Norfolk Anew

A native Norfolkian rediscovers Mermaid City.


I’m gliding across the tranquil surface of Knitting Mill Creek on a sunset tour with Josh Coplon, owner of Norfolk Kayak Tours. As our small group paddles toward the Lafayette River, Josh points out shorebirds in the reeds by the water’s edge and tells us about the history of the creek and recent restoration efforts. I drift away from the group toward a riverfront neighborhood and admire century-old homes with spacious front porches and streets lined with crape myrtles. I feel far away from the hustle and bustle I have always associated with Norfolk.

ven though I was born in this city, it’s always been an enigma. I left at a young age, thanks to my dad, an officer in the U.S. Navy. Eventually, we returned to the region, settling in Virginia Beach, and as the years passed, I got to know Norfolk while attending graduate school at Old Dominion University, as well as cultural events downtown. But the city’s urban personality always seemed foreign and mysterious, perhaps because I’m a country girl at heart. 

I decide it’s time to learn more about my neighboring city to the west, to discover a side of Norfolk I’ve never seen before, one that has turned it into a mecca for millennials who rave about the city’s breweries, music scene, and edgy, urban vibe. I plan to explore its eclectic neighborhoods, pop by a few attractions, and seek out opportunities for outdoor fun—like this kayaking tour.

The late afternoon sun sparkles on the water as we paddle back toward Knitting Mill Creek, pausing to watch the sun melt behind the horizon. I feel calm and elated. Already Norfolk seems different, like a new destination I’ve never been to before. 

It’s All About the Water

Bounded by the Chesapeake Bay to the north and the intersection of waterways to the west and south cumulatively called Hampton Roads, Norfolk has had a deep love affair with water and reaches back to the days when Indians plied the rivers and bays, harvesting shellfish and living off the land. 

Today, water is still key to Norfolk’s economy with Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval station, occupying 4,600 acres next to the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (currently undergoing a $3.9 billion expansion). Container ships are another common sight, delivering cargo to the Norfolk International Terminals. Pleasure boats and sailboats cruise by, some heading north or south via the Intracoastal Waterway, which has its zero mile marker at the foot of Main Street in Norfolk.

Tourism is also fed by the local waterways. Dozens of cruise ships call in at the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center throughout the year, bringing tourists to the city. Nauticus, the Maritime Discovery Center, attracts 350,000 visitors annually with interactive displays, traveling exhibits, and STEM programming for students. It’s also in the final stages of a $21.5 million renovation and expansion featuring five additional galleries and a new Wonder Hall. 

It’s hard to miss the Battleship Wisconsin, one of the largest built by the U.S. Navy, which is permanently moored next to Nauticus. You can tour the Wisconsin (guided or self-guided) and learn how this massive battleship served our country from WWII to Operation Desert Storm. I wander its decks and corridors and imagine what it would be like to live aboard with 3,000+ crewmembers. An exhibit in the officer’s dining room lists what it takes to feed the ship’s crew: 540 dozen eggs and 205 pounds of coffee were consumed each morning. For a unique experience, plan an overnight on “the Whisky,” which includes a behind-the-scenes tour with a naval expert, sleeping in a berth, and breakfast aboard the ship. 

More military history awaits in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum inside Nauticus. A current exhibition details the navy’s role in the Vietnam War, enlightening for both baby boomers and millennials. Seeing and hearing the stories of the sailors who served during that war makes an impression on me, a reminder of Norfolk’s importance in U.S. Naval operations.

How Do You Say It?

You can tell a local from a visitor by the way they pronounce Norfolk. The proper pronunciation is nor-fuk, not nor-folk, nor-fork, nor-foke, or naw-fik. Locals say it’s NOR-FUK.

Getting Around 

I’m itching to get back on the water, and luckily more opportunities are at hand. In addition to Norfolk Kayak Tours, you can rent a jet ski or stand-up paddleboard from Norfolk Watersports. Sail Nauticus offers a two-hour course called “First Sail” from April through October, and you can learn about Naval Station Norfolk aboard the Victory Rover, which departs from Nauticus. Norfolk City Cruises welcomes guests to a variety of experiences aboard the Spirit of Norfolk, including brunch and dinner cruises.

I decide to join an excursion on the American Rover, a 135-foot topsail three-masted schooner, which sails the Elizabeth River. A fair wind is blowing, so its crew, along with a handful of hardy volunteers, raise the huge red sails, which glow in the late afternoon sun. This serene sailing experience provides a unique perspective of the city, and I feel my cares melt away. As we return to the dock, seagulls serenade us and water splashes gently against the hull.

Culture Connections

A different kind of liquid has my attention at the Perry Glass Studio at the Chrysler Museum. I’m watching skillful glassblowers give a free glass demo in the hot shop, while muted construction sounds nearby are a reminder that soon the studio will more than double in size. 

Afterwards, I wander through the Chrysler’s glass collection, finding my favorite—Tiffany Studios’ Dragonfly Library Lamp (ca. 1905-1910, leaded glass; cast bronze)—and getting lost in its blues and greens. I can’t wait to see Fantastic Creatures of the Venetian Lagoon: Glass 1875-1915, an exhibition highlighting pieces of Italian glass from the Chrysler’s impressive collection on view through Aug. 18. It’s amazing that Norfolk has such a world-class art museum in its midst, and admission is always free.

The Chrysler is part of Norfolk’s NEON District, where the streets and alleyways shine with colorful murals and sculptures, part of the city’s commitment to public art. The district is also home to retail businesses, as well as d’ART Center, a community art center featuring galleries and studios rented by local artists who love to talk about their work with visitors. NEON Norfolk’s website has a map of the district’s public art pieces for scoping out. 

Museums & Galleries

Tucked into Norfolk’s North Shore neighborhood and overlooking the Lafayette River is The Hermitage Museum and Gardens. The arts-and-crafts style mansion was built by William and Florence Sloane, wealthy New Yorkers who came to Norfolk in 1893 to operate mills and built an impressive art collection. The estate also features 12 acres of gardens, and is open to the public. In addition to art, Florence collected millstones, which are scattered amid the Hermitage’s gardens. 

One of the newest gallery spaces to open in Norfolk is the Barry Art Museum, founded in 2016 by art collectors and philanthropists Carolyn and Richard Barry. The collection includes glassworks by internationally renowned designers and artists, as well as paintings and rare and historic dolls. The Barry Museum is part of Old Dominion University’s extensive arts offerings, both visual and performing, including the Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, known for its collection of nationally and internationally recognized self-taught artists.

Art aficionados should make time for Norfolk’s riveting performing arts season while visiting the city. The Virginia Stage Company presents a rich, diverse season of theatrical productions performed in the historic Wells Theater. The 2023-24 season included Fiddler on the Roof, Dial M for Murder, and Lay It Down: The Music of the Everly Brothers. In addition, the Virginia Opera, Virginia Symphony, Virginia Arts Festival, and Broadway in Norfolk offer exciting concerts and shows. Local venues like the NorVa and the Historic Attucks Theater welcome national entertainment, and local music acts perform regularly in bars and breweries.

Festivals in Norfolk round out the fun, including the long-running Harborfest, a waterfront event known for its spectacular Parade of Sail, featuring tall ships and a flotilla of pleasure craft, as well as top-name music performers and a festive fireworks display. Mark your calendars for the 48th Annual Norfolk Harborfest, June 7-9. 

Kyle LaFerriere Kyle LaFerriere Photography

Detail of Transparent Seas by Jason Levesque, an interactive mural that uses light and color to transform as viewers pass by. Below: A detail of Gourmandizing NEON, a collaboration between London artist Matthew McGuiness and 10 students from the Governor’s School for the Arts. Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Trailblazing

Before my foray into Norfolk ends, I want to experience something that’s been on my radar for a while. Norfolk’s 10.5-mile Elizabeth River Trail opened in 2019 and promises walkers, runners, and cyclists of all ages a chance to see Norfolk from a new perspective. I’m curious to see where the trail goes.

I meet Amy Oliver at her downtown shop, Pedego Electric Bikes Norfolk, one of 200 locally owned Pedego bike stores throughout the country. She sets me up with a pink Comfort Cruiser; first I do a practice run on Norfolk’s downtown streets and discover that its reputation as a bike-friendly city is spot-on. Amy gives me a map of the trail, and I pick up the trailhead near the Norfolk Amtrak train station. What follows is a scenic ride through neighborhoods, some of which I’ve never seen before.

Pedaling along the waterfront, I pass by manicured gardens and apartment buildings, then through the historic Freemason and Ghent neighborhoods, where stately brick homes date back a century or more. Navigating my pink bike carefully, I cross Hampton Boulevard, remembering all the times I hurried down this busy street enroute to classes at ODU without paying attention to the beautiful neighborhoods and parks outside my window. 

It’s easy to rush through our busy days without noticing what makes a place special. My visit to this city I’ve known my whole life has been eye-opening. Who knew Norfolk has awesome kayaking and sailing, crazy-good restaurants and breweries, and an urban bike trail that takes you from city streets to idyllic parks and neighborhoods? Sometimes surprises await in your own backyard. You just have to stop and look.

Kyle LaFerriere Kyle LaFerriere Photography

At Luce, a quaint Italian restaurant by Chef Antonio Caruana, enjoy a variety of regional specialties from Sicily to Sardinia. Here: Polpo Carbonizzato with charred Spanish octopus, pancetta-simmered cannelini beans, and blistered tomatoes. Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

A Weekend in Norfolk

There’s a wealth of good eats in this lively city, so come to Norfolk hungry and thirsty. Then spend the night in accommodations that range from hip to luxurious—the perfect city escape!

EAT

Luce: This intimate eatery wows with its authentic Italian food crafted by Chef Tony Caruana. Don’t miss the wild boar ragu—it’s revelatory! 245 Granby St., LuceNorfolk.com

Syd’s Fish Pig: Prepare to be surprised at this eclectic restaurant, where Chef Syd creates Southern-style cuisine that’s to die for. Order the evening special, always prepared with saucy love. 210 E. Main St., FishPigCafe.com

Fellini’s: Known for its killer pizzas—try the Norfolk Special—Fellini’s also delivers flavorful pasta dishes and burgers. Their fried oysters are a real treat. 3910 Colley Ave., FellinisVa.com

Todd Jurich’s Bistro: Chef Todd Jurich and his talented team offer comfort food with flair, from a “really good” meatloaf to crispy cherry duck. You won’t go away hungry. 150 W. Main St., Unit 100, ToddJurichBistro.com

Crudo Nudo: Chef Eric Nelson transports you to Spain in his cozy restaurant, serving creative tapas, charcuterie boards, and small plates bursting with flavor. 727 W. 21st St., CrudoNudo.com

The Fishin’ Pig: With roots in Virginia’s heartland, this crazy-good BBQ joint thrills diners with its zesty ‘cue, fried catfish, fresh fried pork rinds, hushpuppies, and so much more. 210 E. Main St., FishinPig.com

Mermaid Winery: This urban winery serves wines aplenty, including their own, and pairs them with grazing boards, shareables, and hearty entrées. Don’t miss the sassy Pinot Pimento Cheese. 101 Granby St., MermaidWinery.com

Codex: Dishing creative cuisine and cocktails, this modern eatery boasts a “resolutely casual vibe.” Try their house burger for $10 on Wednesdays. It’s delish! 429 Granby St., CodexVa.com

DRINK

Elation Brewing: Relax at Elation’s curved bar and sample award-winning beers like Larchmont Lager, a German pilsner, or Highland Park Hazy with notes of pineapple and citrus. 5104 Colley Ave., Elation.beer

Benchtop Craft Brewing: Precision and creativity combine to produce Benchtop’s balanced craft beers. Try Proven Theory, their flagship IPA with a tropical flavor profile. 1129 Boissevain Ave., BenchTopBrewing.com

Rip Rap Brewing: Housed in a former garage, this microbrewery is making waves with its tasty craft beers. You never know what’s on tap, but you know it will be good. 116 E. 25th St., RipRapBrewing.com

STAY

The Glass Light Hotel & Gallery: This Marriott Autograph property includes an art gallery among its many amenities. Plus, a downtown location, chill vibe, colorful artwork, and comfy rooms equal an inspiring place to stay. 201 Granby St., GlassLightHotel.com

The Main: This contemporary upscale hotel, a Hilton property and in the heart of downtown Norfolk, features three different restaurants, an indoor pool, and impeccable service. 100 E. Main St., TheMainNorfolk.com

The Inn at Four Eleven York: Originally a home built in the 1890s, this inn in Norfolks’s Freemason District has been lovingly transformed into a top-quality B&B and restaurant, promising a serene city escape. 411 W. York St., FourElevenYork.com

Photo Fusion Media

The Glass Light Hotel is an art gallery, fine dining restaurant, and upscale Mariott Autograph hotel all in one. Photo Courtesy of The Glass Light Hotel


This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

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