Visiting Virginia’s cities provides you with an endless list of activities, from fine dining to shopping, attending festivals, and live music or theater performances. But even in the most densely populated areas, you can find a relaxing urban oasis. These are places that make you feel as if you are away from the hustle and bustle, where you can find a peaceful, quiet retreat without traveling hours to the countryside. Take a time out during your urban vacation and head to these hidden gems for a break from the lively cityscape.
The capital city of Virginia is full of beautiful places that offer peace and quiet. Check out a few of the outdoor areas known for scenery within a short walk or drive from Richmond’s city center.
photo credit: The Detour Duo, @thedetour_duo
Joggers and bikers region frequent the Canal Walk in downtown Richmond, as traffic on the busy roads can make exercise difficult and often dangerous. The paved pathway winds around the historic Canal, under bridges and around the sunlit, well maintained landscape. Although you can’t swim in the Canal, you can experience it from the water when you book a seat on the Canal Cruises, where you’ll get a historically narrated ride down the waterway.
Brown’s Island and Belle Isle
photo credit: Joey Wharton, @joey_wharton
Reachable by a short stroll down Canal Walk, Brown’s Island and Belle Isle sit on either side of the James. While Brown’s Island resembles a large, manicured yard where you’ll spot visitors playing Frisbee or walking pets (when one of the numerous events is not happening), Belle Isle acts as a sort of beach for residents, where you can lie out on the rocks and get a tan without driving two hours. There is a suspended footbridge that leads to Belle Isle, allowing you to cross on foot or on your bike to reach the wooded trails that encircle the island. Bring along the dog for the journey; leashed pets are welcome.
Once the 100-acre estate of James and Sallie Dooley, Maymont was generously donated to the community in 1925. The Dooleys adored the property so much during their lives that they wished Richmond residents to be able to enjoy the grounds openly. The estate holds extensive gardens, including a colorful rose garden and a Zen-filled Japanese garden complete with bonsai and a waterfall. Visitors are welcome to tour the lavish mansion, wander the grounds, and observe river otters play in the Wildlife Exhibit area. There are countless activities, demonstrations, and tours that can easily fill an entire afternoon at Maymont.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Recognized as the second best public garden in North America by USA Today in 2014, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is a historic property comprised of more than 50 acres of spectacular gardens and ponds. While summer months bring colorful blooms of tulips, daffodils, and hundreds of other flower varietals, the gardens are still stunning in winter, lit up by millions of lights strung throughout the landscape. The glass domed Conservatory houses over 200 exotic orchids, and is the only greenhouse of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic.
With Washington, D.C. right across the Potomac and the Pentagon within its borders, Arlington is a busy metropolis, but there are still places in this city where you can get back to nature.
Potomac Overlook Regional Park
On the northern edge of Arlington, Potomac Overlook Regional Park offers 70 acres of peaceful wooded trails, along with educational gardens and a Nature Center. Pack a picnic and eat at the park, then visit the exhibits, which discuss sustainable energy solutions, blending ecology, physics, Earth Science, and chemistry into one fun and informational lesson. The park’s Nature Center displays several natural history exhibits as well as an animal sanctuary area.
Mount Vernon Trail
Like the Canal Walk in Richmond (albeit much, much longer), the Mount Vernon Trail is popular with runners and bikers looking to exercise outdoors without risking their safety. This 18-miler stretches from to Theodore Roosevelt Island all the way through Alexandria to George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate. It connects with several regional trails, allowing visitors to explore surrounding areas without ever leaving the footpaths. With views of the Potomac the entire way down, the trail is a scenic addition to the urban area.
In addition to the southern half of the Mount Vernon Trail, Alexandria has several other urban oasis destinations.
Old Town Alexandria
photo credit: Kristian Summerer
Technically this is still part of the city itself, but Old Town Alexandria’s charm and quaint atmosphere makes us think of it as a hidden getaway within the urban region. When most cities have concrete sidewalks and stark building faces, the brick walkways and individual businesses that line the streets of Old Town Alexandria are a refreshing touch. There is always some sort of farmers market or street event happening in Old Town, lending to the rural feel. At every corner, you’ll find upscale shopping and a bevy of dine dining options, but the old-world feel of the area prevents it from feeling cramped or crowded.
Green Spring Gardens
The Green Springs Gardens are more than just your average park. Packed into these 32 acres are trails, greenhouses, an old house that dates back to 1780 where you can enjoy an elegant afternoon tea, a horticulture library, meeting rooms, exhibits from local artists, and so much more. Take a tour or attend one of the lectures to learn more about the gardens and surrounding region, or if you are seeking solitude, walk along the native plant trails through the woods.
Encircling Alexandria and Arlington, Fairfax County is a popular area for residents that commute to the urban centers. It is one of the most heavily populated areas in Virginia, with many amazing shopping and dining opportunities available at Tyson’s Corner, Reston Town Center, and the Mosaic District, yet even in Fairfax, you’ll discover regions with a rural, enticing feel.
Burke Lake Park
photo credit: April Greer
Burke Lake Park is only 22 miles from the Nation’s Capital, but you feel as if you have traveled hundreds of miles into the rural regions of Virginia when you are inside the park. The wooded areas are teeming with local wildlife, allowing you to get back to nature and enjoy the Great Outdoors. Bring your camping gear and set up for an overnight stay at one of the 100 shaded campsites. Even in this rural gem, you’ll find plenty to do. There is a disc golf course, trails that can be used for hiking or biking, sand volleyball courts, and an ice cream parlor complete with an old fashioned carousel.
Great Falls National Park
photo credit: Mark Mackoviak
Right along the Virginia/Maryland border, Great Falls National Park is named for the whitewater portion of the river where the Potomac rushes over jagged rocks, creating wild and enchanting river scenery. The park has 800 acres of undeveloped land, yet is a mere 15 miles from Washington, D.C. Swimming in the park waters are not allowed due to the swift currents and hidden depths (over 30 feet deep in some places), but you can biking or bike the trails, go fishing, or even ride horseback at Great Falls. Experienced athletes conquer the waterway on a kayak or raft, although the park’s rapids are rated by the American Whitewater Association as Class II (moderately easy) to Class IV (extreme). Rock climbers also frequent the park to try the rock faces, which range from 5.0-5.12 in difficulty.
Norfolk is on the east coast of Virginia, between the James River and the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay. With the Norfolk International Airport, a Naval Station, and many business hubs located in the city area, visitors may wish to take a break and tour these hidden “harbors”.
Chrysler Museum of Art—Norfolk
If you are staying in Norfolk and looking for a free urban oasis, head to the Chrysler Museum of Art to view the collections and visiting exhibits, which explore the last 5,000 years of human civilizations. European and American paintings and sculptures fill the museum, as well as African, Islamic, Asian, Egyptian and other priceless artifacts from around the world. The art museum hosts a full schedule of free programs, concerts, theater performances, tours, and lectures. Beyond the museum itself, the Chrysler also has a peaceful courtyard and a Glass Studio, where visitors can watch glassblowing in free daily demonstrations.
Norfolk Botanical Gardens—Norfolk
Photo Courtesy of Norfolk Botanical Gardens
Dating back to 1938, the Norfolk Botanical Gardens are renowned for their remarkable scenery, horticultural excellence, and enriching educational programs. The garden’s colorful flowers, interesting landscapes, seasonal exotic plants, and old forests cover 155 acres in the Norfolk area. Walking through the botanical gardens, you can view one of the largest and most impressive collections of roses, azaleas, camellias, and rhododendrons on the entire Eastern seaboard. If you wish to view the gardens without having to walk the expansive grounds, there are tours offered by boat or tram.
Whether you are staying in Newport News for work or pleasure, you may want to slow things down and relax. We have just the place for you.
Mariners’ Museum Park
The largest privately owned and maintained free park in the country, Mariners’ Museum Park is comprised of 550 acres of land, as well as an indoor museum (admission fee required for tour of museum). Walk along the Noland Trail, a five mile pathway that winds through the property. The scenery along the trail includes gorgeous sights of Lake Maury and the Lions Bridge, a well-known Virginia landmark. The museum within the park grounds examines the history of water transportation, including stories of maritime travelers, exhibits of the boats used over the past few centuries, and many other aquatic artifacts.
This popular Virginia vacation spot gets busy during peak months, with dozens of hotels, excellent restaurants, and the world-famous Boardwalk inhabiting just a handful of the Virginia Beach blocks. If you need to find some solitude in this fun and exciting city, take a quick trip to these soothing spots.
Virginia Beach Aquarium and Adventure Park
The ocean is home to countless interesting sea creatures, but to see them up close, visit the Virginia Beach Aquarium, where both land and sea-dwelling animals call the habitats and more than 800,000 gallons of aquariums home. The museum provides hands-on exhibits, animal touch pools, a 3D theater with National Geographic educational films, an aviary, and even a nature trail for those looking to stay outdoors. There are more than just ocean animals at this aquarium, and seasonal exhibits showcase amazing creatures from around the world.
After you tour the aquarium, get some exercise at the Adventure Park, located right beside the museum. Rope courses and zip lines challenge you to traverse the trees from high above the ground, and varying degrees of difficulty make it possible for almost anyone to tackle the courses.
First Landing State Park
A few miles north of the main beach strip, First Landing State Park marks the spot where 100 English settlers landed and established the first government in America in 1607. Lagoons, marshes, and beaches are scattered around the park, creating unique ecosystems for plants and animals alike. There are over 19 miles of trails inside the grounds, as well as educational displays, historic exhibits, and aquariums. As a pet-friendly park, you can bring your leashed pet along to join you as you walk the trails to the sandy shores.
The largest city west of Richmond, Roanoke is surrounded by mountains and open lands, where you’ll find a wide variety of outdoor experiences. Here are a few choices that you can walk or take a short drive to reach.
While there are more than 25 miles of biking and hiking trails in the Greenway Trail System that surrounds the Roanoke area, the two that travel through the city center will be the best options for those staying downtown. The Lick Run Greenway Trail winds north from the famous Hotel Roanoke, through Washington Park to the Valley View Mall. The most well-known route of the trail system is the Mill Mountain Greenway, which takes you from the downtown market up to the Roanoke Star, the city’s own version of the Hollywood sign, where you can see an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the entire city.
Photo credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos
Less than eight miles from downtown Roanoke, Carvins Cove Nature Reserve has more than 12,000 acres of forests and almost 60 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and even horseback riding. The park is the second largest city-owned park in the U.S. and the biggest east of the Mississippi. The crescent-shaped reservoir inside the park is open for fishing and boating, offering a quiet place to enjoy the surrounding natural landscape from the water. Inside the park, you can travel four miles of Virginia’s most renowned pathway, the Appalachian Trail. The park has also become a popular spot for mountain bikers because of the varying terrain and elevation of the landscape.
While traveling to one of the larger cities in Virginia provides ample opportunities for excellent food experiences, boutique shopping, and thrilling events or festivals, you may wish to “stop and smell the roses”. Find your serene sanctuary within the city at these urban oasis locations.