A trip to picturesque Richmond, Virginia

Edgar Allan Poe's home has sprawling gardens, marvelous museums and fabulous Middle Eastern food!

April 26, 2009 16:45
A trip to picturesque Richmond, Virginia

Richmond 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy )

It may not be on your top-ten list of US destinations, but Virginia's capital deserves some serious consideration. First, its ease of location: accessible by car along much of the eastern seaboard and an even quicker plane ride away. Unlike many of the bigger-league cities in the United States, a stay here is fairly affordable and there's a surprising amount to see and do. Richmond is home to a number of public gardens, estates, and historical sites open to the public where quiet walks can be taken across grounds blooming with flowers, crab apple trees, Dogwood trees, and mossy-green backdrops of maples, elms, and magnolias. A good place to start is The Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens - 40 acres of gardens and the mid-Atlantic's only classically styled conservatory open to the public. Inside the glass-domed conservatory, the humid air is perfumed with tiers of flowers from around the world: orchids in all shades and sizes, tulips, roses, cyclamens, hyacinths, and azaleas. Outdoors there are winding pathways of flowers and blossoming trees leading to ponds with bridges where you can view turtles sunning themselves on rocks, and sunfish jockeying for position under the bridge in hopes of being fed. Agecroft Hall is a Tudor estate on the banks of the James River that was originally built in Lancashire England in the late 15th century. In 1925, it was purchased at auction by Richmond resident Thomas C. Williams Jr., who dismantled the mansion, shipped it across the Atlantic, and rebuilt it on 23 rolling acres in the Windsor Farms region of the city. Visitors can tour the mansion and the gardens designed by landscape architect Charles Gillette to reflect the opulence of English gardens, which include a fragrance garden, myrtle walk, rose arbor, bowling green, and turf maze. And then there's Maymont, a 100-acre botanical wonder that's a combination of museum, park, and gardens. Officially, Maymont is the estate of Richmond financier James Dooley, whose Victorian mansion was emblematic of the city's gilded age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With no heirs, Dooley and his wife bequeathed the estate to the city of Richmond and in 1925, Maymont opened as a public park and museum where visitors can tour the mansion, carriage house, and other outbuildings. The gardens contain the Dooley's temple-style mausoleum, wildlife exhibits, a nature center, ponds and bridges, and stone gazebos in styles ranging from Italian Neo-Classical to rustic. But Richmond is more than just sprawling gardens and estates. It's also home to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, which contains the world's most extensive collection of Poe's manuscripts, letters, first editions, and personal belongings. The museum offers a delightful retreat into early 19th century Richmond, where Poe lived and worked. There's also the museum dedicated to the life of Richmond native Maggie Walker, who was the first woman in US history to charter a bank. The daughter of a former slave and white abolitionist writer, Walker chartered the St. Luke's Penny Saving Bank in 1901 and spent much of her life advocating the necessity for women to establish their own economic means - a radical concept a century ago. The bank still exists today as The Consolidated Bank and Trust Co. and is the largest continually operating African American-operated bank in the US. Richmond's early history dates back to 1607 when it was first visited by European explorers. In 1737, it was given its name because the bend in the James River bore a likeness to a similar curve in the Thames in Richmond, England. There's plenty of local history to mine in places such as The Museum of Confederacy, The Black History Museum, The Valentine Richmond History Center, and The John Marshall House. A must-see is the Virginia Holocaust Museum, whose 28 permanent exhibits give visitors the hauntingly real interactive experiences of walking through a ghetto and concentration camp, boarding the ship "St. Louis," and riding in a cattle car. Those agile enough can crawl through a replica of an actual hiding place where 13 people hid during World War II for nine months. Also included in the museum, is a replica of the famous Chor Schul (synagogue) in Lithuania and Survivor's Room for quiet meditation and reflection. The newest exhibit, The Nuremberg Trials Courtroom Exhibit, opened in 2008, and is the only existing replica of the famous courtroom that set the standard for modern international law. The museum also has an online "Ask a Survivor" program, where questions about the Holocaust are posed to actual survivors in the museum's dedication to having questions answered about the exhibitions from the perspective of someone who experienced it. In an interesting side-note, The Virginia General Assembly passed a law in March that made the Commonwealth the 23rd state to mandate Holocaust Education. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction is now required to select and distribute a teacher's manual that emphasizes the causes and ramifications of the Holocaust and genocide to all school divisions. Local school divisions must provide grade-appropriate portions of such manual to each history and literature teacher. There's also The Science Museum of Richmond and The Money Museum, located in the city's downtown Federal Reserve Bank. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts invariably draws comparisons to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and is extensive enough to merit an afternoon of browsing (fortunately, their café serves lunch). Its permanent collection contains 20,000 items from every major world culture, and the current George Moorland: Poet of English Country Life through 2009. Richmond isn't entirely history-centric, though. Downtown has jazz clubs (Café Diem and Richie's Pacific Grill); the newly renovated National Theater, where national music acts come to perform; and an eclectic array of fabulous restaurants ranging from Asian Fusion to Soul Food to Greek. And if you're homesick for authentic tabouli, shawarma or felafel, look no further than 2M Mediterranean Market And Deli. Owner Adis Majkovic cooks everything to order, from kibbe to grilled eggplant with yogurt and tahini, at the grill behind the counter. In addition to the Middle Eastern, Greek, and Italian menu, the shelves are stocked with kosher and halal meats, imports from Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Lebanon, and you'll find everything from zattar and Pistachio-loaded halva to jars of labneh and Bulgarian feta in the cooler. Desserts range from baklava and kataif to delicious Mamoul Cookies. For more information, visit www.visitrichmondva.com Stacey Morris is a freelance food and travel writer. Her Web site is www.staceymorris.com.

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