Virginia is packed with history and stunning natural beauty. It was the birthplace of the nation, the site of the first Thanksgiving, and the place where patriot Patrick Henry exclaimed, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” It also boasts more than 7,000 miles of coast and a large swath of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Beginning just south of the nation’s capital and ending in Virginia Beach, this Virginia road trip pairs centuries of history, fresh mountain air, and beautiful beaches with delicious cuisine and an adult beverage trail.
Arlington National Cemetery
This military cemetery perched on a hill is synonymous with the town of Arlington. Once the sprawling plantation home of General Robert E. Lee, it became one of the nation’s most notable military cemeteries during the Civil War.
One of the most-visited destinations within the cemetery is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In front of a large marble sarcophagus, a solemn sentinel slowly marches past the graves of three unidentified soldiers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all weather conditions. Arlington National Cemetery is also where President John F. Kennedy is buried next to his wife, Jacqueline. The couple lies in rest beneath an eternal flame, flanked by a son and daughter who died in infancy.
Once you’ve paid your respects to the Kennedy family and observed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I recommend visiting these other notable graves at Arlington National Cemetery, including those of President William Howard Taft, the French-born architect of Washington, D.C., a heavyweight boxing champ, and more.
Pro Tip: While there is no fee to visit, I highly recommend purchasing tickets for the tram. This narrated, hop-on, hop-off tour conveniently circles the 640-acre site.
Old Town Alexandria
With its cobblestone roads, gas lamps, and old-world architecture, Old Town Alexandria makes you feel as if you’re in Europe. Although businesses and restaurants have come and gone over the years, the historic waterfront neighborhood hasn’t fundamentally changed since Founding Father George Washington attended church and Masonic meetings there more than 250 years ago.
Follow in Washington’s footsteps by strolling King Street, admiring the historic sites, and browsing the shops. When you’re ready for a bite, check out the authentic German fare at the Old House Cosmopolitan Grill or the mixian noodle bowls at Yunnan. And since you’re on the coast, don’t overlook the freshly shucked oysters on the half shell at Hank’s Oyster Bar or the steamed mussels at The Wharf.
Along the Potomac, admire the art at the Torpedo Factory. This one-time naval munitions plant is now home to the world’s largest art collective, where you can watch painters, sculptors, and other artists hard at work. Explore three floors of exhibits or take home a piece of art as a unique souvenir.
Before you continue to the next stop on your Virginia road trip, check out these additional things to do in Alexandria.
Surrounded by a lush, manicured lawn and towering trees, George’s Washington’s Mount Vernon is a stately three-story mansion on the banks of the Potomac about 9 miles south of Old Town Alexandria. What it lacks in modern-day luxuries (like indoor plumbing, cable television, and Wi-Fi), the estate makes up for with soaring ceilings and elaborate carvings.
Plus there is its historical value.
The key to the Bastille is framed in the central passage (what the 18th-century elite called an entryway). You’ll also stand in the office where the Founding Father penned his will and see the bedchamber where he passed away just a few weeks before the turn of the century.
As Americans continue to explore the nation’s history beyond the Eurocentric version emphasized in school, it can be heartbreaking to tour historic homes knowing that the backbreaking labor of hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children kept them running smoothly. Mount Vernon directly confronts this dark chapter in American history throughout the site, including what it meant for Washington’s enslaved workers to be freed after his death.
Pro Tip: While you can certainly grab a fast-food-style lunch in the Mount Vernon Food Court, I highly recommend slowing down for a sit-down meal at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant. It will only cost a little bit more, and you can order a cup of the peanut and chestnut soup that was one of Washington’s favorites.
Shenandoah National Park
As you continue south to Virginia Beach, enjoy a respite from the bustling D.C. metro area and sprawling suburbs by visiting Shenandoah National Park. It will take you about 3 hours to drive the full length of scenic Skyline Drive through the hazy, cerulean-tinted Blue Ridge Mountains. Along the way, you’ll be treated to nearly 70 scenic overlooks and might even glimpse a black bear, a pair of white-tailed deer, or a rafter of wild turkeys.
Some of the most popular hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains are along sections of the Appalachian Trail. For relatively easy treks through Shenandoah National Park, consider Stony Man, a 1.5-mile loop trail near the Skyland Resort, or Snead Farm Dickey Ridge, a 3.4-mile loop that begins and ends at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.
Next, head south to the scenic byway winding through the sunrise side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With small family farms, acres of apple orchards, and a variety of boozy stops, Nelson 151 is Virginia’s version of Highway 29 in Napa. But with breweries, distilleries, and cideries, Nelson 151 offers more than just award-winning wineries.
One of the most popular wineries is Veritas Vineyard & Winery in Afton. Taste a variety of wines, or pair a glass (or bottle) with a fruit and cheese plate, charcuterie board, salad, or sandwich on the terrace. Just a few miles down the road, Flying Fox Vineyard is another great stop. Beer lovers won’t want to miss the Blue Mountain Brewery, the first local brewery in the region. Enjoy a Full Nelson (the brewery’s flagship pale ale) or a fruit-infused brew (like A Hopwork Orange or the tropical Hop Duster) with an appetizer or entree in a beautiful setting.
Pro Tip: If you plan to spend the night along Nelson 151, there are several charming bed and breakfasts and quaint roadside inns from which to choose.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the college town of Charlottesville is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites designed by Thomas Jefferson. After you’ve visited his stately red brick home and toured the university he founded, here are several other things to do in Charlottesville.
In a state with many beautiful historic homes, the Maymont Mansion stands out. Overlooking the James River, this stone Victorian house is surrounded by 100 acres of trees and gardens. After you’ve toured the elaborate, 12,000-square-foot home (and imagined what it would be like to float through your dreams in the ivory swan bed), step outside to enjoy the gardens.
The Italian garden is filled with flowers and fountains, while a cascading waterfall in the Japanese garden provides a beautiful and soothing backdrop to arched bridges and koi ponds. The grounds also include specialty gardens and an arboretum featuring native plants, trees, and wildlife.
Another beautiful outdoor spot in Richmond is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Anchored by an impressive glass-domed conservatory, the garden offers more than 50 acres of well-manicured natural beauty year-round.
Pro Tip: The historic town of Williamsburg is on the way to your next stop. Here are nine fun things to do in Williamsburg if you add this destination to your Virginia road trip.
As the name suggests, the final stop on this Virginia road trip is all about the beach! Guarded by a ripped bronze statue of Neptune, Virginia Beach boasts 28 miles of coastline where you can soak up the sun, cool off in the water, stroll along the boardwalk, and enjoy a meal al fresco.
For a break from the beach, tour the Cape Henry Lighthouse. Not only is this simple sandstone beacon that guards the coast beautiful, but it was the first public work approved by George Washington in the newly formed United States.
Including the best places to eat and recommendations for where to stay, here are additional things to do in Virginia Beach and the surrounding area.
Pro Tip: Although this Virginia road trip ends in Virginia Beach, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, heading northbound from Virginia Beach to the Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge, is an engineering marvel. Extend your road trip a bit by crossing the 18-mile-long combination bridge and tunnel (the world’s longest) and exploring this part of Virginia.