By Connie Wardman
While many of us are sheltering in place during the COVID-19 crisis its important to look forward to a time when the restrictions are loosened and we can once again get outside. One of the cities included in my travel plans is Richmond, Virgina.
To fully appreciate the menu of James Beard Award-nominee David Shannon’s Oregon Hill eatery (which, according to Condé Nast Traveler resembles a collaboration between Liberace, Andy Warhol and Nick Cave), you have to know and appreciate Richmond, Virginia. “Vegan Orgy on Texas Beach” isn’t just a banger of crispy papadoms or papadums if you prefer. This is a nod to a place – one of Shannon’s favorite spots along Richmond’s James River.
And that’s just one of the innumerable gems tucked away in what’s fast becoming one of the hottest small-to-mid-sized cities in the U.S. After landing on Forbes’ “10 Coolest Cities to Visit in 2018,” earning the #2 spot on TIME’s 2017 ranking of the “25 Cities Where Millennials are Moving,” and joining Trivago’s list of “10 Under the ‘Gaydar’ LGBTQ Cities,” it’s safe to say the River City’s secret is out.
If anything could outshine this historic capital city’s national acclaim for its buzz-worthy art and restaurant scenes, it would have to be its robust network of outdoor offerings. In 2012 Outside Magazine named Richmond “Best River Town” in the U.S. Within the city limits there are dozens of parks, hiking trails and other recreational spots along the James River and more nearby amazing scenery, from the Dutch Gap Conservation Area and Point of Rocks in Chesterfield County to Echo Lake Park in Henrico.
Just ask Shannon. He grew up ditching school to eat one of Richmond’s legendary Sally Bell’s box lunches in the bamboo reeds at Maymont Park. While he doesn’t get out on the water much these days he swears his boyfriend is on a mission to get him in a kayak soon for the first time since summer camp. “Most of my kitchen guys love to go fishing along different sections of the river from Texas Beach to Brown’s Island,” said Shannon. “I don’t get down as much as I want but my boyfriend is always down there. He is always rowing with Richmond Boat Club or kayaking without me.”
Just two hours south of Washington, D.C. and situated between Shenandoah National Park and Virginia Beach, the convenient location of the Richmond region means you don’t have to go far if getting outdoors is on your adventure agenda.
Visitors are sure to have riotous fun at Shannon’s celebrated L’Opposum or the ever-popular local favorite, drag brunch at Godfrey’s. But good food and creative culture are only a few of the lures that bring first-timers in and convince repeat visitors to return again and again.
Part of being in Richmond is being outside in Richmond. Whether you’re up for rafting the nation’s only class IV urban rapids, conquering the James River park system or Pocahontas State park trails on a mountain bike or simply strolling Richmond’s Carytown shopping district, the city and surrounding counties have something for everyone.
Beer aficionados will appreciate the region’s 31 craft breweries that are made easy to locate and visit thanks to the Richmond Beer Trail. Recently garnering accolades from both Hop Culture and Vinepair, Richmond’s #1 status as a craft beer destination comes naturally. Stone Brewing Co. calls Richmond its east coast home, and Hardywood Park Craft Brewery just opened its second location on the far west end of the region, just past the Short Pump Town Center.
Historic Hollywood Cemetery, home to the final resting places of six Virginia governors and presidents John Tyler and James Monroe, is one of Shannon’s favorite walking spots when he needs a break from overseeing his restaurant’s eclectic pours of Shiny Blue Ball, French Tickler or Laura Palmer cocktails.
There’s a catwalk above a pipeline running along the James River less than a mile from his restaurant that’s Shannon’s second favorite river area, saying that “The pipeline is particularly cool when the herrings are nesting.” And within eyeshot on any given day revelers might be sunning on the river’s rocks, rafting down the rapids or climbing the walls and boulders on Belle Isle just across the James River from Oregon Hill.
Whether you’re planning a weekend trip to Richmond or looking to plant roots, there’s plenty to fall in love with here. Locals talk about the city’s boomerang effect. Plenty of young urbanites move away only to return after they find everything they’re looking for is right where they left it.
For natives such as U.S. Army veteran Ayana Obika, a permanent return to the area was not always inevitable. But ultimately the city’s energy kept pulling her right back in. “I raised my children here and still find myself in awe at just how beautiful Richmond is,” Obika said.
A member of the board of directors of Diversity Richmond and founder of Gratitude Rising Events, Obika grew up crisscrossing historic Bryan Park in the city’s northside where she admired the landmark site’s hundreds of thousands of azaleas. This spot, like so many of the Richmond region’s beautiful attractions has a complex history. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the site where Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved blacksmith at a nearby farm planned a slave insurrection later dubbed Gabriel’s Rebellion.
The city’s challenging history is not lost on Obika who launched a walking tour of historical architecture she calls “Built by Blacks,” after a book by Selden Richardson. She got the idea on one of countless strolls with her beloved Chihuahua, Miss Tina. “The architecture is just so amazing in every neighborhood,” said Obika, “you just have to look past the unloved parts and imagine what it might have been. It’s gorgeous. And if you don’t get out of your car you miss that stuff.”
Obika says she finds even the map of the area beautiful and she shares that beauty with anyone who will listen. “From the parks and trails to the arts and dining scene, there’s just so much to go and see,” she said. “Richmond’s a beautiful place. It really is such a beautiful place from Downtown Church Hill to the River.”
Joining Shannon and Obika as unofficial Richmond ambassadors are Shannon Timberlake and Lance Johnson and all find time to unwind outside. That can mean powering through downtown, adjacent trails in Forest Hill that connect to the Buttermilk loop or seeking a quieter escape to Pocahontas State Park or Henricus Historical Park in Chesterfield County.
Timberlake said she plans her adventures around the season. “I prefer the river when it’s quiet so my favorite time to go is around wintertime,” she said. “During the fall and summer, I love to get out water rafting and water boarding. Finishing any day out with any one of the amazing restaurants we have around town is another great way to enjoy the region. Overall, I really enjoy just walking through the city and going on neighborhood food tours. There is so much history mixed with all the new businesses to walk through, it always makes for an interesting time.”
Timberlake shares her love of trail walking with out-of-town guests and includes brunch and breweries in Scott’s Addition, a former industrial park turned millennial paradise replete with a handcrafted popsicle spot and a barcade (yes, a barcade). “After all that, strolling through Carytown is always a treat on the weekends, both for people watching and getting plenty of walking in,” she said. “The outdoor patio seating is a plus.”
Carytown also is home to Babe’s, a Richmond LGBTQ icon that bills itself online as the city’s “Everybody’s bar.” It hosts some of the best drag nights in Richmond and even has an outdoor volleyball court. The city also houses a professional soccer team, the Richmond Kickers.
Other favorite local sporting activities include taking in a minor-league Flying Squirrels baseball game or checking out the James River Women’s Rugby League. Among Timberlake’s favorites to watch are the River City Rollergirls, a badass group of women any one of whom could probably make John Cena cry.“It is definitely something to see,” Timberlake said of the derby.
Johnson, a sports therapist, is a fan of both spontaneous and organized activities ranging from social leagues to solo walks around Maymont Park. He’s affiliated with the Richmond Volleyball Club which includes both straight and gay leagues. He’s also part of the Richmond Stonewall Kickball League that came to Richmond in 2017 and has continued a steady growth. Stonewall’s decision to expand to Richmond was a big deal for the local LGBTQ community and allies, according to Johnson.
While the region doesn’t have any major league professional sports team, Johnson notes that the Richmond region is home to several college athletic programs that carry more than their weight in supporters. Johnson himself has spent decades working at the University of Richmond and said he’s enjoyed watching college athletes ascend to the ranks of the NFL. “Instead of hoping for more,” said Johnson, “we should really celebrate what we have. We host events and championships across every sport and level, and it says a lot that they chose the Richmond area.”
The city was on international display in September 2015 when Richmond played host to the UCI Road World Cycling Championships and drew half million people to the region. Almost 800 representatives from 76 national federations and 40 trade teams registered for the events which took place over nine days.
Working every year to expand its dedicated bike lanes, Richmond has gone out of its way to embrace a longstanding bike culture and last year installed a bike share program with more than a dozen locations across the city where anyone can rent a ride 24/7. Take a spin through the city then head over to the Virginia Capital Trail, a beautiful and scenic 52-mile trail connecting Richmond and Williamsburg along the historic Route 5 corridor. Guided bike tours launch from all points around the city. Check out visitrichmondva.com for contact information.
“You have to just get out and do something,” Johnson said. “Sporting is such a great route to meeting new people and getting out, from recreation leagues to just spending an afternoon walking the trails, Richmond’s social scene is so tied to the outdoors. Just explore and see what the city has to offer.”
When the sun goes down and you’re ready for something different, you’ll quickly realize there is a reason Richmond’s dining and arts scenes are so vibrant. The abundance of so many amazing options has led to restaurants collaborating instead of competing; building off one another, they’re working to create a better overall dining scene for locals and visitors.
“We have an incredible concentration of talent and energy with people of all levels of experience who are committed to doing something amazing and unique,” Shannon said. “The fact that we have so many options is what has contributed to my success. The more creative people you have, the more cool and unique dining there will be.” At night Johnson likes to take in live indie music and bounce around the city’s network of watering holes. “Whatever you want to find, you can, and it’s all within walking distance of each other,” he said.
During the day, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is a perfect break from strolling the city’s Fan District. Ranking as one of the top comprehensive art museums in the U.S., thanks to its great outdoor patio and seating area, you can enjoy The E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden. You might even run into David Shannon while he’s working out his next menu. “Sitting outside the VMFA is a great way to get outside around some great culture,” said Shannon. “The museum is a great escape for me throughout the day, even for just a quick, 30-minute break. Whether it’s to clear my mind or work on menus, it seems to always help.”
No matter what you’re looking for – kayaking, rafting, hiking, urban hiking, mountain biking and road biking, recreation leagues and more parks than you can count – Richmond either has it or is close to it. Some are a short walk away and some are a short drive, but they’re all close by. The best part of living here is discovering your favorite spot. Unlike many areas that sell themselves on their outdoor activities with little else to offer, the Richmond region includes a world class dining and an arts scene with more murals and galleries than you could visit in a weekend.
There is no surprise most people who leave always come back. And those who come just to visit tend to stay.
Richmond is also a Certified Member of the Compete Sports Diversity Council.
Photo by Richmond Region Tourism