There’s a lot to love about Norfolk, Virginia. Although it might get overshadowed by the beaches of nearby Virginia Beach and the historic sites in Williamsburg, it might surprise you that Norfolk offers the best of both worlds!
With its location on the Elizabeth River and the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, Norfolk boasts 144 miles of waterfront. When you’re not kayaking on the Lafayette River or taking a sunset cruise on the Elizabeth, you can spend your days soaking up the sun at the popular Ocean View Beach and East Beach.
And if it’s history you’re after, you’ll love checking out the 18th– and 19th-century homes and churches in historic Ghent or learning about maritime history at Nauticus and Battleship Wisconsin.
Delve a little deeper, and you’ll find a thriving street art scene, a range of local craft breweries, and innovative dining halls, food trucks, and restaurants. Plus, culture vultures will love perusing works of art in the world-class museums, catching shows in historic theaters, and attending one of the many annual festivals.
With so many things to see, do, and eat, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Norfolk for you. Stick to these fun and unique Norfolk bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time in this beautiful and historic Virginia city!
- 15 Fun and Unique Things to Do in Norfolk, VA
- 1. Pay a Visit to Selden Market
- 2. Kayak the Lafayette River
- 3. Check Out the Street Art in the NEON District
- 4. Have a Beach Day at Ocean View Beach
- 5. Go for a Hike on the Elizabeth River Trail
- 6. Tour the USS Wisconsin
- 7. Escape the City at the Norfolk Botanical Garden
- 8. Peruse the Chrysler Museum of Art
- 9. Drink & Dine in the Norfolk Waterside District
- 10. Attend a Festival at Town Point Park
- 11. Take a Sunset Cruise on the Elizabeth River
- 12. Follow the Coastal VA Beer Trail
- 13. Dine on Bay-to-Table Seafood Fare at Saltine
- 14. Tour the World’s Largest Naval Base
- 15. Stroll Around Historic Ghent
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15 Fun and Unique Things to Do in Norfolk, VA
1. Pay a Visit to Selden Market
Whether you’re a foodie or a shopaholic, you’re going to love exploring Selden Market. Located in the historic Selden Arcade building right in the heart of downtown, this trendsetter is the city’s first-ever retail incubator.
Explore the revamped space, and you’ll find a rotating selection of up-and-coming retail shops, eateries, and more. If you’re looking for a trinket to bring back home, you’ll want to pay a visit to Lorak Jewelry for handcrafted rings or Sugar & Grace for their soy candles and carefully curated home goods.
The space also hosts a variety of pop-up shops and food stalls, including regulars like Bleubeing streetwear and JackEats Filipino fusion food. Plus, there are always new pop-up markets, wellness classes, and family-friendly events going on.
When hunger strikes, you can fill up on Caribbean fusion dishes at Cocojam, steaming bowls of ramen noodles at The Stockpot Norfolk, or chicken ‘n’ waffles at Granby Waffle Shop. And don’t forget to fuel up with a cup of ethically sourced coffee from Vessel Craft Coffee!
2. Kayak the Lafayette River
Going kayaking on the Lafayette River is easily one of the most fun things to do in Norfolk if you prefer to get outside. The river runs right through town and meets up with the Elizabeth River, offering outdoorsy types tons of paddling opportunities.
You can access the river from one of the three boat ramps that are located along the river or from one of the more frequent stairways that are built into the seawall. Once you’re ready to get going, you’ll paddle past residential homes, side creeks, and marshes.
Plus, you’ll get to see plenty of bird species, including great blue herons, great egrets, yellow-crowned night herons, osprey, and kingfishers. If you get really lucky, you may even spot a pod of dolphins or a river otter!
If you don’t have your own gear, it’s possible to rent kayaks or arrange eco-tours of the Lafayette with Norfolk Kayak Rentals.
3. Check Out the Street Art in the NEON District
Located just north of downtown, the NEON District (short for “New Energy of Norfolk”) is the city’s up-and-coming arts district. One of the coolest things about this part of town is that it’s brimming with some seriously impressive street art.
You’ll find 50 or so murals covering the area’s buildings, alleyways, and signs. You can easily cruise around and check out all of the best works on a self-guided tour. Or, if you prefer something more structured, Norfolk Tour Company offers a guided street art tour for around $20.
Either way you go, you can find a full list of all of the works in the NEON District here. If you’re short on time, Magazine Lane and Granby Street are lined with colorful murals. And be sure to hunt down the famous Bloom Mural (801 Boush Street), Razzle Dazzle (746 Granby Street), and Happier Times (W Wilson Avenue to Magazine Lane).
4. Have a Beach Day at Ocean View Beach
Spending the day at Ocean View Beach is one of the best things to do in Norfolk if you’re looking for fun in the sun on Chesapeake Bay. Situated 25 minutes from downtown Norfolk, this beautiful beach boasts over seven miles of shoreline and a 6.5-acre beach park.
If you want to chill at the beach, lay down your towel and get ready to soak up the sun. But if you’re looking for a little bit more action, there are plenty of opportunities to go kayaking, swimming, fishing, and crabbing. It’s also possible to rent bikes and cruise around the bustling boardwalk.
If you happen to be in town on a Sunday night in June or July, you can check out the Big Bands on the Bay concert series. And if you want to stay for dinner, you’ll have a range of excellent seafood restaurants to choose from.
5. Go for a Hike on the Elizabeth River Trail
Stretching from Norfolk State University to Lochhaven, the Elizabeth River Trail boasts 10.5 miles of trails. This waterside trail actually follows an abandoned railroad turned pedestrian-friendly pathway, offering beautiful views of the Elizabeth River and the city’s iconic waterfront.
Whether you opt to walk or bike, you can start at the trailhead at Norfolk State University. From there, the paved pathway will lead you through downtown, a few historic neighborhoods and beautiful campuses, as well as attractions like the Harbor Park baseball stadium, Town Point Park, Nauticus and the Battleship Wisconsin, and so much more.
You can stop off in Freemason for a pick-me-up at Cure Coffeehouse. Or, head to Chelsea, where you can sip local brews at Benchtop Brewery or fill up on brick oven pizza at The Bakehouse at Chelsea. If you manage to make it the whole way, you’ll be rewarded with the beautiful gardens and art collections at the Hermitage Museum & Gardens in Lochhaven.
If you want to bike, you can always rent bikes from Pedego in downtown Norfolk.
6. Tour the USS Wisconsin
If you’re in downtown Norfolk, it’s almost impossible to miss the USS Wisconsin (aka Battleship Wisconsin). Berthed at Nauticus, it is the largest and last battleship built by the US Navy.
The ship was launched on December 7, 1943. During its tenure, the battleship played a role in World War II, the Korean War, and Operation Desert Storm and received five battle stars for its time in World War II and one for its role in the Korean War. The USS Wisconsin was ultimately berthed at Nauticus on December 7, 2000.
Today, taking a tour of the ship is one of the top Norfolk attractions. A self-guided tour will take you through the Nauticus building, where displays and exhibits will give you a history lesson about the battleship and its intricate layout. You’ll then have the chance to explore the massive deck and the numerous areas that are open to the public.
For a more in-depth tour, it’s well worth booking the Guided Command and Control Tour for a fascinating glimpse into how USS Wisconsin was commanded during its many battles. During the 90-minute tour, you’ll visit the Captain’s Cabin, Pilot House, Combat Engagement Center, and more!
7. Escape the City at the Norfolk Botanical Garden
Tucked away just north of downtown, the Norfolk Botanical Garden is the perfect place to get away from it all. This is Virginia’s largest botanical garden, so be prepared to be impressed!
These beautiful gardens are set on 175 acres of impeccably manicured land. Take a look around, and you’ll find 14 miles of paved and unpaved paths, as well as 60 themed gardens – from azaleas and rhododendrons to roses and camellias. There’s also a children’s garden, a butterfly house, a canal walk garden, and so much more.
Norfolk Botanical Garden is much more than peaceful and beautiful gardens, though. From art classes to walk-and-talks and plant sales, there are always fun events going on.
Plus, if you’re in town in December, you won’t want to miss out on the popular Dominion Garden of Lights. All month long, the gardens are decked out in over 1 million twinkling lights! It’s a sight to behold and a must on any Norfolk bucket list.
8. Peruse the Chrysler Museum of Art
Even if you don’t consider yourself an art enthusiast, you have to visit the Chrysler Museum of Art during your trip to Norfolk! Peruse the museum, and you’ll find over 30,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years of history.
The impressive permanent collection boasts works from world-famous artists, including Pollock, Rothko, Warhol, and Lichtenstein. Plus, you’ll find everything from ancient artifacts to contemporary masterpieces. If that’s not enough, you can check out over 4,000 photographs ranging from the Civil War era to the modern day.
Delve deeper, and you’ll have the chance to check out one of the largest glass collections in the world. Be sure to stop off at the Perry Glass Studio next door for its free public demonstrations (Wednesday through Sunday at noon). From demos and talks to performances and classes, take a look at the website to see what’s happening during your visit.
9. Drink & Dine in the Norfolk Waterside District
Perched right on the Elizabeth River, the revitalized Waterside District is easily one of the coolest areas of town. This is the perfect place to go if you’re looking for a family-friendly restaurant or a place to grab dinner and drinks with friends.
If you’re looking for nightlife venues, head over to The Market Norfolk, where you can take your pick of the food hall’s carefully curated selection of bars and restaurants. For local brews, Starr Hill Market Bar just so happens to be one of Virginia’s oldest craft breweries. Or, for something a bit more family-friendly, grab dinner at Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse or Cogans Pizza before indulging with freshly-made fudge at The Fudgery.
Plus, if you’re looking for entertainment, there are always fun events and pop-ups happening in Norfolk’s Waterside District. Think yoga with baby goats, live musical performances, and fun festivals!
10. Attend a Festival at Town Point Park
Set right on the Elizabeth River in downtown Norfolk, it’s no wonder why Town Point Park is the site of most of Norfolk’s vibrant festivals.
If you’re in town in the spring, you can sample 150 different types of brews at the buzzing Virginia Beer Festival. Or, if you prefer wine, the Virginia Wine Festival is held in Town Point Park in May each year!
Attending HarborFest is easily one of the most fun things to do in Norfolk if your trip is planned for June. This massive festival is all about celebrating the city’s maritime history. So expect tall ships, mermaid shows, musical acts, and incredible fireworks displays.
If music is your thing, you’ll love attending the Norfolk Waterfront Jazz Festival, Latino Music Festival, and Opera in the Park. Plus, foodies won’t want to miss out on all the Cajun crawfish and beignets at Bayou Boogaloo or the epic barbecue at the Fourth of July Great American Picnic!
11. Take a Sunset Cruise on the Elizabeth River
Taking a cruise along the Elizabeth River is easily one of the most unique things to do in Norfolk. American Rover offers a popular Two-Hour Sunset Cruise that’s perfect for couples, families, and groups of friends.
During the cruise, you will hop aboard a 125-passenger sailing schooner, which will take you from the Waterside Marina in downtown Norfolk to the Elizabeth River and the Port of Virginia. Along the way, your captain will educate you about all of the different points of interest along the historic Norfolk Harbor. Plus, you’ll have the chance to get hands-on and steer the ship if you want to!
After all the excitement, you can sit back and relax with the live music and a cold beverage from the bar while taking in beautiful sunset views of the Norfolk skyline.
12. Follow the Coastal VA Beer Trail
Virginia happens to have an excellent craft beer scene. There are so many buzzing breweries popping up in the state that there are now multiple Virginia Craft Beer Trails you can follow – including the Coastal VA Beer Trail.
The Coastal VA Beer Trail runs through Williamsburg, Norfolk, Chesapeake, Hampton, Smithfield, and Virginia Beach. But if you don’t want to veer far from Norfolk, you’ll have plenty of local Norfolk breweries to choose from.
Benchtop Brewing Company is one of the best of the bunch and prides itself on using scientific innovation, new brewing techniques, and locally sourced ingredients to create truly unique craft beers. Be sure to try their Quick Pickle Gose made from local carrots and cucumbers and the Beer Kvass made from fresh bread from a local bakery!
Then there’s Smartmouth Brewing Company, where you can sip on seasonal IPAs and snack on food from one of the visiting food trucks, or Rip Rap Brewing, which offers an always-revolving selection of creative beers on tap.
If you’ve got the tolerance for more, try an El Guapo Agave IPA at O’Connor Brewing Co. before heading over to Bold Mariner Brewing Company for a Lucky Cat Pilsner and a locally sourced charcuterie board!
13. Dine on Bay-to-Table Seafood Fare at Saltine
With its location at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and along the Elizabeth River, it’s no surprise that Norfolk is brimming with excellent seafood restaurants. But if you want to try one of the city’s best, a visit to Saltine is one of the tastiest things to do in Norfolk, VA!
Located at the street level in downtown’s The Main hotel, this beautiful space is the perfect blend of old-world charm and refined elegance. One of the highlights of a meal at Saltine is the raw bar, which features dock-to-table Oysters on the Half Shell and Old Bay Peel and Eat Shrimp.
You can start with a bowl of She Crab Soup or P.E.I Mussels before moving on to the main course of Seared Diver Scallops, Whole Fried Snapper, or the Fresh Catch of the Daily. After dinner, it’s well worth enjoying an expertly-mixed nightcap at the chemist-inspired Apothecary Bar. Better yet, head up to the hotel’s 5th-floor rooftop bar, Grain, for drinks overlooking the Elizabeth River!
14. Tour the World’s Largest Naval Base
Located 20 minutes north of downtown on the Hampton Roads Peninsula, Naval Station Norfolk stands proud as the largest naval complex in the world. This massive naval station takes up four miles of waterfront along the Elizabeth River and boasts seven miles of pier and wharf space. It’s also home to the largest number of US Navy forces in the world!
If you have a fascination with all things US Navy, it’s possible to arrange a guided tour. During the 45-minute tour, you’ll be led around the grounds by naval staff and have the chance to check out the 11 aircraft hangars, 13 piers, 75 ships, and 134 aircraft.
This is also one of the busiest airfields in the US. With an average of 275 flights per day (that’s one every six minutes), you’re bound to see some aircraft take off and land at the base. Plus, Naval Station Norfolk is located on the site of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, so you’ll have the chance to see all sorts of historic homes and a replica of Independence Hall during your tour.
15. Stroll Around Historic Ghent
Set just north of downtown, strolling around the tree-lined neighborhood of Ghent is one of the most unique things to do in Norfolk. This beautiful part of town is home to all sorts of historic homes, buildings, and churches. Once you get walking, you’ll come across a range of architectural styles, including Victorian, Queen Anne, Colonial, and Tudor.
The neighborhood got its start as farmland in 1890. Later on, two Dutchmen started developing the area, which is why you might feel like you’re in South Holland instead of the East Coast! Ghent even boasts its very own “The Hague!”
As you wander around, you won’t want to miss out on seeing the 19th-century homes on Mowbray Arch, The Muse Writers Center, the historic homes on Colley Avenue, the Coca-Cola plant, the Chrysler Museum, and Stockley Gardens. With so many cool historic buildings and attractions, this place was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
When you need a rest from all that walking, stop off at the world-famous Doumar’s. Owned and operated by the Doumar family since 1907, this is the birthplace of the waffle cone!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Norfolk, VA. What’s your favorite thing to do in Norfolk?
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