02 June 2022

A History Lover's Guide to Norfolk

Norfolk’s history dates back to 1682 when it was first founded. It was settled by an Englishman named Adam Thoroughgood, who ultimately named Norfolk after his birthplace, Norfolk, England. From the time it was settled to the present day, countless battles, wars, and fires influenced and shaped Norfolk to be the diverse, eclectic and deeply-rooted historic city it is today. 

Below you will find a two-day itinerary full of our historic sites, tours, how to explore our naval history and all the best historic places to dine. 

Day One 

Check into your historic accommodations: the Glass Light Hotel, a 1912 boutique hotel and art gallery or Four Eleven York, an 1890s Victorian home-turned-boutique-inn in the heart of the Freemason District. Now, drop your bags and start exploring!

Take a self-guided tour

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Cannonball Trail

The best way to jump into our history is through the Cannonball Trail, a walk-it-yourself tour meandering through 400 years of Norfolk and American history. The trail winds through the ancient cobblestone streets of West Freemason, the earliest residential streetscape in Norfolk. Then, it leads Downtown where turn-of-the-century buildings stand in the shadows of modern structures. Along the trail, you will notice narrative plaques which mark places and events of historic interest. Allot a full two hours to complete the entire tour. 

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Along this tour, you will come across St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, built in 1739. In addition to being the oldest building in Norfolk that has survived all the wars and fires, the church is a point of interest because of the cannonball lodged in the side of the building. This cannonball dates back to the Revolutionary War (more specifically New Year’s day of 1776) when Lord Dunmore was fleeing Norfolk (due to defeat) and fled to his ship just offshore. From his ship, he fired this cannonball, which can still be seen today.

MacArthur Memorial

Visit the MacArthur Memorial, dedicated to the life and legacy of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. The Memorial also pays tribute to the millions of Americans who served during the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Located Downtown, the Memorial consists of a museum, archive and research center, education center, theater, welcome center and gift shop. A visit to the Memorial will allow you to explore the life of one of America’s greatest and most complex leaders. Admission is free.

Explore a Historic Home

Hunter House Victorian Museum

Book an advanced reservation to tour the Hunter House Victorian Museum during its open season (typically April–December). Constructed in 1894 for local merchant and banker James Wilson Hunter and his family, Hunter House was designed in the Richardsonian Romanesque style and serves as a rich example of Victorian decorative arts and architecture both inside and out. The Hunters were avid travelers, and you can explore the family’s collection of furniture, books, decorative objects and more from the Victorian era inside. 

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Moses Myers House

Moses Myers, one of America’s first millionaires, a leading citizen and Norfolk’s first prominent Jewish-American family that composed the region’s entire Jewish population for over a decade, built the Moses Myers House in 1792 for his family. The home was passed down through several generations of the family, and today, about 70 percent of the current collection of furnishings is original to the first generation of Myers. The furnishings reflect the French influences, which were prevalent during this time period. Visitors must call ahead to schedule a tour. 

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Hermitage Museum and Gardens

The Hermitage Museum and Gardens is an early 20th century 42-room historic mansion on 12 acres of semi-formal gardens, forest and wetlands along the Lafayette River. Hermitage founders and residents William and Florence Sloan were wealthy New Yorkers who moved to the South and constructed this beautiful mansion in 1908. The Sloans had a great interest in the arts and were cultured collectors. With over 5,000 objects, the Sloane Collection spans 5,000 years of art history and represents over 30 countries. Today, you can tour this historic museum home for free Tuesdays through Sundays.

See a show

Attucks Theatre

The Attucks Theatre is a historical icon in Norfolk and was the heartbeat of Church Street in the 1920s. It played a crucial role for African Americans in Norfolk as one of the first theaters in the United States to be designed, financed, built and operated by only African Americans.The hustle and bustle this theater brought to Norfolk was paramount in the city gaining its “Harlem of the South” status. Today, you can attend a show at this theater and relish in its beauty. 

Dine in a historic carriage house or old church

Freemason Abbey

Freemason Abbey encompasses the three pillars of our city: astounding art, rich history and a thriving culinary scene. The building that Freemason Abbey is housed in was once a church and dates back to 1873, making it one of the oldest establishments in the city. You will see that the restaurant’s stained glass windows are stunning works of art and original to the building. As for their menu offerings, you can’t go wrong with their seafood dishes, and we highly recommend their award-winning She Crab soup! 

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Omar’s Carriage House

Omar’s Carriage house is originally an 1840s–you guessed it–carriage house. The mansion that this carriage house once belonged to was destroyed back in the 1930s, but the carriage house stood untouched. Once inside, look up and spot the large opening where hay used to be loaded into carriages. Delight in a fabulous menu of American-Mediterranean fusion plates while soaking up a bit of history. 

DAY 2

Caffeinate In A Victorian House

Mea Culpa

Start your day caffeinated with a latte from Mea Culpa, a café housed in a historic 1904 Victorian residence. Most locals will suggest this café for their waffle sandwiches since the owner once ran a favorite foodie pop-up called Waffletina. However, in looking for a more permanent space, Mea Culpa was born and now has much more than decadent waffle sandwiches. Customers will find local Three Ships coffee and espresso with house-made seasonal syrups that make their lattes extra special. 

Admire the Norfolk mace

Chrysler Museum of Art

In 1754, Norfolk was gifted a mace by the lieutenant governor of colonial Virginia Robert Dinwiddie. A mace is a highly ornamented staff that was once used as a weapon of war during medieval times but eventually transformed into a prestigious symbol of rank and authority held within government. Norfolk’s mace survived destructions; it was purposely buried to survive fires, hidden under hearths to avoid being seen by Union troops and even disappeared for some time before being found in a pile of trash. Now, this beautiful 41-inch long silver mace can be viewed at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Gallery 209.

Take a Self-Guided Tour

Fort Norfolk

Fort Norfolk is the last remaining of 19 harbor-front forts authorized in 1794 by President George Washington. In the Civil War, Confederate forces seized the fort and used its magazine to supply the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) during its battle with the USS Monitor. In 1862 the fort was recaptured by the Union Army and used as a prison. Guided tours run from Noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Entry requires a form of ID. 

Quarantine Road

Unrelated to any recent pandemic-associated quarantine, Norfolk’s Quarantine Road (constructed in 1783) holds significant history as one of the oldest roads in Norfolk to still exist. The purpose of the road was to minimize the spread of infectious diseases such as Yellow Fever from foreign passengers and merchants. Take a stroll or bike down the throughway (crushed seashells line the way) to locate the historic maker that resides near Old Dominion University. 

Haunted Tour 

With history comes haunts. Many of our historical sites are tied to ghost stories, folklores or tragedy, but the best way to learn these legends is through a guided tour. Check out Norfolk Tour Company’s Haunted Norfolk Tours. They will take you to places like old cemeteries, the Wells Theatre and more. Prepared to be spooked! 

Explore Our Naval History

Victory Rover 

You will have a wealth of knowledge when taking part in a Victory Rover Naval Base Cruise, so hop on board and learn about the Port of Virginia, shipbuilding, history of Norfolk and the most anticipated sight, the world’s largest Naval Base, Naval Station Norfolk. Not everyone has access to the base itself, so this is the next best way to take in the sights of the mighty destroyers, awe over aircraft carriers, sneak a peek at the submarines and learn about all the other crucial vessels that may be in dock. Pictures are more than encouraged! 

Hampton Roads Naval Museum

Located inside Nauticus, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum is operated by the United States Navy and celebrates over 200 years of U.S. Naval history in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. Free admission.

Battleship Wisconsin

Located in Downtown Norfolk, the Battleship Wisconsin is one of the largest and last battleships ever built by the U.S. Navy. Explore its deck through a self-guided tour or, with an additional charge, a guided Topside Tour that will take you back in time to experience this majestic ship that earned five battle stars during WWII. 

Have a Drink or Meal in a Historic Building

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Press 626

Press 626 Cafe and Wine Bar is housed in a historic 1906 Victorian home that once served as a bank. Wines are pulled from the former bank vault behind the bar and served to visitors relaxing in cozy nooks and on the front porch. Wines are enjoyed best when paired with an ever-changing menu created from local, in-season produce. 

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Reaver Beach Brewing

Next, grab a brew at Reaver Beach Brewing, located inside a historic post office dating back to 1945. While inside, notice an upstairs portion, also classified as a catwalk, which is original to the layout of the post office. Today, this catwalk is enlisted as an adults-only area with tables and chairs, but back in time, inspectors used these catwalks to prevent crime. Inspectors would also use a secluded back door to sneak into the post office, and today, that hidden stairwell is now a mini-museum to showcase Reaver Beach’s evolution as a brewery. 

Razzo

Razzo is a well-established and very loved Italian restaurant in Norfolk housed in a nationally recognized firehouse building dating back to 1923. The exterior of the firehouse looks identical to that of its past, but the fire engines doors are now made of gorgeous mahogany wood. Enjoy local favorites like stuffed eggplant, lasagna or brick oven pizza under their outdoor lighted patio or inside the firehouse where you can picture the heroic work that once lived under this roof. 

Byrd & Baldwin

Byrd & Baldwin, one of Norfolk’s fine dining staples, comes with a fine amount of history too. Built in 1906 as home to a real estate investment firm of the same name, the property underwent roughly 30 years of vacancy and neglect before being purchased and painstakingly preserved. The building’s architectural integrity was kept intact to precisely reproduce mahogany trim, leaded glass and skylights and sliding paired entry doors. Be sure to note the original safe and building name chiseled on the facade as you’re enjoying an upscale meal at this traditional steak and chophouse.

By now we hope you have learned a lot about Norfolk’s long past, but know that this itinerary doesn’t encompass all that there is to know either. Check out our historic webpage for even more ideas, attractions and historical fun. 

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