Richmond, Virginia seems a contradiction of a city. Bathed in Revolutionary and Civil War history, it rose from its own ashes (37 blocks were destroyed by retreating Confederate soldiers during the Civil War), and has recreated itself as a vast, impressive culinary, cultural and wine destination worthy of exploring. Virtually anywhere you go in Richmond, you’ll run into something of historical value (if not on purpose, then certainly by accident). The architecture is reminiscent of New Orleans with its ornate iron work, gracing beautiful brick buildings, monuments and statues scattered everywhere. You’ll find memorials to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and tennis legend Arthur Ashe, among others. Using the downtown five-star Jefferson Hotel as a base (one of only two five-star hotels in all of Virginia), you’ll be within walking distance or a short cab ride to most of Richmond’s coolest attractions. The Jefferson Hotel, built in 1895, is old-school. Thomas Jefferson’s statue sits dead center in a massive domed atrium, though its recently renovated bar and restaurant, Lumaire, is all modern. Of note: the hotel was once home to alligators that lived in its shallow indoor pools until 1948.
Richmond is in enviable proximity to Charlottesville and Monticello — about an hour’s drive away. Plan to leave Richmond so you’ll hit Michie Tavern for lunch before visiting Monticello. Operating since 1784, the tavern serves a daily buffet on stainless steel plates resembling the old pewter plates and mugs of the period. Folks in traditional dress will bring you as much food as you wish. “All our food is based on 18th century fare,” said Cindy Conte of Michie Tavern. Of particular note are the excellent fried chicken, biscuits and black-eyed peas. But you simply must save space for their peach cobbler. All this for about $20 bucks. Then head to Monticello. Jefferson’s near obsession with his home is evident from his constant tinkering with the place. Tours of his technologically advanced home last about an hour and a brand new visitor facility houses a gift shop, additional exhibits and a must-see short film. Honest and unflinching in its approach to the historical records surrounding Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemmings, the film is surprisingly moving. From there, take the shuttle to the entrance of Monticello, or stroll for 20-minutes through lush woods, past the Jefferson gravesite to the entrance at the back of the property. A brief three-minute drive from Monticello will take you to Jefferson Vineyards. Located on Jefferson’s original property, the vines, planted in 1981, have the distinction of not only bearing Jefferson’s name but of being pretty good wine to boot. No, these are not actual vineyards from Jefferson’s time, but the plantings reinforce the fact that Jefferson sought to bring fine wine to America. On your way back to Richmond, spoil yourself and visit the Clifton Inn for dinner. This Relais & Chateaux property is creating some of the finest dinners in the area such as Pan-Seared Halibut with Buttered Lump Crab, and their decadent Warm Bittersweet Chocolate Tart with Virginia Peanut Nougat.
Richmond is also home to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum. Dating back to 1754 and utilizing the oldest building in the city as their gift shop, the museum was formed in 1922. There’s an eclectic and rather odd collection of all things Poe ranging from one of his vests; to his boyhood bed; to books of his works, a lock of hair, the staircase from his childhood home; and a peculiar diorama that a local woman made in 1926 showing how Richmond looked during Poe’s time. The self-guided tours will help you understand that Poe wasn’t just about the macabre.
Perhaps the most frequented structure in Richmond, however, is St. James Church, originally built in 1741 with renovations and expansions into the 1930s. This is the church where an impassioned Patrick Henry declared, “…give me liberty or give me death” on March 23rd, 1775, as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington listened. Though the interior looks nothing like the original, it’s still a reminder that you can sit in the same spot where our forefathers wrestled with the idea of democracy and ponder how we are the result of those fateful and often difficult decisions.
In keeping with historical themes, the Library of Virginia houses a Special Collections section. It mainly contains old books, which might seem tedious and academic and something to skip over, but here will you find handwritten letters by George Washington, some dating to when he was a young man. There are books owned by and inscripted to Thomas Jefferson, a case law book owned by Patrick Henry from 1733, and the smallest book you’ve ever seen (literally) holding five of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, along with a pre-Guttenberg era book, and a wood block print from 1493. And then, there is the nearly jaw-dropping book, handled with gloves by Special Collections Director Thomas Camden, the only book that survived the Mayflower from about 1617. And it is this book that makes your heart nearly skip a beat as it is opened before you. Yes, you can see these treasures first hand, but no, you can’t touch them.
Richmond’s culinary scene is thriving, and more than 900 restaurants compete for your attention. Buz and Ned’s is famous because this barbeque place dethroned TV chef Bobby Flay in a barbeque smack down. The staff wears, “The Flay Slayer” T-shirts as they serve up hushpuppies, cornbread, baked beans and pork, and beef ribs — all slow cooked and smoked over real wood. The busy spot is no frills, using rolls of paper towels as napkins and serving their food in plastic baskets. The Hard Shell is another local’s favorite. Lobster rolls, crab cakes, a raw bar and lobster chowder are standard fare, along with beef and chicken dishes. A quick and easy breakfast can be found at Perly’s, a 20-year institution on 5th Street. It’s popular with locals who like inexpensive food like grits, eggs, homestyle potatoes and Virginia ham. The food is simple but good, and the vibe is definitely local. Or, if you feel the need to be more involved in your food, in downtown Richmond’s Shockoe Slip area (the site of the old tobacco warehouses), there is Mise En Place, a cooking school that offers weekly classes in everything from soup making, to cake baking, to cooking with your partner. Their focus is on sustainable farm-to-table ingredients like scallops and crab from the Chesapeake Bay, farm-raised beef and organic vegetables.
Another short drive will take you to Hanover Tavern and its adjoining courthouse and jail where Patrick Henry served as a tavern keeper and bartender prior to his becoming a lawyer and patriot in the pursuit of liberty. The original portion of the tavern from 1791 is still there though additions to the building have created a live theatre venue and restaurant offering some of the best biscuits in the area. Virginia, in general, and Richmond, in particular, are home to many wineries. The Commonwealth boasts about 150 wineries, and Viognier is quickly becoming a signature white wine. Native American varieties like Norton and Vidal are also showcased. New Kent Winery offers great values and fine quality in their tasting room, comprised of reclaimed wood from various states.
Of course, Richmond is Civil War Central. It was here that Jefferson Davis set up his own White House of the Confederate States of America and where Abraham Lincoln visited days after the South finally surrendered. The American Civil War Center on the banks of the James River is a six-block walk from the Downtown core. Located in the Tredegar Iron Works building, the foundry that produced all manner of cannons and firearms for the Confederate Army examines the war from both political and philosophical perspectives. The fully restored two-story exhibit hall, though heavy on text, gives a comprehensive overview of the war. Eight bucks will get you in and you can tour with a guide or download a podcast to your I-phone. Richmond is one of those seminal cities that can help us to understand who we are in our present context. That we can visit, sit, eat, drink and walk in the steps of our founding fathers is of no small importance.
IF YOU GO
Richmond Visitors Bureau – www.visitrichmondva.com
SEE AND DO
Poe Museum – (804) 648-5523 or www.poemuseum.org
Monticello – (434) 984-9822 or www.monticello.org
Michie Tavern – (434) 977-1234 or www.michietavern.com
St. John’s Church – (804) 648-5015 or www.historicstjohnschurch.org
Mise En Place (804)-683-3858 or www.miseenplaceshockoe.com
American Civil War Center (804) 780-1865 or www.tredegar.org
The Library of Virginia – (804) 692-3706 or www.lva.virginia.gov
Wineries of Virginia – www.virginiawine.org
The Jefferson Hotel (804) 283-1594 or www.jeffersonhotel.com