If you’re going on a cruise from Norfolk, Virginia to The Bahamas or Eastern Caribbean, you will definitely be looking forward to exploring the beautiful beaches of Half Moon Cay, the colonial fortresses of Nassau or remarkable snorkel spots off Freeport. But don’t forget to schedule some free time to spend in Norfolk before or after your cruise. The charming historic city, located where the Elizabeth River meets the Chesapeake Bay, has many enticing attractions ranging from maritime museums to fabulously fresh seafood. You might even find there’s so much to do in Norfolk that it’s worth adding an extra night or two to your vacation.
Explore Norfolk’s Neighborhoods
Whether you have days to explore Norfolk or just a few hours, you’ll get a great overview of the city by focusing on downtown and the nearby neighborhoods of Ghent and Freemason. The main tourist areas are easy to explore on foot, but Norfolk also has a great light rail system.
In downtown Norfolk, visit well-preserved landmarks representing over 400 years of history on the self-guided Cannonball Trail. It leads you along the shore of the Elizabeth River, down streets lined with historic homes, to memorials dedicated to the Armed Forces and General Douglas MacArthur, and to several interesting museums. Allow at least 2 hours to walk the whole trail, or just pick a section to explore.
West Freemason is the oldest neighborhood in Norfolk, with cobbled streets and many places of interest marked by plaques. The Ghent Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places and a delightful destination for visitors. Its main hub, Colley Avenue, runs for 18 blocks and features stately homes, an Art Deco theater and modern buildings as well. The district is packed with galleries, restaurants and antiques stores, and is just minutes from downtown.
Fresh ocean breezes and picturesque waterfront scenery make Norfolk’s Ocean View and East Beach neighborhoods very appealing. The three beach parks on the Chesapeake Bay, including the popular Ocean View Beach Park, are perfect places to spend a sunny day.
Discover Norfolk’s Top Attractions
As a city surrounded by water and home to the largest Navy base in the world, Norfolk has a rich and fascinating maritime heritage. Learn about all aspects of the city’s ties to the sea at its state-of-the-art maritime center, which features one of the largest battleships ever built by the U.S. Navy. You can tour the battleship’s decks, and inside the adjacent museum learn about the marine life of the Chesapeake Bay, step inside a hurricane simulator and find out more about Norfolk’s seafaring heritage.
Get out on the water yourself with a sightseeing cruise, fishing charter, sailing lesson, kayak trip or even a cruise around the harbor on a tall ship. You might also stretch your legs with a stroll or bike ride along part of the 10.5-mile Elizabeth River Trail. Another great place to walk around is Norfolk’s 175-ace botanical garden, the largest in Virginia with 52 themed gardens and 14 miles of pathways.
If you’re cruising to the Caribbean or The Bahamas with kids in tow, be sure to schedule enough time in Norfolk to see the city’s great zoo. It has hundreds of animals from all over the world, and you can even arrange a behind-the-scenes tour with a zookeeper.
Norfolk’s museums make it a wonderful port of call for anyone who loves art, architecture and history. There’s the Hermitage Museum and Gardens, housed in an early-20th-century manor with 12 acres of landscaped gardens. Inside is an acclaimed art collection spanning 5,000 years. Even bigger is the Chrysler Museum of Art in historic Ghent. Along with works by such artists as Picasso, Cezanne and Warhol, it features a glass studio offering daily glass-making demonstrations.
Norfolk’s Top Shopping Destinations
If you love to shop, you’ll be happy to find plenty of great destinations in Norfolk for retail therapy. Ghent’s shopping scene features unique boutiques and locally owned stores, and it’s an ideal destination for buying antiques and vintage items. Downtown Norfolk offers 1 million square feet of retail at the modern MacArthur Center, along with the circa-1907 Monticello Arcade and Selden Market right across the street. Other options include the Military Circle Mall near the airport and an outlet mall just outside the city. For fresh fare and artisanal goods, Each Beach hosts a seasonal farmers market.
Dining in Norfolk
Norfolk is a truly fine city for any foodie, with enough diversity in its restaurant scene to satisfy any appetite. Its setting on the Chesapeake Bay means fresh seafood is the star of most local menus – look for local oysters, scallops, mussels and the region’s famous blue crabs. She crab soup is also a local specialty. It’s rich, creamy, infused with crab roe and sherry, and served with more sherry on the side for sipping. Coastal Virginia’s rich farmland means there’s an abundance of fresh seasonal produce too, contributing to a celebrated farm-to-table scene.
You’ll find the most dining options on “restaurant row,” which is along Granby Street downtown. Ghent’s Colley Avenue presents many outdoor dining options with most restaurants offering patio seating. In Ocean View you can enjoy fresh seafood with beautiful views of the water. Norfolk also boasts a craft beer scene, along with a few wineries.
Anyone who is going to travel to Norfolk to get on (and off) a cruise ship should certainly see the sights of the city before or after setting sail. With so much history, great food, fascinating sights and family-friendly attractions to explore, you’ll be so glad you made time to see all that Norfolk has to offer.