Your Uber driver’s demeanor can tell you a lot about a city. If he’s a bit steely and overdoes it with the horns, you might be in Queens. On the other hand, if you’re greeted with bottled water and a fist bump, you may be in Norfolk, Virginia, a place that’s gentile enough to still be considered country and busy enough not to be boring. But as Forbes Travel Guide editors uncovered during a recent trip to the coastal Virginia metropolis, it has more going for it than merely having congenial chauffeurs at the airport. The city’s burgeoning culinary and arts scenes have it on the cusp of exploding. If you visit now, though, you can have plenty of fun without much of the big-city fuss.
Almost everywhere you look around the city, you’ll find some reference to a mermaid. From the city’s logo to Virginia’s first urban winery (Norfolk’s Mermaid Winery), the mythical siren of the sea is everywhere. As legend has it, mermaids would serenade soldiers back to safe shores after battles on the harsh waters. As a nod to being the home of the world’s largest naval station, Naval Station Norfolk, the city adopted the creatures as a sort of unofficial mascot in 1999. Today, folks proudly pose for pictures in front of the 100 or so mermaid statues positioned around the city and even test their own artistic skills by painting mini replicas at the Mermaid Factory. The statues are a cute way for the city to honor its maritime roots without drowning visitors in anything too serious. Plus, when you’re lost downtown and need directions, they can come quite in handy as landmarks.
With the nautical-themed public arts project alone, you could consider Norfolk a pretty creative place. But the mushiness over mermaids is just the beginning. The city has a growing number of eclectic neighborhoods like the Norfolk Arts District and Ghent that are starting to fill with easels and paintbrushes. The latter section of town houses some noteworthy exhibition halls (Mayer Fine Art) and world-renowned Chrysler Museum of Art, a newly renovated, 220,000-square-foot attraction filled with European paintings, contemporary American art and a world-class glass art collections. Should you feel inspired by the museum’s impressive Tiffany holdings, head across the street to The Chrysler Museum Glass Studio for a free demonstration every Tuesday through Sunday, or sign up for a more in-depth glassblowing or kilnworking session. Incorporating techniques that have been passed down for centuries, instructors like Robin Rogers make sure an afternoon at the studio is as much a fun outing as it is a history lesson.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the state of Virginia over the past few years, it’s that the place loves to eat. Things are no different along the coast, where Norfolk serves up everything from high-end snacks (The Grilled Cheese Bistro) and low-carb rice bowls (Field Guide) to mouth-watering seafood (The Barrel Room). Though the paint at just-opened Sweet Teas Southern Cuisine was still drying when we visited, we could easily tell (and taste) it knew what it was doing with perfectly fried whiting and macaroni and cheese so good you’d swear that someone snatched your grandmother’s recipe. Visit 456 Fish and you’ll be equally pleased with your decision. The unfussy Norfolk staple keeps locals and visitors coming back with an amazing potato-chip-encrusted jumbo lump crap cake, chargrilled filet mignon and one of the best pan-seared groupers we’ve had in some time. But if you want your dinner with a side of sexiness, head over to Todd Jurich’s Bistro, a restaurant where natives come for happy hour and tourists should go for a quiet booth that’s perfect for sharing a rack of grass-fed lamb and a bottle of 2010 Fiore Sangiovese.
Almost as underrated as Norfolk’s kitchens is its budding craft beer scene. In fact, when we were in town, the popular Virginia Beer Festival was happening at the waterfront’s Town Point Park. Though we couldn’t sample from all of the 65 local, national and global pours, we instantly fell in love with Norfolk’s Smartmouth Brewing Company. The three-year-old brand’s Alter Ego is a Belgian saison with a fruity essence and just enough pepper at the finish. Try it, along with the company’s other tasty selections, during a brewery tour or tasting room stop. Another area winner is O’Connor Brewing Co., which has a taproom for sampling the El Guapo agave IPA or Norfolk Canyon pale ale and an event calendar filled with vinyl-playing parties and food truck detours.
For all that Norfolk offers, one of its greatest assets is its proximity to everywhere else. Look to the east and you’ll find Virginia Beach only 18 miles away. Head south just across the Elizabeth River and you’ll hit Portsmouth. Go about 17 miles north, and you’ll run into Hampton and Newport News. Thirty miles past them, however, might be the coolest hamlet of them all—Williamsburg. A living, breathing snapshot into U.S. history, Colonial Williamsburg is the restored village where the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere roamed in the 1700s. Visit the walkable history museum today and you’ll find restaurants still serving venison-stuffed game pie and women in ruffled dresses sewing on the front porch. Just down the street from this time capsule sit Forbes Travel Guide Four-Stars Williamsburg Inn and Williamsburg Lodge, two properties that live by the ageless credo of treating guests like best friends and feeding them like family. But as we’ve come to realize during our time in coastal Virginia, that seems to be the mantra for the entire area.