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Mermaids, Murals and Maritime History Make Norfolk, VA Intriguing Place to Visit

There are many striking things about Norfolk, VA, not the least of which is that there are ships—massive, hulking ships—docked in the waterways around the downtown area. For people who have been raised in maritime cities, this may not be such a surprise; but for those of us from more land-locked areas, it’s quite a revelation to turn a corner and find yourself staring at a 40-foot-tall battleship!

The city is also extremely colorful—brightly festive murals adorn buildings throughout the area, especially in the NEON District, and eye-catching mermaid sculptures swim along city streets, in front of stately Victorian homes, and along the waterfront. And did I mention that there is a bright red and green two-story pagoda smack in the middle of it all?

The good news is that Norfolk is an extremely walkable city, so you can take it all in by just wandering around. Add to that a wealth of unique restaurants—ranging from top-of-the-line seafood eateries to steampunk-chic pubs—and it’s easy to spend a weekend or longer exploring all that the city has to offer.

Get Your Steps In

One of the best ways to get to know Norfolk is by following the Cannonball Trail Walking Tour, a 2.5-mile, self-guided route that leads you along the waterfront and through Norfolk’s historic Freemason neighborhood. It’s hard to believe that this serene Victorian enclave exists right in the middle of a city; flag-bedecked homes showcasing three centuries of architectural styles and tree-lined cobblestone streets seem lifted right out of the 1800s.

More than 40 historic sites spanning 400 years of history can be found along the trail, and you can even check out the interior of one of the homes. The Hunter House Victorian Museum, built in 1894, is a showcase of Victorian decorative arts and architecture, but what’s even more intriguing than the hair jewelry and the board game set up in the parlor—in which players try to become part of the “charmed circle of the 400” to get an invite to Mrs. Jacob Astor’s ballroom—is the story of the family that lived there.

The home’s owners had three children; James Wilson Hunter, Jr., Harriet Cornelia and Eloise Dexter. Atypical of the time, none of the children ever married, and the two sisters lived in the home until their deaths. The son, who was the city’s first radiologist, had a thriving practice until his use of radiation caused a patient to become permanently disabled; he lost the court case and suffering from depression, moved his practice into the home where you can still see the equipment he used and a miniature-sized X-ray. In memory of their brother and father, the two sisters not only left their home to the city, but later started a foundation for men down on their luck.

Meandering along the trail will bring you to the Pagoda & Oriental Garden, a gift from Taiwan to the city of Norfolk and the state for honoring Taiwan’s trading ties with Virginia. And you can’t help but notice Nauticus along your walk, most notably because this maritime-themed science center and museum sits beside the Battleship Wisconsin, one of the largest battleships built by the U.S. Navy. Parked in the center of downtown, visitors can take a self-guided deck and interior tour or a guided Topside Tour of this massive 887-foot ship as well as enjoy exhibits at the museum ranging from shark experiences to Secrets of the Deep. For those looking for more military history, the MacArthur Memorial, a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, is located downtown; make sure to also stop into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to see the cannonball embedded in the wall from 1776.

Sculptures, Murals and More

While many areas have a focus on the arts, Norfolk takes it to a whole new level. From the murals that cover nearly every surface in the NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) Arts District, to the massive 21-foot-tall steel sculpture in front of the World Trade Center on Main Street, to the ancient artifacts and intricate glass pieces at the Chrysler Museum of Art, there’s something for every taste.

One of the best ways to take in the murals is on a walking tour with the Norfolk Tour Company, whose knowledgeable guides provide insight into the more than 100-plus pieces of public art in this neighborhood located about a mile from downtown. What started as a grassroots movement remains on the cutting edge; in addition to approved artistic work, back alleys feature even more creativity as murals pop up in every space.

While a more traditional venue, the Chrysler Museum of Art also houses some incredibly innovative work, especially in its glass collection—one of the world’s largest—which offers everything from Tiffany masterworks to blown-glass pipes to an entire religious-themed chess set made of lampworked glass. More than 30,000 objects can be found in the 50 galleries at the Chrysler, so plan to make a day of it in this stunning museum.

If you want to take home something unique, visit Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood to enjoy boutique shopping at Kitsch, which is home to more than 200 artists, crafters and makers, or Texture, which carries the work of more than 200 artists. Animal lovers might also want to stop into the Catnip Cat Café to enjoy coffee or tea with cats from local shelters—which you can also adopt.

And speaking of animals—if you’re into retro restaurants, the Little Dog Diner on Colley Avenue is not to be missed.

Before leaving town, stop at Doumar’s Cones & Barbecue—home of the world’s first waffle cone—and pick up some ice cream to go. Doumar’s still makes its cones in the original waffle cone maker, and you can watch them make it right on the premises of this 1950s-style car hop diner.

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