Like many other old Southern towns, Norfolk has undergone a renaissance, one that's especially visible in the charming shops and cafés in the historic village of Ghent. There's plenty to see in this old navy town.
Virginia Opera Company
The Virginia Opera Company presents some of the best operatic talent in the nation during its season (September through April) at Norfolk's elegant Harrison Opera House, which is known for its excellent acoustics. Their schedule includes the most popular operas of Europe and the United States.
Azars Natural Foods
Lebanese specialties are featured at this casual restaurant in Ghent, which also has a Mediterranean food store. Indoor dining is on granite tables under the original tin ceiling and exposed air ducts. Outdoors, the terra-cotta patio has umbrellas. A sampler Mashawee Platter includes kibbi, seasoned beef and bulghur patties; kefta, spiced lamb meatballs; and lamb kebab with grilled vegetables and side dishes. Vegan and vegetarian selections are noted on the menu, which includes appetizers, wraps, pizza, and kebabs.
No Frill Bar and Grill
This expansive café is in an antique building in the heart of Ghent. Beneath a tin ceiling and exposed ductwork, a central bar is surrounded by several dining spaces with cream-and-mustard walls and wooden tables. Signature items include the ribs; the Funky Chicken Sandwich, a grilled chicken breast with bacon, tomato, melted Swiss cheese, and Parmesan pepper dressing on rye; and the Spotswood Salad of baby spinach, Granny Smith apples, and blue cheese.
Freemason Abbey Restaurant and Tavern
This former church near the historic business district has been drawing customers for a long time, and not without reason. It has 40-foot-high cathedral ceilings and large windows, making for an airy, and dramatic, dining experience. You can sit upstairs, in the large choir loft, or in the main part of the church downstairs. Beside the bar just inside the entrance is an informal sort of "diner" area, but with the whole menu to choose from. Regular appetizers include artichoke dip and Crab stuffed Mushrooms. There's a dinner special every weeknight, such as lobster, prime rib, and wild game (wild boar or alligator, for example). Vegetarian fare is also offered.
After he introduced the world to its first ice-cream cone at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Abe Doumar founded this drive-in institution in 1934. It's still operated by his family. Waitresses carry to your car the specialties of the house: barbecue, limeade, and ice cream in waffle cones made according to an original recipe. For breakfast, try the Egg-O-Doumar, a bargain at $3.60. The Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" featured Doumars twice in 2008.
In its short life, the Vintage Kitchen has racked up many accolades for its focus on local foods, artisan cheeses, and microbrews. Chef Phillip Craig Thomason is Paris trained, but local, and knows the specialties of the area. It's a place where you can order "Five Spice Duck Breast" and also a superb cheeseburger. All the spices and sauces come from an outdoor herb garden. A special seven-course tasting meal is available by appointment Monday through Wednesday.
You can meet painters, sculptors, glassworkers, jewelers, photographers, and other artists at work in their studios at the d'Art Center; the art is for sale.
In Ghent the upscale clothing and shoe boutiques at the Palace Shops are a good place to search out some finery.
An eclectic mix of chic shops, including antiques stores, bars, and eateries, lines the streets of Ghent, a turn-of-the-20th-century neighborhood that runs from the Elizabeth River to York Street, to West Olney Road and Llewellyn Avenue. The intersection of Colley Avenue and 21st Street is the hub.
The MacArthur Memorial is the burial place of one of America's most distinguished military officers. General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) agreed to this navy town as the site for his monument because it was his mother's birthplace. In the rotunda of the old City Hall, converted according to MacArthur's design, is the mausoleum; 11 adjoining galleries house mementos of MacArthur's career, including his signature corncob pipe and the Japanese instruments of surrender that concluded World War II. However, this is a monument not only to General MacArthur but to all those who served in wars from the Civil to the Korean War. Its Historical Center holds 2½ million documents and more than 100,000 photographs, and assists scholars, students, and researchers from around the world. The general's staff car is on display in the gift shop, where a 24-minute biography is shown.
Hermitage Foundation Museum
An early-20th-century estate of the Sloane family, The Hermitage Foundation Museum offers an outstanding presentation of architecture, art, and nature. The Sloanes, educated collectors with broad artistic interests, were among the founders of what is now the Chrysler Museum. Mr. Sloane was a wealthy New York businessman who moved to Virginia to operate textile mills. Docent-led tours are available on the hour. Visitors may also stroll the waterfront and 12-acre gardens and view contemporary art exhibitions.
A popular attraction on Norfolk's redeveloped downtown waterfront, Nauticus is a maritime science museum featuring hand-on exhibits, interactive theaters, and high-definition films that celebrate the local connection to the seaport. Visitors can touch a shark, learn about weather and underwater archaeology, and explore the mysteries of the Elizabeth River. A NOAA Environmental Resource Center is an invaluable stop for education materials. Temporary exhibits in both the Changing Gallery and Forecastle Gallery keep things fresh. The Hampton Roads Naval Museum on the second floor and the battleship Wisconsin adjacent to the building are also popular attractions operated by the U.S. Navy, and are included in the Nauticus admission.
Moses Myers House
The Federal redbrick Moses Myers House, built by its namesake between 1792 and 1796, is exceptional, and not just for its elegance. The furnishings, 70% of them original, include family portraits by Gilbert Stuart and Thomas Sully. A transplanted New Yorker as well as Norfolk's first Jewish resident, Myers made his fortune in Norfolk in shipping, then served as a diplomat and a customhouse officer. His grandson married James Madison's grandniece; his great-grandson served as mayor; and the family kept the house for five generations.
St. Paul's Church
Constructed in 1739, St. Paul's Church was the only building in town to survive the bombardment and conflagration of New Year's Day 1776; a cannonball fired by the British fleet remains embedded in a wall. An earlier church had been built on this site in 1641, and the churchyard contains graves dating from the 17th century. Get a free visitor parking pass in the church office.
Norfolk Naval Station
On the northern edge of the city, the Norfolk Naval Station is an impressive sight, home to more than 100 ships of the Atlantic Fleet. The base was built on the site of the Jamestown Exposition of 1907; many of the original buildings survive and are still in use. Several large aircraft carriers, built at nearby Newport News, call Norfolk home port and can be seen from miles away, especially at the bridge-tunnel end of the base. You may see two, each with a crew of up to 6,300, beside slightly smaller amphibious carriers that discharge marines in both helicopters and amphibious assault craft. The submarine piers, floating dry docks, supply center, and air station are all worth seeing. The Victory Rover and Carrie B. provide boat tours from downtown Norfolk to the naval station, and Hampton Roads Transit operates tour trolleys most of the year, departing from the naval-base tour office. Visitor access is by tour only, and photo ID is required to enter the base.
Chrysler Museum of Art
By any standard, the Chrysler Museum of Art downtown qualifies as one of America's major art museums. The permanent collection includes works by Rubens, Gainsborough, Renoir, Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, Warhol, and Pollock, a list that suggests the breadth available here. Classical and pre-Columbian civilizations are also represented. The decorative-arts collection includes exquisite English porcelain and art nouveau furnishings. The Chrysler is home to one of the most important glass collections in America, which includes glass objects from the 6th century BC to the present, with particularly strong holdings in Tiffany, French art glass, and English cameo, as well as artifacts from ancient Rome and the Near and Far East. Currently the painting exhibits are closed for renovations and upgrades, scheduled to re-open Spring 2014. The glass exhibit is still open during these upgrades.