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Norfolk, Virginia is an eclectic mix of small town charms and cosmopolitan culture with a food scene that is at once homey and elegant (minus the stuffy atmosphere). What a lot of people don’t realize is that the city is a water lover’s paradise. There are 144 miles of shoreline including rivers, the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It is so nautical in fact that its official symbol is a mermaid—hence why there are colorful mermaids sprinkled throughout town.

Also: 7 dive-in movie theaters to check out this summer

Nauticus Campus

Nauticus Campus | Photo courtesy of Nauticus

In the navy

The city is nearly synonymous with the Navy and Naval Station Norfolk, which covers some 3,400 acres, is the largest naval complex in the world. It doesn’t take long to feel the military influence. You might see service members in full dress whites and women wearing formal gowns flowinginto ahotel for a lavish event. Even for those who aren’t sentimental, it’s a reminder that these are the people who put their lives on the line for everyone else.

On the downtown waterfront don’t miss Nauticus and the Battleship Wisconsin. Nauticus is a huge marine-themed science center and museum that features hands-on exhibits, interactive theaters, aquarium, simulator experiences and many educational programs. Battleship Wisconsin, meanwhile, is the largest battleship built by the U.S. Navy. Visitors can overnight aboard the Wisconsin and sleep in the original berthing of the sailors and live like a sailor of yesteryear. Elsewhere around town is the Naval base. It’s a city unto itself. The sight of all of the ships, planes and helicopters makes all the movies and news reels eerily real.

Glass Wheel Studio in Norfolk's Arts District

Glass Wheel Studio in Norfolk’s Arts District | Photo courtesy of Glass Wheel Studio

Around town

But there’s plenty else to Norfolk. In the summer, almost every weekend there’s a festival of some sort including the Mid-Summer Fantasy Festival happening July 29-31 and the Latino Music Festival happening August 13. The Botanical Garden, meanwhile, is 175 acres of serenity and beauty with 50 themed gardens, and is surrounded by water on three sides. Treat yourself by walking its 12 miles of paved pathways, hop on and off the tram or see it from a boat. There are benches to sit at and reflect and idyllic spots for a picnic. Kids will love WOW – World of Wonders: A Children’s Adventure Garden, where they can let lose and enjoy themselves and splash around in200 fountains. The Virginia Zoo is also in Norfolk. Check out the Trail of the Tiger exhibit which includes numerous large animals such as Malayan Tigers, orangutans, white-cheeked gibbons and more.

Last year the arts district was officially christened as NEON, New Energy of Norfolk. It includes the Chrysler Museum of Art which has a collection of 30,000 objects and more than 50 galleries of paintings, glass, sculpture, photography and decorative arts. But the buzz these days is over the museum’s Glass Studio. You can take in a free glassmaking demonstration Tuesday through Sunday at noon, or do your own thing in a class or workshop. NEON also includes colorful murals, sculptures, a comedy theater, restaurants, the Virginia Symphony, Harrison Opera House, Wells Theater, and a concert venue.

Mermaid Winery

Mermaid Winery | Photo courtesy of Mermaid Winery

Drunk history

History buffs will be right at home in the Freemason, Chelsea, and Ghent districts. The stately homes and churches from a bygone era and ample leafy green streets create a comfort and calm that’s palpable. Stroll the neighborhoods for a bit of a treasure hunt. You’ll unearth all kinds of gems from art galleries, antique shops and boutiques including the state’s first urban winery, aptly named the Mermaid Winery, which is made from locally grown and California grapes. Beer lovers won’t be disappointed either. There are a handful of breweries, including the Smartmouth Brewing Company on the banks of the Elizabeth River. Smartmouth produces some 250 barrels of craft beer a month. Do stop by. You’ll find a relaxed atmosphere, withfolks hanging out at tables outside or inside chilling. You don’t need a babysitter; not only do you see families with kids, you might even see Fido, as dogs are allowed. It’s casual, cool. If the mood strikes you, feel free to draw or share your thoughts on the large chalkboard on the back wall.

Handsome Biscuit

Handsome Biscuit | Photo courtesy of Handsome Biscuit

Virginia is for eaters

One thing you won’t have to worry about is where to eat. The Handsome Biscuit is the place to go for breakfast. Expect to wait outside in a line as early as 8:30AM on Saturday mornings. You won’t complain when you hear the person in front of you say they drove 20 miles just for the food. You’ll be too busy bopping to the music—reggae, Mary J or cool jazz. The Handsome Biscuit has wonderful combinations. Take for example the A.C. Slawter, pulled pork BBQ, apple coleslaw and Lupo hot sauce in between a sweet potato biscuit, or the Bleu Blazer, fried chicken with spicy pickled red cabbage and blue cheese dressing. How fast can you say um, good?

Keep the culinary streak going with lunch at the hip downtown eatery, Field Guide. Sample the Privateer, a root beer brisket sandwich with sweet tea pickles, arugula and smoked cheddar. Come dinner time the culinary choices are really tough. At Luna Maya, sample South American and Mexican fare derived from family recipes of the Bolivian sisters who own it. Meanwhile, Supper Southern Morsels, will nearly do you in, between the plethora of cocktails and pleasers like deviled eggs, fried green tomatoes, shrimp and crab gumbo, chicken fried steak, and all manner of goodness. Don’t leave Norfolk without eatingat Freemason Abbey; there’s something to be said for eating in a 142-year old renovated church. Norfolk has an advantage over some places. It has superb food at very affordable prices. You can have your cake and eat it too.

Cape Henry Lighthouse at Virginia Beach

Cape Henry Lighthouse at Virginia Beach | Flickr CC: m01229

Parting shots

Another good thing about Norfolk is its location. It’s just about a 30 minute drive to Virginia Beach, depending on traffic. It’s a short drive to ColonialWilliamsburg and Jamestown.

Along with the lovely Sheraton Waterside and the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, there is an array of accommodations, including bed and breakfasts.

One thing you’ll remember from a Norfolk visit is how nice everybody was. Not only are people quick to say good morning, if you ask for directions, a retiree might get off at your stop on the light rail to make sure you get to where you’re going, or somebody else might get off their bike and walk with you until you arrive at your destination. Imagine you mention to the cab driver that you’re from out of town and writing an article and he shuts off the meter and gives you a private 30-minute, narrated tour around town. Norfolk’s that kind of place.

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Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl is a writer and editor, specializing in travel, personal finance, business and career topics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Money,,,, Upscale Magazine, Essence, Black Enterprise and others.

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