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Kid-Friendly Zones: Richmond, Virginia

by Elaine Labalme

Richmond straddles old and new with the gentility of a Southern belle. The former capital of the Confederacy is quick to showcase its Civil War history while a new generation is far more focused on the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Plan on a minimum of four days to take it all in.

Defining Moments

The American Civil War Center tells the story of the Civil War from the perspective of Unionists, Confederates and African Americans, the key groups involved in the conflict. As a result, it’s a full and balanced interpretation of a war that helped shape our country as we know it today. The question of slavery was viewed differently by North and South while the slaves themselves were most distressed by their predicament. Consequently, the ensuing battle tore into states’ rights and what was right from a moral and ethical point of view. The Center uses video, artifacts and interactivity to make the case for Union (keep the country together), Home (states’ rights) and Freedom (abolish slavery), and parents and kids will walk away with a deeper understanding of the complexities, and horrors, of war. An ideal first stop in Richmond.

The Black History Museum provides a window on the city’s vibrant Jackson Ward neighborhood, once regarded as “the Harlem of the South.” Housed in an early 19th century Federal and Greek Revival mansion, the museum presents tableaux of the people, places and accomplishments of the African-American community in Richmond and throughout the state. This was a neighborhood of firsts for blacks: the first black-owned bank in the U.S. and the country’s first female and black bank president were blocks away while the first black jeweler in Richmond is still open over a century later. A 20-minute video grounds your understanding of the local black experience and opens onto both permanent and rotating exhibits brimming with detail and life. Pause to reflect at a section of a Woolworth’s lunch counter involved in a sit-in by blacks in the 1960s, and be sure to take in the handiwork of the modern-day Sisters of the Yam African American Quilters Guild.

Along the Richmond Slave Trail, a series of markers detail the history of slave trading in the South. While early Richmond was a seat of insurance and banking, its primary business was slaves and tobacco. A mile-long trail along the James River wends its way into downtown Richmond and if you choose one of the many excellent guided tours available, you can place yourself in a slaves’ shoes for a brief moment that grows into a teachable moment for families. The James River Park System offers seasonal guided tours and can be reached at (804) 646-8911. Self-guided tours begin at Ancarrow’s Landing along the Manchester Docks in South Richmond. Guided tours may not be suitable for young children.

A unique window on the legacy of the Civil War can be found on Monument Avenue in an elegant district known as The Fan. Here, along a broad and leafy boulevard, you’ll find a series of enormous statues commemorating Civil War icons including Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Rapprochement comes in the form of a statue of African American tennis legend and Richmond native, Arthur Ashe. The Monument Avenue Historic District runs from Birch Street to Roseneath Avenue.

Southern Fancy

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is the beneficiary of a recent major expansion that increased its size by nearly fifty percent. Along with expanded gallery space, a light-filled atrium brings the outdoors in, though you’ll embrace the outdoors as you admire the impressive new sculpture garden, replete with reflecting pool and waterfall. Back inside, kids’ eyes will pop at the Faberge collection, including five original eggs filled with treasures (the full-on picture book inside of one egg is priceless). The Gans collection of English Silver is filled with countless gleaming, centuries-old silver serving pieces including a soup tureen that evokes the sea and a pair of wine coolers ensnared by snakes; Rococo serving pieces are larded with design elements in what one can only imagine was a “can you top this?” rivalry among Britain’s leading silversmiths. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco collections also dazzle and then there are rooms filled of paintings to consider. Not to be missed are the well-stocked museum shop and a delightful cafe.

Expect another feast for the senses at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden north of downtown. Arrayed over more than fifty acres are more than a dozen themed gardens including a Healing Garden filled with plants you probably had no idea were good for you; a Rose Garden brimming with fragrant, colorful blooms (“Now THIS is what roses smell like!” exclaimed my husband); and a Children’s Garden close by a water play area calling to toddlers and small children. Time will fly as you stroll about the verdant landscape and, if hunger strikes, seek out the pretty tea house snug in a bamboo forest.

River View

A flat-water paddle with Riverside Outfitters places you and yours aboard sit-on-top kayaks for a two-hour guided journey that ends with a delicious lunch on the banks of the James River. If the water level is high enough, river rafting is de rigueur.

Leave the driving to the captain on a Richmond Canal Cruise, a narrated forty-minute ride along the Kanawha Canal and James River in a covered boat accommodating 35. George Washington’s vision of an interconnected canal system from east to west that would ease trade was never fully realized but Richmond industry prospered nonetheless, setting up shop along a waterway that stretched for nearly 200 miles. Admire the tobacco warehouses of yore that are now condo lofts and apartment buildings in newly-fashionable Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom.

Where To Stay

The Omni Richmond Hotel is in the heart of Shockoe Slip, a melange of cobbled streets, boutiques and cafes close by the city’s premier attractions. The history outside belies creature comforts inside, including a Club level with morning and afternoon presentations and a state-of-the-art YMCA facility available to guests in the adjacent office tower. Request a high-floor room for panoramic views of the city and feel right at home amid soft tones and cosseting beds. The nearby Capitol Trail is well suited to morning walks that will get everyone going. Best of all, the service for which Omni hotels are known is on ample display and affirms Southern grace. 100 South 12th Street, Richmond, Va. 23219 (804) 344-7000; Double/Double or King rooms (rollaways available) from $122/night. Family packages and Internet specials available; welcome amenity for children.

Where To Eat

The Black Sheep is no ugly duckling, rather, a premier dining establishment featuring outrageously-sized sandwiches in inventive combinations as seen on the hit TV series “Man vs. Food.” Dubbed “battleships,” these are not your Daddy’s sub sandwiches – the USS Virginia is plump with fried chicken livers and a tart slaw inside a crispy baguette while the USS Brooklyn is awash in jerk chicken, sweet ketchup and peach chutney. Come for brunch and if the wait seems long, consider yourself lucky as you pass the time in a serene back patio dripping with blooms. The restaurant’s interior is another charmer, a tapestry of bright colors and well-chosen art backed by an exposed brick wall. The biscuits and gravy are a singular starter.

The mood is casually elegant at The Roosevelt, a showcase for accomplished cooking in charming Church Hill. Parents will feel right at home amid the hustle and bustle and plentiful noise and “snacks” like cornbread with honey vanilla butter and pimento cheese with homemade potato chips will go a long way toward keeping kids happy. Meanwhile, parents can savor dishes such as North Carolina trout with Anson Mills grits and Sea Island peas or a hanger steak served alongside mashed potatoes and redolent of cherry A1 sauce. The modern room is warmed by, yes, an exposed brick wall.

The name says it all at Comfort, where the food of (our) youth is king. Lemony yellow walls pair with, seriously, an exposed brick wall and the view is to bustling Broad Street. Entrees can be purchased with either two or three sides and the soft shell crab, pork loin or salmon are excellent choices; scalloped potatoes and grilled asparagus carry the day.

Bistro Bobette in Shockoe Slip is so authentically, and wonderfully, French that it compelled our ten-year-old son to proclaim, “Mom, I officially love duck liver!” not ten minutes into our meal. C’est magnifique! In a room with white-napped tables, large canvasses and (is there a pattern here?) exposed brick walls, dig into classics such as sauteed calf’s liver and a chick pea crepe. Kids will revel in the triple-cut burger.

Buz and Ned’s is a Richmond institution when it comes to barbecue and that’s saying a lot in the South. Walk through an ample covered patio to get to a tiny counter and order a rack of baby back ribs that will transport you to food heaven. The pulled pork sandwich also rates and the sweet iced tea goes down easy. Arrive at off-peak hours to avoid a long wait.

The Urban Farmhouse Market is a light-filled space with soaring windows and (I kid you not) an exposed brick wall located a block from the Omni and ideally suited to breakfast or lunch. The coffee and pastry are stellar and the patrons are so purposeful, you can’t help but point it out to your kids.

What Else?

St. John’s Church on Church Hill is a whitewashed edifice best known as the place where Patrick Henry gave his “give me liberty or give me death” speech ahead of the Revolutionary War. The active church is open to visitors and an on-site gift shop carries informative souvenirs.

The Poe Museum chronicles the life of the famous writer and longtime Richmond resident. While he may not be familiar to a generation reading the “Potter” and “Twilight” series, his dark genius will resonate with kids.

A kissin’ cousin to the Lincoln Memorial, the Virginia State Capitol in downtown Richmond looks down onto well-manicured grounds and houses the oldest working legislature in the United States.

More grandeur can be found at Maymont, a Victorian estate nestled on a hundred-acre spread. Gardens, a nature center and a petting zoo are among the many enchantments and kids may never want to leave. Makes perfect sense.

Elaine Labalme is a food and travel writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and ten-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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