Located just south of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, the city of Norfolk has a much-deserved reputation as a naval and shipbuilding city. After all, it is home to the largest US Navy base in the world, Naval Station Norfolk. The Norfolk Naval Shipyard is located just across the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Virginia.
But, Norfolk has been getting a lot of attention lately for its art, culture, and cuisine. In fact, Travel + Leisure named Norfolk its Favorite American City for 2018 and one of its Top 50 Places to Travel (in the world) in 2017. I recently visited Norfolk to find out why this is one of the hottest destinations in the US.
Staying in Downtown Norfolk
To kick off my visit, I checked into the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel where I enjoyed a standard room overlooking the Elizabeth River during my stay. The hotel has several advantages: it’s upscale and comfortable, sits on the waterfront, and is next door to the new Waterside District, where you can grab a pint at the Blue Moon TapHouse, chow down on smoked meats at Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse and listen to live music on the outdoor stage.
While the Sheraton is great, I plan to stay at Hilton Norfolk The Main, the city’s new luxury hotel, on my next visit. The Main isn’t located on the water, but it’s only a short walk away on the corner of Main and Granby streets. And, all guest rooms at this Hilton property are on the 10th through 20th floors and offer great views of either the city or the river.
It also houses some of downtown’s dining experiences. At Saltine, you can enjoy fresh seafood while Varia specializes in Italian trattoria cooking and fine wine. Locals and guests alike head to the rooftop to sip one of 75 craft beers on tap and listen to live music at Grain.
Maritime and Military Attractions in Norfolk
Since Norfolk is known for its connection to the sea and the military, I had to visit Nauticus, a marine-themed science center on the downtown waterfront. Nauticus features an aquarium as well as exhibits on conservation, weather and oceanic exploration.
It’s also the home of the USS Wisconsin, one of the last battleships built. You can take a self-guided tour of the battleship or take a guided engine room or command tower tour. Rather see an actual naval base? The Norfolk Naval Station offers 45-minute tours daily.
Norfolk’s military connection extends beyond the naval station. The city is also home to the MacArthur Memorial, a free museum and research center dedicated to the life of Army General Douglas MacArthur. You can tour the exhibits here and see where the World War II commander is buried under the rotunda with his wife.
Art, Culture and Trendy Neighborhoods of Norfolk
Two reasons Norfolk is garnering a lot of accolades these days are its art scene and its neighborhoods. Its Chrysler Museum of Art has one of the largest glass galleries in the nation, featuring works by Tiffany and Frank Lloyd Wright in its glass collection. Across the street, the museum’s Glass Studio offers free demonstrations daily at noon. Both the museum and studio are free.
About five miles away, the Hermitage Museum and Gardens is a Smithsonian affiliate showcasing art from around the world in a historic home. The property’s 12-acre formal gardens are well-suited to display outdoor art, like the recent exhibit featuring the art of Burning Man. Although it ended in October, it was so popular the museum hopes to curate another Burning Man art exhibit soon.
Norfolk is a city of trendy, fun neighborhoods. The artsy NEON District is known for its galleries, restaurants, theaters and public art displays, including graffiti murals. Historic Ghent has a hip vibe. Go for pizza at Y Not or a movie at Naro Cinema. In the Freemason Historic District, you can walk along cobblestone streets past pre-Civil War homes.
The Quirky Side of Norfolk
The Freemason Historic District is also where you’ll discover the quirky side of Norfolk. For starters, Jack the Ripper may have lived here. James Maybrick, a Londoner who confessed to the murders in his diary, lived in the area from 1871 to 1880. (No one has been able to substantiate his claims.)
Near the former boarding house where Maybrick lived, you can see one of Norfolk’s famous mermaids, commissioned as a public art project roughly 20 years ago. Look for others at the Chrysler Museum, Nauticus, Norfolk Botanical Garden, and Virginia Zoo.
Since the 2012 Discovery Channel mockumentary about discovering a mermaid near Norfolk, the city has become even more obsessed with the mythical creatures. You’ll see them everywhere when you start looking (The Main even decorated its guest room bathrooms with mermaid wallpaper), and you can paint your own mermaid at the Mermaid Factory.
Fresh Seafood and International Flavors
Norfolk is known for its seafood, in particular, she-crab soup, and there’s no better place to sample it than Todd Jurich’s Bistro. Jurich enhances his version with just the right amount of sherry and loads it with lumps of crab. It was the perfect precursor to my dinner of lump crab cakes served with a crab and bacon slaw and Old Bay sweet potato chips. Yum!
If you’re not a seafood fan, head to Luna Maya instead. The Latin American restaurant is mainly known for its burritos and tacos but has a whole section devoted to vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, too. I recommend the burrito con rajas, spicy pork chorizo and roasted poblano chiles wrapped in a chile tortilla. Wash it down with sangria or a tasty margarita.
If You Go to Norfolk
I definitely discovered that Norfolk has a lot to offer and is indeed a hot destination. Be sure to check out more suggestions from Wander writers on what to do while Visiting Virginia.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.