May 7-13, 2023 marks the 40th anniversary of National Travel and Tourism Week (NTTW), an annual tradition celebrating the U.S. travel community and travel’s essential role in stimulating economic growth, cultivating vibrant communities, and creating quality job opportunities.
To celebrate Virginia’s tourism industry and its vital role in the quality of life for locals and visitors alike, we’re spotlighting some of Virginia’s most vibrant towns, cities, and neighborhoods. These are communities where you can get off the crowded highway, park the car and walk, ride a bike, or even kayak through downtown.
With dozens of thriving cities and almost 200 incorporated towns, plus nearly thirty designated Virginia Main Street Communities featuring unique local culture, the hard part is deciding which Virginia towns to visit first!
Photo Credit: Corey Pittman, @mainfocusmedia
Located in the heart of Coastal Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk is anchored by a vibrant downtown and steeped in maritime history. Home to the world’s largest naval base and the North American headquarters for NATO, Norfolk is known for its Navy presence, as well as a rich and proudly diverse culture flowing through many museums, performing arts venues, and festivals focused on anything from food and wine to art and music.
The passion and creativity of local chefs, bakers, and makers truly shine through Norfolk’s dynamic culinary scene. All within city limits, diners can indulge in plump oysters and soft shell crabs from nearby estuaries, farm-to-table fare, and international eats, plus exceptional varieties of Virginia wines and beers, craft cocktails, and specialty coffees.
With 144 miles of shoreline, Norfolk is perfectly situated for water activities or relaxing beach days. On land, explore the Elizabeth River Trail, wander among blossoms at Norfolk Botanical Garden (Virginia’s largest botanical garden), visit over 700 species at the Virginia Zoo, cheer on the Norfolk Tides baseball team or Admirals hockey league, or learn about the city’s fascinating architecture and vivid murals in the NEON arts district through a walking tour.
Norfolk’s travel and tourism industry mobilized a $136.8 million impact in FY22 and supported over 7,000 jobs, attracting a multitude of talents and providing significant economic benefits to both local businesses and Norfolk residents.
Notable Annual Festival: Virginia International Tattoo
Photo Credit: Emelyn Gwynn
Known as the “City of Seven Hills,” Lynchburg is located at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and alongside the James River, with over forty miles of urban trails in the riverfront downtown. The city is home to five colleges and universities, making Lynchburg one of the Top College Towns in the United States with a student population of more than 20,000.
Visitors can explore historic districts and cultural destinations, like Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum, and the restored Historic theater, the Academy Center of the Arts. Decorated with public art, the James River Arts & Culture Downtown District features galleries and museums that host monthly First Friday events and performances.
Notable Annual Festival: Virginia Wine & Garlic Festival
Photo Credit: Shannon Terry
The town of Rocky Mount is home to an up-and-coming music scene that is among Virginia's most vibrant. The Harvester Performance Center in Downtown Rocky Mount attracts international touring artists such as Willie Nelson, Ace Frehley, and The Wood Brothers. Rocky Mount serves as the Eastern Gateway to the Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail and the treasure of Rocky Mount's music scene can be found in the live music being played at the town’s bars, restaurants, and venues that host local musicians. The wealth of local talent brings over 40 live performances per month, an impressive feat for a town of just 5,000 residents.
A speakeasy, a wine bar, a brewery, and multiple restaurants in Rocky Mount provide top-quality refreshments. A local distillery provides hand-crafted mountain spirits using techniques passed down through generations–not surprising given that Rocky Mount is located within Franklin County, the Moonshine Capital of the World.
Dating back as early as 1664, Kilmarnock is home to more than 300 locally owned businesses, positioning it as the economic hub of the Northern Neck. The town’s Main Street contains more than 55 locally owned boutique shops, eateries, breweries, wine shops, art galleries, and memorable places to stay.
Celebrate Virginia’s presidential heritage with a walk through the Kilmarnock Inn, where each of the eight guest cottages is named for a Virginia-born president. Step into the “boots” of local heritage by visiting Watermen’s Way, a public art project celebrating watermen throughout the Chesapeake Bay region and seafood workers across the country. Each of the 15 pairs of boots are placed around town and are personalized by a local artist, drawing from themes that reflect the lives of the people who not only wear the boots but the people that call the area home.
From the walkable Main Street dotted with boutique shops and memorable places to stay to the beautiful Town Centre Park, cultural attractions, and signature events, Kilmarnock’s tourism industry bolsters the local economy and helps build the community’s unique character.
Photo Credit: Mark Miller
With huge economic growth and newfound popularity, the quaint Blue Ridge town of Waynesboro is now brimming with eateries, breweries, coffee shops, music venues, and hiking trails that make life in Waynesboro vibrant, exciting, and authentic to itself.
Beyond the impressive food and beverage scene and proximity to the scenic Skyline Drive, Appalachian Trail, and Shenandoah National Park, what makes Waynesboro what it is today is the community of creatives, craftsmen, and artisans that have peppered the town with its unique trades. Examples include Blanc Creatives, a nationally recognized kitchenware brand run by Corry Blanc, who has lived in the area for 16 years; Make Waynesboro Clay Studio, which showcases different local artists; Lightwell Survey, a quirky winery with unique takes on classic wines; Basic City Brewery/The Foundry, a community staple for parties and events that bring the locals together; and so many more.
The combination of a bustling dining scene, access to world-class views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the community of local creatives make Waynesboro a vibrant town to live, work, play, and visit.
Photo Credit: Mulbah Media, @mulbahmedia
Chincoteague Island, Virginia’s ONLY resort island, boasts year-round cultural events, local artisans, outdoor recreation, fresh coastal cuisine, and festivals -- all in a charming seaside setting. Gaining inspiration from natural surroundings, artists and photographers enjoy ever-changing scenes and wildlife to capture in their one-of-a-kind creations. Sandwiched between Wallops Island, home of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, and Assateague Island, where nature trails lead to wild Chincoteague Ponies and fascinating wildlife, Chincoteague Island provides refuge to visitors and a year-round residential population of 3,000 people.
Chincoteague Island is home to the world-famous Annual Pony Swim—perhaps the most unique event in Virginia. Marguerite Henry’s classic children’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, written in 1947, ushered in a wave of tourism surrounding a local family and beautiful little filly named Misty. Chincoteague Island is a vibrant community on Virginia’s Eastern Shore providing an unparalleled quality of life for full or part-time residents and short-term visitors.
Notable Annual Festival: Chincoteague Pony Swim
Loudoun’s county seat is a fashionable burg with a historic downtown buzzing with craft breweries, cocktail bars, artisanal coffee shops, farm-to-fork restaurants, and chic boutiques. Soak up the storied ambiance of a town that’s been home to icons such as General George C. Marshall of Marshall Plan fame, and is now residence to artists, designers, musicians, and tech entrepreneurs.
Founded in 1758 at the crossroads of two trails built by the Indigenous peoples near the Potomac, Leesburg is bookended by the grand mansions and landscaped grounds of Morven Park to the north and Oatlands Historic House & Gardens to the south. Cyclists, joggers, and equestrians are drawn to the Washington & Old Dominion Trail that perfectly bisects the town while art lovers and influencers love the murals and sculptures that capture the history and culture of Leesburg. It’s that charming downtown though – handsome 18th and 19th-century buildings repurposed as bars, breweries, restaurants, galleries, and boutiques – that epitomizes Leesburg’s current cool vibe.
Notable Annual Festival: Taste Leesburg
Mathews is a river community with 214 miles of shoreline - more than any other county on the Chesapeake Bay! There are many public access launches and beaches, whether you are looking to take a sunset cruise, go fishing for some rockfish, kayak through the Dragon Run, or go swimming while watching the kite-surfers on Haven Beach.
Enjoy a meal on the patio at one of the many local restaurants featuring fresh seafood dishes and delicious cocktails, or visit the longest-running weekly Farmers Market in the area, with local artisans and farmers selling their wares every Saturday from April to October. Stop into the Bay School Community Arts Center, which has a beautiful and constantly-changing gallery and offers classes for all skill levels, or listen to some great live music during the annual events, such as Party at the Wharf, Music on Maple, or May Faire!
Photo Credit: Autonomous Flight Technologies, @autonomousflighttechnologies
Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, Salem offers its residents and visitors the perfect complement of modern facilities and natural beauty. Salem possesses some of the most versatile entertainment and sports facilities in Virginia that have elevated the city’s national profile and earned Salem the title of “Virginia’s Championship City.”
Visitors will also find Virginia’s largest free gate fair, the Boston Red Sox Class A baseball team, the city’s ever-expanding network of scenic Greenway trails, and Salem’s many music events. Salem is the right mix of small-town values and big-city ambition whether you’re making your home, establishing a business, or simply enjoying a meal or antique shopping on Main Street.
BIG STONE GAP
Photo Credit: Kyle LaFerriere, @laferriere.photography
Big Stone Gap is a town that exudes vibrancy in every sense of the word. It was once a booming Coal Mining town but has since then been able to progress into a tourist destination with that industry vacated the region. The town is home to a diverse population and boasts a rich history, culture, and natural beauty that make it a unique and vibrant community.
The town was founded in the late 1800s as a coal mining town, and its past can still be seen in the architecture, landmarks, music, crafts, and local traditions that have been preserved over the years. In addition to its rich history, Big Stone Gap is also home to a thriving arts community, showcasing both heritage craftsmanship and music. The historic downtown area is alive with musical events and performances every night of the week.
Notable Annual Festival: Blue Highway Fest
Image Courtesy of Luray Caverns
Luray is known as the “Cabin Capital of Virginia” due to hundreds of cabins and home rentals in the area. Luray is home to the spectacular Luray Caverns, the largest caverns in the East, and is a gateway town into Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest. Spend a week in a cabin and have your pick of day trip options with more than 500 miles of National Park hiking trails, local paddling outfitters along the Shenandoah River, and leisurely biking around town on the Hawksbill Greenway.
If you’re looking for a more luxurious overnight stay, book a room at the historic Mimslyn Inn, and if you’re interested in Virginia’s wine, spirits, and craft beer industry, follow the Blue Ridge Whiskey Wine Loop.
Notable Annual Festival: Page County Heritage Festival
Photo Credit: Beth Furgurson
This formerly industrial town has been reinvented for recreation, craft beverage, and shopping lovers. The Appomattox River, once a route for tobacco barges, is now a designated Scenic River carrying paddlers in search of whitewater or the calmer four-mile Farmville Blueway. The railroad that once carried coal now carries hikers, bikers, and equestrians on the 30-mile-long High Bridge Trail State Park.
Repurposed tobacco packing houses and lumber warehouses are reincarnated to house Appomattox River Company, Green Front Furniture, and the Three Roads Brewery, serving up local beer, live music, games for the kids, and a pet-friendly beer garden. Together with the Virginia Tasting Cellar and the soon-to-open second location of James River Brewing, Farmville is fast becoming a destination for craft beverage lovers.
Notable Annual Festival: Heart of Virginia Festival
Photo Credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos
Set amidst the vast playground of the idyllic Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg has been called “one of the best mountain bike towns in America” by National Geographic. Named Virginia’s first Culinary District in 2014, Harrisonburg’s cultural diversity serves up fare from around the world, while taking advantage of locally sourced farm-to-table ingredients. Mashita serves clean, fresh Korean food, while a mother-daughter team creates soul-soothing pastries at Heritage Bakery & Café.
The arts scene is equally diverse, epitomized by the Agora Downtown Market, a community of small businesses under one roof in a historic building. Named for James Madison, the fourth president and the “Father of the Constitution,” are the stunning Hotel Madison and James Madison University (JMU), where nearly 20,000 students lend a youthful vitality to this historic town.
Notable Annual Festival: Harrisonburg International Festival
Photo Credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos
Immerse yourself in Virginia’s Lake Country at Virginia’s only lakeside town, Clarksville. Buggs Island Lake, also known as Kerr Reservoir, draws anglers to dozens of fishing tournaments yearly, and the annual Hydroplane Challenge fast boat race. Stay in style at Cooper’s Landing Inn and Traveler’s Tavern, or a bit more rustic in a lakefront cabin at Occoneechee State Park. Sample craft beverages at Buggs Island Brewing Company and Three Sisters of Shiney Rock Vineyard (open Saturday and by appointment on other days).
Notable Annual Festival: Virginia Lake Festival
Photo Credit: Cameron Davidson
Back-to-the-earth bohemian blends with traditional bluegrass in this town of less than 500, but with so much to offer. Along Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail, The Floyd Country Store hosts jam sessions and performances. Like in days gone by, the Country Store is the heart of town, hosting Friday Night Jamborees and clogging sessions and selling everything you’d expect from a country store (and some that you wouldn’t!), from local preserves to suspenders. Surrounding the town is the expanse of the Blue Ridge Plateau where hiking, biking, and scenic drives await along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway.
Notable Annual Festival: Floydfest (Note: Floydfest has been cancelled in 2023; stay tuned for 2024 updates.)
Photo Credit: Julie McCool, @funinfairfax
With five miles of a sheltered waterway leading to the Chesapeake Bay, it’s no wonder Onancock has been an active port on the Eastern Shore since 1680. Today you can take a sailing or motorboat excursion, rent a kayak or paddleboard or hop on the ferry to Tangier Island, 12 miles out in the Bay.
With just 1,200 people and shaded streets lined with shops and galleries, Onancock is the perfect walking or biking town. Slow down with lunch at Mallards at The Wharf or an outdoor patio café, or sit on the Liar’s Bench to watch the fishing boats come and go and the osprey and great blue heron feed. Visit the artist studios at the Historic Onancock School, the Federal-period Ker Place House Museum, or the newly opened Samuel Outlaw Blacksmith Shop. Elegant B&Bs housed in Victorian beauties, an eclectic dining scene, live theatre, and an old-fashioned movie house showing first-run films promise that Onancock will not disappoint.
Photo Credit: Sam Dean, @sdeanphotos
Wytheville’s nostalgic downtown offers unique restaurants, craft breweries, specialty shopping, galleries, antiques, live entertainment, a boutique luxury hotel, and an award-winning historic bed & breakfast. Experience a show at the dinner theater, sip local wines and beers, stroll through fields of lavender or a butterfly house, climb a 100-foot lookout tower or cross a swinging bridge, feed exotic animals on safari, and meet a US First Lady at her birthplace.
Motorcycle enthusiasts lean into curvy mountain backroads while mountain bikers test their skills off the pavement or at the terrain park. Hiking trails weave through the mountains while paddlers float the creeks and fish the rivers.
All the wonderful attributes which make Wytheville a great place to visit make it an equally attractive place to live. Upcoming industrial growth with a new manufacturer boasting 2,500 new jobs will make Wytheville “the” place for relocation opportunities.
Notable Annual Festival: Chautauqua Festival
Nestled in the Piedmont River Valley between the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, Culpeper offers outstanding outdoor adventures, a well-preserved historic downtown with quaint boutiques, restaurants, gourmet shops, antique stores, and the beautiful Virginia countryside.
Culpeper features several craft beverages spots worth a visit, including Old House Vineyards, the first trifecta in the Commonwealth of Virginia to become a brewery, winery & distillery, and Belmont Farm Distillery, featured on the Discovery Channels Moonshiners program.
To experience notable history in Culpeper, walk the same grounds that Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, took while serving one of her first field assignments in Historic Downtown Culpeper and Cedar Mountain Battlefield.
Camp, fish, picnic, zip line and check out Virginia’s only fully accessible rope course at Verdun Adventure Bound. Along with these unforgettable must-see attractions, visitors can also enjoy hands-on farm activities, live music, local food and art, camping, hiking, biking and so much more.
Newport News offers the vitality of a big city along with the hospitality and charm of a small town. Christopher Newport University’s Ferguson Center for the Arts brings world-renowned orchestras, touring Broadway shows, celebrity speakers, and legendary performing artists to the city. For those who love art, Newport News has a public art driving tour of more than three dozen outdoor sculptures and memorials.
The Newport News restaurant scene boasts an array of international flavors, from straight-from-the-dock seafood to authentic West African Soul food to Mediterranean, Brazilian, Japanese, Caribbean, Indian, Korean, Nepalese, and so much more. Furthermore, Newport News is home to three breweries and one distillery, to date, with more planned for the future.
With three dozen parks, outdoor recreation abounds in Newport News, but the most popular is Newport News Park. At 7,711 acres, you will find everything from golf and ropes courses to the only five-star archery range in the Mid-Atlantic. Newport News Park has two freshwater reservoirs for fishing, a campground, and hiking and biking trails (bike and boat rentals are available at park).
Finally, Newport News is home to the nation’s first federally financed housing project, Hilton Village, a charming neighborhood planned and built in 1918 and 1919 to house employees of Newport News Shipbuilding during World War I. Mimicking an English village-style neighborhood, Hilton Village has a trendy restaurant district and great shopping that includes specialty stores and shops with a unique local flavor.
Notable Annual Festival: Celebration in Lights
BONUS: NOTABLE NEIGHBORHOODS
Within Virginia’s larger cities, find pockets of uniqueness in trendy neighborhoods that make you feel like you’re in a small town!
Nestled within the coastal city, the ViBe Creative District is an inspirational hub for artists, makers, roasters, distillers, chefs, and more. Vibrant murals adorn buildings, light fixtures, and sidewalks, transforming the local infrastructure into works of art. One of its most popular events, the annual Mural Festival, features live painting over 10 days producing 10 new works of art. With endless creative energy coming from not only its artists but proprietors such as North End Bag Company, Hardy’s Jewellers, Jars of Dust, Commune, The Pink Dinghy, Back Bay Brewing and more, visitors will find their happiness in this cultural enclave that features weekly mural crawls, a farmer’s market and other special events year-round.
The streets of Hampton’s Phoebus neighborhood are filled with culinary delights, from fresh seafood and Creole to juicy burgers and hard ciders. Explore diversity and culture at the many minority-owned, women-owned, and veteran-owned businesses that line the quaint streets of Phoebus, such as the first Black-owned brewery in Coastal Virginia (1865 Brewing Co.) and restaurants like Mango Mangeaux, Scratch Bakery, and Fox Tail Wine Bar & Gastropub. The Phoebus neighborhood also hosts several, unique festivals throughout the year including the Phabulous Phoebus Street Festival for Pride.
Photo Credit: Autonomous Flight Technologies, @autonomousflighttechnologies
This walkable urban village is eclectic and family-friendly at the same time. Spend Saturday morning at the Community Market, dine on an outdoor patio, shop independently owned boutiques, and take in a first-run or classic film at the 1930s Grandin Theatre.
A running trail and dog park, summer concert series and live theater, an Irish pub, and a cheese and wine shop, all within walking distance to a Hilton Garden Inn. Shop charming Campbell Avenue, an eclectic pedestrian-friendly area packed with local shops and eateries.
Photo Credit: Chad Williams, @echadwilliams
One of the hottest, newly revitalized neighborhoods in the state capital. Warehouses converted to breweries, cideries, distilleries, bold street murals, a cinema, and a retro bowling alley make this a happening night scene.
Photo Courtesy of Visit Norfolk, @visitnorfolkva
Arguably Virginia’s quintessential historic neighborhood within Virginia’s port city, Ghent boasts an amazing span of architecture from Colonial to Victorian to Frank Lloyd Wright-era homes. Antiquing, eclectic dining, and the arts galore can be found in this waterfront community along the Hague.
Just across the river from the nation’s capital, American history comes alive as you walk in patriots’ footsteps on cobblestone streets to trendy boutiques and international eateries. Four-legged travelers will find Alexandria truly is for the dogs, with water dishes outside the shops, upscale pet boutiques, and restaurants that allow pups to dine with their masters.