Words by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, The Washington Post
I owe Richmond an apology. Countless times, I’ve zipped past the exits for this capital city, a place not quite far enough from Washington, D.C., for a pit stop on a road trip, and not quite close enough for a meal. Last month, I ran out of excuses. I pulled off Interstate 95 and entered Richmond, Virginia, for the first time.
Only 100km’s south of the District, this former Confederate capital felt, at times, decidedly Southern, with grayback statues lining a celebrated avenue and shopkeepers offering customers an unhurried welcome. The James River Park System is unequaled, and not only for the Class III and IV white-water rapids within the city limits. The riverfront and islands are the city’s centerpiece, home to an annual folk festival that attracts more than 200,000 people, not to mention their notable cycling trails and secluded bathing spots.
Pedestrians crossing the James River on the T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge with the skyline of Richmond, Virginia in the background. Image: Washinton Post – John McDonnell
At lunch one day, a Richmonder commandeered my map and drew an “X” in the middle of the James River. “This is where I hang out in the summer,” he said. “It’s kind of magical.”
The highly anticipated Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University is a triumph for the city and the downtown university, which already is regarded as one of the top art schools in the country. The Steven Holl-designed structure is a striking zinc, concrete and glass building full of natural light. For additional contemporary works, head to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Both museums are free.
Guests relax in the lobby of the HI Richmond hostel. Image: Washington Post – John McDonnell
The Monument Avenue Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, includes the tree-lined roadway near Richmond’s museum district with statues of Confederate figures. Last summer, the mayor formed a commission that is considering whether to remove them. But the beautiful avenue also celebrates humanitarian and tennis champion Arthur Ashe, whose statue was placed in 1996. Ashe is buried at nearby Woodland Cemetery.
The Arthur Ashe memorial in Richmond, for the late tennis star. Image : Washington Post -John McDonnell
Crimson ankle boots by Phillip Lim sit on a shelf at Need Supply in the Carytown district of Richmond. Image: Washington Post – John McDonnell
Ben Lee gathers the bread fresh out of the oven at Sub Rosa Bakery in the Church Hill section of Richmond. Image: Washington Post – John McDonnel
Residents confess to buying bread intended for friends at Sub Rosa Bakery, where the proprietors stone-mill their own wheat and rye and eating it themselves. Stop in early for the best assortment of loaves and pastries – pains au chocolat and fig and manchego pastries daily, and cherry and pistachio croissants on the weekends.
The Fan district felt like home. No surprise, because it looks enough like Capitol Hill that part of “Homeland” was filmed here. Several friends recommended Kuba Kuba Restaurant, a small, bustling spot serving Cuban fare in portions large enough to be called family style.
If ever I could resist a bookstore, it wouldn’t be one called Chop Suey Books with a resident cat named Wonton. The shop has a lovely two-floor assortment of new and used titles, its own book club and regular readings. A “Feminism is for Everyone” section sits near the front of the shop, as does a shelf of books wrapped in brown paper with online dating-type profiles – tempting if you’re adventurous enough to purchase an unknown title – what the staff calls a “blind date” or “casual encounter” with a book. A paperback-sized canvas tote pictures a tin man and reads, “My heart beats for books.”
Visitors to the delightfully pink Quirk Hotel recline on raspberry sorbet-colored sofas, scoop ice from pink buckets and borrow pink umbrellas. The dog-friendly downtown property features a barista in the lobby, a Tesla charging station outside and a spectacular bar on the roof, where guests may enjoy craft cocktails. Shop in the adjoining Quirk Gallery for pieces from local artists, including DIY felt fortune cookies and dachshund-shaped emery boards.
IF YOU GO:
Where to stay
HI Richmond hostel
Where to eat
Blue Bee Cider
Kuba Kuba Restaurante
Sub Rosa Bakery
The Fancy Biscuit
What to do
Chop Suey Books
Forest Hill Park
South of the James River between Riverside Drive and Forest Hill Avenue, and 42nd and 34th streets
Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University
Feature Image: John McDonnell