Best Driving Vacations: Norfolk's Port of Culture

Laura Arenschield
A biker pedals along The Hague area of the Ghent neighborhood.

The city of Norfolk is perhaps best known for the sailors who train off its shores. And to be sure, the Navy’s history is a driving force in this oceanside town in southeastern Virginia—no surprise, since the world’s largest naval base and NATO’s North American headquarters both call it home. But beyond the shipyards and training exercises is a city filled with art, exciting restaurants and quirky, growing neighborhoods—places where you can get a cocktail based on your personality or see the Virginia Symphony perform in a restored theater.

Norfolk is about nine hours from Columbus by car, and the drive will take you through some of the prettiest mountains on the East Coast. (Stop in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a bite to eat and a walk through a vibrant downtown to stretch your legs.) And when you get to Norfolk, visit the naval base, for sure—Naval Station Norfolk offers tours daily (cash only). But don’t miss the rest of the city, which has grown into a colorful and artistic hidden gem on the Chesapeake Bay.

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NEON Arts District

The murals are the first things you’ll notice about the NEON area. “People are very interested in photographing those murals,” says Rachel McCall, a special projects manager for the Downtown Norfolk Council. “The NEON is this old neighborhood, but with an amazing collection of street art and independent businesses.”

NEON stands for “New Energy of Norfolk,” and it has been a place of concerted investment by the city and other community leaders in the last few years. A walkable district on the northern stretch of Norfolk’s historic downtown, the NEON once was a place for commerce and industry.

McCall says the neighborhood was heavily populated with automobile dealerships and service stations—in fact, the Auto Row Historic District within the NEON was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. (The acronym is a play on the huge neon signs that marked the warehouses and dealerships throughout the district.) But now working artists, galleries and public art installations have made it one of the most creative parts of the city.

And the art here is something to behold: The NEON is home to some of Virginia’s most important institutions, including the Chrysler Museum of Art. Open Tuesday through Sunday, the Chrysler boasts one of the Southeast’s most extensive art collections. Don’t miss the glass collection, one of the largest in the world, and the wide-ranging works by some of the most important artists of their times—Henri Matisse, Mary Cassatt, Paul Cezanne, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol.

If the Virginia Opera is in town—and even if it’s not—check out the Harrison Opera House, the Virginia Opera’s home in Norfolk. Named for civic leaders Edythe C. and Stanley L. Harrison, it was formerly a World War II USO theater that was renovated in 1993. (Edythe Harrison’s mother was a concert pianist, and her father was a devotee of the opera; she led fundraising efforts to restore the building.)

The district is also home to contemporary artists: Check out the galleries and creators at the d’Art Center, a nonprofit residential art studio that relocated to the NEON in 2016 and has more than 30 years of history in Norfolk. Or visit the Rutter Family Art Foundation, a contemporary arts center investing in local artists and public pieces.

Even walking through the NEON is an adventure in art exploration. The district contains public art installationsimpressive murals and a park called “The Plot,” made of reclaimed materials (think shipping containers repurposed as vertical planters), where community events are often held.

If all the exploring stokes your appetite, stop for breakfast or lunch at Commune on the first floor of the Rutter center, where the chefs focus on local ingredients and creating a sense of community. Or grab a low-key meal at Zeke’s Beans and Bowls, where you can get a spicy tuna poke bowl, fresh watermelon juice and pour-over coffee.

The NEON district (Photo courtesy Downtown Norfolk Council)

Historic Ghent

This neighborhood, near the mouth of the Indian River, is a place where charming old homes—Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival—meet funky restaurants, shops and bars. (A former Columbus resident who now lives in the Hampton Roads area nearby called it “the Short North of Norfolk.”) And if you need more proof that Norfolk is a place that values its military history, Ghent is a perfect example—the neighborhood is named for the Treaty of Ghent, the document that ended the War of 1812.

A perfect day in Ghent: Start with brunch at Little Dog Diner (if you’re a bloody mary fan, it has one of the best in town, and don’t miss the bourbon butter syrup). Then, go for a walk. Admire the architecture and wander through artsy shops. There are many in Ghent, but Kitsch is a local favorite—the shop has been a longtime supporter of local makers and artisans, and it is a great place to stop for gifts for someone you love. Refuel with coffee at local roaster Café Stella and later grab a bowl of soup at The Ten Top, a cozy spot where the chefs concoct two or three homemade soups each day. Catch a film at the arthouse Naro Cinema, then stop for fresh oysters at the A.W. Shucks Raw Bar and Grill. And don’t miss Doumar’s Cones and BBQ, where you can watch as a waffle, fresh off one of the shop’s four irons, becomes your cone.

The Ghent neighborhood (Photo courtesy VisitNorfolk)

Ocean View

It’s almost a law of nature: If you’re making a trip to the Atlantic coast, you have to visit the beach. The ocean calls us—the soothing waves, the open horizon, sand squishing between toes. It’s restorative and restful, and a must if you’re near it.

Ocean View—the locals call it “OV”—is among the best of Norfolk’s beach areas, a community with its own spit of land. (Truly, the peninsula is called Willoughby Spit, after the family that settled it.) There are three city beaches open to the public: Community Beach ParkSarah Constant Beach Park and Ocean View Beach Park, which also offers nature trails, kayaking and bait-and-tackle shops. Fish for largemouth bass, catfish and crappie from the Ocean View Fishing Pier.

It wouldn’t be Norfolk without a little history. After you walk through the surf or splash in the waves, consider a visit to the Ocean View Station Museum, where you can learn more about this beachfront community’s past. And when it’s time to quench your thirst or grab a bite, drop in to one of the dive bars in Ocean View or East Beach. The Thirsty Camel is quirky (there’s a statue of a camel outside—a great place for an impromptu Instagram shoot) and beloved by the locals. In nearby East Beach, stop in for some seafood and a drink at Cutty Sark Marina, where Navy sailors, bikers and locals mingle. Between OV and East Beach, eat at Jessy’s Tienda y Taqueria for café con pan (coffee and bread) or other homemade Mexican fare.

Chelsea District

Chelsea is technically a business district, but on historic maps and around the Norfolk city planning department, it’s referred to as South Ghentland, and in some cases the lines between Ghent and Chelsea are blurred. The Elizabeth River Trail, a 10.5-mile waterfront path open to walkers, runners, cyclists and others traveling without motorized vehicles, intersects the district. In the last few years, the Chelsea District has blossomed.

Head here to check out some of the area’s most notable breweries. Smartmouth Brewing offers free brewery tours, and Benchtop Brewing, which describes itself as “hop-forward,” is a must-visit for like-minded hopheads. If you’ve toured the Chelsea District’s breweries, it makes sense to stop at The Birch for craft beer-inspired grilled cheese sandwiches, but if you’re up for something old-school, check out Orapax. Offering Greek, Italian and American fare, the restaurant has been a Norfolk mainstay for 50 years. Or visit The Torch for fried pimiento cheese balls, burgers and frozen cocktails. Amid the indulging, catch a play at the community-centered Little Theater of Norfolk.

Park Place

In a city full of history, this is one of Norfolk’s oldest neighborhoods. Located just north of Historic Ghent, Park Place is diverse and home to some of Norfolk’s best restaurants. It’s also close to the Virginia Zoo, where you can sign up for one of 12 behind-the-scenes tours for an up-close look at giraffes, lions and a century-old tortoise. The extra money from those tours helps support the zoo’s animal-care internship program, so taking one is basically philanthropy.

Once you’ve watched a sun bear playing, head back to Park Place for a beer at O’Connor Brewing Co., one of coastal Virginia’s first microbreweries, or The Veil Brewing Co., a satellite location for one of Richmond’s favorite breweries. Check out some spoken word poetry at The Venue on 35th, where writers perform almost nightly.

And don’t miss the restaurants. Locals love Handsome Biscuit for its homemade sweet potato biscuit sandwiches—go for breakfast or lunch for stick-to-your-ribs meals. Check out Jikoni’s for vegan nachos, sandwiches and pizzas. Eat brunch or dinner at Toast, where sandwiches and toasts are made from homemade black sesame milk bread. And don’t miss Perro Blanco, hidden inside Toast. It’s Norfolk’s only mezcal bar, and it’s worth a visit.

The Pagoda (Photo courtesy Downtown Norfolk Council)

Freemason / Downtown

The naval battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin, perhaps Norfolk’s most famous sight, cuts an imposing line through the little inlet off the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, where it has been docked for the last 20 years. The ship has a storied military history that begins during World War II and includes nearly every conflict through the Gulf War. The ship now operates as a museum, and if you are in Norfolk and interested in military history, both the ship and the adjacent Nauticus maritime museum are must-sees. Visit to learn about the history of maritime battle, sea life native to the Virginia coast—including sharks—and underwater sanctuaries where scientists collect plant specimens for study.

Once you’ve gotten your fill of military and maritime history, head over to Freemason, a downtown neighborhood of charming cobblestone streets and brightly colored historic homes. Stop for coffee at Cure, or treat yourself to a sweet treat at Hummingbird Macarons in the Pagoda—worth a visit on its own merits. The Pagoda was a gift from the Taiwanese government to the commonwealth of Virginia and the city of Norfolk in recognition of the state’s deep trading ties with Taiwan. It’s a tranquil spot, surrounded by gardens, and is a peaceful and restorative way to spend some time.

Visit Selden Market to shop for vintage clothes, locally made leather bags and wallets, and toys designed to spark a child’s interest in learning. For dinner or cocktails, don’t miss Four Eleven York, where, if you answer a few questions, the bartender will mix up a cocktail called The Bartenders Experience based on your personality. Dinner focuses on mid-Atlantic seafood and locally sourced ingredients, and reservations are recommended. The restaurant shares the building with a renovated B&B that was once a historic inn, and like much of Norfolk, it combines antique charm with modern creative flair.

Laura Arenschield is a Columbus-based writer who loves being in new places. On her next trip to Norfolk, she’s planning to eat all the oysters she can find.

Reprinted from Columbus Monthly Best Driving Vacations 2020.


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NEON: The Residence Inn Norfolk Downtown or the Wyndham Garden Norfolk Downtown are your best bets for hotels.

Ghent: If bed-and-breakfasts are your thing, don’t miss the Page House Inn within one of the neighborhood’s historic homes.

Downtown: Four Eleven York houses an upscale restaurant and a boutique B&B with four suites. It is pricey, but beautiful.

Where to Stay