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Where to Eat, Stay, and Play in Virginia Beach

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 11/30/2021 Robin Catalano
© Courtesy Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau

While military bases may have put Virginia Beach on modern maps, the city has since outgrown its reputation as a hot spot for sailors on leave. With its population of nearly a half million, several distinct neighborhoods, a vibrant culinary scene, 38 miles of shoreline, and year-round outdoor recreation, Virginia Beach is as close as you can get to an all-things-to-all-travelers destination.

Getting to and around Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach is a 3.5-hour drive from Washington, D.C., and 20 minutes from Norfolk International Airport. Breeze Airways now offers a variety of nonstop routes starting at $39 each way. Train service is available to and from Amtrak’s new Norfolk Station. If you’re not renting a car, hail an Uber, Lyft, taxi, or private shuttle into the city. (Bus service doesn’t run directly to the airport, and requires a couple of line changes.) Once in the city, many attractions are within walking distance of one another. For those farther afield, you can rent a bike or hail a ride-share service. A public trolley runs from May through September with routes along the oceanfront, to shopping destinations, and between fun parks and family attractions.

Mount Trashmore Park © Courtesy Mount Trashmore Park Mount Trashmore Park

What to do in Virginia Beach

Start by walking the historic Virginia Beach Boardwalk. Originally built in 1888, this wide-open, three-mile pedestrian and bike path provides easy access to resorts and restaurants. It also offers unobstructed views of the ocean, where you can often see pods of dolphins swimming just offshore. They’re more active in the summer but can be spotted year round, and if you want a more up-close view, you can kayak alongside them on guided tours with Chesapean Outdoors.

In warmer months, go beach combing or swimming on quiet Chesapeake Bay Beach at First Landing State Park, the original arrival site of British colonists in 1607. Across the road, you can walk more than 15 miles of tranquil wooded and bayside trails. If you’ve got kids in tow, head for the playgrounds and walking paths at Mount Trashmore, a grass-covered, volcano-like park on the reclaimed site of a former landfill.

This year, Virginia Beach debuted its new Get Outdoors Pass, which grants discounted admission to a range of outdoor attractions and activities, including zip-lining through wetlands, whale watching, paddle boarding, surfing, and exploring 4,000 acres of national wildlife refuges.

On the historical side, the drivable African American History Tour includes more than a dozen landmarks and locations, such as America’s first Black-owned fire station and a little-known former fishing community. Or learn about the Lynnhaven oyster, which is endemic to the area, with Pleasure House Oysters. The Chef’s Table Tour caps off a soothing boat ride, past waterfront mansions and through a working oyster farm, with a harvesting demonstration and a tasting at a table set up in the river.

Over the past couple of decades, Virginia Beach’s arts scene has blossomed. A rotating selection of performers liven up the waterfront most nights of the week. The easy-to-navigate Virginia Beach Museum of Contemporary Art features a regularly changing series of exhibits. And the ViBe Creative District, a hub for artists in a range of media, hosts seasonal festivals and markets. The neighborhood, with its mix of funky, industrial spaces and color-splashed murals and “creative crosswalks,” also has a number of permanent public art installations.

In addition to being a great spot for glimpsing ospreys, herons, and egrets, the Pleasure House Point Natural Area is the home of Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK. Download the free app and stroll to a GPS-enabled score by the Pulitzer Prize–winning composer, whose music encourages an introspective experience of the natural world.

A Virginia Beach picnic set up by the Picnic Co. © Courtesy The Picnic Co. A Virginia Beach picnic set up by the Picnic Co.

What to eat

Bring an appetite to Virginia Beach: the city has more than 250 restaurants. Three Notch’d Craft Kitchen & Brewery is a new outpost from Virginia’s largest independent craft beer company. In addition to overstuffed sandwiches and hand-cut fries topped with crab gravy, you can sample eight beers on tap, cocktails, and mocktails. Fast-casual lunch counter Session serves breakfast and lunch all day, with a vegetarian- and vegan-friendly menu of updated comfort foods, like the root-vegetable hash breakfast burrito with gochujang aioli.

Since 2015, Commune, in the ViBe District, has served organic, seasonal fare. Don’t miss the Commune Burger, a crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside delight made from peas, potatoes, Carolina gold rice, and sorghum berries.

Once a locals’ hangout, Chick’s Oyster Bar is a go-to for watching sunsets from the back porch while dining on she-crab soup and oysters on the half-shell and sipping an Orange Crush, a grown-up blend of citrus-infused vodka, fresh-squeezed orange juice, triple sec, and lemon-lime soda. Or book a customized beach picnic, preferably on the North End, with The Picnic Co. They’ll set up a cozy, boho-inspired table and pillows or chairs, plus snacks and your own tunes.

The best breakfasts in town come courtesy of two polar opposites. Ray Ray’s at the Mayflower, a casual, hole-in-the-wall joint, serves eclectic standouts like ube pancakes, made with Filipino yams and topped with homemade condensed milk, and lox and arepas. Becca, meanwhile, is all Southern gentility and breakfast classics in a vintage garden room setting at the Cavalier Hotel. The bourbon brioche French toast, with cinnamon-pecan butter, is made using whiskey from the Tarnished Truth. Also located inside the Cavalier, Tarnished Truth is the country’s first in-hotel distillery, and it offers tours and tastings; don’t miss the sweet, smooth Bourbon Cream Liqueur.

Marriott Virginia Beach Oceanfront © Courtesy Marriott Virginia Beach Oceanfront Marriott Virginia Beach Oceanfront

Where to stay

Over the past few years, several brands have opened hotels in Virginia Beach, including Delta Hotels Virginia Beach. The Marriott Resort Virginia Beach Oceanfront features Atlantic views from all 305 rooms and suites, on-site bike rentals, and an infinity pool that seems to float above the beach. For a cozy urban-apartment feel, book The Paradise Place apartment, near Mount Trashmore. 

Looking to splurge? Stay at the Historic Cavalier Hotel & Beach Club. Nearly a century old, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Carter, and Muhammad Ali. In 2018, following a massive four-year renovation, the plush 85-room property reopened with color-drenched décor, an indoor pool, three restaurants, a distillery, and an enviable art collection.

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