Paid partnership with Virginia Tourism Corporation
Richmond’s Renaissance: to listen along to this story, or to pause the playback, click the play button:
It’s a humid late-summer day in Richmond, Virginia’s state capital, and I’m looking forward to air-conditioned refuge inside the angular confines of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. But I’m stopped in my tracks on the way in.
Soaring 27ft above me, artist Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War statue defends the museum on horseback like a great Roman Praetorian Guard, except the man straddling the horse is African-American, dressed in contemporary clothes – hoodie, ripped jeans, Nike trainers – with an unflappable, defiant look in his eyes.
It’s no coincidence that this provocative bronze creation stands only a few blocks from Monument Avenue, the grassy mall plotting a course away from downtown Richmond, so named for its emblematic row of statues honouring those who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War.
Many of those controversial structures were removed following the George Floyd protests, but this statue stands tall, a symbol of a modern, proud and diverse Richmond.
Located two hours south of Washington DC by car or Amtrak, the former Confederate capital has become a dynamic and luxurious escape in recent years, with some wildly good dining, cultural and accommodation options. Flanked to the south by the winding hem of the James River which eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay, a weekend in Richmond is an eye-opening mélange of heritage and creativity.
Gazing up at Rumors of War isn’t the first time I’m struck by extraordinary architecture in this historic city, either. The monolithic Jefferson Hotel rises above Richmond in grand stone foldings, taking up an entire block, such is its magnitude. But there’s intricacy in its design too; dating back to 1895 in the Spanish Baroque style, its imposing façade unfurls in half-moon arches, neoclassical columns and slanting tiled roofs.
Walking into the breezy Palm Court lobby, I’m greeted by a white marble statue of Thomas Jefferson, the third president and the hotel’s namesake. Shards of light filter through a beautiful glass dome above me, while a crooning voice sings alongside a bouncing trombone through hidden speakers. Those mellow jazz sounds evoke further the sense of history, though I feel like I’m traversing several time periods inside this fine hotel.
A devastating fire gutted its interior in 1901 just six years after opening, though that restoration led to a wall being pulled down and the formation of the majestic Rotunda; a grand Edwardian hall flanked by portraits of presidents, dotted by chandeliers and candelabras, held up by faux marble columns and looked down upon by a curved cream ceiling embossed by ornate green leaves.
“They don’t make ‘em like this anymore!” says Patrick Willis, executive chef at Lemaire, the Jefferson’s sublime restaurant named after Thomas Jefferson’s maître d’ Étienne Lemaire.
A Virginia native, Willis is a tall, laid-back figure with a deep southern drawl who’s about to celebrate his 15th year at Lemaire, having joined the restaurant in 2009.
With original high mirrors from 1895, a floral patterned carpet, intricate white plasterwork and elaborate glass chandeliers, sitting in Lemaire feels like stepping back to the turn of the century. Closing my eyes I can imagine this room once being a smoky haven for pontificating on politics and sundry other topics of the day.
“It’s southern food with French techniques,” explains Willis, on Lemaire’s style of food. “I like to describe it as ‘regional American’. We like to source from the Chesapeake Bay. Raw oysters are one of our main staples and fried oysters too, believe it or not. We also make a delicious blue crab cake that’s hard to keep on our shelves. Seafood is real big in Richmond.”
Lemaire has been plating up quality food for some years, but Richmond itself is at the forefront of a gastronomic revolution, with local chefs returning from New York to open up their own joints in the city.
One chef who came home is Brittanny Anderson, opening rustic European-influenced restaurants like Metzger Bar & Butchery and Brenner Pass. The latter of these sits amid the converted warehouses of the Scott’s Addition neighbourhood, where over 15 art-splashed breweries and cideries now call home and whose creativity is on show throughout the week.
Back at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), work by some of the world’s greatest creatives is on show for free, from their 15+ John Singer Sargeant’s to the largest public collection of gleaming Fabergé eggs outside of Russia.
“These collections, in so many aspects, are quite unbelievable. We’re in a small city in Virginia – people just don’t expect to see [them],” says Alex Nyerges, the museum’s Director and Chief Executive Officer.
Impeccably suited and hugely passionate about his work, Nyerges is an engaging ball of energy who speaks with the sort of husky voice that could narrate a Hollywood movie trailer.
“We have a major exhibition programme, and we say it’s the engine that drives the train. We’ve hosted exhibitions from the Musée Picasso in Paris, to treasures from the Forbidden City in China.”
The VMFA opened in 1936 and was the first state art museum in the United States. A short drive south towards the northern banks of the James River and sitting inside a bucolic 100-acre Victorian estate and public park, Maymont Mansion feels like a museum itself and is an lavish example of the Gilded Age (1870-1900) when the US saw a sustained period of economic growth.
Built by well-heeled local lawyer and philanthropist James Dooley, Maymont’s rooms initially appear fairly standard for a stately home but a closer look reveals an abode altogether quirkier: mirrors held up by narwhal tusks, ‘transitional’ light fixtures (both gas and electric) and, most notably, a garish blue and white swan-shaped bed.
Despite the eccentric interior, the property’s Japanese garden is a much more languid setting. I imagine it is enchanting all year round and right now it is the perfect respite from the oppressive late-afternoon heat. I spend some time there to recharge my batteries, with only the mellifluous sound of a cascading waterfall and the staccato yelps of ospreys and bluejays for company.
At dinner in Lemaire that evening, great curtains of rain howl against the Jefferson’s sturdy stone exterior, but by the following morning I’m greeted once again by effulgent flares of sunlight pouring through my bedroom’s windows.
Much like Richmond itself, the day is reinvented and the city has another blank canvas with which to paint an ongoing and fascinating story.
Need to know
Dulles International Airport is served by daily flights from around the world, including direct flights from London Heathrow and Gatwick.
Richmond is approximately 200 km (2 hours drive) south of Dulles International Airport.
Best time to go:
Richmond is a year-round destination. The best time to visit is during the fall, typically from late September to early November. During this time, the weather is comfortably mild, with cooler temperatures that make outdoor activities enjoyable.
Additionally, fall brings various festivals and events, allowing visitors to experience the local culture and culinary delights.
Where to stay:
The Jefferson Hotel stands as an iconic symbol of luxury and historic grandeur. The guest rooms and suites are lavishly appointed, seamlessly blending classical design with modern comforts. The hotel’s renowned dining establishments, including the Lemaire restaurant, offer a culinary experience that will leave you speechless.
Comfortable walking shoes are a must, as Richmond boasts historic neighbourhoods, scenic parks, and riverfront trails. Temperatures can vary throughout the day so bring layers. A water bottle is essential for staying hydrated, especially if exploring outdoor spaces like the James River Park System.
If visiting during the warmer months, sunscreen and insect repellent can be crucial for outdoor activities.
How to do it:
Navigating Richmond is a breeze with a range of transportation options. For those seeking flexibility, car rentals from major companies provide the freedom to explore both the city and its surroundings.
Public transportation is facilitated by the GRTC Transit System, featuring buses and the Pulse, a bus rapid transit system connecting downtown to Willow Lawn.
Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft offer convenient alternatives, while biking is a popular choice with bike-friendly lanes and the scenic Virginia Capital Trail.
The RVA Trolley, a free service, conveniently shuttles visitors around downtown, making it easy to access attractions, restaurants, and shops.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is open 365 days a year. Opening hours are 10 am – 5 pm daily except Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays when it is open until 9 pm.
Admission to the permanent galleries is free however there will be an entrance fee for special exhibitions.
Maymont is open daily from 10 am – 5 pm. There’s no ticket required but a $5 donation will be appreciated.
At the time of writing, Maymont mansion is closed for renovation. Check before visiting. You can still visit the grounds and the Japanese Garden.
This article was brought to you in partnership with Virginia Tourism Corporation.
For more information and suggested itineraries, go to www.virginia.org
JRNY is an independent travel magazine published in the UK. Subscribe to JRNY for more stories like this.