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Dozens of craft breweries and a farm to table foodie scene in Richmond, VA may capture your attention. But there’s more. This river city has the only urban rapids in United Sates, plus easy access to the ocean, mountains and Washington DC. Virginia’s capital is also confronting its past, taking down Confederate monuments that offended residents and visitors alike.
Are you an urban adventurer? Then Richmond, Virginia, is for you. You can experience the thrill of the urban rapids right in the city of Richmond by kayaking or rafting on these class IV rapids. You can also swim in the James River. Since Richmond is close to Washington, DC, it has sophisticated places to eat and drink. A trip to Richmond is easily combined with a trip to the historic triangle of Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown. In fact, the Virginia State Capitol was in Williamsburg until it was moved to Richmond in 1779.
But, travel can be expensive. If you want to explore without breaking the bank, Richmond has a ton of free attractions. Since there are so many free things to do in this southern city, you need a few days to explore. Museums, natural areas, as well as lots of history await you.
That history includes a Confederate past that is now being held to account, with monuments and statues of Confederate leaders being removed. But remember Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy before sharing opinions about the Civil War. Or, at least, remember you are in a state that seceded from the Union.
TravelingMom Tips: Due to COVID-19, check attraction websites for closure information. We think this is a good travel rule of thumb any time.
Free Things to Do in Richmond, VA
The final resting place of U.S. Presidents James Monroe and John Tyler, this cemetery was established in 1847. Also buried here are numerous Virginia notables and thousands of Confederate soldiers. There is a monument to the Confederate War dead, along with one to a Newfoundland dog. You can get great views of the James River from Hollywood Cemetery.
The Hollywood Cemetery is also a renowned arboretum, with many specimen trees. You can take free self-guided tours, by foot or car. You can also purchase a paid tour by by trolley, Segway or electric car. Open 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily.
Collections include ledgers of plantation owners and petitions of slaves and free blacks, as well as Indian treaties and Virginia’s original copy of the United States Bill of Rights. This is a great place to learn about Virginia’s women in history. A variety of activity books will engage young visitors. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Explore the grounds and gardens at Maymont House Museum for free. There is a $5 suggested donation to see the barn and wildlife exhibits and a $5 suggested donation to tour the house. Animals at Maymont include owls, black bears, bald eagles, river otters and goats. The grounds open daily at 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. October through March; and 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. April through September.
Riverfront Canal Walk
The 1.25 mile canal walk along the James River and Kanawha and Haxall Canals has multiple access points from 5th to 17th Streets. Look for the 22 bronze medallions embedded in the path, marking historic sites. The canal walk also features public art, exhibits and statues.
Meet a National Park Service Ranger and see three floors of exhibits. Learn about Richmond during the Civil War and hear about the battlefields that surround downtown Richmond. You can run or hike the trails, and leashed dogs are allowed. Biking is permitted on the Totoptomoy Creek trail and most park roads. Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily.
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Nature for Free in Richmond VA
Three Lakes Nature Center
This year-round facility has tons of hands-on activities. Learn about air, water and land, from the wetlands to woodlands. The nature center has a 50,000 gallon aquarium.
The park, just outside Richmond, has nature exhibits and live animals. The Children’s Corner features hands-on activities, both outdoors and in the log cabin visitors center. Animal life includes native reptiles, amphibians and a honeybee hive. You can hike five miles of paved and unpaved roads. Rockwood Nature Center is open noon – 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The nature center is closed in winter.
History for Free
Maggie L. Walker National Historical Site
This National Park Service site commemorates the life of a progressive African-American woman who grew up in post-Civil War Richmond. Walker was the first female founder/president of a chartered bank in the United States. Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Rangers lead tours every hour from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
St. John’s Church is the site of Patrick Henry’s impassioned oratory “Give me liberty or give me death.” This was the first church built in Richmond and is the oldest wooden church in Virginia. St. John’s remains an active congregation. Visit summer Sundays at 2 p.m. to see a free re-enactment of the 1775 debate among 10 of our nation’s founding fathers. You can make a reservation for $5, but there may be seats for free if you check on the day of your visit. Guided church tours – 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.
Virginia Holocaust Museum
Learn about the Holocaust and survivors’ stories of the Kovno Ghetto and Dachau concentration camp. There are also exhibits on civil rights and hate crimes around the world. What makes the museum extra poignant is that its founder is a Holocaust survivor. Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There is also free parking.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The VMFA is open 365 days a year, and the permanent collection is always free. Some special exhibitions require paid admission. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts includes French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art and British sporting art. It has the largest public collection of Fabergé outside Russia. There is also a sculpture garden. Take a free tour. Pick up a family gallery hunt at the Visitor Services desk. Families can join hands-on art projects and kids will find interactive exhibits.
Virginia Capitol and Executive Mansion
Designed by Thomas Jefferson, the Capitol houses America’s oldest legislative assembly. The design is of a classical Roman temple. Daily one-hour guided tours showcase historical statuary and paintings, rare exhibit objects and restored legislative chambers. Self-guided tours are also available. The Virginia State Capitol is a National Historic Landmark. It is also nominated as a World Heritage site. Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 – 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Branch Museum of Architecture and Design
This design museum is housed in a historic Tudor Revival mansion on Monument Avenue. Designed by renowned architect John Russell Pope, the Branch House is on the National Register of Historic Places. If you’ve visited Richmond’s breweries, you might be pleased to know that this house was designed with a hidden storage area for illegal liquor during prohibition.
Learn about Jewish history and culture and this museum, which is open by appointment only. There are exhibits on the Jewish Experience in Virginia and Richmond’s Jews support during World War I. Note that the museum is closed on Jewish holidays.
Other Things to Do in Richmond
Bring your bicycle!
The Virginia Capital Trail offers a free way to sightsee and use no fossil fuels. The 52-mile dedicated paved trail connects downtown Richmond with Jamestown. Biking just a portion of it is a great way to see the area.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
This gorgeous botanical garden offers free admission every July 4th and on a Community Day in September. It also has free admission for a week in January, after its annual nighttime night spectacular, GardenFest, closes for the season. And if you are traveling with a dog, GardenFest has special nights where dogs are allowed. Both owners and dogs have to pay admission.
Carytown is known as the ‘mile of style.” This nine block neighborhood is filled with boutiques and local eateries.
Paid things to see in Richmond
Richmond has so many great free things to check out but the following activities also deserve a place on your “must do” list:
Note: this is an update of a post originally written by Cindy Richards.