Visitors to Norfolk can observe giant aircraft carriers and guided-missile cruisers juxtaposed with sailboats and pedestrian ferries in the city's busy harbor. As home to the world's largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk, the port has many significant U.S. Marine, U.S. Coast Guard, and NATO facilities as well. The Spirit of Norfolk passenger ship offers lunch and dinner cruises along Norfolk's scenic and historic waterfront.
Sightseeing harbor cruises are also provided by the three-masted schooner American Rover, the Mississippi-style paddle-wheeler Carrie B, and the sleek ship Spirit of Norfolk. Trolley tours to the city's major historic and cultural attractions are offered daily from the Waterside complex. Tour buses also make trips to Naval Station Norfolk, home port to more than 100 ships of the Atlantic fleet.
Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, is a 120,000 square foot science center with a nautical theme that celebrates the region's rich maritime heritage. It offers interactive exhibits, a shark tank, a weather forecasting lab, a giant-screen theater, and hands-on displays for all ages, as well as traveling exhibits. Within Nauticus is the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which introduces tourists to more than two centuries of naval history through ship models, works of art, and artifacts from sunken ships. Docked outside is the 1933 tugboat Huntington, which houses a tugboat museum that salutes the "Workhorses of the Waterways." The largest and last battleship ever built by the U.S. Navy is also moored next to Nauticus; visitors can take self-guided tours across the decks of the World War II vessel, the USS Wisconsin .
Strollers through Town Point Park can stop by the Armed Forces Memorial, which has on display descriptions of life during wartime taken from letters written home by U.S. service people who were killed in wars, from the American Revolution to the Persian Gulf War. The region's military history is further reflected in Fort Norfolk, with brick and earthwork buildings dating back to 1810. It is surrounded by a wall and ramparts built to protect the structure against invasion by the British.
Nearby is the picturesque Freemason district, Norfolk's oldest existing neighborhood. There visitors can walk along cobblestone streets, following the Cannonball Trail through 400 years of recorded history and past the Willoughby-Baylor House (a 1794 Federal townhouse that features period furnishings), Freemason Street Baptist Church, the cannonball-studded wall of St. Paul's Episcopal Church and the Confederate Memorial. Norfolk's Freemason District is also part of the Civil War Trails system, linking more than 200 Civil War sites around and beyond the city. Included in Norfolk is the Black Civil War Memorial, which stands as the only recognition of African American troops to date in the South.
The Ghent district, Norfolk's first planned community, is a combination of restored houses, galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and antique shops. The Hermitage Foundation Museum is housed in a wooded setting on the Lafayette River on a 12-acre estate. Within the splendid English Tudor home are displays of European ceramics and paintings, German hand-painted glass objets d'art , ivory carvings, Persian rugs, and ritual bronzes and ceramic tomb figures from China.
For more than a century the Virginia Zoological Park has provided a look into the lives of many kinds of animals, which now number more than 350 and range from white rhinos to red-ruffed lemurs. The most recent addition is a male African lion named Mramba; the lion is part of a long-term breeding and conservation effort at select zoos across the country. The zoo grounds are divided into habitats of animals from various continents in large enclosures that encourage natural behaviors. On a path that features interactive exhibits about African river deltas and other ecological zones, visitors encounter many interesting animals and sights, including a unique dismal swamp exhibit. The Norfolk Botanical Gardens encompasses 155 acres of colorful flower gardens; in 2005, a special exhibition titled "Treasure Island" will lead visitors to themed destinations and offer a variety of interactive, educational activities for children of all ages. Boat trips are available through the garden's waterways with their brilliant exotic blooms.
The Chrysler Museum of Art contains a collection of 30,000 original works from many time periods and geographic areas. The American Painting and Sculpture collection contains a selection of colonial and folk art offerings along with examples of American Impressionism. The European Painting and Sculpture collection features Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Dutch, and French works from such masters as Rubens, de Clerck, and Renoir. The showpiece exhibit may be a magnificent 8,000-piece glass collection featuring wonderful Tiffany and Lalique displays.
The D'Art Center is comprised of 30 studios in which artists both create and sell their works; visitors can tour the studios to watch painters, sculptors, potters, and jewelry makers at work.
Military museums abound in Norfolk, including The National Maritime Center and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. The latter incorporates 225 years of Hampton Roads naval history and operates the living history experience aboard the USS Wisconsin .
Downtown Norfolk provides a number of opportunities to see what life was like in the early days of the city, including the Hermitage Foundation Museum (a Tudor home from 1908) and the Hunter House Victorian Museum (built in 1894 by architect W.D. Wentworth).
Norfolk boasts the oldest theater designed, developed, financed, and operated entirely by African Americans—the Attucks Theatre, named for the African American man who fell as the first casualty of the American Revolution. The theater has recently been renovated after being closed in the mid 1950s, with the aim of again hosting luminaries of the caliber of Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole.
Norfolk's premiere performing arts center is Chrysler Hall, which annually stages the Broadway at Chrysler Hall series, touring productions of musicals and plays, and a star-studded roster of musical and spoken-word performers. Harrison Opera House is home to the well-respected Virginia Opera, which offers five productions annually in addition to other dance, music and theatrical works. The opera building also houses the Virginia Opera's Education and Outreach Program, sending resident artists into the public schools to awaken students to the joys, passions and tragedies that are opera. The Virginia Stage Company professional theater produces six major shows yearly, as well as smaller shows and children's theater activities at the historic and elegant Wells Theater. Several small, local theater groups also operate in the Norfolk region, including the Generic Theater (off-beat theater), the Little Theatre of Norfolk (one of the nation's oldest community theaters) and the Hurrah Players (family theater starring aspiring performers).
Hampton Roads' sole professional dance company is the Virginia Ballet Theatre, which is one of only two professional companies in the entire state of Virginia. The Ballet Theatre was created in 1961 to promote regional ballet, train young dancers, and provide a creative center for the performing arts.
The Virginia Symphony performs more than 140 concerts each year, from classical to pops. The group also offers young people's concerts. Under the current maestro, the Symphony has recorded five CDs for national release, performed "Peter and the Wolf" for airing on National Public Radio, and played the Kennedy Center in January 2000. The Virginia Symphony also lends orchestral support to the Virginia Opera.
The Virginia Chorale has, since 1984, been the common-wealth's only fully professional choral group, performing music from all time periods and particularly skilled in a cappella renditions. The Chorale offers Masters Classes and the Young Singers Project as part of their outreach and education endeavors.
The Governor's School for the Arts, at home in Norfolk, plays a pivotal role in keeping the arts alive in the Hampton Roads area. Art education programs are offered in dance, vocal and instrumental music, theater, and visual arts, with a number of student productions performed to further develop the artists and showcase their burgeoning talents.
Norfolk enjoys a variety of events and festivals at different sites around the city. In September, Town Point Park is the site of three related events: the Virginia in Water Boat Expo, the Norfolk Seafood Sampler, and the Beach Music Festival. For cinema aficionados, the SOL Film Festival comes to downtown Norfolk in early October, with independent films competing for prizes. October breezes also bring the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner race, a three-day race designed to increase awareness of the fragile ecosystem contained in the Bay. The race concludes at Town Point Park, where the racing vessels line up and create a backdrop for the Town Point Virginia Wine Festival. At this event, more than 25 Virginia wineries provide samplings; also featured are gourmet foods, specialty crafts, and live musical entertainment. The holidays are welcomed with the Grand Illumination Parade and its associated events that take place in downtown Norfolk and nearby Portsmouth, including a progressive dinner termed "Wine and Dine."
Norfolk celebrates St. Patrick's Day on March 17 with the Greening of Ghent, which includes a parade and party in the Ghent neighborhood. April's events include the International Azalea Festival at the Botanical Gardens, and the Virginia International Tattoo, a spectacle of music featuring drill teams, massed pipe and drum corps, gymnasts, and folk dancers. The Tattoo is part of Virginia's Arts Festival, a month-long celebration of the arts that includes classical music, jazz, and chamber music events, as well as dance and visual arts exhibitions that take place throughout the region.
May is the time for the Cinco de Mayo Celebration featuring Mexican food and music, the annual Town Point Jazz and Blues Festival, and the Afr'Am Fest, a weekend cultural celebration of ethnic music, dance, theater and exhibits. The Elizabeth Riverfront in Town Point Park is the site of numerous music, arts, and cultural festivals throughout the spring and summer months. In June the Norfolk Harborfest celebrates the region's rich nautical heritage. Independence Day brings the Great American Picnic and Celebration, which ends with a spectacular fireworks display. The last big event of the summer is the Norfolk Latino Festival in late August, celebrating the heat with spicy cuisine, smokin' music, and sizzling art.
Norfolk fans watch the puck drop to start the games of the Hampton Roads Admirals of the American Hockey League, who play at Norfolk SCOPE. The Norfolk Tides baseball team, a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets, play at the Riverfront's Harbor Park. Rugby fans can enjoy Norfolk Blue rugby team matches; the highly successful club has been playing in the Norfolk area since 1978. Norfolk State University varsity teams compete in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association football league, while Old Dominion's men's and women's basketball teams are both Division I NCAA competitors. Other Old Dominion University sport offerings include baseball, soccer, women's field hockey, track and field events, and a variety of club sports. The Virginia Wesleyan Marlins play basketball in Division III of the NCAA and can entertain fans with a selection of varsity and club sports.
Surrounded by all that water, it's natural that the Norfolk area entices avid rowers, sea kayakers, swimmers, jet skiers and windsurfers. Fishing can become a religion for some, with access to Chesapeake species such as speckled trout, flounder, bluefish, rockfish, and more. A number of private companies run charters out of the Chesapeake Bay area. The City of Norfolk Police Department coordinates the Police Athletic League, or PAL, which gives local youth a chance to participate in volleyball, boxing, basketball, football, girls' softball and track events. Golfers can go 18 holes on any of three public golf courses: Lake Wright Golf Course, Stumpy Lake Golf Course and Ocean View Golf Course. Nearby Virginia Beach is home to even more public and private courses. The Tidewater Tennis Center and Northside Park, where many local tournaments are held, are but two of more than a dozen tennis courts in the city.
Venturing outside of Norfolk, there are spectacular hikes in Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains approximately 2.5 hours northwest of the Tidewater region. The Old Rag Summit Ridge Trail is often recommended, as is the section of the Appalachian Trail that meanders through the park.
MacArthur Center, a regional shopping mecca, is within walking distance of the local convention center. The $300 million complex offers more than a million square feet of shops, restaurants and entertainment centers, with Nordstrom and Dillards as its anchor stores. The Selden Arcade downtown in the city's financial district offers clothing shops, bookstores, and jewelry shops. The upscale Ghent Shopping District is known for its home furnishings, boutiques, and clothing shops. Military Circle is a mega-mall that offers department stores and a cinema. JANAF Shopping Center offers bargains on clothing, sports equipment, and home furnishings. For an eclectic mix of retailers, restaurateurs and entertainers, the Waterside Festival Marketplace is the place to be; located right on the water, with ferries and boat tours departing from the premises, it's a one-stop-shop for food and fun.
Speaking of food, Norfolk's southern location means that diners can get quality soul food, including ribs, fried chicken, collard greens, biscuits, and other delectables. The community is home to an astonishing number of establishments serving Italian food, with northern Italian cuisine coming on strong at present. Southwestern and Mexican restaurants are also plentiful, with a couple of spots dedicated to the art of tapas. Diners can catch a taste of fresh seafood at a number of places along the waterfront and beyond. Being a port city with a constant international influence, Norfolk eateries cater to a broad variety of other tastes as well, including French, Mediterranean, Cajun/Creole, German, Caribbean, Indian, Greek, Irish, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, and American fare.
Visitor Information: Norfolk Convention and Visitors Bureau, 232 E. Main Street, Norfolk, VA 23510; telephone (757)664-6620; toll-free (800)368-3097