How is it I never knew what a great town Richmond is? It’s only a hundred miles from our home near Washington, D.C., so I’m baffled at why Bruce and I didn’t explore it sooner.
We ended our recent weekend there vowing to go back, as there’s a lot more we want to see and do. And what fun it would be, we agreed, to hang out there with a small group of friends or family, given all the attractions right in the heart of the city.
Too often, weekend getaways find us returning to one of our favorite destinations: Lewes or Rehoboth, Del., on the Eastern Shore; Charlottesville, Va., where we courted many years ago and now have family; or Staunton, Va., for the American Shakespeare Theater, Zynodoa Restaurant and one of my all-time favorite shops, Appalachian Piecework (which takes me back to my roots in southeastern Ohio).
Clearly, we were in a rut. So for my birthday this month, we wanted to try some place fresh. Our neighbors raved about Richmond, so off we went.
What a happening town.
Most times you arrive some place late on a Friday afternoon and there’s little to do until dinner. But soon after we checked into the historic Jefferson Hotel, we learned that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts stays open late on Thursdays and Fridays. What better way to get a jump start on the weekend?
The scene at VMFA (free general admission; open every day) offered a great introduction to a town that likes to have a good time. After arriving there by free hotel shuttle, we spent several hours touring the exhibits. As the evening unfolded, it became clear, from the swelling crowd and steady stream of Uber drop-offs, that the museum offers one of the hottest party tickets in town.
From the upper galleries we watched people dancing the tango in the interior courtyard. We assumed, from the bar service and tables, that the gathering must be a private event. What looked to be a wedding rehearsal dinner was in fact underway on one of the upper terraces. But most of the crowd had come for happy hour. Many of them purchased bottles of wine that they toted outside to the museum’s patio and spacious grounds.
I’d heard great things about VMFA, and it didn’t disappoint. I particularly enjoyed the collections showing the evolution of American painting from the Gilded Age to modernism. Though I knew the term “Ashcan” school I couldn’t define the style, so I found the works of urban realism by artists like George Bellows and John Sloan enlightening. The collection of paintings overall was excellent.
Bruce really liked the museum’s art deco collection. He told me years ago that he fantasized about furnishing an entire room with art deco furnishings.
The Jefferson Hotel, in the heart of the city (at 101 West Franklin St.), turned out to be a great base for exploring Richmond. When the hotel opened in 1895, at the height of the Gilded Age, its elevators, electric lights and hot and cold running water in every room made the Jefferson cutting-edge modern for its time. Our room was spacious, and so far down a corridor it was like being in a private wing, complete with a large marbled bath and a trunk room for our modest luggage.
When we checked into the hotel on Friday afternoon, we walked past guests enjoying tea in the lobby’s Palm Court, where a statue of Thomas Jefferson keeps an eye on things beneath the stained-glass Tiffany skylight. It looked so inviting I was sorry we’d had a late lunch during the drive south. (tea: $35/person; Fri-Sun).
The hotel’s Lemaire restaurant, widely regarded as the best fine-dining establishment in Richmond, was a perfect spot for my birthday dinner. The locally sourced menu of New American cuisine with Southern influences included a memorable starter of jumbo lump blue crab cake with watercress, frisee and grapefruit. For a lighter and more casual meal, several selections from the dinner menu were also available in TJ’s, the hotel’s elegant bar.
On Saturday morning we walked several blocks from the hotel for breakfast at Perly’s, which our friends had recommended. The delicatessen, at 111 Grace Street, is another Richmond institution, and so popular we waited a half-hour just to get in the door. Once seated, we waited again that long to get served.
Bruce was in hog heaven with the bagel and lox special — though not literally, as we’d foolishly not realized that as an authentic Jewish deli, Perly’s was kosher. No pork bacon with my eggs. I chose the pastrami instead, and it came cut in strips and fried. Definitely an acquired taste, like fried baloney. Not the smartest way to start the day.
Needing to walk off our heavy meals, we headed over to the canal district, which runs between 5th and 17th Streets. It was bustling on a Saturday morning, even though the canal was drained for repairs. The Belle Island Pedestrian Bridge offered a great view of the Richmond skyline from the middle of the James River.
A ‘Pillar’ of the Pre-War South
We spent the rest of the day along the riverfront immersed in Civil War history.
On a day trip to Richmond years ago, Bruce and I visited the White House of the Confederacy and its modest museum. So it came as quite a surprise this time to discover the expansive American Civil War Center, housed at the historic Tredegar iron works (open daily 9-5; adults $12). An annex scheduled to open soon (shown here in the glassed rear building) will expand the exhibit even more.
The former factory, dating back to 1836, offers an interesting context in which to understand Richmond’s history as not just the capital of the Confederacy but also the most important industrial center in the South before and during the Civil War.
I had no idea what a cosmopolitan place Richmond was before the war, with a highly diversified economy and work force. Its 1860 population of 38,000 was 40 percent black (many of them free laborers), and a quarter of all the city’s whites were foreign born. The James River, Kinawah Canal, railroads and stage coaches made Richmond a major transportation hub. It thrived commercially from flour manufacturing, agriculture, wool production, tobacco — and, of course, the slave trade.
The Tredegar Iron Works manufactured locomotives, train wheels and railroad spikes; ships, boilers, naval hardware and iron machinery. A Tredegar canon fired the opening shot at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, sparking the Civil War. The factory produced about half of all munitions used by the Conferedate states.
I asked, when we purchased our tickets, how long it would take us to tour the exhibit. About 45 minutes, were were told.
We spent two and a half hours there.
Bruce and I both love history musuems and usually read all the placards. We agreed this museum was very well done. The signature exhibit, “In the Cause of Liberty,” offered greater clarity on the war than I recall getting in any other museum of this kind, thanks to the displays that told every stage of the story from three distinct perspectives: Union, Confederate and African-American. My hat was off to the exhibit designers.
The National Park Service also has a visitor center at the iron works site. It focuses heavily on Civil War battles in the Richmond area. But I found most interesting the modest exhibit on the second floor, which greatly complemented the Civil War center next door by showing the history of Richmond during that era.
Sweet Sunday Morning
Because we wanted to start for home by noon on Sunday, we bypassed the Jefferson Hotel’s extravagant champagne brunch in favor of a hop over to Carytown, a colorful neighborhood of shops and eateries. Happily, we stumbled onto Sugar & Twine (2928 West Cary Street), which offers a tantalizing assortment of pastries baked fresh every morning.
Carytown was definitely a neighborhood in which to linger, so it’s on our to-do list for a return visit.
Among other sites and neighborhoods we’ve made a note of for later exploration:
- Byrd Park and the Victorian estate and gardens of Maymont, Richmond’s answer to New York’s Central Park
- the celebrated “Fan” district, a residential neighborhood of late-19th and early-20th-century homes
- Shockoe Bottom, a National Historic Trust site and the center of Richmond’s slave trade when it was second in importance only to that of New Orleans between 1830 and 1865
- the 50-acre Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden and its butterfly garden.