Richmond: America’s most underrated city?

As the former capitol of the Confederacy, Richmond has long been one of the premier destinations in the country for Civil War geeks. But as I discovered on two recent visits, it’s also a young, vibrant city with architecture treasures, stunning parks, walkable neighborhoods, great food and perhaps the most elegant vintage cinema in the country.

For Yanks looking for a quick taste of old Dixie, it’s also the northernmost Southern city, making it an easy weekend getaway for Northerners in search of some Southern hospitality. I live in Northern Virginia, which is technically part of the South, but in reality, Southern accents and good biscuits are a two hour drive south in Richmond, which is on my short list for most underrated historic cities in America. Below are my suggestions for how to spend a memorable weekend in Virginia’s capital.

Sites
Maymont- The hilly grounds of this 100 acre estate built by Confederate tycoon, Major James Dooley, offer panoramic views of the James River and feature lush gardens, a children’s farm, and a nature center. There is a small admission fee to visit the mansion and nature center but you can explore the beautiful grounds and visit the farm for free.

St. John’s Episcopal Church- Built in 1741, this handsome wooden church, located in Richmond’s historic Church Hill neighborhood, is where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give me liberty, or give me death,” speech to George Washington.

The Fan- If you like Victorian architecture, this alluring neighborhood just west of downtown is a must see. Easily one of my favorite walkable neighborhoods in the country.

The Byrd Theatre- Built in 1928, this may be the most beautiful old time cinema in the country. Even if you don’t plan to take in a $1.99 movie, stop in to take a look at this masterpiece theater, which is located in Carytown, a neighborhood with great shops and restaurants.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts- A free-to-enter, world-class museum with more than 20,000 works of art, including a very impressive collection of South Asian art.

The American Civil War Center at Tredegar- If you’re only going to hit one Civil War related museum in Richmond, this is the place to go for a terrific overview of the conflict. Opened in 2006, the museum offers a visually attractive, interactive user friendly experience that depicts the war from the perspective of the Union, the Confederacy and African Americans.

The Virginia State Capitol- Take the time to explore this Classical Revival gem, which Thomas Jefferson modeled on a Roman era temple in Nimes, France.

James River Bridges- Take the Robert E. Lee footbridge over to Belle Island for a great walk and then check out the unnamed, interpretative footbridge just off the Canal Walk for insights into the fall of Richmond during the waning days of the Civil War.

The Museum of the Confederacy- While the American Civil War Center offers a nicer overview of the conflict, this is a great stop to see Confederate memorabilia, like Robert E. Lee’s hat and tent and Jeb Stuart’s knee high boots. The gift shop sells lots of kitsch, including nylon Confederate flags for $39.

Children’s Museum of Richmond- If you’re traveling with kids, this is their reward for tolerating all the Civil War history.

Food

Alamo BBQ- Cheap and delicious, this is one of my favorite BBQ places anywhere, but I also love the tilapia burritos. Excellent pecan pie for $2.93 a slice. The only downside is that you have to sit in a tent, but it’s not as cold as you might think, even in January.

Edo’s Squid- Italian fine dining in a hidden location at very fair prices. Arrive early to beat the crowds.

Comfort- Southern comfort food at its finest in a relaxed setting.

821 Bakery Café- Tasty food and a terrific beer selection in a cool old building with exposed brick walls and a vintage tin ceiling. Also wins my award for the most colorful bathrooms I’ve ever seen.

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