Overview

Richmond, Virginia, is inextricably linked with the Civil War: It was once the capital of the Confederacy, and the area saw some particularly bloody battles. Richmond was also the meeting place for many patriots and a turning point in the Revolutionary War. Today Richmond houses a number of intriguing monuments and relics from its storied past: colonial-era buildings, Civil War monuments and southern plantations.

But as the capital of Virginia, Richmond is also a thoroughly modern city, comprising big business, excellent restaurants and a lively arts scene. Home at various times to writer Edgar Allan Poe, dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and tennis star Arthur Ashe, Richmond remains racially and culturally diverse. You can wake up in a colonial hotel, lunch on Japanese food, stroll among Civil War-era homes, shop at upscale boutiques and follow your French dinner with a visit to the theater. Above all, Richmond attracts visitors because of the warm hospitality offered by Virginians.

Geography

When British novelist Charles Dickens toured the U.S. in 1842, he remarked on Richmond's physical layout. The city was, he said, "delightfully situated on eight hills, overhanging the James River; a sparkling stream, studded here and there with bright islands." Dickens' picturesque description is still accurate. The James River flows through Richmond, separating it into several distinct areas: Everything south of the river is conveniently called Southside. On the other side of the river, still within the city limits, you'll find the West End, which would probably be considered suburbia in any other city.

But true suburbia stretches out to the Far West End in Henrico County on the edges of the greater Richmond metropolitan area. The Fan District features beautiful row houses dating from the early 1900s, as well as the wide thoroughfare Monument Avenue. Carytown is an eclectic shopping district with boutiques, cafes and art galleries.

Downtown Richmond is the seat of Virginia's government, with the State Capitol and Governor's Mansion situated at the center. Just a stone's throw from downtown, at the end of 12th Street, is Shockoe Slip, with its charming cobblestoned streets and upscale shops. Just east of the Slip (on the other side of Interstate 95) is Shockoe Bottom, which is where you'll find many of the city's most popular clubs and restaurants.

History

Shortly after a settlement was established at Jamestown in 1607, a group of explorers led by Capt. John Smith sailed west on the James River in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean. They stopped at the foot of the first rapids and placed a cross at the site that would later become Richmond. Several attempts were made to pass the rapids and falls in the early 1600s without success.

Nearly 40 years later, Thomas Stregg Jr. purchased a few thousand acres/hectares on the north and south banks of the river, creating the Falls Plantation. The land was passed on to his nephew's son, William Byrd II, who is credited with founding Richmond in 1737. For many decades, Richmond was a quiet and picturesque southern city, and its residents were content with growing tobacco and making parts for ships.

In 1775, at St. John's Church, Patrick Henry proclaimed his desire to fight for freedom from England by ending a speech with the famous words "Give me liberty or give me death!" Although most of the Revolutionary War was fought in northern states, Richmond was a major supplier of cannons and ammunition to the American Army. The fighting arrived at Richmond in January 1781 after Benedict Arnold informed the British of the city's arsenal. Richmond fell to the British, who then marched east and were finally defeated at Yorktown in October of that year.

Richmond played a pivotal role in U.S. history again in the 1860s. Defying U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's antislavery stance, the southern states, including Virginia, seceded from the Union. Led by President Jefferson Davis, The Confederate States of America was formed and Richmond became its new capital. Seven major assaults were made against Richmond during the war, but the city managed to hold out until 2 April 1865, just one week before Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, essentially ending the war.

By the turn of the 20th century, Richmond had recovered fairly well from the Civil War and Reconstruction. The city re-emerged as a key producer of ships, trains, paper and, of course, tobacco. Since the 1950s, Richmond has continued to grow as a business center, serving as the headquarters for several well-known companies, including Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris Inc.), one of the area's largest private employers.

Sightseeing

Much of the sightseeing in Richmond involves the city's colonial and Civil War history. Driving past the statues along Monument Avenue offers a glimpse of famous Confederate leaders—J.E.B. Stuart and Jefferson Davis, among others—as does a stroll through historic Hollywood Cemetery. There you'll find the graves of two U.S. presidents (James Monroe and John Tyler) and Confederate leaders (Stuart and Davis). The city is dotted with wonderful architecture, such as the Old City Hall and the State Capitol (designed by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson), and on the outskirts of town are grand plantations from the antebellum period.

Richmond's history can also be studied at museums around town: the Museum of the Confederacy, the Civil War Visitor Center at Tredegar Iron Works and the Valentine Richmond History Center. Visitors curious about the rich African-American heritage in Richmond should check out Jackson Ward, a historic district that contains many monuments to black culture, notably the Black History Museum and Maggie Walker's 1930s home.

After a trip into the past, you can visit Richmond's renovated downtown area to get a feel for a city planning for the future. As you stroll along the Canal Walk, Richmond's recent growth unfolds: Centuries-old warehouses have been refurbished to house boutiques, art galleries and some of the city's best restaurants. Brown's Island and Belle Isle, which are linked by a long pedestrian bridge over the turbulent James River, are nice places to unwind after a long day of sightseeing.

Nightlife

If you want to share a beer with Richmonders, head to the Fan District, which has bars on almost every corner of Main Street. These generally offer the most reasonable drink prices and the best bar food. If you're more into clubbing and hanging out with the young and the trendy, look to Shockoe Bottom, which has a dozen or more bars and clubs in an eight-block area. You won't pay a cover charge in Fan-area bars, but you may have to pay US$5 on weekend nights at the clubs in the Bottom. Most nightspots close around 2 am, but a handful of clubs keep the music cranking for another hour if the crowd is right.

Dining

Although it may not have the reputation or the number of restaurants of a major culinary city, Richmond has plenty of good dining options. Very good Asian, French, Italian and Cuban eateries can be found throughout the city. Southern cooking is always a good bet, and seafood from the Chesapeake Bay is often featured and is always fresh.

The majority of the popular restaurants are in the Fan District, Carytown and Shockoe Slip. Be forewarned that most restaurants don't take reservations for small parties. The more popular eateries fill up fast, so arrive early or be prepared to wait. Locals aren't put off by standing in line for the culinary hot spot of the moment.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tip or tax: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$35; $$$$ = more than US$35.

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