Virginia is a vibrant microcosm of our nation’s geographic and cultural diversity, with everything from rolling rural landscapes to big-city energy, from vast mountain wilderness to coastal escapes. Whether you’re taking a side trip from neighboring DC or spending a month exploring the state’s trails and waterways, your time in Virginia will be unforgettable. Here are 17 moments to look forward to.
1. Spotting wild island horses
The small town of Chincoteague, located on the barrier island of the same name, is your gateway to the Assateague Island National Seashore. Windswept and unspoiled, the beaches are the stuff of your shipwrecked pirate fantasies. Wild horses are just a huge bonus.
Every July, visitors flock to the island to watch the Chincoteague Island Pony Swim, where “saltwater cowboys” corral these untamed masters of the water. The rest of the year, the wild ponies — some 150 adults and 70 or so foals — can be observed grazing in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. You can also take a guided kayak tour to view them from the sea.
2. Slurping oysters at the Urbanna Oyster Festival
Virginians take their oysters seriously, and nowhere more so than at the oldest oyster festival in the country. Held every November in the waterfront town of Urbanna, this is the kind of event that attracts hardcore enthusiasts. You know the type — the ones who know how to discern idiosyncrasies in taste among different varieties of oysters from different locales (similar to a wine’s terroir). They’re not wrong — join them to find out for yourself.
Even if you can’t match the oysters to their bays, and regardless of whether you have them raw, roasted, or Rockefeller, they’ll definitely be delicious.
3. Having dinner under the stars
If you’ve got your foodie priorities straight, your trip to Richmond will coincide with chefs Paige and Gregorio’s magical Dinner in the Field experience. Look forward to an evening inspired by coastal Italian dining but served in a bucolic Virginian location. The table is set family style, so you’ll make new friends while enjoying rustic Italian cuisine created with local Virginian ingredients.
4. Catching the sunset over Breaks Interstate Park
You could just wing it and pick a spot atop the Blue Ridge Mountains to catch the sunset — that method usually pans out. But remember there are other “ridges” in Virginia, and their views can be just as spectacular. Enter Breaks Interstate Park, spanning 4,500 acres on the Virginia-Kentucky border. This remote spot is home to the “Grand Canyon of the South,” the deepest river gorge east of the Mississippi, where the water of the Russell Fork has carved 1,000 feet down into the surrounding rock. It makes for one heck of a foreground for your sunset Instagram.
5. Paying your respects at Arlington National Cemetery
With sweeping views across the Potomac River to the Washington Monument and US Capitol Building, this 600-acre cemetery is the final resting place for 400,000 US soldiers and their families, as well as President John F. Kennedy and astronaut John Glenn. Particularly moving is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has been continuously guarded since 1937.
6. Finding a new favorite wine on the Loudoun County Wine Trail
Just outside the nation’s capital, Virginia’s wine country is easy to access and provides an ideal antidote to the hubbub of DC. Even better is when you find a winery that serves food, as does Purcellville’s 868 Estate Vineyard at its onsite farm-to-table restaurant. Short rib poutine made with local goat cheese? Chyeah.
7. Witnessing a rocket launch on Wallops Island
The observation deck at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility gives you a front row seat for taking in the sounding rockets and scientific balloons that regularly blast off from this Eastern Shore site. The Visitor Center is open year round, tours of the facility are available, and open-to-the-public events happen all the time.
8. Catching a live show in the Birthplace of Country Music
Every September, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion electrifies the town of Bristol with its 22 stages of live music. The three-day event — which sees the entire historic downtown absolutely packed with people each September — even includes the opportunity to live your jam-band fantasy at Jam Camp, where professional musicians provide instruction on the art of playing by ear with others.
9. Finding LOVE
If you’ve ever seen a Virginia license plate, you know that Virginia is for lovers. History lovers. Beach lovers. Wine lovers. Outdoor lovers. Art Lovers. While exploring Virginia, you’ll likely find a few examples of the giant “LOVE” art installations throughout the state. A few favorites are the wine barrel sculpture at Cardinal Point Winery, the musically themed installation in Bristol, and the “Logs of Love” in Luray.
10. Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
This nearly 20-mile feat of civil engineering spans the entire mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, connecting Virginia Beach with the state’s Eastern Shore. As you cross, you’ll nearly lose sight of all land (definitely so as you descend into the two tunnel portions), with nothing but an expanse of sea, sky, and seagulls before you. There’s a scenic overlook on the west side of the roadway on the Eastern Shore side, where you can watch for pelicans, peregrine falcons, and harbor seals.
Oh, and it’s one of the “Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World.” How many others have you been to?
11. Getting lost in Old Town Alexandria
Don’t worry, the good kind of lost. Start at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, where you can visit the observation deck for a great view of Alexandria, the Potomac River, and DC. Then work your way down King Street — hopping on the free trolley, if you feel like it — towards the waterfront, checking out the cafes, pubs, and boutiques until you reach the Torpedo Factory Art Center. Yep, they used to make torpedoes here, but now it contains galleries and working art studios. The trolley runs up and down King Street, so you won’t have to walk both ways.
12. Celebrating spring at the Norfolk Botanical Garden
Probably the only botanical garden you can explore by boat, tram, and on foot, the Norfolk Botanical Garden has impressive displays year round — but the thousands of azalea and other rhododendron blooms that appear in spring are particularly dazzling. Special exhibits and night tours are offered frequently, so check the website for details before tapping your foot impatiently for the post-winter blooms.
13. Waking up on the water on Smith Mountain Lake
Forty miles from Roanoke, this reservoir, aka “The Jewel of the Blue Ridge Mountains,” has 500 miles of shoreline to explore. Spend a long, lazy weekend cruising the coves without ever leaving the water on your own houseboat — Parrot Cove Boat Rentals in Moneta has all kinds of watercraft available, big and small.
14. Experiencing the country’s firsts (firsthand)
Jamestown, which makes up one-third of Virginia’s Historic Triangle (along with Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg), is both the location of the first permanent English settlement in the country and where modern Virginia began. You can still watch archaeologists in action at Historic Jamestowne, where excavations and research are ongoing. Nearby, the Jamestown Settlement recreates life as it was in 1607 for the original colonists and the local Native American population — including their most famous daughter, Pocahontas.
15. Marveling at the enormity of the Natural Bridge
This impressive 215-foot-high arch, with a span of 90 feet, is located 15 miles south of Lexington on I-81. The popular National Historic Landmark was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and — according to legend — surveyed by George Washington. Various geological forces sculpted the natural wonder millions of years ago, but today you can walk beneath it on the gentle and easy-to-access Cedar Creek Trail, which will also take you past several caves and waterfalls.
16. Waterfront camping on the Southern Virginia Wild Blueway
The three rivers and two lakes that make up the Blueway provide over 100 miles of navigable water and 1,200 miles of unspoiled lake shoreline to explore. The Dan, Staunton, and Banister Rivers pass through historic waterfront communities, but the majority is totally undeveloped (keep an eye out for bald eagles!). Occoneechee State Park, on Buggs Island Lake, has waterfront campsites and overnight boat slips to rent, making this a morning-noon-and-night kind of adventure.
17. Reaching for the star on Mill Mountain
The world’s largest man-made illuminated star welcomes visitors to the Blue Ridge Mountains — and is a great spot for a gorgeous view overlooking the Roanoke Valley. Originally built as a Christmas decoration in 1949, the 88-foot neon star (lit nightly) has become an iconic symbol of the region. To get there, take the Mill Mountain Parkway exit at milepost 120 of the Blue Ridge Parkway. And when the sun sets, a few more stars will pop out, too.