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This creative capital city deserves a lot more attention


Story by Kari Smith | Video by Demetrius Pipkin, Jeremy Moorhead and FJ Feng, CNN

Richmond, Virginia (CNN) — This dynamic city on the James River deserves more of the tourist attention enjoyed by the nation’s capital two hours to the north.

Richmond, Virginia — or “RVA,” as locals call it — has top-notch museums and intriguing neighborhoods, and it’s a great spot for dining, drinking and getting outdoors. There’s an impressive arts scene and a nearly year-round lineup of festivals.

And the city is taking a hard look at its complicated history — as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War and a historic slave trading hub — and working on ways to better tell the city’s full story.

Now’s a great time for visitors to see for themselves how Virginia’s capital city has evolved.

Fine food and beverages

A thriving food scene is a must for any vibrant US city – and Richmond delivers with diverse flavors and a high concentration of black-owned restaurants.

Chef Michael Lindsey and his wife, Kimberly Love-Lindsey, opened their first restaurant – Lillie Pearl – in 2020, mid-pandemic. The restaurant blends West African heirloom ingredients, Southern African-American cuisine and a range of global influences.

Lindsey Food Group followed Lillie Pearl by opening two locations of fried chicken fast-casual spot Buttermilk and Honey, and it has added several more restaurants to the portfolio, including modern Chophouse ML Steak downtown and in Chesterfield. Kali Love, a California fusion concept, just opened in June.

Global cuisine is evident all over town, from the deliciously messy birria tacos at Maya Latin Kitchen to Afghan fine dining at The Mantu.

Discover Richmond Tours offers a handful of food tours that offer visitors a great way to maximize their options and explore the city’s neighborhoods at the same time.

The beverage scene is also booming.

Scott Jones, co-owner of Triple Crossing Beer, has been part of Richmond’s rise as a beer destination, thanks in part to the city’s extensive Beer Trail, which features more than 30 craft breweries. Since opening the first of three locations in 2014, Jones has witnessed a transformation of the local culture.

“The food scene, the arts scene, music and beer – they have a symbiotic relationship, and over the years they have melded together and blossomed to help make Richmond a place for people to come visit,” he says.

“We set a high standard for breweries,” says beer columnist Annie Tobey, author of “100 Things to Do in Richmond Before You Die.” “RVA has so many quality breweries that represent a wide range of styles.”

Scott’s Addition, a trendy neighborhood that has been designated Richmond’s “craft beverage capital,” is home to a collection of breweries, including Väsen and The Veil.

The surrounding region is also home to numerous wineries. For sophisticated sips without the buzz there’s Floris, Richmond’s new bespoke tearoom at the renowned Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. (Among the museum’s highlights: the largest collection of Fabergé eggs outside of Russia).

And for the coffee-inclined, Urban Hang Suite is serving up more than your average latte. Kelli Lemon, co-owner of the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, opened the café six years ago as a community gathering and networking space. Lemon’s company is aimed at supporting black-owned culinary brands.

Busy neighborhoods full of history

Lively neighborhoods make up Richmond’s center, each contributing to the character of the city. Richmond is also home to more than 150 murals, part of an explosion of dynamic street art around town.

Known for its cobblestone streets, Shockoe Slip in southeastern downtown features contemporary restaurants and historic architecture bordered on the south by the James River. Just to the east, one of Richmond’s oldest neighborhoods, Shockoe Bottom, holds centuries of history that the city is working to highlight (more on those plans below).

Today, the neighborhoods offer a variety of bars, entertainment venues and historical sites, including a museum dedicated to onetime Richmond resident Edgar Allan Poe as well as markers along the Richmond Slave Trail, a self-guided walking route that tells the somber history of slavery in the city.

The downtown core is home to business and government buildings, including the Virginia State Capitol, and the American Civil War Museum.

One of the museum’s three sites, the American Civil War Museum at Historic Tredegar, currently features “The Impending Crisis,” an exhibit that explores the division of the United States on the verge of the Civil War. Guided tours are offered of the 1818 White House of the Confederacy, another unit of the museum located in the Court End neighborhood.

While Richmond’s Civil War history is well known, the city also played a role in the American Revolutionary War. Patrick Henry, a Founding Father and Virginia’s first post-colonial governor, gave his famous “Give me liberty … or give me death” speech in 1775 at Historic St. John’s Church in Church Hill.

North of the city center, Jackson Ward, once called the Harlem of the South, is a vibrant cultural hub that is home to the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia. The exhibit “Virginia is for Music Lovers: A History of Virginia’s Black Excellence in Music” opened at the museum recently.

West of downtown, the Fan District on the edge of Virginia Commonwealth University campus is known for beautiful Victorian architecture, tree-lined streets, trendy cafes and upscale shops. Art lovers will enjoy the four galleries and rotating common spaces at Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, which is free and open to the public

Farther west, the Museum District features most of the area’s major museums, including the renowned Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Just south of the Museum District, Carytown — Richmond’s “mile of style” — is known for specialty shops, restaurants and the historic Byrd Theatre, a “grand movie palace” that dates to 1928 and still shows a range of films.

Across the James River from downtown, up-and-coming Manchester is known today for its industrial-chic vibe, art studios and scenic views of the river and downtown skyline. The Richmond Slave Trail starts here at the Manchester Docks.

A hard look at the past

In northeast Richmond, the statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders that once lined Monument Avenue have been removed.

Once home to more Confederate statues than any US city, their removal amid protests against racial injustice beginning in 2020 has been part of the city’s reckoning with the long and complicated shadow the Civil War and slavery cast over Richmond’s reputation.

“Their removal has been part of a broader effort to engage with the city’s complex history,” says Carla Murray, director of marketing communications for Richmond Region Tourism. “The history is controversial, but we are committed to telling the full story.”

The monuments were transferred to the care of the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, with oversight by the Valentine Museum.

One of the statues is on display at the Valentine. The Jefferson Davis statue — the work of sculptor Edward Valentine, the museum’s first president — was erected on Monument Avenue in 1907. The sculpture is covered in paint and displayed tipped over on its side, as it was when it was toppled by protesters in June 2020. The Valentine family pushed the “Lost Cause” myth reframing the Civil War, which is the subject of a new exhibit.

The Shockoe neighborhoods downtown are the focus of the The Shockoe Project, a City of Richmond effort to bring greater emphasis to the story of enslavement with numerous planned sites, including a National Slavery Museum.

The city still has work to do in sharing a new story with would-be visitors, says Lemon, of the Richmond Black Restaurant Experience, who also sits on the board of Virginia Tourism Corporation.

“I truly want people to visit this area, but you’re going to have to take the old way of thinking out if you want to enjoy this city. In the years since ‘RVA’ became an official brand … the community has worked to change the narrative,” says Lemon, referring to the successful RVA rebranding push launched more than a dozen years ago.

Lemon hopes that while taking in the city’s history, visitors will also come to know RVA as the center of diversity, entrepreneurship and creativity that it is.

Outdoor entertainment

That human creativity is joined by the city’s natural assets and appetite for fun.

Nature lovers will adore Maymont, a sprawling 100-acre Victorian estate and public park that sits along the James River. Maymont plans to unveil its Virginia Wildlife Trail in fall 2024, which will more cohesively and accessibly connect trails winding through the habitats of 300+ native and domestic animals and add facilities that present educational programming.

Not far from Maymont, the gorgeous 50-acre Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden will soon celebrate its 40th anniversary with a major renovation.

The city’s diverse festival season is nearly year-round. The 20th Richmond Folk Festival, one of Virginia’s largest events, runs from September 27-29.  On August 11, nearly 100,000 attendees will flock to the Carytown Watermelon Festival, Virginia’s largest single-day festival for music, a vibrant summer atmosphere, and, of course, watermelon.

RVA’s beloved Minor League baseball team, the Flying Squirrels, is gearing up for a new 10,000-seat stadium expected to open in 2026. In the meantime, games are played at The Diamond, the city’s baseball home since 1985.

And opening in summer 2025, the 7,500-seat Riverfront Amphitheater will be a four-acre, open-air venue with stunning views of the downtown skyline and the James River.

The river offers plenty of recreation opportunities on its own. The 600-acre James River Park system features more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) of trails and water activities, including rare urban Class IV white water rapids.

“It is simply amazing,” says Tobey. “You can be on the trails or paddling the rapids, and when you’re done, you can be at a great restaurant in 10 minutes.”

That easy hop from one interesting spot to the next is just one more reason to head to Richmond right now.

Next town: Providence, Rhode Island is No. 2

This city moved rivers to reinvent itself.

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