10 Great Virginia Attractions + 20 More Things to Do
The best tourist attractions and things to do in Virginia range from educational to thrilling to something in-between.
Virginia is rare among the 50 U.S. states for its colonial history, Civil War battlefields and fame as the birthplace of eight presidents, starting with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
But no one need worry that visiting Virginia simply means getting an education about American history.
It also is home to one of the best beaches in the northern states, two of the best amusement parks in the country and a gateway to the nation's capitol in Washington D.C.
Choosing the 10 best tourist attractions in Virginia is not so much a matter of opinion. The attendance at each of these destinations speak to their great popularity.
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1) Virginia Beach: Sand, Waves and Fun
Virginia Beach is more than five miles long. Like most beach destinations, it has a long line of hotels facing the water and another line across the street of restaurants and attractions.
Nearby, it has smaller amusement parks, golf courses, an aquarium, a science museum, a botanical garden and a major art museum.
The beach is hugely popular in the northeast U.S. and even draws quite a few visitors from overseas.
Once there, and with some extra time available, visitors can rent a car and drive up to Colonial Williamsburg and the next two popular Virginia tourist attractions, all located closely to each other.
Note that it does cost money to visit, and it will probably take an entire morning or afternoon to see the best of what the park has to offer.
- Details: The beach is free; hotels lining the beach range in price based on quality and time of year.
2) Colonial Williamsburg: History Made Cool
One reason why Colonial Williamsburg is so popular is that it is less than an hour's drive from Virginia Beach, one of the best and biggest ocean beaches in the northern states.
Families, schools and just about anyone with an interest in history will want to see Colonial Williamsburg, the highest-attended single attraction in the state and one of the most visited in the country.
The city of Williamsburg lies along I-64 between Richmond and Virginia Beach. In its own right, the city is an attractive college town and home to William & Mary College. It also is home to the sprawling Colonial Williamsburg park.
Colonial Williamsburg is a sprawling park of restored colonial homes, schools and businesses that display America's past in the 1700s.
What makes it especially interesting is that many of these buildings contain workers in period dress who do arts and crafts for the entertainment and education of the visitors.
Others walk through the town in period dress, stop to talk to visitors and explain the ways of life in such a town during the 1700s.
- Details: Tickets are $50.99 for people 13 and older, $25.49 for youth 6 to 12 and free for children under 6. The park is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 365 days a year.
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3) Busch Gardens: Expect Lots of Screaming
Busch Gardens in Williamsburg has been named the most attractive amusement park in the country thanks to the attention paid to its landscaping and other natural features.
Just walking around the park is relaxing and enjoyable, especially during hot summers with plenty of trees to give shade.
But an amusement park wouldn't be this popular without some fantastic rides and roller coasters, and Busch Gardens has no shortage of them.
Visitors can easily spend an entire day at the park.
- Details: A single day ticket is $75 for ages 10+ and $65 for ages 3-9. It is open mostly weekends and some Fridays in May, September and October and seven days a week from June through August. Hours vary by day.
4) Kings Dominion: Even More Screaming
Kings Dominion isn't necessarily better or worse than Busch Gardens, it's just located in another park of the state and is not as easily reached by people vacationing in Virginia Beach.
But that doesn't stop two million people from visiting Kings Dominion every year to take advantage of the steady stream of new rides and roller coasters.
The park sits on I-95 north of Richmond and easily accessible for visitors from all points around the state.
- Details: A single day ticket is $65 with discounts available if purchased online or purchased at the park after 4 p.m. It is open mostly weekends and some Fridays in May, September and October and seven days a week from June through August. Hours vary by day.
5) Mount Vernon: George Washington's Surprising Home
Keep traveling north on I-64 until to reaches Richmond, then get on I-95 north and head for Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington in northern Virginia.
Washington is known as the father of the country, commanding general of the U.S. rebels in the revolutionary war and the first president of the United States.
What makes Mount Vernon fascinating is not only what it represents about those famous achievements but what it reveals about the man -- someone of tremendous energy, intelligence, wealth and social connections.
Mount Vernon seems more like a small village than just a home because of its elaborate outbuildings and farmland.
Much of the educational aspect of Mount Vernon is what it explains in detail about how Washington lived his life at home.
It is a surprising display of Washington's character. The entire visit can easily take a full morning or full afternoon.
- Details: Tickets are $17 for ages 12 and older, $9 for youth 6-11 and free for youth under age 6. It is open 365 days of the year from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through August, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March, September and October, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through February.
6) Shenandoah Valley: Natural Adventures
Keep driving west on I-64 and before long the Shenandoah mountains will reveal themselves.
The best part lies ahead with the Shenandoah National Park, the Skyline Drive and the Shenandoah Valley.
They provide splendid outdoor activities ranging from hiking and camping to skiing and waterfalls and some of the best natural attractions in Virginia.
The park, valley and mountains stretch from Winchester in the north to Roanoke in the south.
It has some the best waterfalls in the eastern U.S. including the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi at Crabtree Falls.
Luray Caverns is the largest cavern system in the eastern U.S. It's located near the college town of Harrisonburg.
Also located near Harrisonburg is the Massanutten ski resort.
But the two biggest draws are the Skyline Drive, which allows visitors to drive casually along the mountain tops with spectacular views of the mountains and valley below, as well as the Virginia segment of the Appalachian Trail.
The trail provides access to various observation points, many more waterfalls and of course the chance to see some great trailside views, especially in the fall.
- Details: The entrance fee is $20 for each non-commercial vehicle. The pass is valid for the day of purchase and the following six days. It is open all day every day of the year, although Skyline Drive may close during bad weather.
"Monticello showcases Jefferson's remarkably wide range of scientific and artistic interests."
7) Monticello: The Genius Named Jefferson
Instead of getting on I-95 north in Richmond, another option is staying on I-64, which now heads due west to Charlottesville and Monticello.
Monticello is the home of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia.
It's possible to see Monticello while driving toward it on I-64 on a small mountain on the south side of the highway. It regally overlooks Charlottesville in the distance.
Visitors take a winding road up the mountainside to the parking area, where they then either hop aboard a tram or walk up long paths to the top of the mountain if they are energetic.
Like Mount Vernon, Monticello reveals a man of great intelligence and energy. Unlike Mount Vernon, Monticello showcases Jefferson's remarkably wide range of scientific and artistic interests including the beautiful home he designed.
- Details: Tickets are $25 for adults March through October and $20 for the rest of the year, $8 year round for children 5-11 and free for children under 5. It is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. except for Christmas Day.
8) Jamestown and Yorktown: Just Plain Educational
Anyone who doesn't get their fill of history at Colonial Williamsburg can always visit the other two legs of the Historic Triangle at Jamestown and Yorktown.
Jamestown is a smaller version of Williamsburg with restored homes and workshops along with many remnants of the first city of America.
Yorktown is home of the famous siege that led to the end of the Revolutionary War when George Washington and his troops surrounded Lord Cornwallis and his British solders who ultimately surrendered.
Visitors can expect to take two to three hours to visit both Jamestown and Yorktown.
- Details: Tickets for Historic Jamestown are $14 for adults 16 and older; Yorktown Battlefield is $7 for adults 16 and older. Tickets are good for seven days. It is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Years Day.
9) Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens
Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens has been rated one of the top 10 public gardens in the U.S.
The gardens attract families, photographers and anyone wanting to enjoy a stroll around or through the conservatory, children's park, lake, many fountains and massive beds of flowers.
The 50-acre attraction has more than a dozen themed gardens include a Victorian Garden, Asian Valley, Fountain Garden and Healing Garden.
- Details: Tickets are $12 for adults, $11 for seniors over 55, $8 for children 3-12 and free for children under 3. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year except Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 24 and Dec. 25.
10) Arlington National Cemetery: Sorrowful and Inspiring
A visit to Arlington National Cemetery is a somber event. It is hard for anyone to see the thousands of white, evenly spaced tombstones of fallen soldiers and not be moved by their sacrifices -- even for someone who has not lost a loved one in war.
"Our nation's most hallowed ground," as it calls itself, attracts more than 3 million visitors a year to see the grave sites and other attractions.
One is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the remarkable changing of the guard ritual.
Visitors also will see various other monuments including the grave sites of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, the space shuttle tragedies and others.
- Details: Admission is free. It is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. April to September and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through March.
20 More Attractions
Virginia Beach / Hampton Roads
1) Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center has hands-on exhibits, marshlands, a nature trail, an outdoor aviary and an IMAX Theatre.
2) Virginia Air & Space Museum, the official visitor center for NASA Langley Research Center, includes exhibits, MaxFlight simulator, an IMAX theatre, and the Apollo 12 Command Capsule.
3) The James River Plantations are four historic landmark plantations on Virginia Route 5 Scenic Byway that will allow Civil War history buffs to enjoy self-guided tours of gardens and grounds of four historic landmark plantations.
4) Old Town Alexandria is a historic neighborhood along the waterfront of the Potomac River. Visitors can walk on cobblestone streets, visit many shops and galleries, and eat at a variety of restaurants.
5) Great Falls Park on Mather Gorge along the Potomac River attracts nearly 500,000 people every year to its jagged rocks and waterfalls.
6) The giant spire of the National Marine Corps Museum towers over I-95 and brings visitors into the 120,000-square-foot facility to see interactive exhibits showcasing the history of one of America's Marine Corps.
7) Wolf Trap National Park is the nation's only public park dedicated to the performing arts. It may be a park, but it's mainly known as a concert venue. The best seats in the house are either the front row or lying on a blanket on the lawn.
8) Manassas National Battlefield Park is the home of two major and decisive battles during the Civil War that helped guarantee it would last years.
9) Anyone from outside central Virginia who visits Monticello may want to spend some time in Charlottesville. Charlottesville is worth a visit to see the historic University of Virginia designed by Jefferson and to enjoy the ambiance, restaurants, shopping, wineries and rolling hills around the immediate area. Lunch and a little shopping at the pedestrian-only outdoor mall is highly recommended.
10) Montpelier is the lifelong home of James Madison, who was the architect of the Bill of Rights and father of the Constitution.
11) Appomattox Courthouse and National Historic Park is the original village where Generals Lee and Grant crafted and signed the terms of the South's surrender at the end of the Civil War.
12) Pamplin Historical Park & The National Museum of the Civil War Soldier consists of 424 acres that includes high-tech museums and hands-on learning experiences.
13) The Natural Bridge is a giant rock archway that includes Cedar Creek Trail, a butterfly garden, wax and toy museums, caverns and a Monacan Indian Village.
14) Luray Caverns is another natural wonder that is an extensive cave system located near the town of Luray.
15) The Birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson is a pre-Civil War mansion where President Wilson was born and lived as a child.
16) Animal Kingdom of Virginia in Tazewell is a privately owned exotic animal facility dedicated to the conservation of exotic animals including lions, camels and lemurs.
17) Heartwood is an "artisan's gateway" by I-81 in Abingdon with crafts from local artisans, music, food, local culture and interactive exhibits.
18) Clarksville, located by the 50,000 acres of Kerr Lake, is the only lakeside town in Virginia. Visitors will find quaint shops, restaurants, hotels and bed and breakfasts.
19) Prestwould Plantation is an 18th century plantation home in Clarksville built in 1794 by Sir Peyton Skipwith. It is known as the most complete gentry home in the state.
20) Racing fans will enjoy Arrington Engines in Martinsville. The 105,000-square-foot plant of Dodge Motorsports has been used to build high-performance NASCAR and NHRA cars.
Locations of Virginia's Top Attractions
Colonial Williamsburg is the most popular attraction in the state.
Virginia Beach is the best beach in Virginia and arguably the best in the mid-Atlantic and northeast United States.
Busch Gardens often is ranked as being the most beautiful amusement park in the country.
Jamestown and Yorktown provide a great education in America's colonial past.
Plan to scream here. The rollercoasters are tall, fast and loopy.
A visit to Mount Vernon will dispel any doubts that George Washington was a man of great energy and intelligence.
The location is beautiful, the tour is fascinating.
Hikers will love it here because of the mountainous views and the numerous waterfalls. A drive along Blue Ridge Parkway isn't so bad, either.
It's not only the home of Thomas Jefferson but a popular attraction in its own right because of the wineries, restaurants and rolling hills.
It's impossible for any normal human being not to be moved by the mass graves of America's fallen military.
© 2013 Scott Bateman
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