Virginia has a lot of landmarks – some historical, some full of natural beauty, and some that are just plain bizarre (I’m looking at you, Foamhenge). But there are many other that fall in between or, for whatever reason, just get overlooked. It could be because they are so well known, that we don’t even realize we’ve never been, or it could be that we’ve just simply never heard of them. The following 14 sites are places in Virginia that you should check out if you haven’t already. You’re going to thank me.
1. Virginia Living Museum, Newport News
Part living history museum, part aquarium, part wildlife park, and part botanical gardens, the Virginia Living History Museum has something for everyone. Featuring 250 living species native to Virginia, including many endangered species like red wolves, loggerhead turtles, moon jellies, and more, the museum offers everything from standard exhibits to hands-on, interactive displays.
2. The American Shakespeare Center, Staunton
Virginia might not be the first place you think of for world-class theater. But it should be. The American Shakespeare Center started as a small group in Staunton, but has grown to be an internationally respected troupe. One of the greatest attractions at this haven-for-all-things-Shakespeare is the Blackfriars Playhouse - an exact replica of London’s Blackfriars’ Monastery Theater. The Monastery Theater was the world’s first indoor theater, which the bard himself helped design. Simple staging, lighting, and costumes mirror Shakespearian times, while brilliantly talented actors deliver Will’s words to perfection. Find show times at www.americanshakespearecenter.com.
3. Great Falls National Park, McLean
Encompassing 800 acres along the banks of the Potomac, Great Falls Park is a National Park and a national treasure. With hiking trails, rapids, rock climbing , waterfalls, and cascades, Great Falls is the perfect place to have an adventure, or simply have a picnic. Located in the heart of the urban hub of Virginia, the park is also home to Mather Gorge, a river gorge located at the lowest part of the Potomac River directly on the border of Virginia and Maryland. While the river itself falls on the Maryland side, Mather Gorge offers beautiful hiking trails on the Virginia side, as well as some of the best steep-face rock climbing in Virginia. Only 15 miles outside of D.C., this park is worth the visit, no matter where you live.
4. Steven J. Udvar-Hazy Center (Air and Space Museum), Chantilly
If you're not into planes, this museum might just change your mind. The Udvar-Hazy Center is a companion facility to the Smithsonian Insitute’s Air and Space Museum. Located in Chantilly, it displays thousands of aviation and space-related artifacts, including the fastest "air-breathing manned aircraft" (source: wikipedia) in the world, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, as well as a Concorde and the space shuttle Discovery. Housed in two massive hangars, the Center also offers tours, lectures, special events, and an observation tower with sweeping views of Dulles International Airport – one of the busiest international airports in the world.
5. Natural Tunnel, Natural Tunnel State Park, Duffield
Natural Bridge may get most of the headlines, but it’s not the only trick Virginia has up her sleeve. Natural Tunnel, once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, is a nearly 300-yard tunnel running through the Appalachian Mountains. The opening is so large that it has served as a railway tunnel since 1893.
The massive tunnel was formed by groundwater eroding the rock and Stock Creek continues to shape it today. While Native Americans knew of the tunnel long before Europeans, Daniel Boone is thought to be the first European to see the tunnel in the 18th century. Tours and events are held at the surrounding park year-round – including an annual Christmas lights celebration inside the tunnel.
6. Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and Grayson Highlands State Park, Grayson
With 200,000 acres, 500 miles of trails, beautiful forests, rock formations, and
much more, Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is home to Mount Rogers, best known as the highest natural peak in the state of Virginia. Mount Rogers measures in at an impressive 5,729 feet above sea level and promises an incredible hike. But the coolest part? If you get lucky, you might just see the wild highland ponies ponies that live in the balds between the recreation area and Grayson Highlands State Park. That’s second only to seeing unicorns in a Rainbow Forest in my humble opinion. When you've had your fill of Mount Rogers, head over to the park for
camping, backpacking, horseback riding, and hiking with waterfalls and scenic overlooks, fishing, guided canoe tours, and a visitors' center.
7. Barter Theater, Abingdon
Since it opened its doors in 1933, The Barter Theatre has been an ongoing source of incredible stage talent, making it one of the longest-running professional theatres in the country and one of the only year-round professional resident repertory theatres left. Robert Porterfield founded the theatre during the Great Depression allowing anyone who couldn’t pay the 40-cent admission price to barter with vegetables, dairy and livestock – hence the name “Barter Theatre.” Many famous actors have come through the Barter, including Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ned Beatty, Larry Linville, Wayne Knight, and many others. Stage productions can be seen year-round at the Main Stage or in the Barter II, a smaller theatre just across from the main building. Visit www.bartertheatre.com to see a complete show schedule.
8. The Canal Walk, Richmond
From sunny riverside paths and gondola rides to deliciously dark and eerie tunnels, the Canal Walk takes visitors through 400 years of history along one of the earliest trade routes in and out of Virginia’s capital city. Lined with restaurants, historical markers, and an endless array of city scenery, the Canal Walk is a near-perfect way to spend a summer afternoon.
9. The Mill Mountain Star and Mill Mountain Park, Roanoke
It's not hard to figure out why Roanoke is called the Star City. Originally built as a Christmas decoration in 1949, the star is now an 88.5-foot icon for the city. Sitting on top of Mill Mountain, the star is surrounded by Mill Mountain Park, a city park that features 2 overlooks with breathtaking city and mountain views, the Discovery Center, 10 miles of multi-use trails, Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden and outdoor classroom, a playground, the Mill Mountain Zoo and picnic areas. Roanoke is worth a visit in and of itself, but this park just seals the deal.
Get past the funny name and Onancock is quite possible one of the best kept secrets on the Eastern Shore. Despite being one of the largest towns on the Eastern Shore, it's often overshadowed by the well-known islands of Assateague and Chincoteague. But don't count Onancock out. Founded in 1680 as Port Scarborough, Onancock was called "the Gem of the Eastern Shore" by none other than Captain John Smith himself. Today, it has been called the Coolest Town in the South by Budget Travel and #1 Small Town in Virginia by CitiesJournal.com. With a live theater, award winning restaurants, artists, craftsmen, sculptors, actors, dancers, and musicians, there's no shortage of things to see and do. Visit old Indian villages, kayak to local wineries or go sailing. Or just sit in a pub on the water and listen to live music. Just make the trip. You'll be glad you did.
11. Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington
No, this is not a secret - but if you haven't been, you really should. It's more than a humbling walk among the gravestones of our veterans. Arlington National Cemetery is an outdoor museum honoring all of the men and women who have served, or are serving, our country. The cemetery grounds contain more than 30 monuments and tributes to member of the U.S. Armed Forces, in addition to the graves of hundreds of thousands of military men and women. Some of the highlights include the graves of both John F. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Tombs of the Unknowns, the Changing of the Guard, the Women in Military Service For America Monument and the Memorial Arboretum.
12. The Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton
If you've lived in - or even visited - the state of Virginia, you've probably been to Jamestown and Williamsburg. But there is SO, SO, SO much more history that gets overlooked. The Frontier Culture Museum is a living history museum that encompasses all of the cultures that came together to make Virginia what it is. The museum features a 1700s West African Farm, a 1600s English Farm, a 1700s Irish Farm and Forge, a 1700s German Farm, a 1700s Ganatastwi Indian village, a 1740s American Settlement, an 1820s American Farm, an 1850s American Farm and an Early American Schoolhouse and Church.
13. The Monument to the Angel of Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg
The Civil War was not the most glorious time in American history, to be sure. But it's important to highlight and remember the moments when human nature showed its best side. The legend of the "Angel of Marye's Heights" tells of Confederate soldier Richard Rowland Kirkland, who heard the dying cries Union soldiers after the Battle of Fredericksburg at the base of Marye's Heights Hill. After being denied the opportunity to take water to them, even with a white flag, he went anyway. The Union soldiers saw his actions and held their fire, allowing Kirkland to make several trips. Today, a bronze memorial at the Fredericksburg battlefield honors Kirkland's bravery and kindness. The battlefield itself is worth a visit, but don't miss this tribute to humanity at its best.
14. Kiptopeke Concrete Ships, Cape Charles
Yes. Actual ships. And, yes. Made of concrete. All of them. I don’t suppose it’s any great surprise that these 9 ships are half-sunk and abandoned. What is a surprise, however, is that they are there not because they didn’t work, but because they were retired from active service and intentionally placed there in the late 1940s as a breaker to protect a ferry terminal pier. During both of the World Wars, a shortage of wartime steel demanded more creative materials and, as it turns out, concrete, when molded into the right shape, is more buoyant than you might think. These particular ships are from a fleet of 2-dozen made by McCloskey and Co. in 1942. They mostly served as cargo ships, sailing as far as the South Pacific. Today, they can be seen from the vantage points at Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore.
Tell us about your hidden gems and overlooked or underrated sites in Virginia. We always want to hear about new discoveries, or even old ones that we might not have noticed or given due credit! Comment in the section below.