location is central to all of the Hampton Roads area. The charming town of Portsmouth is easily reached by ferry or bridge, and Newport News and Hampton are just to the north along the James River and the Chesapeake Bay, respectively. Virginia Beach, a popular resort town on the Atlantic Ocean, is a short drive east.
In 1607, the first English colony in the New World was established at Jamestown. In 1622, King James I granted Thomas Willoughby 500 acres/200 hectares, which is now Ocean View. Two years later, William Willoughby received 200 acres/80 hectares of what is now downtown Norfolk. The town soon became a trade center for tobacco and other goods used to trade with the West Indies.
With rising sentiments against the British in the mid-18th century, Norfolk erected a fort in 1763 to protect its strategic location. However, a 1776 attack on the town demolished nearly everything except St. Paul's Church. A British cannonball that hit one of its walls was later dug up and affixed to the wall as a memorial.
Incorporated as a city in 1845, Norfolk saw architectural developments abound: a new city hall, courthouse and expanding residential areas. Despite a devastating yellow fever epidemic in 1855, the city continued to thrive as a busy seaport. When Virginia seceded from the Union at the start of the Civil War, the Norfolk Navy Yard was commissioned to build ships for the Confederacy, including the renowned Merrimack. The famous battle between the Merrimack and the Monitor took place nearby. Norfolk surrendered to Federal troops in 1862, and it remained occupied until the end of the war.
With a prominent harbor location and rich farmlands, Norfolk became a major player in the exporting of cotton and eventually coal. By the early 20th century, the city boasted a major railway line and a new U.S. Navy base, which would grow to become the world's largest, securing Norfolk's significance on the world map.
Today, Norfolk balances historic charm with new restaurants, theaters and shopping centers. With retired battleships resting in the harbor alongside modern amenities and future revitalization sites, Norfolk celebrates its past, present and future.
Norfolk's big draw is its maritime history and waterfront access, and the city has capitalized on both. Norfolk is a model for successful urban renewal that pays tribute to the past while embracing the future.
At the center of the action is the historic downtown Waterside. It's home to such attractions as Nauticus, The National Maritime Center, popular for its interactive sea-themed museum that includes the battleship USS Wisconsin. Within walking distance of Nauticus are Waterside Festival Marketplace, MacArthur Center, Town Point Park, the Granby Street corridor and nearby Ghent—all serve as great places to spend a leisurely afternoon shopping, dining and sightseeing. You'll also find the Virginia Zoo, the MacArthur Memorial and the Norfolk Botanical Garden conveniently located in the booming downtown corridor.
The city boasts interesting architecture, so take time to explore the historic areas. The Moses Myers House and the Willoughby-Baylor House are only a block apart and near the MacArthur Memorial. Also stop in at the Chrysler Museum of Art.
Although Norfolk's downtown historic district no longer caters to drunk and disorderly sailors, the bartenders still know to have the drinks ready on your way in. As night falls, the dinner crowds and theatergoers are met with equally enthusiastic night owls searching for dancing, creative drink concoctions and live music. Downtown's boisterous bar owners, treated as local celebrities, are well-versed in how to keep their patrons happy.
In Ghent, a slightly more relaxed nightlife thrives. Expect to find a mixture of young hipsters, artists, forty- and fiftysomethings, and a small retired community hanging out together over margaritas, wine, beer and martinis. In Ghent, dress is mostly casual, and locals seek out conversation with newcomers. In downtown, the young crowd tends to want to be seen.
As Norfolk experiences its downtown renaissance, it has become a premier dining town. World-class restaurants have sprung up in renovated neighborhoods, and the trend seems to be thriving. Norfolk's best dining can be found in the historic downtown areas along the water's edge and in Ghent. Popular spots, such as the Waterside Festival Marketplace and the MacArthur Center, cater to the variety of personalities and tastes in the area. You'll find anything from the International Food Court and fast food to steak houses and American favorites.
Fresh local seafood appears on many menus throughout town—everything from buckets of steamed clams to delicate crab cakes—but most places cater to all tastes, with plenty of meat and vegetarian options. For traditional seafood fare, try O'Sullivan's Wharf, a local favorite. If you want to get a little fancier, Ghent and downtown have become the hot spots for contemporary dining. The districts offer award-winning restaurants, including Todd Jurich's Bistro and Crackers Little Bar Bistro.
Ethnic cuisine has made its way into Norfolk. You won't find the variety of cuisines available in a larger city such as Washington, D.C., but you can try good Indian food at Rajput, and Luna Maya's Bolivian fare. Several Thai restaurants have also opened around town.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$20-$35; $$$ = US$36-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
Want to read the full Norfolk travel42 Destination Guide?
or call 1.866.566.8136 for a free trial.
Copyright © 2022 Northstar Travel Media, LLC. travel42.