Ever since our first child was born fifteen years ago, we’ve made a habit of living out of a suitcase at least once a month, traveling as a family to destinations near and far to expose our two kids (now fifteen and thirteen) to different cultures and environments.
In Virginia and beyond, we’ve explored parks and playgrounds, beaches, zoos, monuments and museums, national treasures, and more. The four of us have worked our way around the Commonwealth through the years as a family, visiting many towns and cities and discovering the sites, sounds, and tastes that make this region special.
Having conducted so much research, I’ve settled on our top picks for best cities in Virginia for families (in addition to Richmond, of course!), all places we love to visit over and over again. What’s great about each place is there is something for everyone in the family to do – whether you have a toddler or teen or someone in between. And don’t forget, fun for Mom and Dad, too. Whether you are taking a day trip or spending the night, be sure to check out what each pick city has to offer and what makes each unique.
If you and your brood like being on the water, then Lynchburg is the place for you. Lynchburg is a railroad town situated along the James River. Every June, the city hosts the James River Batteau Festival. As part of the celebration, boaters and paddlers partake in an 8-day journey along the river from Lynchburg to Richmond. Hop in a kayak, a canoe, or a batteau – a large flat-bottom boat similar to a canoe that was used in Lynchburg during the 1800s for trading along the waterways – and join in the festivities. New this summer, members of the public will have the chance to ride in a replica batteau during the James River Adventures tours along the river at Riveredge Park. You can also bring your bikes or rent them and take a leisurely family ride on the trail on Percival’s Island, which runs along the water’s edge and provides the perfect scenic backdrop. During the summer, families can also enjoy outdoor concerts and movies under the stars at either Riverside Park or Riverfront Park. Little ones will want to spend part of the day exploring Amazement Square Children’s Museum, while families with older kids shouldn’t miss the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre. Snowflex is the country’s only outdoor artificial venue featuring year-round skiing, snowboarding, and tubing. All four of us wore ourselves out tubing down the mountain during our recent visit to Lynchburg.
Where to Stay: Craddock Terry Hotel along Commerce Street used to be an old shoe factory. Two lovable dogs, one of which is adorably named Penny Loafer, greet guests in the lobby throughout the day. Your pet is also welcome at Craddock Terry. The hotel has two restaurants: Shoemakers offers seafood and steak, although most families will prefer the more casual dining at Waterstone Pizza. Don’t leave town without taking a family photo in the oversized shoe
at the hotel’s entrance.
Where to Eat: Breakfast is served all day at My Dog Duke’s Diner – try one of their sunrise skillets. Later, grab a burger and some tater tots and sit outside along the Bluffwalk overlooking the river at Bootleggers. If you have room for dessert, check out MayLynn’s Creamery within walking distance. The homemade cookie-wich and rolled ice cream are divine.
What’s nearby: For families who want to get fit together, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest hosts the Face the Forest 5K obstacle course run every August.
Prefer the mountains? It’s hard to beat Roanoke, located right in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fall is the best time to visit Roanoke to experience the foliage in all of its glory, but there’s plenty to do in the summertime, too. Families can hike or visit the zoo at Mill Mountain Park, also home to the famous landmark, The Roanoke Star. One of our favorite places is Center on the Square in downtown Roanoke at Market Square. Center on the Square has multiple attractions for entertaining families with kids of all ages. The first floor features an aquarium, a children’s theatre, a candy store, and movies that play throughout the day in the atrium. My husband, kids, and I had a blast playing vintage arcade games at the Roanoke Pinball Museum. Center on the Square also houses the Science Museum of Western Virginia, which has interactive displays and activities ideal for toddlers and preschoolers (although my teens had a ball creating and building with the museum’s gigantic LEGO bricks). There’s good news for Science Museum of Virginia members: The Association of Science and Technology Museums reciprocal membership program means you get in free with proof of membership. We also recommend the Virginia Museum of Transportation for lovers of planes, trains, and automobiles. On our last visit, the museum had a display featuring real-deal versions of many famous television and movie vehicles including the DeLorean from Back to the Future, the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard, and the iconic ghost mobile from Ghostbusters. Needless to say, there were lots of selfies on our phones from that day.
Where to Stay: Hilton Garden Inn Roanoke on South Peak Boulevard offers a spectacular hilltop view of the mountains. This hotel has an indoor pool (a hit with kids of all ages) so don’t forget to pack your swimsuits.
Where to Eat: Start the day off with a breakfast biscuit at Scratch Biscuit Company (portions are huge so bring your appetite). Hit Texas Tavern downtown and enjoy a hot dog and a bowl of chili at the lunch counter. Later, grab a slice of pizza at Bobby’s Hot and Cheesy for supper, and then indulge in a scrumptious cupcake for dessert next door at Bubblecake Bakery.
What’s nearby: Natural Bridge is a State Park, so don’t miss the opportunity to discover some of the most breathtaking views of nature in Virginia.
Yes, we cherish our frequent trips to Busch Gardens, Water Country USA, and Colonial Williamsburg, but for those who seek history and adventure, Williamsburg offers much more. My family routinely visits Jamestown Settlement as well as Historic Jamestowne. (Note: Historic Jamestowne is part of the National Park Service, which offers free admission to its parks periodically throughout the year. Your next chances to get in free in 2019 are August 25, September 28, and November 11.) We typically bring our bikes along to Historic Jamestowne and cycle Island Drive loop in search of wildlife. There are also a few short hiking trails perfect for families with little ones.
James City County Marina is across the street from Jamestown Settlement, where you can rent bikes or kayaks or grab a bite to eat from one of the rotating food trucks and lounge on the deck at the family-friendly Billsburg Brewery. Nearby, Jamestown Beach Event Park has picnic areas and a beach with shallow water along the James River. All of these sites are also accessible from the Virginia Capital Trail, a multi-use trail that goes from Jamestown Settlement all the way to Richmond. Those who would rather do a little mountain biking or hiking can get their thrill at Freedom Park. Both the Williamsburg Botanical Garden and Go Ape Adventure Park are located within Freedom Park. Go Ape has two zip-line obstacles courses: one designed for young kids and a larger course for teens and adults. Traveling with your dog? Waller Mill Park has a dog park as well as hiking trails and a reservoir for kayaking, paddle-boating, or fishing. If you’re headed to Waller Mill Park, pack a picnic lunch, and bring sunscreen and bug spray.
Where to Stay: Stay in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg at any of their hotels, which range in price to fit any budget. Be sure to find some time for dinner at one of Colonial Williamsburg’s taverns and unwind afterward on the patio at Sweet Tea & Barley at the Williamsburg Lodge.
Where to Eat: We like to stop for a sandwich at Charly’s Airport Restaurant at the Williamsburg-James City Airport and watch the private airplanes take off and land. The Cheese Shop in Merchants Square is another favorite spot for sandwiches. For dessert, we recently discovered The Meadows Original Frozen Custard on Richmond Road near the new Midtown Row shopping district.
What’s nearby: We have passes to Virginia Living Museum in Newport News. The museum has many educational interactive activities and opportunities to learn more about animals and plants, many of which are native to Virginia. Young children and would-be paleontologists will appreciate the permanent outdoor exhibit Dinosaur Discovery Trail.
For families who would rather spend their vacation on the sand and in sun, Virginia Beach is ideal. We prefer to visit Virginia Beach during the off-season, although Virginia Beach is definitely the place to be during the summer with its Beach Street USA events featuring outdoor concerts, magic shows, and street performers nightly along the oceanfront. By now, you might sense a theme with our family (we are big into bicycling), so our trips to Virginia Beach aren’t complete without riding the boardwalk from Grommet Island Park (a large playground right on the beach) on 2nd Street to Neptune’s statue on 31st Street. Another must-visit playground is Mt. Trashmore. For those who want a quieter beach experience, First Landing State Park and False Cape State Park also have beaches. Keep in mind, False Cape can only be accessed through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Vehicles are not permitted, so you’ll have to walk in, bike in, boat in, or take a special tram that only operates certain times throughout the year.
When we want to take a break from sunbathing and swimming, we head over to The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, which also has a zip-line park (The Adventure Park), or the Virginia Military Aviation Museum. Thrill seekers will surely wish to visit iFLY Indoor Skydiving.
Where to Stay: We usually stay along the oceanfront at the Hampton Inn near Neptune’s statue; it’s the half-way point along the boardwalk and within walking distance of many restaurants, shops, and attractions.
What to Eat: You can’t visit the beach without indulging in fresh seafood. Check out Chix Sea Grill & Bar, Waterman’s Surfside Grill or Rudee’s Restaurant & Cabana Bar. And for dessert? Pastries and cakes aplenty at Sugar Plum Bakery.
What’s Nearby: Should the weather not cooperate, families with little ones should head to The Children’s Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth, and families with school-aged kids should check out the Nauticus Science Center and Battleship Wisconsin in Norfolk. Nauticus also offers free admission with your Science Museum of Virginia membership.
When we want a bigger city fix, we tend to trek to Washington, DC, just like everyone else. But en route to the nation’s capital, we’ve discovered that Northern Virginia has just as much to offer as Washington itself. Historic Occoquan is a quaint little village with unique shops and restaurants. Here, families can splurge on homemade sweets at NazBro Chocolates & Fudge or Mom’s Apple Pie Bakery. Meanwhile, River Mill Park has free outdoor concerts and movies during the summer months. Families can
also hike on trails with scenic waterfalls here.
Of course, when we want our fill of waterfalls, we stop off at Great Falls Park in Fairfax County. The experience is mesmerizing. In Leesburg, there is Leesburg Animal Park featuring live animal shows and pony rides as well as Stone Tower Winery, where children and dogs are welcome. Take in the scenery from the mountaintop at the winery, where families can nosh on wood-fired pizza and listen to musical entertainment on the weekends. Alexandria is another charming city in Northern Virginia that is steeped in history and located right on the water, perfect for strolling, shopping, and admiring the boats passing by. For us, springtime isn’t complete without a trip to check out the cherry blossoms. The window on that opportunity has closed this year, but try taking a boat tour from Alexandria down the Potomac River to view the monuments in Washington, DC. Art enthusiasts will want to spend time at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, home to more than 150 working artists, seven art galleries, and the Alexandria Archeology Museum. And don’t forget to add Mt. Vernon and The Museum of the Marine Corps to your list the next time you are in Northern Virginia.
Where to stay: The Embassy Suites in Alexandria is within walking distance of shops, restaurants, and attractions and across the street from a metro station into Washington, DC. The Gaylord National Resort across the National Harbor is also a smart choice for families.
Where to eat: Try the Belgian waffles from Cock & Bowl, a Belgian restaurant in Occoquan. Dine al fresco at the German restaurant Doner Bistro in Leesburg. Treat yourself to a sundae or milkshake at Pop’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Company on King Street in Alexandria.
What’s Nearby: Halfway between Richmond and NOVA is Fredericksburg, so consider hitting the city on your way up or back. Check out the historic downtown area and then chill out with a cone at Carl’s Ice Cream before you get back on Interstate 95 – if you’re driving, that is. You can also consider taking Amtrak from Richmond to points north, including Alexandria.
Photos: Easton Ave, Lauren Paige, Cameron Davidson, Jeffrey Greenberg, Scott K. Brown, Paul Hakimata, John M. Lesko, Joseph Gidjunis, James M. Reid