Funny story. Not funny ha-ha, funny stupid. For years, I lived about fifty minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge. I walked the wide, inviting paths overlooking the sparkling San Francisco Bay twice. I toured Alcatraz once. I might have ridden a trolley, but I don’t remember. I ate in Chinatown enough, so there’s that.
My point: I did not partake of San Francisco’s magnificence when I had the chance. Not because I was blasé about the city, but because I thought I’d always find time for her charms. But sands through the hourglass, and so forth. These days, I do not live less than an hour from the Golden Gate, and likely never will again. One day soon, I’d like to go back with the kids, and write a proper travel article about the region so other families can make the most of their visits.
Which brings me to you.
It’s August, and it’s roasting-hot, and you forgot to plan an Instagram-worthy trip, and your kids are jealous of everyone they know flying to Europe, or Costa Rica, or California. But you can’t even swing a long drive to Grandma’s – and everyone is staring daggers.
Good news! Turns out that working and/or lazing away the summer and giving the kids a taste of creativity-inducing boredom is the kind of parenting that leads to a new travel trend – or so you can tell your family!
That’s right, this is the summer of naps, curling up with great books, a little too much time on electronics – and then? Exploring RVA with your family like a tourist! Here are some highlights this travel mom recommends for families – for the end of summer and beyond.
Touring the Arts and Education Scene
Think every medium-sized city has world-class museums like the ones found in RVA? Not even close. Avoid summer’s brain drain by submerging the kids in breathtaking and educational history and art. If RVA’s heart is made of history, her crown is created from her wondrous museums and live shows.
Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia Life-sized photos, computer-touch screens, and visual, oral, and written records and artifacts commemorate the lives and accomplishments of blacks in Virginia. Visitors take a tour of the African American experience and of the African Diaspora. Artifacts include an enslaved person’s collar, a reproduction of a lunch counter from the 1960s, and enormous sculptures – including a replica of the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue. This smallish museum is wonderful for all ages. ($)
Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU RVA’s newest museum came onto the scene this spring, and the building is artwork unto itself. Don’t miss this edgy, modern art museum that’s perfect for families with teens – definitely thirteen and up – who are ready to tackle important social themes in conversation. The opening exhibit Declaration features an art piece related to the Ku Klux Klan with recast Klansmen robes. Another exhibit, Women Words, is an artistic presentation of words and phrases representing women submitted by email to the artist. Thirty-three artists – many from Richmond – created the artwork and installations, which are slated to rotate quarterly. (Free)
Virginia Holocaust Museum A visit to the Virginia Holocaust Museum uses the history of genocide to teach the dangers of prejudice and indifference. You’ll see unforgettable photos and artifacts including a woman’s death camp uniform, a doll that belonged to a survivor, a striped armband with a yellow Star of David, and a Nazi officer’s cap. A core exhibit of 300 items is permanent and regularly updated, and the museum hosts traveling exhibits. This one is recommended for about twelve and up and is best if your children have recently studied the Holocaust. (Free)
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts At VMFA, pick up a light lunch at the Best Café (or stuff a backpack with food – equally acceptable and more affordable), and fill little tummies while enjoying the peaceful Sculpture Garden before diving into the air conditioning. Did you know your VMFA has the largest public collection of Fabergé art objects outside Russia? This stunning display is a don’t-miss. And there are many other exhibits families with kids of all ages will enjoy. (Free)
The VMFA’s renowned traveling exhibit, Napoleon: Power and Splendor, is on display until September 3. Items from Napoleon’s household and masterpiece paintings of Napoleon from French museums – including the Louvre – bring Napoleon’s court to life in Richmond. ($)
Science Museum of Virginia I don’t know if the Science Museum of Virginia was blessed with its very own Pulse station specifically because it is such a tourism darling, but you be the judge! You can start with Body Worlds: Animal Inside Out, on display through Labor Day. This collection of more than one hundred plastinates gives you an inside look at the biological systems of some of the world’s most amazing creatures, including one of my favorites, the giraffe. If you’re members at the Science Museum of Virginia, you already know about the newest permanent exhibits, Boost! and Speed. If you haven’t been in a while, you really ought to see these remarkable new areas, plus enjoy what’s playing in The Dome (their 76-foot giant screen). Plan to spend at least a half-day exploring this remarkable facility. ($)
Children’s Museum of Richmond There are other branches, but the Broad Street location next to the Science Museum of Virginia will always be the museum we remember. From the Art Studio to the Apple Tree to the The Dig Pit, there are a ton of ways to engage your preschool and young elementary school-age kids in learning fun. ($)
Virginia Museum of History & Culture Next to VMFA on Boulevard is a museum that is packed with interesting items. If you have visited this museum in the past, you remember it as the Virginia Historical Society. The signature exhibition, The Story of Virginia, is a must-see for elementary school-age Richmonders on up, with 500 artifacts that cover 16,000 years of Virginia history from prehistoric times to today. The current temporary exhibit, Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality, is a must-see. Ask about history-themed story times, programs, and tours while you’re there. ($)
The Valentine In the heart of historic downtown, The Valentine is a testimony to the 400-year history of Richmond itself. A host of temporary exhibits are curated for all tastes, from Monumental: Richmond’s Monuments which looks at the historical context of our monuments, to Pandemic: Richmond, an exhibit that examines disease – from the flu to AIDS – and its impact on life in Richmond. Plus, The Valentine offers bus tours of the region and bike and walking tours of Hollywood Cemetery and historic neighborhoods like Court End, Church Hill, and more. ($)
Virginia State Capitol I can’t believe I made it this far without mentioning The Bachelorette, but alas, here we are! The Virginia State Capitol was the site of a group date and great debate for Becca’s affections last month – with Beccalection 2018 banners hanging in the background – featuring the one and only Governor Ralph Northam. There’s a different political figure, however, behind this Virginia landmark’s architecture: President Thomas Jefferson. You can enjoy free guided tours from the Capitol Guides (located at the public entrance to the Capitol on Bank Street) Monday through Saturday, beginning at nine-thirty in the morning with the last tour at four o’clock. Sunday tours are available from one to four. (Free)
Virginia Repertory Theatre I’ve never left a Virginia Rep production without needing to pull myself together. Great art does that to you – gently beckoning audience members to leap off reality’s precipice to soar amid the action on stage. I’ve left exhilarated (White Christmas), crying (West Side Story), and giddy at sharing a spectacular show with my boys (Seussical the Musical). Schedule a Virginia Rep show on your family calendar today. This month, West Side Story closes at Virginia Rep’s November Theatre August 5, Knuffle Bunny wraps August 12, and you can see Crimes of the Heart through August 26 at Virginia Rep at Hanover Tavern. Upcoming shows on the mainstage include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Sister Act, Once, Atlantis: A New Musical, and The Wiz. The Children’s Theatre Season at Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn is equally impressive. ($)
A Rad Ride on GRTC Pulse Fun fact: Kids get giddy on buses! That said, you need to try out RVA’s new rapid transit system that covers a 7.6-mile route along Broad and Main Streets from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. The Pulse buses visit fourteen stops every ten minutes during commute hours, and every fifteen minutes the rest of the day, seven days a week, connecting RVA families to many touristy destinations and restaurants in Richmond. Use your smartphone to scan the QR codes on the glass maps at all the station platforms and get info on fun and food that’s within walking distance of the stop. If you’re coming from surrounding counties, you can take advantage of on-street parking anywhere along the route. Check RideGRTC.com for hours and details about this wonderful new service tourists will love (and isn’t that you this month?). Just $1.50 a ride or $3.50 for a day pass. Also, check out the $5 fare to Kings Dominion which means you won’t have to drive on I-95. Score! ($)
Getting Outside in Richmond
Locals know if you want to play outside on an RVA summer day, you gotta rise early, get outdoors first-thing, and find H20 or air-conditioning by noon. I’m sure you’ve heard about these treasures, but have you taken advantage of them yet? If I were writing a travel article about Richmond, here’s where I would send out-of-towners for heat relief – in or near water.
On the James River The exuberant owner of RVA Paddlesports, Patrick Griffin, says RVA Paddlesports is a kayak school with a rafting problem. Yep, the owners and instructors are fanatics about paddle sports and want you to get in on the fun, just like tourists do all summer long. Adventures include flatwater kayaking lessons, half-day (and 2-day) intro to kayaking, kayak roll clinics, and rafting journeys. They also have tandem kayaks if you want to keep your child close. Kids must be five or six years of age and at least fifty pounds to ride the Class III+ rapids, but small kids can ride the Class I/II and do flatwater kayaking. Riverside Outfitters is another trusted resource for outdoor adventure and rentals, including canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUP), and tubes. ($)
Belle Isle Suspension Pedestrian Bridge Park on Tredegar Street and walk over the pedestrian bridge that takes you to the outdoor activities on Belle Isle. Plan to hike, put your feet into the water, and chill on large flat rocks as the James River surrounds you. You’ll find lots of walking and mountain bike trails here and a mountain bike skills area families love. (Free)
Pony Pasture Pony Pasture is insane-fun for kayaking, hiking, picnicking, or rafting. Parking in the summer gets competitive, so arrive by eleven in the morning. It’s best to go on a weekday if possible. (Free)
Richmond Canal Cruises Lobbied for by George Washington in 1789, our Founding Father urged the General Assembly (then House of Burgesses) to connect Richmond’s waterways. Today, you can cruise Washington’s vision led by guides steeped in Richmond history. The 40-minute tours leave every hour from 14th and Dock streets on Virginia Street. Tours are seasonal from April to November. ($)
Cobblestones Park This Glen Allen water park screams summer kid-fun. Open seven days a week through Labor Day, kids love the giant pools, slides, water features, sandy picnic spots, snack bar, and more. Non-swim team families (I know you’re out there!) who don‘t have a neighborhood pool membership should check out this family recreation gem. You can pack a cooler and bring your own food and drinks. Arrive early, and bring extra sunscreen. Also, print out a discount coupon from the website and save on admission. ($)
Park365 The first of its kind in Central Virginia, this ultimate playground for kids of all abilities is loaded with creative play structures for toddlers, school-age kids, and every other age. Most features are handicap accessible. Until last year, it was known as ARCpark. Park365 has three playgrounds, a wheelchair-accessible treehouse, water misting stations for hot August days, and a large shaded pavilion with picnic tables. I like that kids can engage in creative play with other kids of all abilities. A morning at Park365 can open everyone’s eyes to the many differences that make us all special. Open seven days a week from dawn to dusk. (Free)
Kings Dominion Twelve coasters including the new Twisted Timbers (a first-of-its-kind hybrid coaster of steel and wood), the 14-acre Planet Snoopy children’s area, and Soak City, a 20-acre water park that’s built into your admission price, make Kings Dominion the perfect destination for families with kids of all ages. ($)
Virginia Capital Trail This 50-plus mile paved path for bikers and pedestrians connects Richmond and Williamsburg along a trail of restaurants, historical sites, parks, picnic areas, and yes, public restrooms. While there are plenty of places to park along the trail, the route consists of nine main access points along the scenic Route 5 corridor. Designed for all ages, there are family-friendly itineraries on the website. (Free)
Maymont Whether you’re strolling the grounds and gardens of the beautiful estate to get in touch with nature (Free), or visiting with a specific activity in mind, Maymont is one of the country’s most treasured urban natural areas. If you visit with younger children, be sure to check out the Nature Center and Maymont Farm. Older kids and other family members will appreciate a tour of the Dooley mansion. ($)
Family Sleepovers for the Fun of It!
Did you set aside travel funds to stay somewhere fun this summer? Maybe you don’t have the vacation days to go out of town? Hold tight to your flip-flops, because they’re about to be knocked off.
Time Travel in Luxury at The Jefferson I tell my kids, the best way to travel through time is to sink into a great book – think The Great Gatsby or The Outsiders. Second best? Stay in an historic hotel. A Richmond-treasure himself, Mr. Lewis Ginter created one of the finest hotels in America in 1895: The Jefferson. He commissioned a marble statue of Thomas Jefferson who would preside from the center of the grand lobby crowned in Tiffany stained glass in the ceiling.
Thoughtfully renovated through the decades, the Jefferson has scooped up the 5-star designation and a 5-diamond award from AAA. The guest rooms are stunners with enormous marble bathrooms (TVs in the mirror), intimate foyers with Nespresso coffee makers, and doorbells on every door.
The indoor pool sits next to an outdoor terrace on the second floor and is perfect for families. Through September 9, the Jefferson offers 40 percent off per night: enjoy a Grand Premier room (king or two queens), valet parking ($20 value), and a $50 gift card valid at the hotel’s two restaurants, afternoon tea, or in the gift shops for $295/a night plus taxes.
Don’t want to spring for an overnight? Consider treating the kids to the hotel’s popular Chocolate Lover’s Tea served on the first and third Saturday of every month. Don’t miss the small first-floor museum showcasing items from the hotel’s history. And line up the kids on the gorgeous staircase for photos.
Richmond’s Newest 4-star is Quirk If hotels were cookies, Quirk Hotel would be a pink French macaron – elegant, yet light and fun. Richmond’s newest hotel opened in the fall of 2015 on West Broad across from the November Theatre (Virginia Rep’s arts HQ). One step into the Quirk Hotel’s lobby, and you’ll spin as I did to take in the heady view. Every degree drips in gorgeousness and includes: sitting areas galore with floral couches dotted in light touches of pink; a coffee bar (Quirk has its own custom blend); the hotel’s Maple & Pine restaurant; a gift shop; an art gallery; and a full bar featuring hand-crafted cocktails and Richmond micro-brews.
Katie and Ted Ukrop own the 1916 building that was once home to an upscale department store. The rooms – with soaring ceilings and windows – range from double beds to lofts and one bedrooms. The bathrooms are designed in modern-genius, and every room has its own pearly-pink white noise sound machine and light pink mini-fridges. (Expect to pay $200-plus a night.)
The Quirk’s rooftop bar boasts Virginia views for miles and is for twenty-one and up – so ditch the kids. Same at dinner because unless they’re serious foodies, Maple & Pine’s menu isn’t geared to kids. Want to keep it affordable? Buy a coffee and a small treat, and sit in the lobby drinking in the happy atmosphere before a performance at The Rep.
Also, here comes another reference for fans of The Bachelorette: I don’t think they’ll post a sign at Quirk, but indeed, “Becca slept here!” when the hit TV show was filming in April, and it was featured when the episode aired last month.
Short Pump’s Gem: Wingate by Wyndham I can’t rave enough about the Wingate by Wyndham. Each guest room has a microwave and mini-fridge. The complimentary breakfast serves hot waffles, yogurt, fresh fruit, and hot dishes. The indoor pool sits next to a huge whirlpool that delights the kids. Floats and snacks welcome. Parking, wi-fi, and breakfast are rolled into one price. In August, score a night at $115 for a family of four (sign up as a Wyndham member to get this rate). Use the free shuttle to visit the Short Pump Town Center, Children’s Museum of Richmond location at the mall, and Boomerang Air Sports (for kid fun on steroids, especially if you have a wannabe Ninja Warrior in your ranks).
Day-tripping on a Dime Exploring Your Yard, DC, and the Beach
Decades ago, my parents drove to Canada and accidentally ended up at Banff on Canada’s Independence Day. We couldn’t find one empty hotel room. An innkeeper took pity on us and gave my parents a dark, back room with a queen bed, while my sister and I slept on the floor. To an 8- and 10-year-old? Best. Vacation. Ever. My sister and I bragged about that Banff adventure for decades.
That said: Ignore your kids when they sneer at your creative travel ideas – even if they don’t involve leaving home for more than a day! Keep your enthusiasm strong and watch those cute non-believers come around.
Under the Stars Camp in your backyard. If you don’t have camping gear, simply explain to neighbors, friends, and relatives that you’re planning a backyard camping adventure, and politely ask to borrow a tent. Grab your bed’s blankets and pillows, and haul out the flashlights and bug spray.
Challenge the kids by saying, “We can’t go in the house except to use the bathroom and grab food. And devices are not welcome!” Grill dinner outside, roast s’mores, watch a movie (okay, one device), tell stories from your childhood, read aloud by flashlight, and – my favorite thing – fall asleep early as a family.
Day-trip to Virginia Beach Hello? You live an easy two hours away from a beautiful beach that enthralls kids. Pack food, a beach umbrella, and sunscreen, and head out early. Of the various strips, my favorite is the Virginia Beach Oceanfront with those clean and large public bathrooms, lifeguards, and friendly crowd. The nearby Navy base means helicopters and jets roar in formation overhead (which kids dig!).
The beach strip is also home to three modern playgrounds: one at 10th Street; another at 31st Street, next to King Neptune’s statue; and the third, JT’s Grommet Island Beach Park and Playground – America’s first wheelchair-friendly beach park – located at 102nd Street.
I recommend parking in the 2nd Street lot (145 Atlantic Avenue, $10) that’s close to the beach, public restrooms, and Grommet Island Park. Or if you want to be in the hub of excitement, park in the garage at 31 Ocean by the Virginia Beach Hilton (Atlantic Avenue and Laskin, $10), and spend the day next to King Neptune.
Day-trip to DC How many people would love to be two hours from our nation’s capital teeming in free museums? My favorite? The National Museum of American History. I was plastered to the display of First Ladies’ gowns. Kids will love to see the original Kermit the Frog, Bill Nye’s lab coat, and Michael Keaton’s Batmobile from the 1989 Batman movie. Broadway fans can see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton costume. And foodies will want selfies with Julia Child’s kitchen as a backdrop. If you visit on or after October 19, Dorothy’s ruby slippers will be back on display.
My second favorite? The National Air and Space Museum, where you’ll see the Wright Brothers’ plane that made an historical 12-second flight in 1903. You’ll also get up close and personal to Amelia Earhart’s lipstick-red “Little Red Bus” plane (her nickname for the beauty). And you can drool – like my husband did – over an actual Apollo lunar module.
On a weekday, you can attempt to get into the newest Smithsonian, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, using a walkup pass. The reserved, timed entries are booked through October.
The DC monuments are also incredible visits: the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and the Washington Monument (that took damage from the 2011 earthquake and is slated to reopen spring 2019). The Vietnam Veterans Memorial – a black wall etched with more than 58,000 names – is a chilling reminder of the brutality of war.
Consider parking in Alexandria and taking the DC Metro to the Smithsonian buildings. Riding the Metro has never been easier, just visit WMATA.com and type your information into the user-friendly trip planner. (A Metro ride from Alexandria to the American History Museum is just $4.75 per person.)
To save on day trips, be sure to pack backpacks full of food and water, and ask everyone to wear one. Keeping the hungrys at bay is a brilliant way to save.
One last thing, but it’s important! Make sure you promote your day trips as mini-vacations with the family and help the kids grab souvenirs – buttons, t-shirts, hats, etc. – from your budget adventures. Invariably, someone will ask what your family did over the summer, and it will make your kids’ lives easier if these adventures should immediately come to mind. Whatever you do and however far you go to do it, have fun exploring as a family!
Photos: Travis Fullerton (VMFA), ANSEL OLSON (BHM), Riverside Outfitters (Rafting, kayaking), Xavier Ascanio (James River), Beth Furgurson & Jamie Hayes (Jefferson Hotel), Keith Isaacs (Quirk Hotel), Mark Avino (Smithsonian Institution)