17 Fun and Historical Things to Do in Portsmouth, VA

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Portsmouth, Virginia is a city that is teeming with history. From its founding in 1620 to the tragic yellow fever epidemic, the Civil War, and its current revival, there are many amazing things to do in Portsmouth VA!

The historic seaport also offers plenty of unique architectural sites, museums, restaurants, and opportunities to educate visitors about the deep-rooted history of the city. It is also home to many of the best Portsmouth attractions!

Best things to do in Portsmouth VA
Best things to do in Portsmouth VA

If you’re planning a trip to Portsmouth, you’ve come to the right place! Here are the top sites that you need to visit.

Best Things to Do in Portsmouth VA

The Commodore Theatre

The Commodore Theatre is a luxurious motion picture theater dating back to 1945. It’s included in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.

The building’s restoration process began in 1987. It was carried out by Fred Schoenfeld, who bought the Commodore and tried to revive the theater to its original style.

The artwork in the auditorium and lobby was restored, and the old murals were repainted and enhanced. The damaged ceiling was also repaired and embellished with new Italian leaded crystal chandeliers.

Commodore Theatre via Bill Dickinson (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Commodore Theatre via Bill Dickinson (Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Today, this Art Deco-style theater boasts THX, Dolby Digital Sound, and a 41-foot screen. Nine large JBL speakers are installed behind the screen and 22 speakers are mounted throughout the auditorium.

Their fine dining restaurant features club-style seating with a phone ordering system, connecting you directly to the kitchen. The menu includes soft drinks, sandwiches, pizza, beer, wine, and dessert.

And as a bonus, the theater offers a free dual charging station for Tesla vehicles. Enjoy your meal and movie while your car charges in their private lot. The Commodore box office is open on weekdays at 5:45 pm and 12:30 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

Address: 421 High St, Portsmouth, VA 23704

The Elizabeth River Boardwalk 

Enjoy walking along the historic waterfront of Portsmouth! It’s the part of the Elizabeth River that played a significant role in the country’s history and remains an active waterway today.

The waterfront offers plenty of spots to sit by the water, great photo options, and a dive into the local history. Strolling along the Seawall, you’ll see the Naval Medical Center, the oldest naval hospital that is still operating.

Sunset on the Elizabeth River
Sunset on the Elizabeth River

The hospital was constructed on the old Fort Nelson in 1827. History buffs can explore Civil War Trails placards depicting the history of the area during the war.

The hospital was in Confederate hands from 1861-1862 until the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Walking along the Elizabeth River Boardwalk, behind the Renaissance Hotel, visitors can see the Titan, a 950-foot long piece of steel, and a floating dry dock built in 1979. 

Tour with Mary Veale and the Colonials

Join one of the walking tours organized by a troupe of talented performers and see how history comes to life. Stroll along the streets of the Olde Towne, listen to interesting stories, and enjoy songs.

The Homes and History Walk Tour offers attending several prominent homes and places occupied or visited by famous figures like General Cornwallis, Benedict Arnold, James Armistead Lafayette, and Mark Twain.

Characters from local history guide you throughout your stroll, describing the architecture of various buildings and their stories. History Happened Here is a tour designed especially for students.

The topic can be shaped according to the visitors’ age. It’s mainly focused on the history of Portsmouth and the role it played in the history of Virginia.

Homes in historic Portsmouth
Homes in historic Portsmouth

Sometimes, this walking tour may be combined with a trip to the Children’s Museum of Virginia. Get acquainted with the heroes and the history that influenced African-American life during the Heroes and History Walk Tour.

Learn tons of interesting facts, such as how James Armistead Lafayette served in Portsmouth, William Billy Flora was a hero of the Battle of Great Bridge during the Revolutionary War, or how Portsmouth was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Explore all these stories while walking through the streets where it all happened.

The Coffee Shoppe 

The Coffee Shoppe welcomes its visitors nestled in a 200-year-old Federal-style building. This local cafe, situated in the historic district of Olde Towne Portsmouth, is the perfect place for meeting family, friends, and colleagues.

Established in 2009, it has been a favorite among locals and visitors ever since. The cafe is open every day, serving breakfast, lunch, various drinks, and pastries.

The Coffee Shoppe (photo courtesy of their Facebook)
The Coffee Shoppe (photo courtesy of their Facebook)

Find espresso, cappuccino, lattes, smoothies, desserts, and soups on their menu. The cafe also offers a dog-friendly patio to bring your furry friends. 

Address: 300 High St, Portsmouth, VA 23704

Portsmouth Children’s Museum

Explore and imagine at one of the largest museums in Virginia designed for little ones- and not only. Kids are encouraged to touch and discover, keeping their minds constantly entertained.

The museum includes two floors of exhibits and a planetarium. The first floor features a Working Port with a bustling waterfront area; Sounds Around, which offers various musical instruments made from unusual materials; Lancaster Antique

Train and Toy Collection, exhibiting a vast collection of rare toys and trains; the Bank, providing children with an overview of how banks work, and so much more.

Visitors can also check out traveling exhibits and the gift shop. On the second floor, children can explore the museum’s hands-on playscapes. They can learn about biology, ecology, archeology, geology, and astronomy at My Backyard and Beyond.

CreARTivity is another unique space full of hands-on experiences organized through different art forms. Little customers will also like visiting Make-N-Take, Recollections, Performance Space, and Dr. Forces Traveling Energy Extravaganza.

The Beazley Planetarium is the gem of the museum where kids can immerse themselves in the wonders of space.

The museum is open only for two sessions a day, 9:00 am-11:45 am and 1:15 pm-4:00 pm, Wednesday-Sunday.

Tickets must be reserved online. The entrance fee is $11 for adults, $10 for children.

Address: 221 High St, Portsmouth, VA 23704

Take the Elizabeth River Ferry

If you want to enjoy the stunning views of the river and waterfront, catch a ferry on the Elizabeth River. Hampton Roads Transit maintains three 150-passenger ferries running between Norfolk and Portsmouth.

These fast, economical ferries travel along North Landing and High Street in Portsmouth and the Waterside District in Norfolk. Ferries depart every 30 minutes. Schedules may change depending on weather conditions or technical problems.

They’re wheelchair accessible, and passengers may even walk on the board with their bicycles. Visitors can also take the ferry to Harbor Park. Ferries run every 30 minutes, one hour before the game starts, and returns just after the end of the game.

Ferry between Portsmouth and Norfolk - Anne Katherine Jones - Shutterstock
Ferry between Portsmouth and Norfolk – Anne Katherine Jones – Shutterstock

All HRT vehicles are equipped with electronic fare boxes accepting coins, cash, and GoPasses. The one-way fee for adults is $2.00.

Travelers must have exact fare when boarding, as fare boxes cannot make changes.

The operating hours are 8:30 am-5:00 pm on Sundays, 5:00 am-7:00 pm Monday-Friday, and 7:00 am-7:00 pm on Saturdays.

Umoja Fest

Disclaimer: This festival has been stopped temporarily due to the pandemic. We hope to see it back up and running in the near future!

Umoja is the Kiswahili word for unity, and there’s no other better place to find it than at this annual African-American culture and heritage festival.

The beautiful fest, aptly named Umoja Fest, colors the waterfront of Portsmouth for two days, celebrating the unity of family, community, and nation.

The festival combines modern and ancient art forms and brings together famous performers of jazz, reggae, gospel, and blues.

Special children’s areas are provided with games, crafts, and workshops, rooting from several African countries. Ethnic foods, sculptures, paintings, prints, quilts, and other handcrafted goods contribute to the fest’s atmosphere.

The Umoja Festival always starts with an African tradition of permission from the elders. The permission is sought because of their wisdom, experience, and knowledge.

A traditional African drum call alongside the blessings of the elders announces the opening of the fest and symbolizes ancient tribal customs.

The festival is a superb example of understanding cultural diversity. It links locals to Africa with simple rhythms and shares these values with fest participants from diverse communities.

The festival’s closing ceremony features a gospel jubilee of musicians from Hampton Roads.

St. John’s Episcopal Church

Established in 1848 by the Diocese of Virginia, the St. John’s Episcopal Church served as the second Episcopal congregation in Portsmouth.

In 1855 when the yellow fever epidemic was raging in Portsmouth, the church’s first priest James Chisholm refused to flee and remained to minister to the sick. Later, he died of the disease at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital.

After the Civil War, the parish canceled pew rents, and the sign All Seats Free welcomed worshippers. In 1897, the current Gothic Revival church was built at the corner of London and Washington Streets.

St. John's Episcopal Church
St. John’s Episcopal Church

The church is built with rose granite from Salisbury, featuring a magnificent rose window on the east facade and a Tiffany window above the altar.

Early 20th century additions to the building were made by the first licensed female architect in Virginia, Mary Brown Channel. Visitors can find a memorial garden open to the public near the church, a peaceful venue for rest and meditation.

This is the only active spot for burials in the Portsmouth Olde Towne Historic District.

Address: 424 Washington St, Portsmouth, VA 23704

Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve

This 142-acre preserve encompasses vast wetlands, a wooded forest, and a unique saltwater lake. It’s also a thriving habitat for various species of plants and animals native to southeastern Virginia.

Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve is the last viable wilderness area in Portsmouth and is focused on conservation, education, research, and recreation. Travelers can enjoy hiking, kayaking, and birdwatching activities or join special wildlife programs.

Explore 3 miles of hiking trails stretching through four separate habitats, including a forest of pines, hardwoods, a meadow of grasses and wildflowers, a brackish lake, and a tidal creek, where you can go kayaking.

You may choose from self-guided paddles or expert-led tours provided mid-April through October. Kayak rentals are available at the park. Hoffler Creek is accessible for all skill levels.

The preserve boasts many places with stunning vistas offering decks overlooking the lake, creek, and salt marsh. Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve is free and open to the public. It is open from Tuesday – Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm.

Fishing, running, biking, smoking, and pets are prohibited in the area in order to protect the habitat and its wildlife.

Lightship Portsmouth

Lightships used to serve as floating lighthouses between April 1820 and March 1985. They sailed in places where it was impossible to build conventional lighthouses. In total, 179 ships served 116 stations in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Today, only 20 still exist.

Lightship Portsmouth was built in 1915 and began its service in Wilmington. It was a unique ship constructed with a steel whaleback hull, making her very stable in stormy seas.

The Hollow Masts allowed crewmen to maintain the light, being protected from the weather. From 1926 to 1951, the ship guarded the Overfalls Shoal in Delaware. She spent most of her service here and underwent many changes.

Lightship in Portsmouth - Wangkun Jia - Shutterstock
Lightship in Portsmouth – Wangkun Jia – Shutterstock

She got a new fog horn, electrified light, expanded superstructure, and received an upgraded diesel engine. After 48 years of serving the coasts of Virginia, Massachusetts, and Delaware… the Lightship Portsmouth retired and became a museum.

In 1989, the ship was proclaimed a National Historic Landmark. Today, the museum informs its visitors about the history of lightships and the life of mariners.

The interior is packed with artifacts, photographs, uniforms, models, and other rare items.

Address: London & Water St, Portsmouth, VA 23704

Jewish Museum and Cultural Center

Learn about Jewish history, faith, and culture at Jewish Museum and Cultural Center. The former Chevra T’helim Synagogue is located at the main entrance of Portsmouth. It was built in 1918 when four families decided to establish their orthodox synagogue.

The synagogue thrived for many years and became the centerpiece for many generations of the immigrant Jewish community.

Chevra T’helim united the Jewish community and linked people to their European ancestors. However, by 1985, this thriving congregation closed its doors.

In 2002, the Friends of Chevra T’helim, Inc. decided to preserve this historic landmark. In 2008, the museum was opened. Today, the colonial-revival style building is a unique surviving example of East European Jewish Orthodoxy.

It’s recognized as a historic site by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Visitors can see an 18th-century Torah scroll rescued from Czechoslovakia, various exhibits, and artifacts on the history of Hampton Roads Jewish Community on display.

Tours and lectures are provided on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays from 2-4 p.m.

Address: 607 Effingham St, Portsmouth, VA 23704

Southern Flair Seafood & More

One of the most visited local establishments offering visitors amazing food and great customer service is Southern Flair Seafood & More. This is the spot where the North meets the South by making delicious Florida-style seafood.

The restaurant provides a real seafood experience to customers. Find a great selection of southern cooked food made from the highest-quality produce.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Try various crab and shrimp dishes with their signature homemade garlic butter, and you’ll definitely be planning your next trip.

Don’t forget to enjoy their famous banana pudding. If you’re lucky, you may catch one of the fests organized at the restaurant. It is open from Tuesday to Saturday.

Address: 3933 unit B, Turnpike Rd, Portsmouth, VA 23701

Take a Portsmouth Cultural Arts District Tour

Take a journey through the most exciting sites of Portsmouth at the Cultural Arts District. Discover the area’s past by walking the brick streets where you’ll find a series of squares.

They used to indicate the purpose of the property, such as “church,”  “market,”  etc. Today, 90 granite markers are placed at intersections to commemorate their historical significance.

Your first stop is at a bronze toad sculpture called I’ve Been Kissed. The toad has fingernails which means it was a human or is becoming a human. It’s located just in front of the Children’s Museum of Virginia.

Portsmouth Public Library - Bryan Pollard - Shutterstock
Portsmouth Public Library – Bryan Pollard – Shutterstock

Passing the Legend Brewing Depot, you’ll reach First Order Fresnel Lens, the largest and brightest of its kind. Next, stop by the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum with the famous mural on the side depicting the history of shipbuilding.

See the statue of Colonel William Crawford, the founder of Portsmouth. At the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center, visitors can enjoy the outdoor sculpture exhibit and the Ricky Price Mural located nearby.

You can’t miss another unique mural on the side of Bartley Tuthill’s law office, Speckled Trout. You can also check out other murals like the Battle of Craney Island Mural, Flitting Dragonfly, and the Commodore James Barron Mural.

In addition, visit the First Amendment Sculpture at the Portsmouth Public Library, the Two Kids on a Bench sculpture, and the Love sculpture.

Portsmouth Farmers’ Market

Located in the historic heart of Olde Towne Portsmouth, the farmers’ market has something for everyone. It offers seasonal produce, East Coast seafood, poultry and eggs, grass-fed beef and lamb, and heritage pork.

Vendors provide a variety of home-baked goods, artisan bread, jam, jellies, pickles, salsas, sauces, local honey, handmade soaps and lotions, candles, jewelry, and other accessories.

Find crafts made from metal, ceramic, glass, watercolors and oils, herbs, live plants, and even fresh flowers. Portsmouth’s Master Gardeners provide a free consultation about gardening, as well as special workshops and programs.

Amish Farmer's Market
Farmer’s Market

Some vendors suggest pre-orders for pick-up, but online orders are also available. The market is usually located around the courtyard garden of Portsmouth’s historic courthouse, now the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center.

Visitors are welcome to enjoy special entertainment and exhibits held there. The winter market takes place every Saturday from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Parking is free at the PACC lot.

The Hill House Museum

The Hill House was built in 1825 by John Thompson, an entrepreneur, builder, and businessman. Originally constructed in the federal style, the building was home to three generations of Hills.

In the 1960s, the three surviving descendants gifted their house to the Portsmouth Historical Association.

This did not only include the famous building, but also everything collected by the family over 190 years such as furniture, crystal, china, pottery, carpets, window dressings, paintings, and household goods.

As architecture and furnishings changed through generations, the internal part of the Hill House remained.

With the interior encompassing family belongings of the 19th and 20th centuries, the museum seems to be a dwelling of a family who went for a walk and never returned.

Few changes have been made to the house over time, but each generation had its influence on the architecture from the federal style to its current Victorian design.

The museum is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 12 p.m.–3 p.m. Guided tours and special events are organized at the site. The fee for a guided tour is $5 per person.

Address: 221 North St, Portsmouth, VA 23704

Ellen’s Homestyle & BBQ Express, LLC

Check out this takeout restaurant offering slow-cooked home-style soul food. Ellen’s uses only fresh local products for their dishes.

They function not only as a restaurant but also as a catering company, providing high-level service. This is the right place to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, baby showers, graduations, and retirements.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The restaurant is ready to meet your needs whether you’re looking for a brunch, delivered platter, buffet dinner, or a reception.

Excellent food and perfect portions await you at this Black-owned eatery. Ellen’s welcomes its customers from Monday to Saturday, 11:00 am – 6:00 pm.

Address: 4206 Portsmouth Blvd, Portsmouth, VA 23701

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum

This museum is a delight for those interested in local naval history and memorabilia. Travel back in time through exhibitions, special events, and hands-on programs provided at the Shipyard Museum.

The museum was established in 1949 on the nation’s oldest shipyard. However, in the 1950s, a decision was made to move the center to a more public place.

And in 1963, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was officially reopened in the heart of downtown. Its collection began to grow, displaying various ship models, antique firearms, and artifacts from the 19th century.

Portsmouth Shipyard Museum - James Kirkikis - Shutterstock
Portsmouth Shipyard Museum – James Kirkikis – Shutterstock

The museum acquired artifacts from the Battle of the Ironclads, including cannonballs, books, armor plates, and even a gun carriage.

Over time, outdoor displays were added, featuring World War II vintage torpedoes, a real Polaris Missile, and a Mercury Program training capsule.

Although most of the outdoor exhibits were reduced, the museum itself remains strong, offering visitors the chance to explore the development of Portsmouth from colonial times through the mid-20th century.

The hours of operation are Wednesday-Saturday, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, and Sunday, 12:00 pm-4:00 pm. Admission is by donation.

Address: 2 High St, Portsmouth, VA 23704

Did we miss any of your favorite places to visit in Portsmouth? Let us know your top things to do in Portsmouth VA in the comments! Thanks!

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4 thoughts on “17 Fun and Historical Things to Do in Portsmouth, VA

  1. Susan says:

    Trinity Episcopal Church is a MUST for history buffs. A docent led tour of the church and cemetery is worth the trip to Portsmouth.

    • Megan Starr says:

      Ahhhh I actually was wondering at the end of this why I didn’t put it on there but hadn’t been or seen it – I am planning a trip back this summer when I am back in the area!! Thanks for the tip 🙂

      • Dawn Denise Richardson says:

        When you’re back in Portsmouth, check out Paradise Creek Nature Park and the historic Colored Library on Elm St.

  2. Keith Toler says:

    Thanks for the great article. You make my job as tourism director for the city a lot easier! Much appreciated. If you need any ideas of other places to visit in our city when you return, please let me know.

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