RICHMOND, Va. — With terrain varying from the mountains to the coast, Virginia offers an array of fall colors for leaf peepers. But before or after your drive along one of the state’s many scenic byways, consider a fix of Southern city living with a visit to the state capital, Richmond. Located along Interstate 95, it’s an easy stopping-off point. And whether you like the outdoors, art or history, there’s plenty to do here — and you don’t have to spend a dime.
CANAL WALK/BROWN’S ISLAND/BELLE ISLE
Find out why Outside magazine readers voted Richmond the nation’s most livable river town in 2012 by taking in the scenic James River. Canal Walk runs more than a mile through downtown Richmond along the river and the banks of the city’s canals, with monuments and exhibits along the way highlighting Richmond history.
With various access points around the city, Canal Walk eventually leads to Brown’s Island, a popular venue for concerts and festivals located between the canals and the river. It has a series of walking trails and bridges, including one that takes you to the middle of the river. Just steps away, a pedestrian bridge suspended under the Lee Bridge takes visitors over the river to Belle Isle, where you’ll find locals exploring the 54-acre island and resting on its rocky shores.
Belle Isle was first explored in 1607 by Capt. John Smith, who helped establish England’s first North American settlement in Virginia. The island was once home to a granite quarry and hydroelectric plant. It was also used as prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War. It features several bike trails, a rock climbing wall, and tons of off-the-beaten-path areas to explore.
Canal Walk is open 24 hours a day. Brown’s Island and the Belle Isle access bridge are open sunrise to sunset.
VIRGINIA STATE CAPITOL
The State Capitol building, designed by Thomas Jefferson in the Monumental Classical style, has housed state government since 1788. The wings of the building were added between 1904 and 1906. The Capitol reopened in 2007 after a $104.5 million restoration and expansion project that began in 2004. Statues of Virginia historic figures dot the grounds. Also onsite is the historic Bell Tower, which houses a state welcome center and, at the other corner of the grounds, the Virginia Executive Mansion, where the governor’s family lives.
The Capitol building is open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. You can tour on your own or with a guide.
The cemetery along the James River is named for its plentiful holly trees. But while the Hollywood Cemetery isn’t a graveyard for famous actors, it has its own who’s who from Virginia history. The cemetery opened in 1849 and has grown to more than 135 acres with more than 80,000 people buried there, including Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler (who was William Henry Harrison’s vice president and became president in 1841 after Harrison died), as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis and numerous Virginia governors. The first battle casualty of the Civil War is buried there along with more than 18,000 Confederate soldiers interred beneath a 90-foot granite pyramid.
The cemetery is open daily with historic walking tours Monday through Saturday at 10 a.m., April through October.
VIRGINIA MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts houses more than 33,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years of world history. Highlights include Faberge objects, Art Nouveau and Art Deco collections, Asian and African art, and paintings ranging from French Impressionist to modern and contemporary American. With a recent expansion, the museum encompasses 640,000 interior square feet, and has a sculpture garden, casual dining area and restaurant.
The museum is open Saturday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. The Virginia Historical Society is next door and offers free parking and admission.
This 100-acre estate was given to the Richmond community by James and Sallie Dooley, who lived there in a 33-room mansion from 1893 to 1925. The grounds feature elaborate Italian and Japanese gardens, an arboretum, butterfly trail and other smaller gardens that feature cactus, herbs and daffodils. A wildlife exhibit includes animals native to Virginia, such as black bears, bison, white-tailed deer, bobcats, bald eagles and other birds of prey. A children’s farm features goats, pigs and other animals.
Entrance to the gardens, visitors center and wildlife exhibits is free. The mansion, nature center and children’s farm have suggested donations of $5 or less. The grounds are open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but some areas are closed Mondays.