Richmond city guide

Robyn Gilmour spends 48 hours in Virginia’s coolest city

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I don’t know what I’d been expecting of Richmond, but it probably wasn’t the peaceful, multicultural, and lusciously green city that took me under its wing for three days in early August. The city is at once modern and historic, contemporary and traditional, steadfast and delicate in its relentless pursuit of balance, reckoning, and reimagination. There is art everywhere, much of it political, all of it beautiful. Similarly, Richmond is speckled with diners, delis, and restaurants serving soul and southern food, Mexican and Cuban cuisine, traditional Jewish, Greek, Ethiopian, Middle Eastern, BBQ, seafood; the list goes on. These manifestations of diversity both punctuate and permeate the wealth of galleries and museums that tackle the histories of Richmond, Virginia, and the United States more generally. 

CHURCH HILL 

My trip begins and ends in the historic district of Church Hill, a quaint and quiet region of Richmond named after St John’s Episcopal Church. This national landmark has been preserved through the ages (and is still used) on account of having hosted the pivotal Second Virginia Convention in 1775. It was here that Patrick Henry, one of the earliest elected delegates to the Continental Congress, delivered his now famous “Liberty or Death” speech, which convinced the convention to send Virginian Troops to the Revolutionary War effort. 

PHOTO: St. John's Church © Billy Hathorn (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Now, the streets of Church Hill are lined with boutiques, vintage clothes stores, and fusion restaurants. One example is Jewfro, a comfortable, modern restaurant that’s new to the area and serves Jewish and African fusion food. Jewfro is run by the trio behind the already successful Soul Taco (Soul and Mexican fusion, also Richmond based): William (Trey) Owens is a Black business owner, Ari Augenbaum a Jewish chef, and Nar Hovnanian, their Armenian business partner. Collectively believing there is no better social tool than food; their aspiration has always been to educate and connect communities through flavour. 

PHOTO: Soul Taco

Lunch and dinner menus offer an eclectic mix of hybridised dishes. Your challah will come with chermoula and harissa butter, and instead of being seasoned with dill and served in chicken soup, the Kreplach (Jewish dumplings) at Jewfro contain Moroccan spiced lamb and are served in a Ghanaian peanut soup. Menus feature a glossary of soup, spice, and sauce terms, bringing a tasteful element of education to the dining experience. The food is inexpensive for how delicious it is, but a stand-up lunch menu is a wonderful alternative if you’d prefer to keep spending to a minimum. 

THE ARTS DISTRICT 

Church Hill is conveniently located at the bottom of Broad Street, a sidewalk-lined six lanes that run north east all the way through Richmond, and connects many of the city’s biggest neighbourhoods. Jumping on a bus or walking for thirty minutes up Broad Street will deposit you firmly in Richmond’s Arts District, where many of the city’s 70+ galleries are based.

My favourite along this stretch is the 1708 Gallery, a non-profit, donation-funded space that has been a sanctuary for art seeking to reckon with the culture of its time, since 1978. No matter when you visit there’s guaranteed to be something brave, beautiful and socially stimulating being exhibited. 

Mending Walls Project

Contemporary reckoning with historical failures is a theme woven into the fabric of Richmond as it exists today. Much of Broad Street, Jackson Ward and a spattering of other locations around Richmond feature murals by the Mending Walls Project, a public art project that brings artists from different cultures and backgrounds together to create murals that tell stories, express hurt and joy, show vulnerability and bravery, and by thoughtfully considering the current climate, suggests how we might move through it together. 

This accessible avenue to art is complemented by Broad Street’s First Friday art walk; a day (on the first Friday of every month, as you might have guessed) when all galleries on and around Broad Street open their doors to the public, in celebration of both art and community. A comprehensive map of participating galleries, event spaces, restaurants, shops and food trucks can be found at richmondartsdistrict.org/rva-first-fridays.

Perly's Delicatessen Restaurant

If you find yourself hungry or thirsty in the Arts District, swing by Perly’s Delicatessen Restaurant. While not aspiring to anything too fancy, Perly’s delivers exactly what it promises; Jewish food with a modern twist. Your eggs royale will come on potato latkes, served with a dollop of salmon roe, and if you’re hungry for something meaty, an appetiser of chicken liver, or a veal schnitzel sandwich should hit the spot. This quaint diner’s comfortable atmosphere, when combined with the delicious food and tasteful selection of local beer taps, made this one of my favourite places to eat in Richmond. 

JACKSON WARD

Fed and watered, swing right off Broad Street into Jackson Ward, and you’ll find yourself in a neighbourhood whose history is significant to Richmond, Virginia, and the United States more generally. Before the Civil War, Jackson Ward was home to both free and enslaved Black people, along with European immigrants and a growing Jewish population. By the early 20th century it had become a significant centre for African American business, social and residential life in the US, evidence of which can be seen today. 

Maggie L Walker's House

The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is located a mere 150 metres from the historic Maggie L Walker House National Historic Site, now a national landmark commemorating Walker as the first Black woman to charter and act as president to a bank in the US. The museum, based in the old Leigh Street Armoury, is small, beautifully curated and designed so tours can be self-guided. A permanent exhibition space on the ground floor considers The Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Civil Rights as manifested in Richmond, emphasising the impact and importance of the city in US history. 

Adjacent to this history-heavy exhibition, but on the same floor, is a small photo gallery depicting scenes from 2020, when statues of confederate army generals were removed from plinths lining Richmond’s Monument Avenue. As you might recall, this event happened in instalments, was globally televised, and inspired a similar reckoning in cities around the world that also have roots in the slave trade.

The Black History Museum and Cultural Centre of Virginia

THE MUSEUM DISTRICT

Consideration of how Richmond has reimagined itself over the past few years leads us nicely to another part of the city; the Museum District. The two heavy hitters in this area are the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of History and Culture, both of which are free to enter and offer an eclectic mix of exhibitions that seek to locate Virginia in America’s contemporary cultural landscape. 

The Museum of Fine Arts greets attendees and passers-by with the looming and legendary sculpture, ‘Rumors of War’, by esteemed artist Kehinde Wiley. Better known for his portraits (some examples of which also feature inside the museum), Wiley’s unforgettable style is immediately recognisable, with its most popular reference point being the presidential portrait of Obama that hangs in The White House.

'Rumours of War' sculpture by Kehinde Wiley

‘Rumors of War’ was the most expensive commission in the history of the museum, and was created in response to the statue of confederate general J.E.B. Stuart that once stood on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Since the installation of this piece, which depicts a rearing horse, on the back of which sits a young Black man in urban clothing and tied back dreadlocks, all statues of confederate generals have been removed from Richmond’s streets. 

In preparation for your arrival in Scott’s Addition, the next stop on your tour, and where you’ll be guaranteed more beer than a person can drink, swing by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, where you can take in a quaint and comfortable exhibition on the history of beer, wine and spirits in Virginia. At the time of my visit, Cheers, Virginia! is yet to go live to the public and so museum curator Paige Newman gives me a sneak preview of the space. 

Cheers Virginia! exhibition

The exhibit is small and covers a lot of what will already be known by the seasoned beer drinker, but does feature some interesting history on prohibition, how drinking culture has developed in Virginia specifically, and offers a lip smacking recipe for southern favourite; the mint julep. 

SCOTT’S ADDITION

The vast majority of Richmond’s craft breweries are conveniently clustered in a specific corner of the city; Scott’s Addition. I recommend starting at Ardent Craft Ales, a brewery whose beer can be found on tap all over Richmond, and for good reason. Its menu is a perfect balance of expertly crafted lagers and pilsners, and heavy hitting DIPAs, stouts and farmhouse ales; there is something for everyone here, with all beers a shining example of their style. 

Ardent Craft Ales

A block from here you’ll find Väsen Brewing Company, a bright and rustic brewery that takes inspiration from Scandinavian culture and brewing practices. This brewery has nailed its range of sessionable beers, and in contrast to that, produces an array of funky flavoured ales, saisons and wheat beers. 

This modern and experimental edge continues down the street at The Veil Brewing Co where the creative side of bold flavours is expressed through abstract label artwork and avant garde beer names. If you’re a fan of whacky yeasts and farmhouse ales, Brad, the manager of Stone’s brewery taproom, recommends you also check out Tabol Brewing; it’s somewhat out of the way of Scott’s Addition, but he promises it will deliver. 

PHOTO: The Veil Brewing

Similarly, everyone I ask for beer recommendations around Richmond points me in the direction of The Answer Brewpub and Mekong restaurant. Just a couple of doors down from one another and a little north of Scott’s Addition, The Answer brewpub was founded by An Bui in 2014, after nearly 20 years of success running the internationally acclaimed and family owned bar and restaurant, Mekong. Since its early days the restaurant, along with its great food, has been celebrated for the spectacular selection of craft beers it offers. Today, many Richmond locals assure you that if your night starts in The Answer, it’ll likely finish in Mekong some hours later, and just a couple of doors down. 

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