On April 2, 2015, the city of Richmond, Virginia, suffered a bit of a setback. That day, beloved Virginia Commonwealth University men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart resigned from the school to take over head coaching duties about 1,500 miles away at the University of Texas at Austin. While some of the grumbles around town are simply a natural reaction from losing such a positive presence, others are likely in disbelief that the man would leave one place for another that essentially has many of the same qualities—the small-town feel, divine culinary scene and rich history.
If there is a bright side to Shaka’s exit, though, it’s that the news put the spotlight on the underrated Virginia capital. From a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star hotel and a trio of James Beard Award-nominated chefs to one of the most unusual rafting experiences in the world, Richmond is a travel force to be reckoned with. Here’s Forbes Travel Guide’s smart itinerary to doing just that within 48 hours.
As the place where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech and the one-time capital of the Confederacy, Richmond appears to be a destination with a sense of historical pride. And it certainly does. But things are far from being confined to church walls and political halls here. One of the city’s grandest historical statements, in fact, is made at The Jefferson Hotel, a Beaux Arts landmark that dates back to 1895.
You’ll feel the Five-Star hotel’s stately presence the moment you check in. The property’s Palm Court lobby offers a Tiffany stained-glass dome, gorgeous brown leather couches and a life-sized marble statue of our third U.S. president that stands prominently amid the understated opulence. Peek down the stairs to a startling rotunda that easily could have served as a backdrop in a Margaret Mitchell novel. And off to the distance a bit farther you see Lemaire, a Four-Star New American eatery that has charmed locals and lucky guests since 1986.
But for all the elegant trips taken down memory lane, The Jefferson also does its part not to alienate guests who’ve packed their selfie sticks for the trip. Rooms are decked out with flat-screen TVs and top-shelf bathroom amenities, and once a full room renovation is complete in late 2015 (one phase of the overhaul is already done), the bridge between those who want complimentary Wi-Fi and those who appreciate hand-woven carpets will only grow stronger.
Just two miles from the hotel is Stella’s. We don’t know how Shaka Smart would be able to leave behind this gastro treasure. What we do know is that, for the rest of us, the Giavos family’s modern Greek-flavored menu of dishes like black kale salad, lamb frites and shrimp santorini (served over plaki, or beans,and baked with feta) is here to enjoy. Nearly impossible to get into at dinnertime without OpenTable’s help beforehand, Stella’s is much more approachable for the walk-in set around 1:30 p.m.
Once your spanakopita has settled, direct yourself toward the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, one of the city’s top attractions. The stunning chapel of art and artifacts is as impressive as anything you’ll find in New York City or San Francisco. Check out the museum’s temporary exhibit “Van Gogh, Manet and Matisse: The Art of the Flower” (through June 21), the first major American exhibition to analyze French floral still-life paintings from the late 18th through early 20th century. That The Jefferson Hotel has partnered with the VMFA for an Art of the Flower package that includes overnight accommodations, breakfast for two, museum tickets and more only sweetens the pot.
The VMFA is officially a part of the Richmond Garden Trail, a roundup of eight green spaces separated by less than 10 miles. (The art museum more than qualifies with its E. Claiborne and Lora Robins Sculpture Garden.) Other highlights on the tour include the magical Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, The Valentine (a museum looking back at 400 years of Richmond history) and the Edgar Allan Poe Museum, whose Enchanted Garden, handwritten letters, clothes and other items make up quite the shrine for the Richmond-raised literary giant.
After working up an appetite on the garden walk, you’ll want dinner. The options are overwhelming: Carry-out restaurant Sally Bell’s Kitchen, which debuted in 1924, is a 2015 James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award recipient; three Richmond-area chefs—The Roosevelt’s Lee Gregory, Peter Chang China Café’s Peter Chang and Acacia’s Dale Reitzer—were semifinalists for this year’s Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic title as well. If you want some farm-to-fork fabulousness, head over to Pasture. Have a hankering for fried whiting, as-good-as-granny’s collard greens and other Southern delicacies? Stop by Croaker’s Spot. But if you crave modern seafood selections in a romantic setting not two minutes from The Jefferson, make your reservation for Rappahannock so you can grab a fine locally crafted brew and try executive chef Dylan Fultineer’s wood-grilled monkfish or oysters shipped fresh from the company’s very own farm.
Perly’s Restaurant & Delicatessen has been a Richmond institution for more than 50 years. Though the establishment closed briefly in early 2014, it reopened to much fanfare this past September with its same down-home feel, wooden benches and traditional Jewish deli menu. It’s the kind of place people flock to for corned beef hash, potato and duck pierogi, or a Benny Goodman (two potato latkes topped with salmon, poached eggs, dill hollandaise and salmon roe). In other words—it’s perfect for breakfast.
Try not to overdo it on the bagels and schmear, though, because when you meet up with Riverside Outfitters, you won’t have much room for sluggishness. The area’s go-to company for all outdoorsy activities, Riverside takes adventurous visitors on bike rides to spots most natives don’t know about and on climbing excursions you won’t wait to tell your friends about. We recommend going on a rafting excursion. You may have donned a helmet and clenched a paddle before, but we’d be willing to bet you’ve never done either with a downtown skyline directly in front of you. Richmond is the only U.S. city to offer Class IV whitewater rafting in an urban setting, and you’ll get a first-hand look at how Mother Nature and modernity can come together and create a brilliant picture.
At lunchtime, make your way to Carytown, a neighborhood that we can best describe as unapologetically quirky, thanks to fascinating knickknack stops like the World of Mirth toy shop and stationery purveyor Mongrel. “Foodie haven” could be an appropriate nickname for the area, too, considering how places like The Daily Kitchen & Bar call it home. The sustainable brainchild of the Richmond Restaurant Group, The Daily is a refreshing midday detour for steamed pork buns, all-natural Angus burgers and blackened fish tacos that will knock your organic cotton socks off.
Now, we specifically left Maymont off yesterday’s garden trail for the sole reason of making it the late afternoon highlight here. The former 100-acre Victorian estate of wealthy businessman James H. Dooley and his wife, Sallie, the property has been transformed into a park, nature center, museum, arboretum and all-around great spot for picnics and pictures. When we last visited, a large group of teens looked to be playing hooky there. While we certainly don’t condone that kind of behavior, it’s not hard to see the attraction’s appeal.
After walking around, head on back to the hotel to freshen up before your 7 or 8 p.m. seating at Lemaire. When you get to your table, sit back and let chef Walter Bundy, who sharpened his knife with Thomas Keller at Five-Star The French Laundry, take you on a culinary journey through the heart of Virginia (slow-braised rabbit strudel), up through Maritime Canada (pan-roasted Prince Edward Island mussels) and back to the deep South (free-range chicken breast). It’s a transcendent experience—not unlike your entire weekend around Richmond.