On the east coast of the US, bounded by the Appalachian Mountains on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other is the state of Virginia. Virginia has four different geographical regions: the Coastal Plain with barrier islands, the Piedmont region with rolling farmland, the Blue Ridge Mountains with peaks over 5,000 feet in elevation, and the Valley and Ridge region with forested wild areas such as Shenandoah National Park. Each of these creates a variety of experiences for residents and visitors.
Virginia is also home to some of the first American colonies. Unique among all the states, the cities of Virginia are independent, meaning that they have more power over their own political and administrative decisions than similar cities in other states. That's just one thing that makes these cities special, as many are also beautiful places to visit and live. They draw this beauty from their natural surroundings, their colonial history, or a mixture of the two.
On the Potomac River, just a stone’s throw from Washington, D.C. is the small city of Alexandria. Named a top city by both Travel+Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler, it was founded in 1749 and was the home of George Washington, the first US President. Much of its beauty is due to its history, from the Old Town, the third oldest district in the country, to the converted architecture now housing museums, restaurants, and boutiques, to Christ Church, Mount Vernon, and the George Washington Masonic Memorial.
But there are plenty of other things to enjoy about the city through its natural beauty and local makers. Hundreds of professional artists show their work at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, housed in a converted munitions factory. Port City Brewing Company is an award-winning brewery loved for its local beer. And of course, there are countless activities offered by the ever-present Potomac River.
For enjoying the spectacular beauty of the Alleghany Highlands, Covington, Virginia is the place to go. It is the best base camp for several of the area’s most popular and photographed attractions. The first is the Falling Springs Waterfall, a majestic 80-foot cascading waterfall in a lush setting, just a short drive from town.
Second is the Jackson River Scenic Trail, a converted railroad bed that runs along the Jackson River where hikers can enjoy the fields and mountains of the Highlands, or even rent kayaks and canoes to try out the river itself. Last is the Humpback Bridge, the only covered and arched bridge still standing in the country. At almost 110 feet long, it is an example of incredible craftsmanship that was originally built in 1857 using just a broad ax and hand-hewn locust pins. A joint effort among locals and organizations began to restore the bridge in 1953 and it is now on the National Register of Historic Places and surrounded by a five-acre park.
At the very tip of the Virginia Peninsula is Hampton, Virginia. With the Chesapeake Bay on two sides and the Hampton Roads Harbor on a third, it is almost surrounded by water. Locals and visitors who enjoy water activities like surfing and boating make good use of these options as well as Buckroe Beach, the Elizabeth River, the Lynnhaven River, and the James River.
Hampton is steeped in colonial history, especially in the form of Fort Monroe, an old base built to guard the access between Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay. Now a national historic site of 170 historic structures and covering 565 acres, it is on the spot of a fort originally built by the Jamestown colonists in 1609. The present fort was designed by a former Napoleonic general exiled from France after the defeat of Napoleon.
Winner of a Great American Main Street award for its picturesque 40-block downtown is the city with a small-town feel, Harrisonburg, Virginia. Those that like the chance to ditch their car can enjoy the emphasis on walkability, which means everything from street murals to museums can be enjoyed on foot, or on a bike or scooter.
Once back in the car, multiple wineries are only a short drive away, including the incredible White Oak Lavender Farm & The Purple WOLF Vineyard, a family farm in the Shenandoah Valley specializing in lavender products of all kinds and specialized wines. Once out of the city many also turn their sights to popular destinations like the Massanutten Resort and Waterpark, Dark Hollow Falls, and Shenandoah National Park.
In the naturally stunning Shenandoah Valley, Lexington, Virginia is notable on this list for being smaller than the others, with a population of around 8,000 people. The benefit of this is that as a destination it is much more relaxed than larger centers.
Founded in 1778 it has a long history of its own and has developed into a major cultural hub over that time. There are many institutions contributing to this status, including the Virginia Military Institute, Washington and Lee University as well as the Rockbridge Historical Society and a chapter of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Lime Kiln Theatre. It is also home to the remarkable Virginia Horse Center, itself a draw for its unique events, competitions, instruction, and horse sales.
Close to Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, on a peninsula where the James River flows into the Chesapeake Bay is one of the oldest settlements in the state, Newport News. Its name derives from the phrase “Newport’s News”, as it was at this post that ship captain Christopher Newport gave the starving Jamestown settlers the good news that more people and supplies had arrived to save them. The history of the city is preserved in many of its original buildings and homes, as well as attractions like old battle sites, monuments, and museums.
The city has taken full advantage of the natural beauty of its location and invested heavily in developing its beaches and other outdoor recreation possibilities like hiking, mountain biking, boating, and fishing. The large Newport News Park has ample room for almost 200 campsites. The city is also a Virginia Green Partner, indicating its priority on eco-friendly development. The Virginia Living Museum seeks to deepen this connection with the natural world through interactive education and conservation awareness. It is home to hundreds of species of local animals and takes in animals that cannot survive in the wild.
Sitting along the Blue Ridge Parkway, high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains is the city of Roanoke, Virginia. This city is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts with over 14,000 acres of parks. It also has an extensive and award-winning system of trails including part of the Appalachian Trail, paved trails for commuting, and natural surface ones for horseback riding and mountain biking. Mountain biking here is a particular draw, and the area was named by the International Mountain Bicycling Association as one of the places in the world for mountain biking.
A major landmark for the city is an 88.5-foot-tall neon star sitting at the top of Mill Mountain near the city’s zoo. The 10,000-pound Roanoke Star was originally built in 1949 as a Christmas decoration but has remained ever since. In town are other human-created beautiful sights like public art, art galleries, museums, and venues for live theaters and entertainment.
At the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is the famous vacation destination of Virginia Beach. With almost 1.5 million people, this lovely resort city is the largest city in Virginia.
For many, the leisure, dining, and entertainment action centers on the Oceanfront District, with its surfing, large beaches, and three-mile boardwalk. Those in the know head for what’s informally known as Chic’s Beach, named for a long-time resident, which has excellent dolphin watching. Atlantic Avenue is the spot for catching a street performance from one of the outdoor cafes. For anyone with an artistic side, the place to be is the ViBe Creative District. It’s a major hub of creativity with studios at the Virginia Beach Art Center, shows at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, and multiple monthly events.
When it comes to preserving the best parts of its historical origins, nobody does it better than Williamsburg. This city is perhaps best known for being home to the world-famous Colonial Williamsburg, the country’s largest living history museum. In these reconstructed buildings and era-appropriate gardens, tradespeople maintain many 18th-century trades including shoemakers, blacksmiths, weavers, coopers, and wheelwrights. Next to this is the one-of-a-kind Merchants Square in Williamsburg’s gorgeous downtown, with its 18th-century village-style shopping and dining. The Square also features seasonal events like movie nights, a farmers market, and concerts. Williamsburg along with nearby Jamestown and Yorktown make up what is known as the Historic Triangle. These three cities are all found between the James River and the York River and contain multiple other historic sites, all accessible from the Colonial Parkway.
The very different geographical areas of Virginia allow for beautiful cities of many types, from small mountain towns to sprawling resort cities. These settlements all demonstrate the beauty that comes from both the natural world for those founded in scenic places, and the tastes of its inhabitants through the charming architecture that has been lovingly preserved. For visitors seeking stunning views of stone buildings, cobblestone streets, beaches, rolling farmland or mountains, and photogenic vignettes, the cities on this list can’t be beaten.