Richmond, Virginia, is moving beyond its past

Why Richmond? Virginia’s state capital feels like a city at an interesting crossroads. For a long time, it has dwelt on its past – it was the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War and is brimming with reminders of this, including the Confederate White House. It was also an unusually industrial city […]

Why Richmond?

Virginia’s state capital feels like a city at an interesting crossroads. For a long time, it has dwelt on its past – it was the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War and is brimming with reminders of this, including the Confederate White House.

It was also an unusually industrial city for the South, with clanking machinery lining the James River at the farthest point upstream that it was navigable.

Things feel like they’re changing, though. The gentrified west end feels much more liberal and northern-looking than the city’s past would indicate, while the river has been turned into a gloriously wild centre for outdoor pursuits.

The city is also getting active through its cycling scene – it hosts the UCI Road World Championships in September.

A comfortable bed

The Berkeley Hotel (www.berkeleyhotel.com) downtown plays up the atmospherics with wood panelling, old maps of Virginia on the walls, bronze busts and centuries-old clocks. But it has been sensitively refurbished, too. Spacious, comfortable rooms cost from US$134 (Dh492).

The newest hotel in town is the Courtyard Richmond Downtown (www.marriott.com), which is classic affordable-chain territory, but with a prime position on the cobbled streets of the historic Shockoe Slip area. King rooms come with a microwave, and cost from $132 (Dh485).

The star, however, is The Jefferson (www.jeffersonhotel.com). In Richmond since 1895, the hotel has public areas that dazzle with gleaming wow factor and invitations to take afternoon tea. The large, fabulously appointed rooms – which cost from $312 (Dh1,146) – have recently had a refurb, too.

Find your feet

The Hollywood Cemetery is a surprisingly beautiful starting point, containing the graves of thousands of soldiers who died in the American Civil War. It also contains the tomb of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and those of American presidents John Tyler and James Monroe. The latter is a pompous affair, surrounded by a Gothic iron cage.

From there, head through the university campus to marvel at the architecture. There are hundreds of gorgeous old buildings. Eventually, you will get to Monument Avenue, which has a series of absurdly large, lionising monuments to Civil War-era Confederate generals in the middle. They’re at once visually impressive and morally disturbing – these men were, after all, fighting to preserve slavery.

Meet the locals

If the sun is out, you can bet there will be a few locals out on the James River, using rocks and tiny islets as makeshift beaches or sitting on bridge supports, dangling fishing rods. The river is very pretty, featuring rocks, rapids and ruins of bridges destroyed by the retreating Confederates during the Civil War. Belle Isle in the middle is a good spot from where to take it all in – it’s preserved as parkland, and a footbridge connects it to the city centre.

Book a table

In the last few years, Richmond’s food scene has boomed, and East Grace Street downtown is beginning to see a cluster of good restaurants emerge. Julep’s (www.juleps.net) puts modern twists on traditional southern cuisine. Mains cost from $24 (Dh88) and $35 (Dh129).

A few doors down, with a young, unstuffy vibe, Pasture (www.pastureva.com) is mainly about small-plates dining, but also serves mains such as grilled top sirloin, mashed Yukon golds and grilled zucchini for $24 (Dh88).

Shopper’s paradise

The Carytown area – basically the western stretch of Cary Street beyond the university – is by far the most enjoyable part of town for shopping. There’s plenty of variety, and a couple of stores sum up the approach.

Eclectic Stuff (www.eclecticstuff.net) is a glorious jumble-sale-ish mishmash of occasional gems and baffling oddities. Scrabble tiles turned into earrings, a scale model of the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk plane and vintage clocks are in the mix.

Mongrel (www.mongrelrva.com) is a little more upmarket, but still quirky, with lots of books on niche topics such as advanced bushcraft and vegan recipes from the crew of the Sea Shepherd.

What to avoid

Richmond’s downtown area is pretty dire – trying to find shops or restaurants around the Capitol is particularly hard going. So unless you’re heading somewhere specific, stick east in the Shockoe Bottom and Church Hill areas, or west around the university campus.

Don’t miss

Both the Richmond National Battlefield Park headquarters (www.nps.gov/rich) and the American Civil War Center (www.acwm.org) are at the former Tredegar Ironworks. The former concentrates on battles around Richmond, while the latter gives a more sweeping overview. The detailed, timelined approach brings plenty of strands together, and provides an absorbing history lesson for those who only know the scantiest outline of the Civil War story.

Getting there

Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Washington Dulles International Airport from Dh4,915. It’s recommended to hire a car at Dulles – Richmond is about two hours and 15 minutes to the south, and public transport is terrible, while transfers are extortionate.

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Source: art & life

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