Richmond: A City Rich in Modern Culture, Cuisine and American History
The 18-and-a-half-hour trip on Amtrak’s Atlantic Coast service from Tampa to Richmond was an unusually breezy ride. What could have felt like long trip on a plane was made considerably more comfortable with Amtrak’s roomy seats, ever-changing scenery and the ability to pass the time mingling with other passengers in the train’s lounge car (that alone makes train travel explicitly singular). Traveling by train always forces me to slow down and look around, making the journey an essential part of the experience.
When I arrived in Richmond the weather was sunny and mild for early March. Paying rapt attention to my surroundings on the way to my hotel, I found myself already swimming in the history lining the city streets. Richmond swallowed me up—from the beautiful Fan district populated with handsome historic Victorian houses, Civil War monuments dotting the boulevard, eclectic shops in Carytown and majestic views overlooking the James River rapids (yes, rapids in an urban setting!). I checked in at Quirk, an incredibly distinct boutique hotel in downtown Richmond that lives up to its name with a stylish, modern charm. This was the perfect launching point for my adventures this visit.
One thing I quickly learned about Richmond is that it’s a city full of doers. From rafting downtown’s rapids, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, hiking, biking and more, there’s no limit to the outdoor recreational activities awaiting travelers. My first escapade in Richmond was one that is exclusive to this city as far as I can tell: tree climbing. But it’s not the tree climbing you might remember from childhood. Riverside Outfitters tailors the activity for folks of all ages; you’re dressed up in professional gear, given a quick tutorial by a professional and urged onto ropes to climb a towering tree. I eagerly scaled the tree up to the first branch, about 20 feet off the ground, and readied myself for the next feat which consisted of walking (OK, scooting) horizontally to ring a bell tied to the end. It’s easier said than done—my knees started shaking as soon as I started the balance-beam walk—but I managed to stretch my fingertips and give the bell a tug. What an adrenaline rush.
A foodie bike tour around Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood with Richmond Rides called for a thrill of a different flavor. The neighborhood is chock-full of locally owned restaurants serving up delicacies like Union Market’s local cheeses and craft beer to Sub Rosa Bakery’s wood fired bread and even Chocolates by Kelly, a delectable sweet shop. My hands-down favorite stop was Roaring Pines, an old-fashioned soda shop that sells American-made home goods, and where I procured a brief glimpse back in time when I hunkered down at the counter and tried a lemony-malt vinegar soda. In-between bites on the tour, I biked past historic spots in the neighborhood, including St. John’s Church, the oldest church in Richmond and the spot where Patrick Henry gave his oft-quoted speech; Chimborazo Park, which once served as a makeshift Civil War hospital; and Libby Hill Park, which peers over the James River and most significantly the view that gave Richmond its name—an unbeatable spot to catch the setting sun.
I wound down my trip with a hike along Richmond’s Virginia Capital Trail, stretching along the riverside and snaking across bridges onto Browns Island (host to the city’s annual Pride celebration). This also included a somewhat intimidating-looking pedestrian bridge spanning the dams and river rapids of the James to Belle Isle, the most popular spot in the city for nature walks, cycling and picnicking on sunny days.
A Great Trip for LGBT Travelers
Richmond is a city for LGBT travelers of all variety of tastes to add to their bucket list—from its rich culinary scene with James Beard Award-nominated restaurant L’Opossum, helmed by gay chef de cuisine David Shannon (make your reservations in advance!), thrifting in Carytown, a lively production by Richmond’s gay theatre troupe Triangle Players or a weekend afternoon partaking in live music and line-dancing at craft brewery Hardywood. As one gay local I met, Jim Morgan, says, “You haven’t truly experienced Richmond until someone plays some Bluegrass!”
DAY TRIP: Hampton, VA
For even more outdoor adventure options, Hampton is a 45-minute ride on Amtrak from Richmond to Newport News station. Travel to Virginia’s coastline on the Chesapeake Bay to experience the idyllic little town, another city overflowing with U.S. history—visit the Hampton University Museum for one of the oldest collections of African American and Native American artwork, or check out the birthplace of the space exploration industry at the Virginia Air & Space Center. You’ll find Fort Monroe, the largest fort in the U.S. constructed after the war of 1812, and throngs of visitors taking to the sandy shores of Buckroe Beach, a natural favorite for locals and visitors alike.
About the Author: Aaron Drake is a travel writer living in St. Petersburg, Florida.