While a lot of Pittsburghers head down to Virginia Beach for vacation, the city of Newport News, located about an hour northwest, is well worth a weekend—or longer—on its own. Filled with Civil War-era historical homes, a world-renowned maritime museum, stunning sculpture trails and a wealth of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, Virginia’s sixth most populous city is an exceptional place to visit no matter what your interests.
Historical Homes and Transportation Hubs
Civil War and history buffs can enjoy a trip back in time by visiting Endview Plantation and Lee Hall Mansion, located in the more rural area of northern Newport News. Both were front and center in the battle between Confederate and Union troops; in fact, Endview Plantation was actually used as a Confederate hospital in 1862 before being occupied by Union forces, who stayed there through the end of the war.
Completed in 1769 by William Harwood, the home was later purchased by his great-grandson, Dr. Humphrey Harwood Curtis, who ran a medical practice from the home. While the front parlor, which has been made into a doctor’s office, provides an intriguing look at medical practices of the time, one of the true highlights is the original mantel, which is inscribed with “Band of Veterans from C1MR,” (Company C of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles); no one knows why the homeowner chose not to replace it.
Lee Hall Mansion, located minutes down the road, was used as a headquarters by Confederate generals Joseph E. Johnston and John B. Magruder. One of the last remaining antebellum homes on the Virginia peninsula, the mid-Victorian home features a small museum on the first floor that contains a plethora of Civil War artifacts, including Gen. Magruder’s ruby-encrusted presentation pistol; the original tablecloth from the ironclad ship, USS Monitor; and a hot air balloon fragment from a balloon that was used for reconnaissance during the war.
One of the newest attractions, which opened in June to the public, is Lee Hall Depot. Built in 1881, this last remaining station from the C&O Railroad’s expansion into Warwick County, VA, created a link between the Ohio Valley and the sea. Originally built to get coal from West Virginia to the port at Hampton, VA, the building provided services until the late 1970s and is a testament to that history, as well as to more turbulent times, with segregated white and colored waiting rooms. One unique feature is the stationmaster’s apartment upstairs, which gives visitors a good idea of the difficulty of living beside a set of railroad tracks, especially when trying to bake a cake.
For travelers who would like to take an even deeper dive into history, Newport News is also home to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, which features nearly 100 full-sized vehicles, aircraft, amphibious vehicles and more, and the Virginia War Museum, which traces the development of the U.S. military from 1775 to the present.
The Land and Sea
While it would take a lot of days to experience all that Virginia’s outdoors have to offer, you can wander through the pristine wilderness of the Appalachian mountains, check out the fossils in a limestone cave and even soak in the steaminess of a cypress swamp—all in one place. The Virginia Living Museum boasts that it brings visitors into contact with more habitats, wildlife and plant species than a person would encounter in a lifetime of outdoor adventures in the state, and it doesn’t disappoint, whether you want to touch a living horseshoe crab, see bald eagles in the nest, watch a coyote nap or see the many birds that call Virginia lakes home. While all of the indoor exhibits are impressive, the 3/4-mile outdoor elevated boardwalk is truly magical—not only can you see many of the area’s animals up close, including endangered red wolves and playful river otters, but visitors are immersed in the outdoor experience. For kids, there’s also a hands-on Dinosaur Discovery trail and a Wild and Well area that lets them practice being a zookeeper or veterinarian.
Plan to leave a lot of time to visit The Mariners’ Museum, the largest maritime museum in the U.S. with over 90,000 sq. ft. of exhibits. The museum has to be this large not only to hold its massive collection—of which only 4 percent is currently displayed—but to house an entire wing dedicated to hulking ironclad ships, including a Wet Lab, which is one of the largest marine archaeological metals conservation facilities in the world with over 200 tons of artifacts.
One of the coolest things about this is you can actually watch scientists work; not only in the Wet Lab, but in an entirely new conservation lab built while the museum was closed during the pandemic where chemists, paper conservators and more clean and examine artifacts. There are a lot of hands-on displays, too—one of the most popular stops for both kids and adults is a computer where you can build your own ironclad ship. Trying to figure out how to make it seaworthy, fast, safe and well-armored is a challenge that not all of us can master—I won’t be boarding my ship, the USS Adequate, any time soon.
Speaking of ships, the International Small Craft Center at the museum provides a fascinating look at more than 150 boats from 43 countries, from a ‘bull boat’ covered in bison skin to a mid-1800s Venetian gondola, to a tiny 6-foot sailboat used to travel 4,480 miles across the Atlantic from Casablanca to Florida; the voyage took 85 days and the claustrophobia was real. On a much larger scale, the 72-foot racing yacht that won the 2013 America’s Cup is mounted overhead inside the museum—this massive ship is now the museum’s largest vessel on display.
Ships can be art as well, and one of the more unique things at The Mariners’ Museum is a ship made of animal bones with human hair used for rigging; an awe-inspiring collection of miniature ships built by August F. Crabtree, which are breathtaking in their detail, are a must-see as well.
Speaking of art, the museum is surrounded by a 550-acre park filled with stunning sculptures, so when you’re finished wandering through the exhibits, plan on hiking the Noland Trail and seeing even more memorable sights. There is also a public art driving tour that you can take that leads you through Newport News to see 34 sculptures with 19 of the artists serving as guides; a cell phone app provides the narration.
One last stop—and must stop—in southeast Newport News is the Anderson Johnson Gallery, a permanent exhibit at the Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center. The son of a sharecropper, Johnson had a life-changing vision of angels at age 8 and later traveled throughout the U.S. preaching the gospel. He established the Faith Mission at his home on Ivy Avenue in Newport News and decorated the inside and outside with folk art paintings to attract people to his church.
Those paintings—and practically everything within his home/church are now on display at the arts center, and the sheer magnitude of his work is overwhelming. Every square inch of space is covered in his art—not only the walls, but Styrofoam fast-food containers, bleach bottles, furniture and more. Roughly 600 pieces of visual art and architectural salvage make up this space, immersing the visitor in the art, and mind, of this unique man.
To find out about even more things to see in Newport News as well as where to eat, shop and sleep, visit www.newport-news.org.