It doesn’t matter if you pronounce it Nor-fok or Naw-fuk, as long as you have fun exploring 400 years of history while wandering through the city. Take in the thriving art scene from public displays to inspiring performances. Stroll through charming neighborhoods with exciting restaurants and boutiques. Relax in an urban oasis. Whatever delights you, you’ll find in Norfolk, even if your accent gives you away.

Nautical heritage and history

Norfolk has a thing for mermaids, those sea nymphs of mythical beauty are found all over the city. Mermaids on Parade, a public art project, features dozens of mermaid statues, each decorated by a local artist. As you explore the city keep an eye out for the elusive creatures.

Seeing as mermaid legends were often tied to seafarers, Norfolk’s nautical history is ripe for exploring.  Along the waterfront is Nauticus Maritime Center, where you can’t miss the largest piece of the collection: the USS Wisconsin, an Iowa-class battleship. A tour highlights how the ship is a city in itself from the post office and medical unit to the chapel and mess deck. Watch your step (and head) when exploring the lower decks. Museum exhibits include sailors’ personal mementos, uniforms, numerous artifacts, and interactive exhibits. The second-floor Hampton Roads Naval Museum examines 200 years of local naval history. Don’t miss the battleship’s silver service ‒ the candelabras are especially impressive.

USS Wisconsin towers over Norfolk's waterfront.

The USS Wisconsin battleship is the largest artifact in the Nauticus Maritime Center collection. Photo by Amy Trotter Houston.

Norfolk has been an important port city since before its founding in 1682, but on January 1, 1776, a British bombardment nearly destroyed it. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was left with a souvenir: a cannonball in the façade that you can still see today. Just down the street, The MacArthur Museum preserves the legacy of General Douglas MacArthur.  He and his wife Jean Faircloth MacArthur are buried in the Rotunda of the adjacent MacArthur Memorial.

Japanese Garden at Norfolk Botanical Gardens.

Spend some time contemplating life at the serene Japanese Garden at Norfolk Botanical Gardens. Photo by Amy Trotter Houston.

Get back to nature

Begun over 75 years ago as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, 155-acre Norfolk Botanical Garden is the most serene place in town. Take the hop on/hop off tram for a good overview before venturing in for closer looks at over 50 different gardens, such as the Butterfly Garden, the Enchanted Forest, the Sensory Garden, or the Japanese Garden with small stone temples and a koi pond. Garden lore has it that if you walk around Friendship Lake while holding hands with your BFF, you’ll be friends for life. Enjoy lunch at the onsite café and peruse the gift shop for botanical-themed items. In October, don’t miss AcquaFire, when the Renaissance Pond blazes with fires accompanied by live acoustic music, and during the holidays marvel at a million sparkling lights during Dominion Garden of Lights.

All manners of art

Surrounded by lush gardens and woodlands, the Hermitage Museum and Gardens looks like something out of a fairytale. Built in 1908 by William and Florence Sloane, Mrs. Sloane later converted the Arts and Crafts style summer home into a museum for her impressive collection of artworks from six continents. There are paintings, sculptures, tapestries, merchant chests, snuff bottles, and even a vintage Tiffany Travel set. Enjoy details such as the carvings around the fireplace in the Great Hall and a stained glass window of Columbus’ trio: the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. There’s beautiful woodwork, an organ and a confessional that’s a closet. Contemporary art is upstairs with frequent rotating exhibits. Bibliophiles will swoon at the collection of 3,000 books that include first editions and early volumes by HG Wells and Mark Twain. You can check out the original kitchen and take a look in the gift shop housed in the old vault. Stroll through the rose garden and take a peek at the grotto and the unique collection of millstones.

Relax under the magnificent magnolia tree on the grounds of Hermitage Museum and Gardens. Photo courtesy of Hermitage Museum and Gardens.

Relax under the magnificent magnolia tree on the grounds of Hermitage Museum and Gardens. Photo courtesy of Hermitage Museum and Gardens.

Glass art as performance art.

Third Thursday events combine live music with glass art performances. Photo by Echard Wheeler for the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio, Norfolk, Va.

The Sloanes could be considered the patron saints of Norfolk’s art scene, as they helped launch what is today the world-class Chrysler Museum of Art, where Roman statues and Japanese woodblocks mingle with French impressionists and modern masters. The glass collection, one of the largest in the world, includes centuries of history from ancient Chinese pieces to the cocktail culture to contemporary sculptures. The section dedicated to Tiffany Studios is breathtaking. Tuesday through Sunday, watch live demonstrations at the Perry Glass Studio, where you can learn all about the glassmaking process. Sign up for a one-day glassblowing class where the world-class instructors make glass art accessible, interesting and approachable. Monthly Third Thursday events combine live music with glass art performances. You’ll never look at glass the same way after experiencing glass art in Norfolk.

A variety of nifty neighborhoods

With sculptures as a gateway, the trendy NEON District has numerous art venues and hip hangouts. See a show at Push Comedy Theater and dine in the relaxed atmosphere of nearby Zeke’s Beans & Bowls. Popular Work|Release combines contemporary art with a nightclub vibe for a unique experience. The annual NEON Festival celebrates energy and light with public art pieces, performances and a variety of fun events.

Colley Avenue is the main drag of the vibrant Ghent District named for Belgian workers who lived here years ago. Sit on the patio and sip a glass of wine at Mermaid Winery before catching a film at Naro Cinema. Check out the wares at the Mermaid Factory, and pop into the various boutiques and antique shops. Kitsch has handmade décor, jewelry, original art, and the best smelling soaps.

Pagoda Garden in Freemason District of Norfolk.

The Pagoda Garden and tea house in the Freemason District of Norfolk is a relaxing urban oasis. Photo by Amy Trotter Houston.

Get a feel for 19th-century Norfolk in the historic Freemason District, where pre-Civil War buildings line cobblestone streets. Sip a coffee or craft beer at Cure on Botetourt Street or enjoy the peaceful harmony of Pagoda Garden with a tea house and views over the water. Interestingly, in the late 19th-century, James Maybrick, who was suspected of being Jack the Ripper, lived in this neighborhood.

With so many things to do, sights to see and festivals to attend, Norfolk is worth repeat visits. At least until you can pronounce it – Naw-fuk – like a local.

If You Go

Where to Eat:

Doumar’s (1919 Monticello Avenue), home of the original waffle cone, is the place for homemade ice cream and cones. The diner serves a full menu including barbecue and tasty limeaides.

Press 626 (626 West Olney Road) is a café and wine bar with a relaxed vibe. Dishes feature local, seasonal ingredients. The sweet tea is outstanding.

Supper Southern Morsels (319 West 21st Street) serves updated classics like fried green tomatoes, jambalaya and braised pork belly. A farmhouse chic décor and long bar add to the appeal.

Todd Jurich’s Bistro (150 West Main Street) is a classy yet approachable venue with a seasonal menu, bistro cocktails, and daily recommendations from the chef. Don’t miss the strawberry shortcake if it’s on the menu.

Yorgo’s Bageldashery (2123 Colonial Avenue) offers bagels and coffee in the morning, and hearty sandwiches for lunch, including loads of vegetarian and vegan items. Popular with locals, it can be busy on weekends.

Where to Sleep

Page House Inn (323 Fairfax Avenue) is a B&B in the heart of the Ghent District.

Freemason Inn Bed and Breakfast (411 West York Street) is another in the Freemason District.

For downtown bustle, opt for one of these hotels with chain hotel amenities you expect:

Norfolk Waterside Marriott (235 East Main Street) is right downtown.

Sheraton Norfolk Waterside (777 Waterside Drive) has direct access to the Elizabeth River Trail.


F.R.E.D. (Free Ride Every Day) is a funky battery-operated free courtesy shuttle. Trips via F.R.E.D. must originate or end within the Downtown Improvement District. Call 757-478-7233.

Orange Peel Transportation provides personal travel services 24 hours a day.

The Tide is a light-rail service running 7.5 miles east to west through downtown connecting 11 stations.