As it was the first state to be settled in 1607, Virginia has a rich history and heritage for visitors to delve into. While countless Revolutionary War and Civil War sites are scattered across its territory, it also has some superb nature spots such as Shenandoah National Park to explore.
Very diverse in terms of its landscapes, the Old Dominion makes up part of the Mid-Atlantic region with the Blue Ridge Mountains lying in the west and Chesapeake Bay and ocean in the east. Due to this, the best things to do in Virginia include everything from exploring captivating caves and waterfalls to relaxing on beautiful beaches and gardens.
In this post, we'll cover:
28. Natural Bridge
Nestled in the vast Shenandoah Valley is one of the state’s most striking sights: the incredible Natural Bridge. Towering 215 feet tall, its lofty arch loops over Cedar Creek with a gigantic gorge and verdant woodlands lying all around it.
Now protected as part of a state park, the craggy limestone formation makes for some great photos with fine views on offer from atop it. Worshiped for centuries by the Monacan Indians, it was later owned by Thomas Jefferson and even defaced by George Washington who carved his initials into it.
Due to its spectacular size, Natural Bridge has been a major tourist attraction for well over 200 years. After taking in the enormous arch, leave some time to hike along the creek and see the rest of the park’s woods and waterfalls.
One of the finest and most-visited stately homes in the US, the majestic Monticello can be found on the southeastern outskirts of Charlottesville. The former residence of President Thomas Jefferson, it has fascinating tours to take around its elegant interior and gorgeous gardens.
Actually designed by Jefferson himself, the massive mansion boasts some exquisite Palladian-style architecture with an impressive colonnade lying in front of its octagonal dome. From 1768 to 1809, he altered and improved the property which was the grand centerpiece of his sprawling plantation.
On enthralling tours of the huge house, you’ll hear about his achievements and even see his personal ideas reflected in the decoration of its interior. While exploring its grounds, you can stop by the old slave quarters and learn about the lives of the poor enslaved laborers on the estate.
26. Sandbridge Beach
If after all the sightseeing and outdoor adventures you’re looking for a quiet stretch of sand, then the serene Sandbridge Beach may be the perfect place for you. Despite lying just a short drive down the coast from the Oceanfront District, it feels a world away from Virginia Beach’s hustle and bustle.
Unlike its northern neighbor, the small seaside community has no hotels with only vacation houses and condos being available for rent. Thanks to its relative remoteness and almost unending Atlantic beaches, the narrow strip of land it occupies between the bay and ocean has a very relaxed feel.
Aside from hiking the dunes and marshes of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, visitors can simply lounge on the beach or kayak and sail around the small town’s surrounding waters.
25. Virginia Capitol Building
At least rivaling and possibly even outdoing Monticello is the fabulous Virginia Capitol Building in the center of Richmond. Since 1792, the spectacular colonial-style structure has served as the state’s seat of government with informative tours around its cavernous interior now available.
Due to the onset of the American Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson urged the capital to relocate from Williamsburg to Richmond. He also helped design the bright white building whose arresting Ionic columns and pretty portico overlook the rest of downtown and the James River.
Impressively enough, the capitol houses the oldest elected legislative body in North America as the Virginia General Assembly was first established in 1619. Tours cover the history of the state and influential figures like Washington and Jefferson, while fine art and architecture are on show throughout.
24. Norfolk Botanical Garden
Full of colorful plants, flowers, trees and shrubs, the picturesque Norfolk Botanical Garden lies in the far northeast of the city alongside Lake Whitehurst. Although known for its amazing azaleas and extensive themed areas, it also has lots of lovely shoreline and an arboretum to amble about.
Founded in 1938, the gardens have grown considerably with roughly sixty sections now spread across the site. While some are deliberately left wild or wooded for moths and butterflies to flit about, others are immaculately laid out and lined by blooming rose bushes and rhododendrons.
To get around the garden, you can take a tram ride or boat trip along the lakeshore. Highlights include the peaceful Japanese Garden and interesting outdoor art and spurting fountains that dot plentiful flowerbeds.
23. Water Country USA
Guaranteed fun for all the family, Water Country USA has loads of wild and wet rides, wave pools and water coasters for guests to enjoy. Located on the eastern outskirts of Williamsburg not far from Busch Gardens, it is the perfect place to cool down and splash around on a warm summer’s day.
Now the largest water park in the Mid-Atlantic, it has more than forty splashtastic attractions to try out with resort-style amenities on offer. Among the park’s most popular rides are the Colossal Curl mega raft slide and Cutback Water Coaster which actually uses water jets to propel you uphill.
As all the pools are surrounded by sunbathing areas and concession stands, you can easily spend all day at the vast water park.
22. Virginia Living Museum
For those interested in learning about the state’s rich fauna and flora, the Virginia Living Museum is an absolute must. At its large open-air site in Newport News, you can explore countless exhibits that depict the Old Dominion’s diverse ecosystems.
Inspired by the example of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum set on the other side of the country, the museum reopened in 1987 after having previously been a nature center and planetarium. The massive modern building now contains excellent displays on a cypress swamp, coastal plain and Chesapeake Bay, among other environments.
Outside, you can wander along its winding boardwalk and see foxes, river otters and red wolves in spacious enclosures that mimic their natural habitat. In addition, there are some super science shows to watch in its small planetarium.
21. Military Aviation Museum
Every bit as engrossing is the Military Aviation Museum’s astonishing collection of fighting aircraft, many of which are still in working condition. Set half an hour’s drive south of Virginia Beach, it has a whopping number of well-maintained WWI and WWII fighter planes to peruse.
First opened to the public in 2008, its four humongous hangars house around eighty or so aircraft of the Allies and Axis. As such, you can examine RAF Mosquitos and Luftwaffe Messerschmitts up close before venturing inside an actual flight control tower from a British airbase.
Soviet jets and US Navy planes also feature alongside artifacts and exhibits explaining more about them. Twice a year, the museum puts on an incredible air show where spectators can actually watch the vintage planes shoot about the sky.
20. White Oak Lavender Farm
In contrast to these exciting events, a visit to White Oak Lavender Farm is always a laidback affair as you immerse yourself in nature and enjoy some wonderful wines. At the idyllic site outside of Harrisonburg, you can buy sweet-smelling lavender products and walk around fields full of purple flowers.
Now one of Virginia’s premier lavender destinations, the family owned and operated farm is situated in a scenic spot in the Shenandoah Valley. During summertime, you can tour its colorful fields and see how they grow, distill and clean the flower buds before picking some stems to take home.
Aside from petting farmyard animals and getting lost in its labyrinth, guests can picnic by the pond and sample some refreshing wines produced in their vineyard.
19. Manassas National Battlefield Park
As Virginia was fought over fiercely by the Union and Confederate forces, it would be amiss to visit and not explore some Civil War sites. One of the largest and most important is the superb Manassas National Battlefield Park which lies just north of the small city of the same name.
Remarkably enough, the park actually preserves the site of two influential battles and numerous old buildings and monuments that dot its fields. While the Battle of Bull Run in 1861 was the first time the armies clashed, the second engagement a year later resulted in a victory for the Confederates.
Visitors can see old houses that acted as field hospitals and hear about the ebb and flow of both battles. The fantastic center contains Civil War-era uniforms and weapons with exhibits detailing the major events, figures and aftermath in more detail.
18. Great Falls Park, McLean
Another of the state’s most stunning nature spots can be found just outside of McLean on the border with Maryland. Thanks to its rushing white waters, Great Falls makes for some fabulous photos and viewing with the park and rocks around it being just as arresting.
Lying along the powerful Potomac River, the falls tumble their way down a series of major cascades with dramatic-looking drops and rocky outcrops. From atop jagged cliffs, you can bask in phenomenal views of the falls which drop fifty feet in height over 550 feet.
After gazing at the majestic rapids and marveling at their roar, you can hike alongside the river and even rock climb some of the surrounding cliffs.
17. Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Located just outside of Chantilly in the very northeast of the state you can find the superb Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. Its immense hangars house an extensive array of artifacts and exhibits that look at the history of human flight and its evolution.
Only opened back in 2010, the Smithsonian-affiliated museum lies alongside the Washington Dulles International Airport, not far from the capital. Its displays cover everything from Cold War aviation and human spaceflight to early flight attempts and even ballooning. The centerpiece is of course the Space Shuttle Discovery with hundreds of civilian and military planes also dotting the hangars.
On top of this, you can try fun flight simulators or watch films in its IMAX and see planes take off from its observation tower.
16. Alexandria Old Town
As it boasts one of the best-preserved historic districts in the States, it is well worth strolling around Alexandria Old Town if you have the time. Set just a stone’s throw from Arlington and Washington, D.C., it contains countless centuries-old houses and churches and some outstanding museums.
Founded in 1749 on the west bank of the Potomac River, the quaint old seaport derived much of its wealth and prosperity from the trade of both tobacco and slaves. This fueled the construction of the attractive townhouses and important landmarks like Christ Church and Gadsby’s Tavern that line its charming cobbled streets today.
To get a feel for life in town, make sure to wander along the lively King Street which is bordered by some 200 bustling bars, boutiques and businesses.
15. Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Long a firm favorite with families, Busch Gardens is both one of the most famous and photogenic amusement parks in the US. Thanks to its European-theme, you can be in France and Germany one minute and Italy and Ireland the next with fun rides and attractions scattered throughout.
Situated on the southeastern outskirts of Williamsburg, its endless grounds have nine different areas to explore. While England contains classic phone booths, a double decker bus and a giant replica of the Globe Theater, the Germany section looks like a scenic ski resort up in the Alps.
Each has their own country-specific food and live entertainment with its leafy grounds and diverse architecture making for some great holiday snaps. The park is renowned for its rollercoasters which include the Loch Ness Monster’s interlocking loops and huge airtime hills of the Pantheon.
14. Luray Caverns
Certainly one of the most spectacular caves in the United States, the cathedral-sized Luray Caverns are a must-visit for their striking stalactites and stalagmites. Full of unique rock formations, shining crystals and cave pools, the natural wonder can be found in the northern part of the Commonwealth.
Since its discovery back in 1878, generations have flocked to the cave which covers a colossal area beneath the Shenandoah Valley. Formed over the course of many millennia by underground rivers, it boasts breathtaking formations such as the Double Column and Titania’s Veil. Some ceilings even tower a scarcely believable ten-storeys high.
While the caverns’ snaking passageways and shimmering pools are certainly a treat for the eyes, its Great Stalactite Organ makes sweet melodies for your ears by gently tapping on the rocks around it.
13. Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
Another of the state’s most highly rated attractions and institutes is the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Aside from gazing at its huge tanks full of fish and aquatic animals, it has engaging hands-on exhibits, boat excursions and an IMAX theater to enjoy.
One of the most-visited aquariums in the nation, it opened in 1986 with its exhibits focusing on not just Virginia’s rivers and Chesapeake Bay but the Atlantic Ocean too. As you explore its underwater environments, you’ll see various species of shark and stroke starfish and horseshoe crabs in its touch tank.
Besides learning about its aquatic ecosystems, you can take boat trips to see dolphins and whales in the wild. The center also has an outdoor adventure park and shows educational films in its IMAX.
12. Mill Mountain Star & Park
Undoubtedly the city’s standout symbol and sight, the Mill Mountain Star overlooks Roanoke from atop the mighty mount of the same name. Called the ‘Hollywood Sign of the East Coast’, the iconic landmark is visible for miles around and is delightfully illuminated each night.
Erected in 1949, the world’s largest freestanding man-made star sits 1,000 feet above the Roanoke Valley down below. Itself 88 feet tall, the neon structure stands out majestically against the dark sky with its three stars nested one inside the other normally lit up in a bright red, white and blue.
In addition to snapping pictures of the star both during the day and at night, you can wander around the pretty landscaped park at its foot. It contains a small zoo, numerous hiking trails and, of course, divine views over the city.
11. Battleship Wisconsin at Nauticus
One of the largest and last battleships ever built by the US Navy, the WWII-era USS Wisconsin is now permanently docked along the Elizabeth River. At the magnificent Nauticus maritime center in Norfolk, you can take tours above and below deck and learn more about her fascinating past.
Lying down by the waterfront, the state-of-the-art center has all kinds of artifacts and exhibits that tell the story of the area’s maritime environment, industry and military. As well as a small aquarium, there are three floors of model ships and hurricane simulators to see alongside the historic Schooner Virginia outside.
The highlight though is the hulking great grey battleship which was awarded five battle stars for her service against Japanese forces in WWII. On top of her gigantic guns and combat center, guests can venture below deck and hear about the action she saw in the Gulf and Korea.
10. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
A peaceful and picturesque place, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden sprawls across a massive area just north of the Commonwealth’s capital Richmond. Dotted about its fabulous themed gardens and flowerbeds are lots of arresting artworks and a beautiful glass conservatory.
Often included on lists of the best botanical gardens in the nation, it opened in 1984 with more than a dozen different sections now laid out about the site. While some are home to perennials and roses, others such as Asian Valley and the ‘old-fashioned’ Victorian-style garden feature traditional design elements specific to their theme.
The real showstopper is of course its classical glass-domed conservatory – the only one in the mid-Atlantic. Alongside its exquisite architecture, it has a large collection of exotic and unusual plants to explore, ranging from cacti and succulents to orchids and even a live tropical butterflies section.
9. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge
Just off the Eastern Shore of Virginia is another excellent place to head if you’re after spellbinding scenery and nature: the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Best known for its wild ponies, its pristine beaches and forests, marshes and dunes occupy the southern half of Assateague Island.
As it was originally established in 1943 to protect migratory birds, the park is very much a paradise for birdwatchers with untold thousands visiting each year. Impressively enough, over 320 species of shorebird and waterfowl inhabit its untouched forests, wetlands and Atlantic Ocean coastline.
Aside from hiking and biking about and seeing the famous ponies, you can also stop by the lovely Assateague Lighthouse or lounge on the island’s brilliant beaches. Sightseeing trips around the bay and ocean are available while its nature center explains more about the area’s fauna and flora.
8. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Yet another of the state’s main cultural institutions is the phenomenal Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Located in the city’s Museum District, its incredible collection spans more than 5,000 years of art history with African and Asian antiquities displayed next to Faberge eggs and other fine artworks.
Since opening in 1936, the museum has expanded considerably with its 22,000 or so paintings, photos and sculptures now occupying a striking modern building. In addition to galleries of ancient Egyptian artifacts and American landscapes, recent expansions have added sections dedicated to Art Nouveau and Art Deco design and decorative arts.
With masterpieces by Rubens and Rousseau on show and a marvelous sculpture garden outside, the fine arts museum is definitely well worth visiting if you have the chance.
Walk just a short distance to the south of the Museum District and you’ll come across Maymont; an extraordinary Victorian estate like no other. As well as a huge historic house museum and attractive arboretum, it has gorgeous grounds and gardens for visitors to amble around.
Originally a dairy farm, the picture-perfect site overlooking the James River was acquired by James and Sallie Dooley in 1886. The wealthy couple set about building an elaborate Gilded Age mansion with immaculately groomed gardens complete with a koi pond, fountains and even a large waterfall lying all around it.
After having taken in Maymont Mansion’s exquisite antiques and furnishings, you can check out the extensive carriage collection. The children’s farm and wildlife center also contain everything from alligators and farmyard animals to a bobcat, black bears and bald eagles.
6. Historic Jamestowne
An absolute must for those interested in the history of the States, Historic Jamestowne preserves the site of the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Although it is only the foundations of a few old buildings that remain, historical reenactors bring its recreated Powhatan village and early colonial structures to life before your eyes.
On May 4, 1607, the Virginia Company of London established James Fort on the northeast bank of the James River, some 2.5 miles southwest of modern Williamsburg. At its excellent archaeological museum, you can learn about the early settlers’ struggles for survival and see old artifacts unearthed at the site before heading out to explore the ongoing excavations.
There are also a couple of magnificent monuments scattered about such as the statues of John Smith and Pocahontas and the remains of the settlement’s centuries-old fort and church to see.
5. Arlington National Cemetery
Arguably the most important national cemetery in the US is that of Arlington which lies just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. It is here amongst its pretty green spaces that many of the country’s most famous figures are buried with impressive monuments and memorials also lying here and there.
Now home to the graves of over 400,000 veterans and their dependents, the sprawling cemetery was set up during the American Civil War. While President John F. Kennedy’s grave is among the most visited, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Iwo Jima Memorial also attract lots of attention.
Besides these moving monuments which now count among the nation’s most renowned landmarks, you can also stop by the elegant Arlington House and Arlington Memorial Amphitheater.
4. George Washington’s Mount Vernon
A bit further down the winding Potomac River from Arlington is the former plantation home of the first president of the United States. Actually designed and decorated by George Washington himself, Mount Vernon is a treat to tour with fabulous furnishing and period pieces on show.
A popular place to visit, the expansive estate acted as Washington’s residence from 1754 right up until his death in 1799. The majestic mansion features some sublime Palladian-style architecture and overlooks the river from its prominent hillside. As the rooms are filled with family portraits and personal belongings, they offer a fascinating insight into the life and times of the influential figure.
After learning all about his achievements at the site’s museum, you can stroll around the plantation’s gardens and pay your respects at the Washington Family Tomb.
3. Virginia Beach
The largest city in the state, Virginia Beach’s golden shores attract huge numbers of holidaymakers each summer. Aside from its vibrant boardwalk and broad beach, it has lots of fun, family-friendly attractions and watersports to try out.
Boasting thirty miles of soft, sandy beaches, VB lies at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay alongside the Atlantic. Most of life in town revolves around its buzzing boardwalk which is bordered by not just exciting arcades and amusement rides but live music acts and mini golf courses too.
Among the seaside city’s major attractions are the Ocean Breeze Waterpark and Virginia Aquarium. Kayaking, jet skiing and whale watching excursions are also popular, as are hiking and biking in the nearby Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
2. Colonial Williamsburg
If you want to step back in time and experience what life in eighteenth-century America was really like, then Colonial Williamsburg is certainly the place for you. The largest living history museum in the world, it has countless charming old streets full of costumed reenactors.
As the city was the capital of the colony during the American Revolution, few places played such an important role in the early history of the United States. It was here after all that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe planned for American independence.
While exploring its center, you’ll pass hundreds of old brick buildings and see the Governor’s Palace and Capitol Building. Its historical reenactors provide more info on the cultures and lifestyles of the time with some representing the landed gentry and other poor slaves and peasants.
1. Shenandoah National Park & Skyline Drive
Sure to delight both nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts alike, Shenandoah National Park covers a large part of the north of the state. A wonderful way to take in its stunning scenery and viewpoints is to cruise through the park’s forested mountains along Skyline Drive.
Stretching 105 miles in length, the rambling road mostly follows the crest of the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains which have been protected as part of the park since 1935. In addition to enjoying picturesque nature, you can stop off at its scenic overlooks for sweeping views over the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont plateau in the distance.
Hiking or horseback riding along the Appalachian Trail is another memorable way to see the park’s peaks and waterfalls with many visiting in fall for its lovely change of season foliage.