Sitting south of the national capital of the United States and right on the doorstep of the American South, your time in Virginia will be a worthy introduction to one of America’s most intriguing cultural regions. Its history has been defined by many key events that brought about the establishment of the USA as a sovereign nation, as well as the tragic war that almost tore it apart.
In between and after these tumultuous and bloody periods in history, Virginia’s fertile soil, inspiring seascapes, and its subtly beautiful portion of Appalachia have long made it an attractive place for people to immigrate to and live a prosperous, beautiful life. Whether as a farmer tilling the soils in centuries past, or as a civil servant/government contractor in the present day, this state’s citizens has long regarded this state as an attractive place to live, and as travelers consistently find out in the course of their wanderings, a captivating place to visit.
400 + years of triumph and struggle have given it a wealth of historical sites, ancient geology has granted it mountains and valleys that are a pleasure to trek and explore, and favorable ocean currents have blessed its frontage on the Atlantic with warm waters and sandy shores that easily make for a relaxing beach vacation.
Virginia’s tourism board has long bragged that this state is for lovers. After spending an appreciable amount of time here, you’ll understand exactly what the locals mean by their passionate proclamation.
What To Do – Culture & History
Since you will most likely access Virginia after exploring the District of Columbia (aka Washington DC), the closest historical site of significance will be the Arlington National Cemetery. Established during the American Civil War as a burial ground for Union soldiers who fell defending the United States of America, this cemetery has since been a place where soldiers from every American war afterwards have been laid to rest. It became the site of the first commemoration of Memorial Day in 1929, and for the independent traveler, it is a poignant reminder of the enormous human cost of armed conflict.
Within the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery is the Marine Corps War Memorial, which is also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial. This iconic statue, which features a company of marines hoisting the American flag after the conclusion of one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, is officially dedicated to every Marine that has given their lives in America’s defence since their establishment in the lead up to the American Revolutionary War in 1775.
Also found on the grounds of the national cemetery is Arlington House, the mansion where Confederate general Robert Lee lived with his wife up to the outbreak of the Civil War. Soon after Virginia officially seceded from the Union, the land upon which the mansion sat was quickly taken back by Union forces, as it occupied high ground overlooking Washington DC.
As the Arlington National Cemetery was established around the mansion, graves were dug around it, creating a reminder to future generations of the consequences of civil war. Robert Lee was denied access to his former home after the war, which was instead turned into a national historic site.
The interior has been decorated to match what it would have looked like prior to the Civil War, thus making it into a glimpse into life during this period in addition to being a symbol of what an act of separation did to the young men of of that period.
If Arlington House has gotten you curious to learn more about what led to much of the South to secede from the USA and declare themselves to be the Confederate States of America, paying a visit to the Museum of the Confederacy will shed some light on this subject. Located in the state capital of Richmond, this museum (which is in the process of being renamed the American Civil War Museum at the time of this writing) consists of two structures: the former White House of the Confederacy, and a newer building that was built to better house its expanding collection.
Artifacts found here include the personal effects of Confederate luminaries like general Robert Lee and president Jefferson Davis, as well as the Confederate Constitution and the Seal of the Confederacy.
While many of the historical sites in Virginia do relate to the Confederacy and the American Civil War, there are many other places that relate to it being a cradle of American Union history as well. Mount Vernon served as the country estate for George Washington, the first president of the United States.
Located across the Potomac from Maryland in Fairfax County, it was where Washington’s ancestors had been based since 1674, and it was where he lived prior to his presidency following the Revolutionary War. He resided here part time his presidency, and returned here full time afterwards, dying in his estate in 1799. Today, his tomb and his wife’s can be found here, allowing you to pay your respects to the first leader of one of the foremost nations on Earth.
George Washington wasn’t the only president to call Virginia home. The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, resided at an estate known as Monticello, located outside the city of Charlottesville in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Monticello was a proper southern-style plantation, complete with slaves, a practice that was accepted by the public at this point in American history.
Despite the dark optics that results from having slave quarters that grant a look into what they had to look forward to after many hard days of monotonous labor, Monticello also has abundant lush gardens to admire, and the main structure of this villa is built in the Neoclassical style, much to the delight of architecture enthusiasts.
Amidst the rich history of the United States that one finds in abundance in Virginia, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that this state was home to the first permanent British settlement in North America. Jamestown National Historic Site commemorates this distinction, as it was arguably here where American history began.
A living history museum brings those early days to life for visitors, while the Voorhees Archaearium is home to unearthed artifacts of that time, many of which were found in the former statehouse that had been burned in 1676 by participants in an unsuccessful insurrection against colonial authorities.
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
If history and culture isn’t your bag, Virginia still has plenty of attractions on offer. The Pentagon can be found across from Washington DC in Arlington County, and is home to the Department of Defence. In other words, the operations of the mightiest military on the face of the Earth is directed from this massive five-sided building.
Given the sensitive nature of what goes on inside this building, you will need to officially request a tour through bureaucratic channels before arriving at the Pentagon’s doorstep. Americans need to go through their member of Congress to get a tour permit, while foreign nationals have to contact their embassy to gain clearance to stroll the halls of this powerful institution.
Once inside, your guide will show you many sights of interest, which include the Hall of Heroes, which honor those that have earned the highest battle award in a theater of combat, the POW-MIA Corridor, which commemorates those that have gone missing or taken prisoner in war, and the 9/11 Memorial and Chapel, which memorializes 184 causalities during the terrorist strike that occurred on that fateful day in 2001.
If roller coasters and similar theme park rides is your preferred adrenaline delivery method, then spending a day at Busch Gardens Williamsburg will satisfy your cravings amply. Themed around the many different cultures of Old Europe, you will be thrilled and cultured all in one go, as corkscrew coasters, 4D films, and live music venues will entertain you from the second you enter to the moment you leave.
If communing with nature is high on your list of priorities, Virginia has plenty of environments to accomplish this goal with ease. The Shenandoah Valley has plenty of attractions contained within its location in Northwestern Virginia, from national parks to vineyards. One natural site of interest that shouldn’t missed is Luray Caverns, a cave complex that was first discovered in 1878. The rock formations found within will fascinate you, as many long stalactites, a rock formation resembling fried eggs, and pure springs await inside the lit cavern.
Shenandoah National Park will prove to be an excellent base for those intent on exploring the area, as this natural preserve contains tonnes of activities that will appeal to those that hear the call of the wild. The Skyline Drive travels the spine of the mountains in the area, with the many hardwood trees providing an intensely colorful show during the fall. Its extensive backcountry allows those seeking a wilderness experience in this portion to have it, and there are no less than nine spectacular waterfalls for those that choose to chase them.
Finally, if the sticky heat that characterizes the South during the summer months is starting to get to you, there is nothing like a trip to Virginia Beach to get you out of your funk. This well-established beach resort sits on a portion of the extreme southeastern coast of the state, with no shortage of accommodation to choose from or attractions to occupy your time when you aren’t soaking up rays on the beach.
Much like other major coastal resorts in America, a boardwalk that is lined with restaurants, hotels, museums and midway attractions can be found here. The Virginia Beach Amphitheater brings in the biggest names in entertainment throughout the summer, and many nightclubs can also be found for those that like you tie a few on after a successful day at the beach … thus, it is an excellent destination for young travelers as well!