Smart Luxury: Richmond, Virginia

by  Laura Motta | Aug 22, 2018
Institute of Contemporary art at Virginia Commonwealth University
Institute of Contemporary art at Virginia Commonwealth University / Photo courtesy of Visit Richmond, VA

Despite having just 200,000 residents, Virginia’s capital, Richmond, feels like anything but a small town these days. With a sparkling new contemporary art museum, one of the most buzzed-about hotels in the country, a thriving art scene, and a spate of notable restaurants, this energetic southern town is the perfect place for a high-culture weekend. The best part? The high-end charms here, whether you’re in search of an excellent meal or thought-provoking history and art, come at an entirely decent price when you consider what you’d pay in other major American hubs. Here’s our guide to an easy, value-packed Richmond getaway.

Where to Stay

All conversations about the hotel scene in Richmond start at Quirk, which opened in 2016. With elevated design done in a palette of vibrant pinks, this boutique hotel is at the epicenter of the revitalizing Arts District. Clever touches include in-room seating that doubles as space to lay out your suitcase, white (actually pink!) noise machines, original wood-plank flooring, and geometric, custom-built furniture. The lobby restaurant and bar are always filled with both locals and visitors, and the photo-ready ambiance makes this a hotspot for weddings. Expect to pay $175-$250 per night during the week, and $200-$300 on weekends. Lower pricing can be found in the winter months.

A much more traditional but equally comfortable experience can be found at the Jefferson Hotel. Once known for the alligators that swam in its lobby fountain, the Jefferson retains is over-the-top nineteenth century design. (Think marble columns, winding staircases, and cascading chandeliers.) Some new decor in the hotel’s restaurant spaces has kept things feeling fresh. Rooms start at $280 per night.

Where to Eat and Drink

The James Beard Foundation has been paying lots of attention to Richmond in recent years. Local chefs have been nominated for awards for nine years running, but even chefs without this particular accolade are turning out high-quality, locally sourced, beautifully presented dishes in restaurants across the city.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t start with Metzger Bar & Butchery, whose chef Brittanny Anderson is one of the aforementioned James Beard nominees. Impeccable treatment of meat and produce is gospel here, and you might find yourself trying cantaloupe soup with buttermilk and crispy speck, octopus with purple potatoes and guanciale, or a beer-brined olive pork chop. A five-course tasting menu is available at a very reasonable $65, with an option to add-on wine pairings for $30. 

We also like Laura Lee’s, which is located in an exposed brick, art-filled space in Richmond’s Southside neighborhood. Laid back fare including fried oysters with ramp remoulade, pan-seared quail, and jumbo lump crab cakes with marble potatoes and bacon are just a few of the menu’s highlights. The unmissable charcuterie plate comes with hush puppies and house-made pickles. Appetizers cost $5-$17 and mains run from $14-$26. 

Enjoy before- or after-dinner drinks and small bites at Jasper, which serves out-of-the-box cocktails (ingredients include maraschino liquor, orgeat, cardamom bitters, and Jagermeister) alongside a tightly curated list of small plates like house-made onion dip, pretzel bread, and hen liver mousse. Sit out front to see and be seen, or in the cozier back room with a date or a small group. Cocktails are $11 to $13, while snacks cost $5 to $10. 

For an excellent lunch at an incredible value, head to the obscure second floor space on North Harrison Street that’s home to Edo’s Squid. Serving flavorful, unpretentious Italian dishes in shareable portions, this restaurant gets the classics (carbonara, cacio e pepe, puttanesca) right. Antipasto and pasta dishes cost $8 to $12. 

Also for brunch or lunch, we suggest Southern comfort food at Lunch! Supper., which is known for serving hearty classics, especially fried chicken and waffles. Order them straightforward and simple with breakfast gravy, or souped up with savory cornbread waffles, collards, and bacon-honey butter. Breakfast dishes cost $7 to $11, and lunch and dinner go up to about $20.

Perly’s is another must-try for brunch or breakfast. Its modern riff on Jewish deli classics is satisfying without an ounce of stodginess. Potato latkes with apple apricot sauce, cheese blintzes stuffed with orange-infused ricotta and topped with blueberry sauce, and schnitzel with sunny-side eggs and smoked trout salad are favorites, and a perfect way to start your sightseeing day. 

What to Do

Richmond’s formidable art scene takes many shapes, from grand museums to tiny galleries to street art murals that cover facades all over town. The Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University is (literally) the shiniest and newest jewel in the city’s artistic crown. Newly opened in a dramatic contemporary building by Steven Hill Architects, its gleaming metallic surface stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding low-rise commercial buildings. The museum has no permanent collection and showcases temporary exhibits like its inaugural exhibition, Declaration, which featured a wide variety of art and artists making bold statements about hot-button issues including race, gender, and the environment. Admission is free and tickets are not required. 

Virginia Commonwealth University’s art school has also inspired and nourished a flourishing local street art scene, though the artists involved now consider themselves muralists and not rogue law-breakers, and the city of Richmond concurs. You can see mural work all over central Richmond, but the Fan District, Downtown, and Carytown—all of which are walkable and good for exploring—offer some fine examples. If you're interested in a more structured tour, you can see Richmond's public art on a segway tour offered by Segway of Richmond ($69 for two hours). The Valentine, a museum that chronicles Richmond's history, also offers a murals tour through Jackson Ward, a historically African-American neighborhood once called the "Harlem of the South." Tours last two hours and cost $15 for adults and $5 for kids.  

For a more traditional museum experience, the stately Virginia Museum of Fine Arts offers incredible variety in its collections. With 35,000 pieces that span every era of history and cultures around the globe, you could easily spend a full day here. The museum’s Art Nouveau collection is especially beautiful, as are its many artifacts by the Russian imperial jeweler Faberge; the largest collection of Faberge eggs outside of Russia can be found here. General admission is free. Special exhibitions and events are ticketed and require a fee. 

If you’re in search of history, this former capital of the Confederacy has a rich collection of sites. Tredegar Iron Works, where iron ore was once forged into Confederate cannons and battleship armor, is part of the American Civil War Museum and also serves as the visitor center for the Richmond area’s Civil War battlefields. This museum’s mission has evolved in recent years to include multiple perspectives on the war, particularly the perspectives of enslaved African Americans. It’s also closely involved in determining the future of the sculptures of Confederate generals that line Monument Avenue, a controversial topic that has generated passionate discourse in Richmond. To learn more, visit the museum’s online project, On Monument Avenue, which explores the avenue’s complex history.

After you visit the Iron Works, take some time to wander along the Riverfront Canal Walk. Situated along the James River, it includes peaceful wooded trails, views of the river rapids and skyline, and a close-up look at some of the city’s mural art, which can be found near the James River Park Pipeline Walkway.

Where to Shop

Small shops and boutiques are a Richmond specialty, and much of what you’ll find on offer is well-priced. Unique housewares, clothing, accessories, and art are just a few things to hunt for.

Richmond’s Arts District, located near the Quirk Hotel, is brimming with attractive independent shops and art galleries. Rosewood Clothing Co. is where you’ll find accessories and housewares by local designers alongside a small, impeccably curated selection of vintage items. Meanwhile, just up the street, you’ll find new and vintage furniture, mostly boho and shabby-chic in style, at 68 Home. And even if you’re not staying at the Quirk, its shop and gallery are must-visits. With stationary, gifts, toys, and art—all in shades of pink—you’ll find it hard to leave empty handed.

Carytown, not far from the city’s museum district, is another tract that’s a magnet for shoppers. Need Supply Co., which stocks ultra-chic clothing and accessories in a clean-lined, almost zen-like space, is the centerpiece here. At first glance, the high-design aesthetic makes this store seem like a wallet-buster, but you’ll find plenty of reasonably priced tops, dresses, and shoes here. Chop Suey is a great for gently used books, especially art books, while Mongrel offers a staggering variety of gifts, including candles, books, desk accessories, and even gag items. For vintage clothes, Ashby offers an eclectic collection at excellent prices, while Bygones specifically features vintages items that capture the glamor of old Hollywood, along with some new items that channel a similar look.

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