You’ve probably heard the iconic marketing slogan, “Virginia is For Lovers.” Well, according to Virginia.org, the saying was created over 50 years ago. The catchy phrase captures the essence of Virginia, and particularly, Virginia Beach since the area has something to allure all: history buffs, aviation aficionados, beach bums, nature and art lovers, and more! From Cape Henry Lighthouse, First Landing State Park, and Sandbridge Beach to the Vibe District, adventure awaits around every corner in the beautiful region approximately 450,000 residents call home. For those who live in or around the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, Virginia Beach is just a three-and-a-half-hour drive away, so hop into the car to discover why so many have fallen in love with it!
Cape Henry Lighthouse
This area is historically significant because it’s where Captain John Smith and his crew stepped ashore in April of 1607 just before traveling north to Jamestown (the first permanent English settlement). “Their landing site — where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic — was claimed for England, named Cape Henry in honor of the Prince of Wales and marked with what is known as the First Landing Cross.
The first Cape Henry Lighthouse was built in 1792 but was damaged during the Civil War. Though the brick structure was repaired to continue navigation services for vessels in the Chesapeake Bay, a second lighthouse was built in 1881 since the older structure had become unstable. The second lighthouse, which is 350 feet from the first one, is automated, painted black and white, and is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard. The lighthouses are located on Joint Expeditionary Base Fort Story, a military base within Virginia Beach, so visitors must enter through security gates and present valid identification. The operational lighthouse is not open to the public, but visitors can climb the original lighthouse tower (for a fee) seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, visit https://preservationvirginia.org/historic-sites/cape-henry-lighthouse/.
First Landing State Park
First Landing State Park is where the first English settlers landed in 1607. According to Virginia’s park agency, “Native American canoes, Colonial settlers, 20th-century schooners and modern cargo ships have navigated the park’s waterways. Its cypress swamps were a source of fresh water for merchant mariners, pirates (even Blackbeard) and military ships during the War of 1812.” Part of the park has been deemed a National Natural Landmark. Improvements were built in part by an all-Black Civilian Conservation Corps unit from 1933 to 1940. The 2,888 acres now feature over 20 miles of trails and a mile-and-a-half of Chesapeake Bay shoreline. Visitors can go boating, camping, hiking, kayaking, or picnicking since it’s a treasure trove of recreational activities for all ages. Located at 2500 Shore Drive, the park is open 8 a.m. to dusk, with areas for overnight stays as well. For information, visit https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/first-landing.
Virginia Beach’s “Oceanfront” is known for its three-mile boardwalk along Atlantic Avenue that stretches from Second Street to 40th Street. The Boardwalk has a separate path for biking, walking, running, skateboarding, or rollerblading alongside the majestic beachscape the Atlantic Ocean affords. The Boardwalk is lined with many restaurants, food vendors, shops, and hotels and motels. During summer, there’s nightly entertainment, with oceanfront stages located at 7th, 17th, and 24th and 31st streets. With Grommet Island Park at Second Street and playgrounds in the sand at various stops along the way, a fishing pier on 15th Street, a historic Surf & Rescue Museum on 24th, and the iconic over 30-foot bronze King Neptune statue beside the 31st Street Neptune Park, the Boardwalk is a must-see attraction.
Now, that’s just the boardwalk! The Oceanfront is also great for swimming, surfing, parasailing, dolphin watching, and all water sports. At the end of every August, the Oceanfront is the site of the East Coast Surfing Championships and in September, the annual Neptune Festival which features an International Sand Sculpting Championship, daily concerts, and an arts and crafts extravaganza with over 200 artisans.
ViBe Creative District
Just steps from the Boardwalk is Virginia Beach’s ViBe Creative District. An artists hub, with restaurants, bars, museums and more, the area is also home to the Old Beach Farmer’s Market, art projects, recurring mural tours, flea markets, and other events. You can’t miss this area since bright, flashy murals on buildings and fences, artwork on pavers, and sculpture installations throughout, beckon locals and visitors to encounter the unique culture of Virginia Beach. Also, within the ViBe Creative District is the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) at 2200 Parks Avenue. For information, visit https://vibecreativedistrict.org.
Frank Lloyd Wright House
After a visit to the ViBe Creative District and the MOCA you may want to “top off” your VA Beach art experience with a drive by the house designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Located at 320 51st Street, the house showcases many of the features that the architect is known for, including an irregular ceiling that floats over room dividers. It was one of his last designs, built largely after he died.
For those who prefer a beach scene that is a bit more secluded, Sandbridge is a community on a barrier island just a 15-20 minutes’ drive south of the Oceanfront. At the south end is Little Island Park which has a fishing pier, picnic area and playground. Sandbridge is a perfect year-round vacation destination that has rental homes or condos, but no hotels or motels which helps cut down on the crowds. During the summertime, beaches and parking do fill up quickly, but the offseason offers a beautiful, serene escape from the hustle-and-bustle of downtown Virginia Beach. Sandbridge boasts a few hot spots loved by locals and visitors like, including Sugar Shack, a to-die-for ice cream parlor, Baja Restaurant, a popular surf & turf joint that features live music, and Sandbridge Seaside Market that’s really a one-stop-shop since it has a deli, butcher shop, eatery, and grocery store all in one.
Margie & Rays Restaurant Crab House & Raw Bar, on Sandbridge Road, is another must-visit for vacationers wanting to experience the local vibe in a family-friendly setting.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
At the south end of Sandbridge (beyond Little Island Park) is the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Maintained as a feeding and resting habitat for migratory birds by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the 4,589-acre area was established in 1938. The refuge is located on a piece of barrier island coastline, now made up of 9,250 acres of habitat for countless waterfowl populations, bald eagles, pelicans, frogs, snakes, deer, bobcats, and even endangered sea turtles. Open sunrise to sunset every day, the beach, dunes, marshes, and woodlands offer folks the opportunity to hike, bike, kayak, fish, birdwatch or engage in nature photography! There is a $5 vehicle fee from April to October. For information, visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Back_Bay/
Military Aviation Museum in Pungo
The above list describes just a few of the amazing tourist stops. It would be a mistake to ignore Pungo, the farmland area of Virginia Beach. In addition to farms, farm stands, and quaint shops and restaurants, Pungo has a popular Military Aviation Museum that showcases aircraft from the first and second world wars. The museum offers self-guided tours, a WWI hangar open to visitors, an outdoor Jurassic Park Hunt with life-size sculptures on the property, and scheduled air shows and plane rides. For more information, visit https://militaryaviationmuseum.org.
There’s much more to do and see in the “Outer Banks of Virginia,” so what you participate in depends on your preferences. With a beach vibe and cultural flair representative of the diversity of its people, Virginia Beach won’t disappoint for a weekend or week-long getaway! Come and see why locals are proud to throw “two up, two down” for VA (two fingers up for ‘V’ on one hand and two down on the other for ‘A’)!
Leah Lancione is a freelance writer and editor. Though she enjoyed living all over the world, she’s happy to now call Virginia home. Leah loves volunteering in the local elementary school, spending time at the beach with family, and seeing the people and sights of Virginia Beach on her daily runs!
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