With the possible exceptions of Boston and Philadelphia, there is no American city that has quite the history of Richmond. From a capstone of the colonies to being the Confederate capital, Richmond was front and center in the early days of our nation’s journey.
Beginning with St. John’s Church, where, in 1776, Patrick Henry issued his ultimatum, “Give me liberty or give me death!,” visitors can tour 10 historic sites on the Road to Revolution Heritage Trail.
Fast-forward nearly a century, and you will be at the epicenter of the War Between the States. The best place to get a true understanding of this tragic period in the country’s history is at the American Civil War Center. In addition to the exhibits, the building itself is noteworthy, having once been part of the Tredegar Iron Works, the industrial engine that sustained the Confederate war machine.
Richmond is more than a living history museum, however, and on this visit, I decided to focus on its current vibrant scene.
Never miss a local story.
But I couldn’t resist another drive down Monument Avenue, the only street in America to be on the National Register of Historic Places.
In light of recent events in nearby Charlottesville and other Southern cities, Monument Avenue might well be on its way to becoming an avenue without monuments.
Five of the six monuments on the avenue honor sons of the South: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Jeb Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, and the lesser-known Matthew Fontaine Maury, a Confederate naval officer and oceanographer dubbed the “Pathfinder of the Seas.” Before the Civil War, he was America’s most decorated civilian.
It was the sixth statue, however, that moved me the most. It is a stone likeness of Richmond native Arthur Ashe, the first black man to win a tennis Grand Slam event. He won three: Wimblebon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. The statue shows Ashe stand facing four children, a tennis racket in his left hand and a book in his right, emphasizing his belief in the importance of sports and education.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, 36, who took office in January, had taken a measured approach to the controversial issue of removing Confederate monuments, saying, “I’m for building up rather than tearing down.”
The events of the past week, however, led him to call for a commission to explore the possible removal of some or all of the statues. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Wednesday that Stoney said violence in Charlottesville and other cities related to Confederate monuments had shown “their power to serve as a rallying point for division and intolerance and violence.”
Regardless of whether Richmond continues to keep the old, its newest monument, which is not on Monument Avenue, is not likely to stir controversy.
The statue, unveiled in July, is of Maggie Walker, the first black woman to charter a bank.
From the past (monuments in stone) to the present (merrymakers of flesh and blood) is just a short drive to the quirky, ever-changing Carytown District. The area is home to 230 shops, restaurants and small businesses — not to mention colorful characters who appear to have been transported straight from New Orleans’ French Quarter or Key West’s Mallory Square.
Plan to spend a day there and check out works by local artists, taste craft brews (try Garden Grove Brewing Co.), take in a classic film at the Byrd Theater (in operation since 1928), check out one-of- a-kind shops or book a spot on one of River City Food Tours’ culinary excursions.
For a good introduction to Richmond, hop aboard the RVA Trolley Landmark Tour, taking in some of the city’s most interesting sites. You’ll go past the Hippodrome, a favorite performing venue of Ella Fitzgerald; the statue of tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, located in the square bearing his name, and some of the 105 colorful murals in the downtown area.
You’ll see the 19th century brick house owned by a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall (open to the public on weekends), and the former home of John Wickham, now a museum noted for its decorative arts. Wickham was the lead attorney for Aaron Burr, who, may have escaped punishment after his notorious duel with Alexander Hamilton, but was tried for treason here in 1807.
You’ll see the modest house where author Edgar Allan Poe grew up (now a museum) and the collection of Greek Revival mansions clustered in Libby Hill Park.
A must-see while in Richmond is the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, ranked one of the top 10 comprehensive art museums in the U.S. Its permanent exhibitions run the gamut from European, African and Asian art to American Art. There are galleries devoted to Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Modern and Contemporary Art.
Others showcase 18th- and 19th-century English silver and the Pratt Fabergé Collection (the largest collection of Fabergé eggs outside of Russia).
Admission to the museum is free except for special exhibits such as the one I saw while I was there: “Yves St. Laurent: The Perfection of Style.”
Art of a different kind can be enjoyed at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, a 50-acre paradise routinely voted one of America’s best botanical gardens. Now through Oct. 1, you can experience Wild Art: a Journey Off Canvas, where regional artists intermingle art and nature in exhibits such as Earth Healer, depicting a female figure of sod and earth, sprouting healing herbs from her arms.
You have until Oct. 15 to take in the Garden’s companion exhibit, “Butterflies Live!” in the glass-domed conservatory.
However, you’ll have to wait until spring of 2018 for Richmond’s newest arts institution, the Institute for Contemporary Art located on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University. The museum will feature four galleries which will rotate art on a quarterly basis.
Richmond’s restaurant scene, like that across much of the United States, has experienced an upsurge in recent years. From local favorites such as Laura Lee’s (where the fried chicken sandwich with pickles is a favorite) and Max’s on Broad (the truffled deviled eggs and curried chicken salad are to die for) to Lemaire, an elegant space in the Jefferson Hotel, epicures will not be disappointed.
Two of my favorite places turned out to be polar opposites, both in ambiance and culinary offerings.
If Happy Days was set in a Jewish Deli rather than a malt shop, you would get a sense of Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen. Think jukebox blaring “Great Balls of Fire” and a breakfast menu heavy with blintzes and babkas (a coffeecake made with sweet yeast dough and peppered with raisins and nuts).
The current “it” spot, Shagbark, attracts a hip, trendy crowd who look their best silhouetted against cool blue walls and warm native woods (Shagbark is a type of hickory tree found along the James River), high ceilings and low lighting. But don’t think Shagbark is all style and no substance.
Chef Walter Bundy, formerly of the aforementioned Lemaire, has crafted a menu described as New American fare with a Southern twist. That means starters such as Chincoteague Clam Chowder with fingerling potato confit, bacon and baby dill; mains such as Eastern Shore Seafood Bouillabaise (a tasty mélange of clams, mussels, shrimp, white hominy, charred red onion and coriander aioli) and desserts featuring Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding with Woodford Reserve anglaise and the incomparable Up-South Peanut Butter Pie.
If you are looking for a hotel with character and class, book a room at the Jefferson, a Richmond landmark since 1895. Although it recently underwent a massive renovation, changing all the rooms into suites, it’s likely the hotel’s Beaux Arts splendor that will captivate you. Guests marvel at the statue of Thomas Jefferson himself under the lobby’s stained glass rotunda, the stately columns, glittering chandeliers and sweeping grand staircase.
The Jefferson is a historic hotel that befits a historic city.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.