For the uninitiated, the Hampton Roads are seven cities of southeast Virginia: Newport News, Hampton, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, Norfolk, and Suffolk. The Hampton Roads are best known for hosting many military bases and other government facilities such as NASA. Most famous is Norfolk Naval Station, home of the Second Fleet and said to be the world's largest naval base. While the Hampton Roads are out of the way, or slightly off the I-95 corridor, they are less visited than other points the south and west. Nevertheless they have an interesting mix of history and culture. Close enough to the Hampton Roads, located up the Peninsula, are Williamsburg and the Outer Banks, located down the coast; thus combining a trip to the Hampton Roads with a visit to Williamsburg or the Outer Banks is quite practical.
1. Bacon’s Castle
Built in 1665 this mansion is architecturally significant as one of only three Jacobean structures in the Western hemisphere and the only one remaining in the United States. Jacobean architecture is a phase of English Renaissance building that followed the Elizabethan style. It takes is name from King James I of England. It was also the scene of Bacon’s Rebellion, a planters’ revolt which occurred in southern Virginia in 1676. Followers of Nathaniel Bacon seized control of the house, which belonged to the Allen family, and fortified it. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. An entrance fee is required and access is from Route 10 in Surry County.
2. Chrysler Museum of Art
While small compared to the art museums of major metropolitan areas, the Chrysler Museum of Art has an excellent cross section of art from most major periods and includes 30,000 objects covering 4,000 years. Located near downtown Norfolk close to the Route 58 tunnel, in the Ghent district, the museum has an entrance fee. Wednesdays are free but a donation is appreciated.
3. Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg is privately owned and operated by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which charges entrance fees to participate in tours of the various restored buildings such as the Colonial Capitol and Governors Mansion. However you do not need to pay to walk the beautifully restored grounds or browse the shops. Most of the buildings are faithful, if not exact, replicas of the originals, but some are originals, including the Bruton Parish Church, which was built in 1711 and still serves an active congregation. Williamsburg is said to be the largest living-history exhibit in the United States.
4. First Landing State Park
This state park has a good beach and harbors one of the most northerly stands of bald cypress in the United States in the Natural Area. It is also the most northerly point along the East Coast for viewing Spanish Moss. Take the Bald Cypress Trail boardwalk which takes you right through the swamp. Access is along Route 60 in Virginia Beach about two miles east of Lynn Haven Bay.
5. Fort Monroe and Casemate Museum
Formerly an active-duty U.S. Army base home to the TRADOC command, Fort Monroe, located in Hampton, became a National Monument in 2011. The centerpiece of this army post is, of course, the awesome masonry construction of the fort which was built in 1819 to guard the entrance to the Hampton Roads. The fort has its share of history which can be seen in the Casemate Museum within the fort’s walls. Also interesting is the moat that surrounds the structure. Jefferson Davis was incarcerated here after the Civil War and his original cell is still on display. The fort was also the duty station of Robert E. Lee and there is a plaque in front of the house where he lived. Most of the houses on the post and within the fort’s walls are original.
6. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
The Great Dismal Swamp was originally surveyed by George Washington and is a wetlands area in southeast Virginia and North Carolina. The wildlife refuge is 112,000 acres and includes the 3,100 acre Lake Drummond, the largest natural lake in the state. Although there is some boardwalk access, a mountain bike is recommended rather than hiking because the trails are long and straight. It’s also not recommended in the summer because of the bugs. Access to one of the boardwalks and trailheads (Washington Ditch) is off White Marsh Road (Route 632). The Washington Ditch is a straight 4.5 miles to Lake Drummond.
7. Jamestown Island and Colonial Parkway
Jamestown Island is part of Colonial National Historical Park, connected to Yorktown Battlefield by the Colonial Parkway a scenic road administered by the National Park Service. Don’t confuse this park with Colonial Williamsburg (see above), which is privately owned and operated. Jamestown Island is the site of the first permanent English colony in the New World established in 1607. There is a loop road that circles the island, a visitor center, and an interpretive trail that leads to the site of the original settlement.
8. MacArthur Memorial
The final resting place of Douglas MacArthur and his wife, this memorial, museum, shrine, and archive in the former city hall in downtown Norfolk thoroughly commemorates MacArthur's life. The displays and artifacts offer rich detail about MacArthur’s personal and professional life. Visits are free of charge (donations accepted).
9. Moses Myer House
Administered by the Chrysler Museum of Art, this original Federal style house, one of the few remaining in Norfolk, dates from the1790s and is unique for its collection much of which is original furnishings. Located within walking distance of downtown Norfolk, the house served as the residence of the Myers family until acquired by the Chrysler Museum.
10. Old Courthouse in Smithfield
The town of Smithfield is better known for the line of meats produced by the Smithfield Foods Company, but the town’s Main Street in Smithfield is beautiful and historic ,and is great for browsing antique and curiosity shops. Main Street includes a restored (but original) county courthouse built in 1750. Modeled after the Capitol in Williamsburg, this building survived the ages, unlike the structure that inspired it. Its survival is partially owed to its long-time use as a tavern and inn. When restoration began, the original structure was found underneath structural add-ons that have since been removed to bring the building back to its original appearance. Admission is freem but check the hours.
11. Old Towne Portsmouth
Located across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, Old Towne Portsmouth includes the original gridded streets of the city, which has since expanded. The old courthouse, now an art museum, is an interesting brick building dating from the 1840s. Directly across High Street is the historic Episcopal Church and burial ground. Most of the houses in Old Towne are privately owned residences, but this shouldn’t stop you from strolling. Period architecture includes Colonial, Federalist, and Italianate Revival.
12. St. Luke’s Church
Built in 1632, this is one of the oldest churches in the United States. You are essentially looking at a piece of original Medieval English architecture (Gothic) that was built on the other side of the pond. Take Route 17 towards Smithfield and the church is at the intersection of Routes 17 and 10 in the town of Benns Church (Isle of Wight County). Check before visiting as hours are limited and the church still serves an active congregation. It was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
agog on September 15, 2016:
Right in my own back yard (Richmond, Va.) and I was unaware of most of these historic buildings. They are now most definitely on my "must-visit-next" list, especially the St. Lukes Church. This article was my first introduction to knowing that building even existed and Wow and thanks. I hope to visit soon.
jvhirniak (author) on June 30, 2009:
James: I left out the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, only because I have not been there, and could not comment, but said to be very nice. Otherwise, if you like history, there are plenty of places to see in the Hampton Roads and some pretty good museums, many that I did not mention. best, Joseph
James A Watkins from Chicago on June 30, 2009:
Great travelogue. I have been to the Outer Banks and Williamsburg but, as you guessed about most folks, completely missed out on the Hampton Roads area. I intend to rectify this in the future. Thanks for the fine tour.