Are you planning a trip to the Hampton Roads area and looking for the best things to do in Norfolk, VA? If so, keep reading!
This guide shows you what to do in Norfolk, VA, including historical sights, green spaces, and much more!
I have to admit, I never gave Norfolk much love growing up. I have no idea why I overlooked it, but I feel extremely guilty for doing so. It wasn’t until I left Virginia that I started popping by more when I was in the area visiting.
And my sister now lives there and constantly raves about how cool and dynamic the city is! It is also one of the best day trips from Virginia Beach despite being so close, meaning that summer vacationers should definitely plan a visit to Norfolk.
This guide showcases some of the best attractions in Norfolk, VA for a first-time visitor. I have been to Norfolk several times, so this is based on my experience and what I think a rookie visitor would like.
Let me know your favorite things to do in Norfolk in the comments, especially if you can highlight some cool small businesses there!
Interesting Facts about Norfolk, Virginia
I have been traveling to Norfolk since I was a kid, but I never really understood just how cool the city was until I visited as an adult.
Norfolk, and the Hampton Roads area in general, is home to a lot of military bases and one of the largest concentrations of them in the world.
The Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base, bringing a lot of people through the Virginia city annually.
Because of the Navy base in Norfolk, you will find a lot of places and museums honoring the US military, such as Nauticus and the USS Wisconsin, a battleship that served in WWII, the Korean War, and the Gulf War.
Many restaurants and businesses are veteran-owned or offer military discounts to those serving the country.
Norfolk is also home to the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center, one of the East Coast’s most famous cruise ports.
While many people skip over Norfolk to head down to Virginia Beach for some fun and sun in the summer months, I highly encourage sticking around Norfolk and exploring the city and all it has to offer.
I hope my guide to things to do in Norfolk, VA helps you plan your first trip there!
Best Things to Do in Norfolk, VA
1. Enjoy a Buffet Dinner Cruise in Norfolk
Enjoy a delicious lunch or dinner buffet on this 2-hour cruise on the (former) Spirit of Norfolk. The ship departs from Otter Berth in downtown Norfolk. Keep in mind that you will need to have a form of ID with you to get checked in.
In addition, the dress code is dressy-casual, meaning that flip-flops, jeans, shorts, and other very casual attire should not be worn.
Once you arrive, you will be taken to a candlelit table, after which you will enjoy a buffet full of fresh options like Caesar salad, creamed corn and cheddar cheese casserole, mashed potatoes, oven-baked flounder filet, baked ziti pasta, and Italian beef meatballs.
Note that the menu is subject to change, and be sure to let the crew know beforehand if you or anyone with you has a food allergy. You can also purchase alcoholic beverages.
Take as much or as little as you like while admiring the gorgeous views of the Norfolk skyline and, if you choose the dinner tour, a delicious meal under the stars.
2. See as Many Norfolk Mermaids as You Can
One of the coolest things about Norfolk is the mermaids that you’ll find scattered about town!
Introduced in 1999 by local bronze sculptor Kevin Gallup, you can find them throughout the city, despite the 130 that were initially placed.
I saw them everywhere throughout the city, whether it be near the water or in front of museums, etc. If you want to see as many as possible, definitely head over to the city’s website, where you can find an interactive map of them all.
3. Visit Nauticus and the USS Wisconsin BB-64
The first thing that you can do during your visit to Norfolk, Virginia, is to take a tour of the Battleship Wisconsin. It is berthed at Nauticus and is considered to be one of the largest and last battleships built by the United States Navy.
The ship was launched on December 7, 1943, and it was berthed at Nauticus on the same date in 2000. It has also won many medals, all of which you can learn about during a tour.
You can take a self-guided tour or one with a tour guide, where you will be able to explore the deck and the history of the ship. It earned five battle stars during World War II, which will be explained in further detail on the Topside Tour.
You can also check out the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which is owned by the Navy. Here, you will be able to see a collection of weapons, ship models, art, artifacts found underwater, and authentic uniforms.
The Nauticus Museum is closed on Mondays (and has reduced hours on Sundays).
Address: 1 Waterside Dr, Norfolk, VA
4. Peruse the Norfolk Botanical Garden
The Norfolk Botanical Garden, which is Virginia’s largest botanical garden, is a must-see when traveling to Norfolk. It is open every day from 9 AM-5 PM and a great place for both tours and events.
The gardens feature 175 acres, 7 miles of paved paths, and 7 miles of unpaved paths that visitors can explore. Some of the most popular collections featured here include roses, camellias, and crape myrtles.
One of the most popular places within the garden is the Butterfly House and the Children’s Garden, which is a wonderful spot for families and kids.
These botanical gardens are unique in the sense that they are the only ones in the country that you can visit by tram, boat, or by foot. They are also surrounded by water on three sides, providing you with stunning views!
These are some of the most magnificent botanical gardens in Virginia and are worth a visit when you’re traveling to Norfolk!
Address: 6700 Azalea Garden Rd., Norfolk, VA
5. Check Out the Selden Market
One of the coolest things to do in Norfolk is to visit the Selden Market, a place where you can experience and enjoy many of the city’s newer concepts in fashion, food, coffee, and more!
Located in the famous Selden Arcade building in downtown Norfolk, the repurposed space is paving the way for local businesses in Hampton Roads.
The businesses inside are ever-changing, but two of my recent favorites inside (as of November 2023) are S’mores Amore and Cafe Genevieve, a little French-inspired cafe with homemade macarons.
You can also find local jewelry and trinkets inside… and there is even a shop that is dedicated to artisanal goods from Virginia in the market.
The market is open Sunday-Thursday 11am-5pm and Friday and Saturday 11am-6pm.
Address: 208 E Main St, Norfolk, VA
Website: Selden Market
6. Wander Around the Chrysler Museum of Art
Another popular site to see in Norfolk is the Chrysler Museum of Art, which is home to more than 30,000 pieces of art. These artworks were painted at different times throughout history, spanning more than 5,000 years.
In addition to that, visitors will be able to check out the Perry Glass Studio, which is a 7,000-square-foot building where artists gather to showcase their work.
Some of the examples of types of artwork visitors can see here include glassmaking, glassblowing, casting, fusing, flameworking, and so much more, giving the Chrysler Museum one of the best glass collections in the country.
Visitors will be able to check out the free public demonstrations every Wednesday through Sunday at noon.
Be sure to also check out the website for events to see if there is any gallery or exhibition that particularly suits your interests, such as events for children or artwork from other countries.
The Chrysler Museum of Art is closed on Mondays.
Address: 1 Memorial Pl., Norfolk, VA
7. Visit a Norfolk Coffee Shop
One of the best things to do in Norfolk is to check out one of its amazing coffee shops.
There are several cool cafes in Norfolk and places to grab a quick cup of joe, but I recommend spending your money at one of the independent or locally-owned coffee shops in Norfolk if you have the opportunity.
Two highly recommended cafes are Cure Coffeehouse and Equinox Coffee Co. However, I discovered Vessel Craft Coffee on my latest trip and am obsessed with it too!
Cure Coffeehouse is located at 503 Botetourt Street in Historic Freemason and specializes in espresso drinks, craft beer, sandwiches, and charcuterie.
It is an epic place to spend a couple of hours of your day. They have coffee shops in Norfolk and Smithfield, both.
Founded in 2017, Equinox Coffee Co. is a Norfolk favorite for those looking for a brilliant cup of coffee.
You can find them at 2800 Colley Avenue. Their mission is to connect the community and serve only the best, organically grown, ethically sourced coffee.
Vessel Craft Coffee has a location in Chelsea and is a female-owned business. Founded by Sarah Beth Coward, a Norfolk local, Vessel gives 10% of all profits back to community projects… and their coffee is simply stellar!
I also recently discovered Kobros, located in Ghent. They had a minimalistic interior with incredible coffee (and very friendly staff). I had their cortado and can say it was one of my favorite coffees in Norfolk. They are located at 419 W 21st St.
Click here if you’re looking for some amazing coffee shops in VA Beach instead!
8. Discover Ghent – One of the Coolest Neighborhoods in Norfolk
Norfolk has plenty of cute neighborhoods, but there is something about Ghent that I just absolutely love. You have a historic area as well as a more ‘modern’ area… but both are brimming with independent shops and eateries.
One of my favorite things to do in Ghent is to eat! You can find some of the city’s best food there, including several Asian options. Some of my favorite places to eat in Ghent are:
- No Frill Bar and Grill: 806 Spotswood Ave, Norfolk, VA 23517
- Kappo Nara Ramen: 2000 Colonial Ave #7, Norfolk, VA 23517
- Redwood Smoke Shack Texas BBQ: 2001 Manteo St, Norfolk, VA 23517
- Taste (delicious sandwiches!): 407 W 21st St, Norfolk, VA 23517
Some other favorite businesses of mine in Ghent are the Catnip Cat Cafe (I mention it in this guide individually), Kobros Coffee Shop, and Pendulum Fine Meats. I also have Crudo Nudo on my list for my next visit, but they were not open when I was recently there.
Ghent is also home to several popular Norfolk attractions like the Naro Theater, the Colley Theater, the Chrysler Museum of Art, and the Harrison Opera House.
Ghent Historic District has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980 and remains one of the coolest places to visit in Norfolk!
9. Have Dinner at Freemason Abbey Restaurant
Located inside a repurposed church from 1873, Freemason Abbey Restaurant is consistently rated as one of the top restaurants in Norfolk.
They serve a variety of food and have several different menus, from lunch to dinner to a special Sunday brunch menu. You will find vegetarian options as well as gluten-free items on the menu.
Some of the top menu items are the Freemason Abbey onion soup, she crab soup, crab cakes, and more. They also have an array of hand-cut steaks to choose from with delicious sides.
This is one of my favorite restaurants in the city and essential for a first-timer’s Norfolk itinerary.
Address: 209 W. Freemason St., Norfolk, VA
10. Go to the Hermitage Museum and Gardens
The Hermitage Museum and Gardens is another famous art museum in Norfolk, featuring pieces of art that date back 5,000 years.
Visitors will also be able to check out indoor and outdoor exhibitions that change regularly, as well as the Visual Arts Studio and the 12 acres of land outside where it is possible to view art and culture.
Check the website frequently to see the different events that are hosted by the museum, many of which are child-friendly. If you live close by, it is also possible to participate in classes, such as pottery classes and summer camps.
Aside from the fabulous artwork, the museum is also famous for the beautiful gardens outside, which include forests, wetlands, and semi-formal gardens.
In addition, it is possible to see the Lafayette River on three sides, which provides a great backdrop, making the venue perfect for special events. You can also check out hundreds of animals and plants here!
Address: 7637 N Shore Rd., Norfolk, VA
11. Admire Norfolk’s Street Art Scene in the Neon District (and Beyond!)
Norfolk has a good little art scene in the city! You’ll find murals and street art throughout, from ones near Waterside to the colorful Neon District.
The entire city serves as an ideal platform for all artists to showcase their careers, and it’s not unusual to see the sides of buildings throughout Norfolk decorated with stunning murals.
For example, visitors can check out the Bloom Mural painted by Carl Medley III and Charles Rasputin on 801 Boush Street, which features vibrant pink roses and white fangs to showcase the creativity of the Neon District.
Another popular piece is Razzle Dazzle by Nick Kuszyk on Granby Street, which was inspired by the camouflage on the Navy’s battleships from World War I.
Finally, among hundreds of other murals, you can also check out Fathoms of Freedom by Christopher Kozak and students at Fountain Park Garage, which features the goddess of liberty while paying homage to Norfolk’s naval history.
Click here to find out more about the Neon District and its murals.
12. Discover the Craft Beer Scene in Norfolk
If you’re a beer lover, you will definitely find a home in Norfolk’s craft beer scene!
There are several fantastic bars, restaurants, and taprooms serving exceptional craft beer, and rather than just pointing out one, we will list a few below so you can take your pick (or visit them all):
- Benchtop Brewing Company
- The Birch
- Maker’s Craft Brewery
- Rip Rap Brewing Co.
- Elation Brewing Company
However, one place I found that was fantastic was The Birch.
The Birch is a retro-styled bar that has 21 craft beers on draft and pairs them with grilled cheese and cheese boards. They also have mead and cider. It is located in Chelsea on Olney Road.
13. Cuddle a Kitten at Catnip Cat Cafe
One of my most recent discoveries in Norfolk is the Catnip Cat Cafe in Ghent. My sister had told me about the place, but I never intended to seek it out intentionally, as I am allergic to cats.
However, when I stumbled upon it by accident, I knew I had to go in and check things out (despite the allergies).
At Catnip Cat Cafe, you can go in and play with one of their many rescues that are up for adoption (and even adopt one if you’re looking for a new member of your family).
If you walk in, it costs $9 for 30 minutes or $13 for an hour. It is best to make reservations in advance, which you can do on their website. When there, they offer drinks to guests.
Catnip Cat Cafe is one of the best things to do in Norfolk for kids and families.
Address: 1611 Colley Ave., Norfolk, VA
14. Stop by the VisitNorfolk Tourist Info Center
Is it weird to put a visitor center on a travel blog? Maybe, but I think this is easily one of the best tourism information centers I have visited in the US, and it should be on your list of places to visit when you’re traveling to Norfolk!
The VisitNorfolk Tourism Information Center is located in the downtown area (near Waterside), and it is open Monday-Friday from 8:30am until 5pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 11am until 2pm.
The info center has everything from guidebooks about the city (and even other places in VA) as well as souvenirs (and plenty of VA merch).
The woman working there when I visited was super helpful and knowledgeable, and her passion made me love the city even more!
Address: 232 East Main Street, Norfolk, VA 23510
15. Enjoy Ice Cream at Doumar’s Cones & Barbecue
Doumar’s, which is the home of the original waffle cone (allegedly), is an ice cream lover’s heaven! Here, you will be able to try homemade creamy shakes, sundaes, desserts, and everything about ice cream.
Back in 1904, the founder, Abe Doumar, supposedly made the first waffle cone at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and the rest is history. The waffle cone became so popular that Abe Doumar became the owner of several ice cream stands, including one in Ocean View.
The current restaurant is one of the most beloved locations for residents and tourists in Norfolk. Aside from that, you can dine here as a family for a North Carolina style barbecue, hamburgers, and limeade, which are all homemade and fresh.
Doumar’s has become one of the best landmarks in historic Hampton Roads over the past 100 years, and it is open every day besides Sunday. Visitors can choose to dine in or do curbside dining.
Address: 1919 Monticello Ave., Norfolk, VA
16. Walk the Elizabeth River Trail
The Elizabeth River Trail features nine miles of scenic views from Norfolk State University to Terminal Boulevard. Here, you will be able to start your tour on an abandoned railroad that was transformed into a walking trail and one of the best bike trails in VA.
The trail is paved to be accessible to anyone with physical disabilities. It is advised that you bring plenty of water and snacks with you when you check out the trail. You can also bring your furry friends along with you, but dogs must be kept on a leash.
As with most other sites in Norfolk, you will be able to get a glimpse of the town’s seafaring history since the trail is right next to the waterfront.
This also means that you’re likely to see ducks, seagulls, skimmers, and other seabirds on your run.
Some of the most popular activities that visitors participate in include walking, running, bird watching, and road biking, and you will be able to visit year-round.
17. Visit the Moses Myers House in Historic Freemason
The Moses Myers House was the property of Moses Myers, who was a Jewish-American entrepreneur.
It then became the home of five generations of the Moses family, all of whom became prominent members of the Norfolk community, as well as the first Jewish-Americans in Norfolk.
They were the only Jewish people in the region for over a decade.
The family was especially known due to the achievements of Moses Myers and Barton Myers, who both made many investments and improvements in the Norfolk community, such as railroads, steam companies, and bridge construction, as well as reconstructing Norfolk in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Visitors will be able to check out the Moses Myers House to get a glimpse into the unique history of the family that formed Norfolk’s main Jewish community, how they lived, and how the home was reconstructed after being passed to Barton Myers.
Address: 323 E Freemason St, Norfolk, VA
18. Hit Up The Bakehouse at Chelsea
I have visited a fair number of places in Norfolk, and one place that sticks in my mind is The Bakehouse in Chelsea.
This place was out of this world, and I kind of stumbled upon it by accident when visiting nearby businesses!
The Bakehouse is known for its wood-fired pizza, but they also have an array of delicious baked goods (including insanely good sourdough bread!).
You can find them in Chelsea, Elation, and Smartmouth in VA Beach.
This is an epic place for lunch!
Address: 1233 W Olney Rd, Norfolk, VA
19. Visit the Hunter House Victorian Museum
The Hunter House Victorian Museum, which is located in the Freemason Historic District, once belonged to James Wilson Hunter and his family.
Visitors will be able to take guided tours of the museum between April and December. In addition, the museum features plenty of events, tours, and exhibits for visitors to get a glimpse of Victorian social history and customs.
Each guided tour lasts around one hour, and the last tour of the day begins at 3:30 PM. The museum is open from Wednesdays to Saturdays. Visitors of all ages can visit the museum, as well as educational groups.
Another popular part of the museum is the shop, which offers souvenirs, tea-time items, and other knick-knacks that will take you back to the Victorian period.
The historic district where the museum is located is also close to many cultural sites, shops, and eateries, making your trip much more exciting. Be sure to stop by Cure Coffeehouse and the Virginia Cheese Co. nearby!
Address: 240 W Freemason St, Norfolk, VA
20. Explore the Norfolk Waterside District
Another place to visit if you’re traveling to Norfolk for the first time is the Waterside District. You will find a lot of restaurants, events, festivals, live music, and more situated right along the waterfront.
Some of the notable restaurants and bars there are the Starr Hill Market Bar, Stripers, and The Market Norfolk.
If you walk a bit away from the main restaurants, there is a cafe called Neptune’s Fury Cafe & Roastery that offers some of the tastiest coffee in this area of town.
Address: 333 Waterside Drive, Norfolk, VA
21. Go on an American Rover Sailing Cruise
Anyone familiar with the Hampton Roads area is aware of the American Rover’s tanbark sails, which is one of the area’s most iconic attractions (and things to do). You can take an adventure on one with a cruise from Norfolk’s Waterside.
The ship can carry up to 149 passengers and offers comfortable seating and a shaded topside. Passengers need to arrive 30 minutes prior to departure.
On the American Rover, you will be able to sail the Elizabeth River and the Hampton Roads Harbor every day between April and October on two-hour cruises that are narrated.
In addition, you can choose one of the sunset cruises for stunning views of the setting sun. Visitors can either relax and enjoy the trip, or they can lend a hand with the sails and take a turn at the helm!
It’s highly encouraged that you make a reservation beforehand, and you can check out the schedule 30 days in advance of your trip.
22. Relax at Ocean View Beach
Ocean View and East Beach are popular beaches located in Norfolk, and both beaches are filled with plenty of exciting activities for people of all ages to engage in!
Some of the popular activities that people participate in are kayaking, sailing, fishing, crabbing, swimming, and, of course, relaxing. You can also check out the beach parks for live music performances and festivals (especially during the summer months).
Ocean View Golf Course is another popular spot located close to the beach for those who don’t care to hang out by the water.
Aside from that, however, you can try some authentic Mexican cuisine at Jessy’s Tienda and Taqueria, as well as the dozens of seafood restaurants that will enable you to get a bite to eat right near the water.
Don’t miss COVA Brewing Company for a local craft beer when you’re there (and they also have amazing coffee).
History lovers can check out the Ocean View Station Museum to learn more about the unique history of the area. It is a great rainy-day activity (but please note that it is closed on Sundays).
Visiting Ocean View Beach and its surrounding area is one of the top things to do in Norfolk, VA, and it is honestly one of the best beaches in the state (because, let’s be honest, we don’t have that many).
Things to Do in Norfolk (On a Map!)
Best Places to Stay in Norfolk
There are many fantastic places to stay on your trip to Norfolk, VA! Here are some of the top picks that will get you started!
I hope that you found some of these things to do in Norfolk perfect for your itinerary for the city! Let me know if you have any Norfolk landmarks I missed in the comments!
Heading to VB after? Be sure to check out my guide for things to do in Virginia Beach as well!
More Tidewater Travel Guides
- Norfolk in winter
- Best cafes in Norfolk
- 2 days in Norfolk, VA
- Things to do in Virginia Beach
- Things to do in Portsmouth
Pin this Norfolk Attractions Guide
Megan is a travel blogger and writer with a background in digital marketing. Originally from Richmond, VA, she has lived all around the world (including Germany, Finland, Norway, etc) but her heart always finds its way back to Virginia. This blog is to help encourage travelers to explore the great state of VA… and its wonderful neighbors! Megan has written for or been featured by National Geographic, Forbes, Lonely Planet, Fodor’s Travel, the New York Times, and more. She has visited 45 US states and 100+ countries… and wholeheartedly believes that Brunswick Stew is probably the greatest food to ever exist.