Each June at Harborfest, the mid-size American city of Norfolk, Virginia turns out to be a family destination of major merit and interest.
Norfolk is actually home to more than 100 annual festivals, the grandest of which is Harborfest, a three-day harbor-oriented extravaganza which unfolds each year in mid to late June. Festivities start with the Parade of Sail, as hundreds of boats sail up the Elizabeth River to dock at the downtown Town Point Park. Among the armada are several tall ships, whose high masts and complex rigging make for a thrilling spectacle as they approach.
Other Harbor festivities include nightly music programs and, for the past two years, parades by a wildly colorful and enthusiastic Bahamian Junkanoo band, which really juice up the evening. There are arts, crafts, food stands of many flavors and an extraordinary firework extravaganza that just doesn't want to stop. Another fun Harborfest event is the Lizzy River Anything That Floats But a Boat Race between the most oddball, innovative floating craft. It's quite a hoot!
Norfolk, A Maritime City Rich with History
Known most prominently for its naval connections (home to the largest natural harbor in the U.S. and the largest naval base in the world), Norfolk is a city with much to offer all year round. It was founded more than 300 years ago in an area rich with American history. The Second Battle of the Virginia Capes was fought nearby in September 1781, arguably the pivotal naval battle of the Revolutionary War.
There's only a shard left of colonial-era Norfolk, however the more famous and intact (or reconstructed) sites of Jamestown and Williamsburg are a 45-minute drive away. Today's town center is quite compact, with architecturally pleasing residential neighborhoods, museums, and restaurants nearby.
Most of the city sights are an easy and very pleasant walk from the downtown hotels and nearby B&Bs. The wear and tear on feet can be reduced by riding the local electric bus system, known as NET (Norfolk Electric Transit), which runs often through downtown and out to the Historic Ghent neighborhood free of charge. You'll probably board it on Granby Street, the most active downtown street, with many restaurants, shops, clubs, and theaters. It's hopping at night!
For a good walking tour, click on the "History at your Feet" icon on this Chrysler Museum website; download the map and head out. As you walk through the downtown area, you can't help but notice the oddly regular recurrence of some 375 large (6-10 ft. long) and colorful statues of mermaids. Mermaids on Parade, a municipal art project, sponsors these bright additions to the cityscape.
Marine, Naval & Fine Art Museums in Norfolk
As the name suggests, the Nauticus Museum Complex (800/664-1080; One Waterside Drive, Norfolk, 23510) is a maritime center with more than 150 nautical exhibits. The largest piece in their collection is a mere 837-feet long, the USS Wisconsin, a retired World War II destroyer. It's one big ship with touring allowed on decks only. Navy vets are available for personal tours and to answer questions. However, in the summer, you'll want to go early, as the ship is closed when the temperature gets too high, which is not uncommon on summer afternoons.
In the well air-conditioned museum, you'll find several different areas of interest. There is Wisky Walk, a large exhibit about the neighboring ship, including her construction, design, and battle history, which ranged from WWII to the first Iraq war. You'll see one of her large 16" diameter gun shells hanging on a scale with a Volkswagen Beetle, evenly balanced. Though wildly different in size, they weigh the same –1900 pounds!
There are interactive exhibits where you can design your very own "Battleship X," participate in a simulated naval battle command center, or race your very own submarine. In the natural history section, you'll see exhibits from the nearby aquatic world and even get to pet a shark (with careful adult supervision).
Also inside is the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, operated by the Navy, which presents a fascinating naval history of the area through 300 years of wars and peace. It's well worth a visit.
One of the most astonishing revelations of Norfolk is the Chrysler Museum Of Art (757/664-6200; 245 West Olney Road, Norfolk, 23507), and yes, it has distant connections to the car company. Originally the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Science, it was renamed in 1971 after Walter Chrysler, Jr., son of the founder of the auto company, moved his extensive art collection to Norfolk. The result is a remarkably diverse and wide ranging collection in a world-class museum. The Chrysler Museum is worthy of several hours of browsing, with some fun options for the kids. If the weather's hot, you can easily drive there in 5 minutes from any downtown hotel.
There are always activity packs and scavenger hunts available at the information desk free of charge, with gallery talks suitable for both adults and children on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. In July and August, the Summer Friday Films for Children are followed by craft activities in the Museum. Tickle My Ears is a monthly storytelling program on the first Thursday of each month.
The Chrysler Museum is located in the neighborhood of Historic Ghent, which was the fashionable area in the 1920s-40s, went into a postwar decline and has returned to fully fashionable status today. The homes are a mixture of stately and funky, but the tone is homey. There are two streets of restaurants, antique stores, and fun bars.
Back toward the business district and bordering the bay is the even older neighborhood of Freemason, sharing the name of a major street. Though not large, it's old and charming.
The Virginia Zoo & Its Animal Artists
Another local delight that we found is the Virginia Zoo (3500 Granby, Norfolk, 23504; 757/441-2374). It's a small zoo with big plans on a large plot of land. One of the most popular areas is a classic barnyard, where a variety of farm animals offer petting and feeding opportunities.
The large African Village Garden has a wide range of animals in spacious settings. For Lion King fans, there is a special meerkat habitat with little creatures that take visitors back to the animated movie. It's here that a very special treat is available. For a separate fee ($250/group) and a prior arrangement by phone (757/441-2374, ext.242), visitors can have a private "Behind the Scenes" session with the three resident elephants. In addition to visiting their habitat and petting them under the guidance of a zookeeper, the most unusual experience is watching these elephant artists at work. Each of them paints pictures on paper (Lisa paints while Will holds canvas at left); one uses a brush and the other two are practitioners of true trunk painting (they rub paint on their trunks and then on paper). The end result is quite remarkable, and each group gets to take home a painting; additional paintings are $50 each.
Zoo Director Greg Bockheim reports that elephants, very intelligent creatures, actually enjoy the painting experience – and they get special treats as a reward for their art.
A Special Garden Experience
We don't usually think of botanical gardens as the most fabulous places for children, but the Norfolk Botanical Garden (757/441-5830; 6700 Azalea Garden Road, Norfolk, 23157) certainly has changed our minds. Their World of Wonders—A Children's Adventure Garden (WOW) is well worth the 20-minute drive to the 155 acres of gardens located right next to the airport. Kids enter through the WOW tunnel and arrive at the dancing fountains in the World Plaza. Yes, they should come with swimming suits and – important — proper water shoes. No bare feet allowed.
Children of all ages will delight in the changing water that spouts from the ground, as well as the nearby Imagination Circle, where there is a water fountain that kids can control. On the drier side is the Dirt Factory, a great place to dig, climb and explore, with an oversized treehouse where they can learn about bugs, seeds, and, of course, dirt. While it's the WOW that will delight your children, adults will enjoy the beautiful landscaping of the entire garden viewable by free tram tours and by boat tour ($3).
If You Have Another Day in Norfolk
The Moses Myers House is one of the gems of the remaining Colonial era houses. Built after the War of Independence, around 1797, it's been beautifully restored and, remarkably, contains 70% of its original furnishings. Mr. Myer was an early American entrepreneur and a prominent member of early 19th century government. He served as the U.S. Consul to France, the Netherlands, and Denmark and was the first Jewish settler in Norfolk. He and Eliza Myers raised 12 children in the house, which stayed in the family for five generations.
You start the house tour at the Freemason Street Reception Center, 401 East Freemason Street (757/441-1526), which is a great source of information on the history of the area. Next to the house the well-maintained gardens sit in the shadow of the parking garage of the lively downtown shopping mall, the MacArthur Center. But don't be put off by this looming wall of mallness. The house is well worth a visit.
Also worthy of a visit, the Norfolk History Museum At The Willoughby-Baylor House dates from 1794 and traces Norfolk's history over the past 300+ years. Like the Moses Myer House, it is open Wednesday – Saturday, 10am to 4 pm; Sunday, 12-4pm. Admission is free, but the Moses Myer house must be seen on a guided tour, all of which leave on the hour until 3pm.
Trip Planning Details for a Norfolk Virginia Vacation
Since Norfolk is such a walkable town, we recommend staying downtown or in nearby neighborhoods. In the downtown area, you'll find the modern, comfortable Waterside Marriott Hotel (757/627-4200; 235 E Main Street, Norfolk, Virginia 23510) right across the street from the harbor. It has an indoor swimming pool with an outside deck –great location, moderate rates.
Similarly, the Sheraton Waterside Norfolk Hotel (757/622-6664) at 777 Waterside Drive, Norfolk, VA 23510) is right on the water, a short distance from the Marriott. It's an equally great location, with an outdoor pool (essential during the hot summers).
In the nearby neighborhoods, you'll find two B&B choices. The Freemason Inn (757/963-7000) is at 411 West York St, Norfolk, VA 23510, and it's s a small, 4-room B&B in a lovely quiet neighborhood. The charming Page House Inn (800/599-7659) is located at 323 Fairfax Avenue, Norfolk, VA 23507, near the Chrysler Museum in the Historic Ghent neighborhood.
There are a number of good eating choices in the downtown area. Granby Street has the biggest concentration of eateries, from pizza to Mexican food to fine dining. Some popular choices for families are the Freemason Abbey (757/622-3966), a casual family restaurant built inside a former church, the No-Frill Bar and Grill (757/627-4262) in Historic Ghent, and the 219 Restaurant (757/627-2896).
For breakfast, don’t miss the southern breakfast offerings of D’eGG (757/626-EGGS). For a pilgrimage to the past, take a short (5-minute) drive to Doumar's at 20th St and Monticello Avenue (757/627-4163), an old-fashioned curb service “drive-in” which is famous as the original home of the ice cream cone. Their classic pulled pork sandwich is a delicious warm up to a very fine waffle cone. It’s a classic drive-in experience that your kids will rarely come across, except in 50’s movies like American Graffitti.
For traveling families, Norfolk also offers a money-saving activity pass and frequent hotel promotions. es ng>Passport To Fun, which, for $19.95 per person, offers 25% discount on tickets to the various attractions, plus a 10-20% discount at local restaurants. For more information on all things Norfolk, contact the Norfolk Visitor and Convention Bureau (800/368-3097).
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.