Discriminating Explorer: Richmond, Virginia—An Epicenter Of Civil War Sesquicentennial Travel

From Brown's Island, interpretive signs describe Richmond's last days as Confederate Capital. Below that, the Jefferson Hotel's lobby and the Linden Row Inn's historic rowhouses. Dine "almost outside" at the Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe beside cobblestone streets. Bottom, try the locally-sourced Rappahannock curry fried oysters at Amuse, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' restaurant. Photos by Randy Johnson, except Hotel Jefferson courtesy photo.

There are national park gateway towns—and then there’s Richmond, Virginia. Surrounded by battlefield parks, Richmond's ongoing Civil War anniversaries will entice history buffs through 2015. The city’s history transcends any single anniversary you might try to coincide with. Best plan—get to Richmond when the getting’s good and there’s more than enough to see and do to turn a “national park vacation” into a true historical travel experience.

Case in point—2013. Plan ahead—there is no better time to wander Richmond’s battlefields and historic sites than spring and autumn. Even summer’s good if you like hot weather. With the movie Lincoln still drawing crowds and award nominations, it’s fun to follow the filming around the city. And with the 1862 Richmond battles just behind us, and 1864’s just ahead—now’s a good time to aim at this epicenter of Sesquicentennial travel.

Comfortable with the Past

In a city as historic as Richmond, you’d certainly expect to discover that the lavish staircase dominating the lobby of the landmark Jefferson Hotel was the inspiration for the staircase up which Clark Gable carried Vivien Leigh in the movie “Gone With the Wind.”

You would—but it wasn’t. Nevertheless, the story is a staple of local lore. This pinprick in the balloon of the city’s self-importance is a telling example of how Richmond’s connection with the “lost cause” of “the late unpleasantness” is less and less its defining characteristic.

Richmond is rising out of regionalism, like Charleston, South Carolina, to become both an icon of a bygone era and a place to savor the present. The full scope of the United States’ early history is preserved here and nearby.

Comfort in the Past

Speaking of comfort—and access to urban attractions—any visitor to Richmond will do well to focus on the city’s historic hotels.

Not far from Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia state capitol, the 1895 Jefferson Hotel is a star of the city’s lodging scene. Winner of both Forbes 5-Star and AAA 5-diamond ratings, the lobby is renowned for those “gone with the wind” steps and a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Like so many of the city’s best dining spots, the hotel’s LeMaire Restaurant (named after Jefferson’s butler) draws on local farm fare and seafood for a menu split between more formal dishes and smaller plates. During the filming of Lincoln, Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln) stayed at the Jefferson.

Nearby, just past magnolia sheltered mansions, the Linden Row Inn occupies nearly an entire block of imposing 19th-century, Greek Revival row houses built between 1847 and 1853. Edgar Allan Poe lived nearby as a child and played in a garden on the property. Legend has it that Poe immortalized the garden’s linden trees and roses as “the enchanted garden” in his poem “To Helen.”

Just a few blocks from both hotels the art deco facade of Perly’s Restaurant marks a local favorite for breakfast and lunch—and a recommended pause on any Richmond history tour. Breakfast at Perly’s was a morning ritual for the Lincoln crew.

Head east down Franklin from the Jefferson or Linden Row to Virginia’s State Capitol, the same structure that minus its two wings, stood atop this very hill while the city smoldered around it in April 1865 during Lincoln's visit. Step inside the imposing edifice (patterned by Jefferson after the Roman Maison Carree in Nimes, France) and marvel at Houdin’s statue of Washington, the only one for which he posed. As at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, you’ll start your visit outside and well below the building where a recently added underground visitor complex features extensive interpretation. The capitol grounds include the nation’s oldest continuously occupied governor’s mansion.

The Renowned River District

The mighty James River lies below and much of Richmond’s new energy flows from it. To most everyone on the river’s banks not too long ago, the river seemed to be a taker … or was merely taken for granted. Today the river is a giver. The once-marginalized, oft-flooded River District is now an attraction.

Get a feel for that where Cary Street reverts to cobblestones and steeply descends past wrought-iron ornamented storefronts and warehouses into Shockoe Slip, an area alive with nightlife, restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries. The 4-star Berkeley hotel sits across the street from the Omni—both good choices to be close to this lively setting. Don’t miss breakfast or lunch at Urban Farmhouse Market and Cafe. Fresh local foods—and wide-open doors fronting on the thump-thump of a cobblestoned street—make this a good spot to slowly rev up for a day of exploring.

The Bottom’s Back on Top

Drop a block or two below Shockoe Slip and, appropriately, you reach Shockoe Bottom. This is a walking tour part of town (or Segway, if you like), so head to the “Turning Basin,” a key part of Richmond’s canal system, the first in the United States when construction began in 1785.

By 1851, mule-drawn boats plied the canal 200 miles west of Richmond. A restored mile-and-a-half stretch is called Canal Walk. At the basin, a man-made harbor where canal boats and bateaux of an earlier era were docked, hop aboard one of the boats for a tour along the old canal. In the mid-1980s the earliest canal craft ever excavated in the United States were unearthed here. Take a stroll and enjoy the historic markers.

This isn’t San Antonio’s River Walk, but it just earned Richmond kudos from Outside Magazine as “top river town” in 2012. Brown’s Island borders the walk, with popular outdoor concerts, and more access to the James. Paddle-boards, kayaks, and guided adventures are easily available.

The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is also here. Yes, Richmond’s River District is home to the premier visitor center for Richmond’s entire Civil War experience. Tredegar’s exhibits fuse the African-American, Confederate, and Union perspectives and include Richmond’s National Park Service visitor center. From here, cross the undulating, handicapped accessible pedestrian walkway to Belle Isle where easy trails and the James’ biggest rapids offer unusual views of the city.

Richmond’s First Neighborhood

Shockoe Bottom could place at the top of your Richmond experience. Many of the city’s 40 museums are historical, and the Edgar Allan Poe Museum is one of them. Housed in the city’s 1736 oldest structure, the museum chronicles the writer’s early life and fame—all experienced as a Richmonder. He was orphaned here in 1811 and his first employment was close to the museum at the Southern Literary Messenger. Exhibits include an 1841 copy of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first detective story, and the famous poem that begins “Once upon a midnight dreary.”

When hunger hits in the Bottom, try Millie’s Diner. This tiny, enduringly trendy eatery was a favorite with the Lincoln film crowd (Steven Spielberg was a regular). Its patio is a popular place for Richmonders to have a Bloody Mary before being ushered past the frenetic kitchen and bar for Sunday Brunch. Have anything with Virginia ham—the famous salty satisfier comes from just across the James.

Just above Millie’s, the quiet, historic Church Hill neighborhood is the site of Saint John’s Church—where Patrick Henry famously preferred death over a lack of liberty. The Confederacy’s massive Chimborazo Hospital occupied a nearby hilltop. The National Park Service today runs a Civil War medical museum on the site. Not far away, the Confederate Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument caps Libby Hill Park very close to a house Lincoln star Daniel Day-Lewis rented during the filming.

He was often seen dining at the Hill Cafe, a neighborhood eatery. “He was fond of the crab cakes,” a waitress told me. Far below Libby Hill Park, a bend in the James is said to have reminded early settlers of Richmond, England—and the name supposedly stuck.

Last Stop—Newer Richmond

Check out the newer side of Richmond by heading west along the multi-mile cobblestones of Monument Avenue. This grand boulevard has singular status in the South. In 1924, British historian John Buchanan called Monument Avenue “the most impressive thing I saw on the American continent.” Every few blocks you pass giant equestrian generals and other heroes of the Civil War.

At Boulevard Avenue, head left to Richmond’s Museum District. The Virginia Historical Society will give you a new perspective on one of our first states. Don’t miss the monumental artwork, the “Four Seasons of the Confederacy.” You can actually watch conservators restoring the paintings. Next door is the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the first state-supported museum in the United States—and surprising to some—one of the biggest, most significant museums in the nation. Noteworthy collections include modern art and the largest assembly of Fabergé eggs on display outside Russia. A recent major expansion includes one of the city’s most popular dining spots, Amuse.

Even Richmond’s modern attractions seem somehow rooted in the past. Until 1941, the entire museum campus was an “old soldier’s home” for Confederate veterans.

The Heart of History

Part of Richmond’s appeal lies in its central location. To the east, there’s Williamsburg and Hampton’s Fort Monroe, the latter a fascinating Civil War site. No matter which route you take to reach Richmond, or return from it, Civil War history stands out all along the way.

Randy Johnson, the Traveler’s travel editor, spent his high school and college years in Richmond. His walking tour of Richmond’s Carytown area appears in the December/January issue of National Geographic Traveler.