Home to the World’s Largest Naval Base, Norfolk Combines History with Culture for a One-of-a-Kind Vacation

It’s not just the bright brushes of pigment on the street murals in the NEON District, or the glowing statues in the Glass Light Hotel & Gallery that leave visitors in awe. What is most electrifying is seeing the sunset over Norfolk Harbor, where layers of magenta , violet, and gold paint the horizon.

Turns out every night is showtime in Norfolk, because this Tidewater city has 144 miles of shoreline. The colors of the sky are reflected on the glasslike Chesapeake Bay, and the city feels more like an island than a bustling metropolis.

As you walk along Norfolk Harbor promenade, listen to the “honks” from ships announcing their arrival at Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. The base encompasses 75 ships, 14 piers, and 11 aircraft hangars, and a fun way to see this bustling port is cruising aboard the American Rover, a tall ship with bright red sails.

Photo courtesy Visit Norfolk

Norfolk’s historic downtown has 12 walkable city blocks. From Steam Coffee House at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott, make your way to the USS Wisconsin. This breathtaking battleship was built during World War II and deployed in every American war until retiring in 1991. The ship’s silhouette slices through the sky like an anvil, its weapons ready for battle.

Attached to the USS Wisconsin is Nauticus, a museum featuring the region’s rich maritime history. Families will enjoy the interactive STEM exhibits and learn how Navy servicemembers endured extreme challenges during battles at sea. History buffs can wander through the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, also housed inside Nauticus.

Inspired by its natural surroundings, Norfolk has become the culture capital of the Tidewater. The city has a lively energy, in part due to artists who transformed an industrial neighborhood into the NEON Arts District. Take a walking tour with Joshua Weinstein of Norfolk Tour Company to discover more. “NEON is an acronym that stands for the New Energy of Norfolk. It refers to the 120 works of public art and the creative energy of this neighborhood and city at large,” Weinstein explains. “It also refers to the Chrysler Museum of Art collection because they have the largest glass art collection in North America.”

It’s a quick walk to the Chrysler Museum of Art, where your first encounter is light shining through the multihued drapes created by DC artist Sam Gilliam. The museum has exhibits spanning over 5,000 years of world history, a premier assemblage of glass art, and the Wonder Studio, where kids can create their own masterpieces.

Stop by the Perry Glass Studio next door to watch how artisans fashion glass tubes into stunning colors and shapes. In 2019, the Perry family, founders of this workshop, opened Glass Light Hotel & Gallery to show off their own astonishing collection, including Crayola- colored bowls by Dale Chihuly and a flirty glass rabbit by Peter Bremers.

biscuit sandwich
Photo courtesy Visit Norfolk

Don’t leave without sampling local delicacies and experiencing the cheerful vibe of Norfolk’s restaurants and bars. You’ll find Virginia beverages at Grain, a rooftop beer garden with views of the Waterside District, and Chesapeake Bay rockfish at Saltine. Before driving home, pick up a sweet potato biscuit with red-chile chicken and blue cheese at Handsome Biscuit. It’s the perfect metaphor for Norfolk, a city awash in color.

Where to Shop

The historic Selden Market in downtown Norfolk supports the community’s up-and-coming businesses. Try do-it-yourself candle-making at Sugar & Grace, choose elegant earrings at Lorak Jewelry, find frilly lingerie at Petit à Petit, and treat yourself at S’mores Amore. 208 Main St.

mermaid sculpture
Photo by Renee Sklarew

What to Do

To learn from experts on architecture, art, food, and ghosts, sign up with Norfolk Tour Company and learn the stories behind this fascinating port city. 208 E. Main St.

When you follow the Mermaid on Parade Trail, you’ll find Norfolk’s mascots positioned in key spots around town. Each of the fiberglass mermaids is distinctive, with nautical and civic pride motifs. Look for the golden-haired mermaid at Waterside Marina and scarlet mermaid at the Pagoda in Friendship Park.

Twenty minutes from Norfolk, stop at Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton to learn 400 years of American history including the landing of the first Africans at Point Comfort in 1619. The new museum explains the role Fort Monroe played in pivotal battles during the Civil War.

norfolk harbor aerial
Photo courtesy Visit Norfolk

Where to Stay

Staying at the new Glass Light Hotel & Gallery on Norfolk’s Granby Street is a twofer. In addition to a luxurious, full-service boutique hotel, attached is a stunning glass art gallery with jaw-dropping sculptures. The hotel’s guest rooms have unique touches, like glass lamps, a vintage mini Frigidaire, and upholstered rocking chairs. The views overlook the city, and you’ll be steps from dozens of restaurants and Norfolk’s streetcar, The Tide. Rates range from $230–$400 per night. 201 Granby St.

You also can’t go wrong with Hilton’s The Main, the city’s new luxury hotel within walking distance to shopping, dining, and the Elizabeth River. It’s home to three eateries, including Saltine. Rates start around $200 per night. 100 E. Main St.

Where to Eat

Don’t miss the French pastries and baguette sandwiches at La Brioche in the NEON District. The scratch-made cakes, croissants, and breads are as tasty as they are pretty. Pair with an espresso, or, if you arrive in the afternoon, try the French wines by the glass. 765 Granby St.

Food Network’s Guy Fieri knows a good sandwich when he eats one, and he gives the Grilled Cheese Bistro a big thumbs-up. This über-popular lunch spot serves the American classic in a dozen combinations. We’re partial to GCB BLT with fried green tomatoes on nine-grain bread, but the Don Quixote won best grilled cheese in Virginia, so maybe get both. 345 Granby St.

The Moroccan family that owns Omar’s Carriage House in the Freemason District welcomes every diner with their country’s tradition of hospitality. The restaurant features recipes from their homeland, but with Tidewater specialties mixed in. The Moroccan tagine and paella are standouts, along with cocktails packed with fresh juices and herbs. 313 W. Bute St.

Relax in Hummingbird Macarons & Desserts’ Victorian-style sitting room to sample colorful macarons and elegant desserts. The unique flavors include Black Truffle Cherry and the honey-filled Bee Love. 809 Granby St.

This story originally ran in our September issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.


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