Wander Around Neon and Mermaids in This East Coast Waterfront City

Where the ocean meets the arts.

Some people think about Norfolk and imagine the largest naval base in the world stationed here. Others think about mermaids. After all, you could actually scavenge or happily bump into mermaid statues everywhere you go in the city. The Virginia town, sitting on a bay surrounded by water, has a full range of maritime associations. But you’ll also find a bustling waterfront, historic districts, a burgeoning foodie scene, and a stimulating arts neighborhood.

Throughout the city, the Tide light rail system conveniently connects downtown restaurants, cafes, and hotels. Dine on crispy octopus and blackened alligator bites, sail sunset cruises, walk past street murals and historic gothic buildings, see glowing neon festivals, and find as many sea creatures as you can. Here’s everything to explore around town for whatever floats your actual, real-life boat.

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See interactive exhibits

Right on the harbor is an enormous complex called Nauticus, which contains a museum, sailing center, old battleship, and science center. Within the complex, visit Hampton Roads Naval Museum for interactive exhibits about Navy prisoners of war and their Morse Code translations. You could also explore the Battleship Wisconsin, which was berthed at Nauticus and was the last battleship built by the U.S. Navy.


Cruise on the water

You could stay at Nauticus for their sailing center, though there are quite a few options around the city for getting out onto the waves. Sail Elizabeth River with City Cruises to explore Norfolk by water, go with American Rover for sunset cruises, or try Victory Rover Naval Base Cruises for a narrated tour of the naval fleet along the harbor. This is as close as non-Navy personnel can get to the world-class fleet.

If you want to be even closer to the water, rent a kayak at Norfolk Kayak Rentals and paddle Lafayette River with eco tours available to explore the river’s ecosystem.


Eat crawfish beignets and curry lobster

Norfolk Seafood Co is the place to go to sup on seafood, chow on crawfish beignets with mustard aioli, go brave with blackened alligator bites and spicy dip, or pretend you’re in Paris with fried frogs’ legs and syrup glaze. Head downtown to the Hilton for Grain, Norfolk’s only rooftop beer garden, boasting a hundred beers on tap with waterfront views. Pair pale ale with spinach crab and artichoke dip or loaded fries with beer cheese. Or walk over to the Ghent historic district for Press 626 Cafe & Wine Bar, offering selections like baked goat cheese with roasted garlic and duck confit. Prefer upscale dining? Head to Glass Light Hotel for French-inspired New American dining, where you can dine on luxurious fare like crispy octopus with saffron or flounder and curry lobster.

Lastly, end the night on high notes with dinner at either of two music-themed restaurants: Brothers Restaurant, founded by NBA referee Tony Brothers, and Gershwin’s, an upscale bistro serving American fare with piano music. At Brothers, gorge on dishes like salmon slathered in lemon-pepper butter or osso bucco with polenta cake. Finish with a curated wine list as you sway to live jazz, available Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. At Gershwin’s, choose starters like mascarpone and grilled escargots, then continue with brined fried chicken or Atlantic salmon, and end with retro cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger (made of vodka, Galliano, and OJ).

The NEON District

Explore murals in the NEON arts district

The New Energy Of Norfolk (NEON) is the city’s first official arts district, providing a home for artists and over ninety public artworks. Gaze at colorful murals depicting social justice and naval themes, and follow the interactive mural map for a self-guided tour. Stop at breweries, pop-up vendors, and food trucks along the way to keep yourself fueled. Musicians, comedians, and other performers often hold events here, so you never know what fun the night might hold. The organization also hosts a festival in late October, when the city is aglow with humming colors.

Elizabeth River Trail

Bike the waterfront

To take in as many waterfront views as possible, biking is the way to go. Pedal along the 10.5 mile Elizabeth River trail, which has wifi hotspots, bike repair stations, and passes through the beautiful Freemason and Ghent historic districts.

Along the way you’ll also pass Fort Norfolk, which was authorized by George Washington in 1794 and played a role in the civil war. You can hear about it on tours, where you can explore the dungeon, guardhouse, and embankment.

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Walk through history and past a peaceful pagoda

If you’d rather walk and see some history at the same time, check out the Cannonball Trail that weaves through downtown and along the Elizabeth River, exploring 400 years into the city’s past. To get there, take the Tide light rail to York Street Station and walk a short distance to Botetourt Street in the historic Freemason district, Norfolk’s oldest standing neighborhood on the National Register for Historic Places. There you can marvel at the district’s three centuries of historic architecture in styles ranging from Colonial to Italianate.

Along the trail, you can tour the Old Second Presbyterian Church (done in Romanesque Revival style) that was converted to the long-standing Freemason Abbey Restaurant. Also check out the Hunter House Victorian Museum, built in Gothic style in 1894 with turrets and a gargoyle.

Along the way, you’ll also pass the Pagoda & Oriental Garden, also known as Marine Observation Tower. It was gifted to the City of Norfolk by the Taiwanese Government honoring trade ties with Virginia. The pagoda is surrounded by Kwansan cherry trees, benches, rock pools, and koi in a 75,000 gallon pond. A red mermaid sculpture welcomes visitors to this zen space.

Last on the Cannonball Trail are downtown Granby and Main Streets, full of hotels, restaurants, and theaters in beautiful buildings. You might spy Granby Theater, built in 1916 and still in operation today, and the Royster Building, a grand turn-of-the-century structure.

Sugar & Grace Co.

Shop local businesses at Selden Arcade

Selden Arcade hosts an indoor market full of local businesses and pop-ups in an old, renovated landmark. The market features Norfolk businesses like Sugar & Grace, a non-toxic candle and plant shop with DIY candle-making or S’mores Amore, where you can get treats like blondies and (obviously) s’mores. Restaurants include the Granby Waffle Shop for sweet and savory creations; The Stockpot Norfolk for quinoa bowls, Huevos Rancheros, Turkish breakfast, and peach sandos; and Hilton Norfolk for the upscale restaurants Saltine, serving shellfish and cocktails, and Varia, an Italian wine bar.

The Chrysler Museum of Art

Explore Norfolk’s incredible glass arts scene

To go on a crystalized tour, start at the Glass Light Hotel & Gallery and its Perry Glass Studio, which includes highlights like Dual by Lucy Lyon, Thinker by Martin Janecky, and Salacious Torrid Teaser by Stephen Powell.

Next, head to the Chrysler Museum of Art Glass Galleries for the history of glass in ancient cultures to modern glass making. There you’ll learn that Tiffany is not just a luxury jeweler, but a glass designer, who made some of the finest stained glass from Tiffany Studios in NYC between the 1870s and 1933.

Lastly, walk a few steps to Perry Glass Studio for glass-blowing by master creators. Watch shards heated in kilns at temperatures hotter than lava and pieces fired and shaped into ornaments.

Glass Light Hotel & Gallery, Autograph Collection

Stay in a glass-themed hotel

Opt for a glamorous stay at Glass Light Hotel & Gallery in downtown Norfolk. The hotel sits in a historical building, but the inside sparkles like a diamond. Two-floors of the property host the Perry Glass Studio, where you can tour a mesmerizing collection of sixty-five tinkling pieces from famous sculptors, including Dale Chihuly.

You’ll also find glass pieces hanging on walls from the lobby to rooms and displayed on tables. Keep an eye out for the striking giant bunny rabbit pieces, Pops and Bunny, representing the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Perry, and sculpted by Dutch artist Peter Bremers.

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Kemi Ibeh is a contributor for Thrillist.