Must-See Historical Sites and Landmarks in Hampton Roads
Chances are that servicemembers will make their way through Hampton Roads at some point, whether it's for a PCS move, TDY, or school.
Its important location on the East Coast means there are a collection of military bases in the area, but it's also the site of many historic moments. Time spent in Hampton Roads allows the opportunity to visit museums, historic neighborhoods, archeological sites, and more in each of the seven cities and Virginia’s Historic Triangle.
Here are a few to explore!
Olde Towne Portsmouth
This historic neighborhood located on the Elizabeth River houses the oldest operating Naval Hospital and a cluster of attractions. While most of the homes are privately owned, the Olde Towne Portsmouth Civic League hosts events throughout the year where you can enjoy decorated historic homes, including the upcoming Holiday Homes Tour, a springtime Doors, Porches, and Gardens tour, and a Ghost Walk in October.
Ferry: Meredith’s mother and daughter riding the Elizabeth River Ferry from Old Towne Portsmouth to Downtown Norfolk.
Enjoy a movie at the historic Commodore Theater or visit one of the museums including the Children’s Museum of Virginia, The Naval Shipyard Museum, and the Hill House Museum.
As the holidays approach, don’t miss the Winter Wonderland at the Portsmouth Arts and Cultural Center. Coleman’s Nursery was a long-running local business. The owners collected animatronic holiday displays starting in the 1960s, and the displays became an event beloved by generations of locals. When the nursery closed its doors in 2004, the city museums gained the collection, and its vintage charm is on display in Olde Towne during the holiday season.
Coleman’s: Five generations of Meredith’s family have enjoyed the Coleman’s Nursery Christmas display, four at its original location, and then her children when it moved to the Portsmouth Arts and Cultural Center.
The Elizabeth River Ferry runs three stops between Olde Towne Portsmouth and downtown Norfolk on the other side of the river. It’s a great way to get outside, and kids love to watch the ferry churn. Near the Norfolk stop, The Nauticus Museum is home to the Battleship Wisconsin and the Schooner Virginia. This winter, experience Winterfest on the Wisconsin to see the ship lit up with Christmas lights as you learn about Virginia’s maritime history.
Hunter House: The outside of the Hunter House Victorian Museum, provided by the museum.
The Chrysler Museum operates two historic homes in the area, the Willoughby-Baylor House and The Moses Myers House. Nearby, the Hunter House Victorian Museum is a non-profit Victorian home and museum of that time period. The Hunter House is offering free admission until the end of the year. They also participate in the Blue Star Museum program. After visiting the homes in the Freemason district, eat at at a historic site turned restaurant like Omar’s Carriage House or Freemason Abbey.
Fort Monroe National Monument
Outlook Beach: Military family enjoying the day at Outlook Beach on Ft. Monroe.
For military history, travel to Hampton to visit Fort Monroe. Decommissioned and turned into a National Monument in 2011, there’s several things to do, including enjoying the Chesapeake Bay at Outlook Beach, The Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center, The Casemate Museum presenting the military history, and the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse.
There is also a marker at the site where the first enslaved Africans landed in 1619. Every August there is a Commemoration of the First African Landing with educational, cultural, and memorial events. During this time, there is a Nationwide ringing of the bells to honor their memory and hold space for community healing.
Comfort Point Lighthouse: You cannot go in the historic Old Point Comfort Lighthouse, but there is a museum and walking tour with historic markers to learn about various buildings at Ft. Monroe.
Continuing on the peninsula, Historic Endview is one of the few colonial-era homes left in Newport News, and there is a military discount for tours. They also hold events, including the upcoming Veterans’ Fireside Chat on Nov. 10 where historians will portray veterans from various wars, sharing their stories.
Lee Hall Mansion was built in 1859 and a visit includes a tour of the home and Civil War history of the area. The Lee Hall Depot is a historic train depot turned museum where exhibits tell the importance of railways to the area. Make sure to visit the Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center. This beautiful restored Victorian home was the first residence of an African-American family to receive a National Historic Preservation Award.
Virginia’s Historic Triangle contains some of our country’s most famous historic sites. The area of Williamsburg is steeped in tradition and attractions range from outlet malls to theme parks and historic sites. Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history park where visitors may explore on their own through tours and events or even a carriage ride.
Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Image from Canva.
Reenactors, historic buildings and reconstructions, a wide range of activities, stores, art museums, musicians, holiday decorations, and restaurants allow an entertaining and enriching way of learning about the history of the area and life during Colonial times.
Many local businesses have matched the style and themes of the history park. For example, The Williamsburg Winery uses names, architectural elements, and the decorating style of the area’s history throughout the property. Do a wine tasting and tour, eat at the Gabriel Archer Tavern, or spend a night in their European-style country hotel, Wedmore Place.
Cannon on Yorktown Battlefield. Photo from Canva.
If you’re a military history buff, Yorktown Battlefied is not to be missed in the Historic Triangle. The Visitor’s Center gives information about Yorktown, the battlefield, and the different sights to see in the area. In addition to the battlefield, the NPS operates several places like the Nelson House, the Poor Potter’s Site, and the Yorktown Victory Monument, and there’s also camping and wildlife viewing opportunities.
For more Revolutionary War history, visit The American Revolutionary Museum at Yorktown. Ticket options include bundles with Jamestown and discounts for Virginia residents. Active Duty military and up to three dependents are allowed free admission on Yorktown Day, October 19; Veterans Day, November 11; Jamestown Day, May 13; and Memorial Day, May 30. The museum includes a re-created Continential Army Encampment where you can learn about life as a soldier in the 1700s.
The third point of the Historic Triangle is Jamestown. There are two sites to visit in the area: the Historic Jamestown and the Jamestown Settlement.
Historic Jamestown is the archealogical site jointly run by Preservation Virginia and the NPS. You can tour the island where England had its first permanent colony in North America. Military members and up to three guests receive free admission. Jamestown Settlement is a living history park, perfect for families to learn through reenactments, exhibits, films, and recreations of buildings and ships. Ticket fees are the same for military as the above American Revolutionary Museum.
For a truly unique day trip, travel by the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry, which runs every day of the year. The ferry carries cars across the James River, an important waterway.
Scenic Day Drives
The ferry lands in Surry County, where you can visit Bacon’s Castle, the oldest brick dwelling in America. Continue your drive into Isle of Wight County and Suffolk. While these three locations are more rural, western areas of Hampton Roads, don’t overlook their beauty. In Smithfield, stop at St. Luke’s Historic Church and Museum to visit the oldest brick church and cemetery in Virginia. Afterwards, enjoy lunch, shopping, and historic sites on Main Street in Smithfield.
Make sure to stay informed of events at the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts. From 1922 to 1990, this building was a large high school serving the area, but now has been restored into a cultural center that includes art galleries, movie nights, performing arts, and a beautiful events venue. Suffolk is also home to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, an important wildlife habitat to the region.
Cape Henry Lighthouses. Image from Canva.
Down by the Boardwalk
Virginia Beach is a tourist destination every summer, but don’t miss the rich history. Of possible particular interest to Coast Guard families, the Virginia Beach Surf and Rescue Museum educates the public on the importance of maritime heritage to Virginia Beach and Virginia as a whole.
Whether you elect to stay for a high-end getaway, make reservations to the Distillery, or simply admire the architecture, make sure to see the Historic Cavalier Hotel at the oceanfront. Opened in 1927, this beautiful building has hosted ten presidents and several celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor.
While you swim or sunbathe, you can see the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, but have you driven across it? The previous ferry service to get the Eastern Shore was replaced by the CBBT in the 1960s and it’s an engineering marvel. There’s several scenic views and outlooks, and it can begin an adventure to the Eastern Shore where you can explore places like Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Charles, Chincoteague, and Assateague if you are looking to plan a longer trip.
Fort Story is a working military base that some readers may call home, but it’s also home to the historic Cape Henry Lighthouse. Climb the steps of the first federally funded public works in the country and enjoy the views, gift shop, and learning about lighthouses. Next door, First Landing State Park is the most-visited state park in Virginia, with trails, beaches, wildlife viewing and more, it commemorates the location of the first English settlers to Virginia’s shore.
Enjoy your Hampton Roads adventures! And if you're making a PCS move to Hampton Roads, download our free resource below, designed to make your transition as easy as possible!