Guest blog post by Kate Prunkl
Summer is here, and if you’re anything like me, you gravitate towards the refreshing pool or air conditioning during the summer heat until boredom takes over and your brain begs you to do something else. This summer, forgo the tedious lounging by the pool and venture out into Richmond to explore the city by foot.
Ranked third on Travel & Leisure’s list of best places to travel to in 2016, Richmond is a well-known haven for history, architecture, biking, nature and art lovers. The city even topped National Geographic’s list for the top destinations to travel to for food in 2016. While the River City is certainly not lacking in things to do, it can be difficult to think of fun activities that work with a limited budget.
Most local, free activities are old classics for long-time Richmonders, but many of the city’s best free features often get overlooked. If you’re new to the city or just passing through, consider this as your an intro to just a few of the budget-friendly amenities Richmond has to offer.
1. CANAL WALK
Richmond’s Canal Walk stretches 1.25 peaceful miles along the Kanawha and Haxall canals and briefly, the James River. Along the way, walkers are presented with facts about the city’s rich history. If you decide you want to spend a few dollars, historic canal boat cruises are offered at the turning basin (intersection of 14th and Dock streets). The Canal Walk is accessible from almost every block between 5th and 17th streets. Handicapped-accessible entrances are available at 5th, 10th, 12th, 14th and 16th streets.
Map: Canal Walk
Carytown is the collective name for the approximately mile-long stretch of West Cary Street from Thompson Street to South Boulevard. Carytown’s brightly painted buildings, unique boutiques and specialty shops make it a prime location to stroll and window shop. Carytown also is packed with a wide variety of restaurants. While walking through Carytown is free, the delicious aromas wafting through the air may convince you to spend some money if the shop windows don’t tempt you first!
3. CITY HALL OBSERVATION DECK
Richmond’s current City Hall was built in 1972, and at 450 feet tall, the building was the tallest in Virginia at the time of completion. Take the elevator (or the stairs, if you’re feeling adventurous) up 18 stories and reward yourself with unparalleled 360-degree views of the city. The deck features slanted glass panes as protection from the weather, while allowing fresh air and unobstructed views. Bring a lunch or a snack to enjoy at one of the available picnic tables.
Address: 900 E. Broad Street Richmond, VA 23219
Open: Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
4. HOLLYWOOD CEMETERY
While meandering through a cemetery may sound like an odd thing to do, this beautiful 169-year-old graveyard was designed to be walkable. According to the official website, Hollywood Cemetery is the second most visited cemetery in the nation (Arlington National Cemetery is first) and is the final resting place for two American presidents (John Tyler and James Monroe), six Virginia governors, two Supreme Court justices, and 22 Confederate generals. Hollywood Cemetery also provides beautiful views of the river, downtown Richmond and Belle Isle.
Address: 412 South Cherry Street Richmond, VA 23220
Open: Daily 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
5. JAMES RIVER PARK SYSTEM
Experience the natural beauty of the James River, marshland, forests and wildlife without leaving the city. Admittedly, this includes more than one place. The James River Park System identifies 14 distinct sections from the Huguenot Bridge on Richmond’s west end to the I-95 Bridge on the city’s east end.
Visitors are welcome to fish, canoe, kayak, paddleboard, swim, rock climb, tree climb, walk, run, and even whitewater raft or tube down the James. Guided recreation options are available (some fees may apply). If you’re in or on the river, life jackets are recommended. They are required by law when the river is more than 5 feet; no one is allowed in the James when it is is more than 9 feet. Look for posted signs.
Maps: Bike, Trail and Park Maps
Open: Daily Sunrise-Sundown (unless otherwise noted)
6. BELLE ISLE
While technically a part of the James River Park System, Belle Isle provides a noticeably different experience than other sections of the park. The former Confederate prison camp that is dotted with history markers is now a popular place for sunbathing on river rocks, swimming, hiking, running and biking (including a recently opened bike skills course). Enjoy one of the best views of the city skyline from the pedestrian bridge arcing from the edge of Tredegar Iron Works to Belle Isle.
Address: 300 Tredegar Street Richmond, VA 23219 (parking that leads to the pedestrian bridge)
Maymont, a 100-acre Victorian estate built by Major James Dooley and his wife Sallie May in 1893, was left to the city of Richmond in 1926. The property now serves as a museum, nature center, children’s farm and park. Wander the expansive grounds and admire the beauty of the Italian Garden, Japanese Garden, arboretum, rescued wildlife and stunning man-made waterfall. Guided tours of the mansion are available Tuesday through Sunday. While Maymont’s Mansion, grounds and Children’s Farm are free to the public, donations are suggested. Admission to the Nature and Visitor’s Center is $3.
Address: 1700 Hampton Street Richmond, VA 23220
Open: Grounds and Gardens: Daily from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. during the summer
Mansion: Tuesday – Sunday 12 to 5 p.m.
Nature & Visitor Center: Tuesday – Sunday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
8. MONUMENT AVENUE
This wide, tree-lined street is one of Richmond’s two National Historic Landmark districts. Monument Avenue is a beautiful promenade for a stroll, especially for lovers of history and architecture. Historic homes line the cobblestone street that ambles around the statues and monuments for which the street is named. According to the National Park System, Monument Avenue features a variety of Colonial Revival, Spanish Colonial, Tudor Revival, French Renaissance and Italian Renaissance style homes.
Map: Stuart Circle (where Monument Avenue begins)
9. VIRGINIA HISTORICAL SOCIETY
The Virginia Historical Society is located in Battle Abbey, a 104-year-old Neoclassical building on Boulevard. VHS’ The Story of Virginia is a year-round, free interactive exhibit that interprets 16,000 years of Virginia history and features a collection of 500 artifacts. The building boasts a multitude of restored original features, including memorial military murals painted in 1913. The gallery housing these murals is currently closed for restoration of the original leaded glass skylights. Restoration is scheduled to be completed by July.
Address: 428 North Boulevard Richmond, VA 23220
Open: Daily from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
10. VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts sits on land used to house Confederate soldiers after the Civil War. In 1936, Virginia legislators completed the English Renaissance-style headquarters of the VMFA on Boulevard. Since then, the campus has expanded to accommodate the Commonwealth’s growing collection and display temporary travelling exhibits. VMFA’s 435,000-square-foot facility currently features 10 exhibits with free admission and beautiful public garden space dotted with sculptures to enjoy.
Address: 200 North Boulevard Richmond, VA 23220
Open: Daily, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., with extended hours until 9 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays
BONUS! RICHMOND TOUR GUYS
When I heard about the Richmond Tour Guys, I knew I couldn’t leave them off this list. Richmond Tour Guys are a group of history lovers that give historically themed walking tours of the city free of charge! They offer three tours: a downtown Civil War and Civil Rights tour, a Church Hill Revolutionary War tour, and a Shockoe Bottom tour. Each tour is offered once a week, and they fill up fast! So, be sure to reserve your spot in advance.
Downtown Civil War and Civil Rights: Saturday 11 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Church Hill Revolutionary War: Saturday 3:30 – 5:30 p.m.
Shockoe Bottom: Sunday 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
The above listed free activities are just a small snapshot of the wealth of experiences Richmond has to offer. The City of Richmond is home to more than 25 museums and innumerable historical sites. Whatever your interests, the River City has something waiting for you.
Kate Prunkl moved to Richmond in 2007 and has been exploring in and around the city ever since. Kate is an animal lover who enjoys symmetry, writing, collecting a wide variety of knowledge, RVA history, finding beauty in everyday things, exploring nature with camera in hand, and creating art. You can follow her on Twitter at @kapRVA.