My first lesson when I visited Norfolk? How to pronounce it. Call it Nor-fok, or better yet, Naw-fok. But don’t call it Nor-folk. No matter how you say it, though, this truly is one of the great historic cities in America. Travelers will find nearly 150 miles of sweeping coastline here, a thriving arts scene and world-class cuisine. Here are a few attractions not to miss.
Skip the Bar, Hit the Festival
If you’re thirsty for some of the most buzzed-about wine in the country, head to a festival; Norfolk hosts an average of two per month. One of the most anticipated is the annual Town Point Virginia Wine Festival, which takes place in mid-October (this year, it’s slated for Oct. 18-19). Dozens of Virginia wineries pour, and guests get to expand their palate with several Sip-&-Learn seminars. The wine industry here is on the rise; Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Virginia one of the 10 best wine travel destinations in the world.
After the Festival, Visit the Winery
Located in the charming neighborhood of Ghent, Mermaid Winery is Norfolk’s very first urban winery. Small-production wines are made using premium Virginia grapes, and guests can choose from a dozen wine flights. Visit during one of their free monthly wine tastings.
Skip the Wine, Sip the Beer
If you prefer suds in your glass, check out the brand new O’Connor Brewing Co. tasting room, on W. 24th Street. Step up to the 24-tap bar and play a little shuffleboard before you join one of the free brewery tours offered Saturday and Sunday afternoons, every hour, on the hour. The optional guided beer sampling that follows, for about $10, gets high marks.
Skip the Café, Walk
Walking food tours are becoming a hot item nationwide, including Norfolk; ambitious restaurateurs and creative chefs have flocked here in recent years, creating a vibrant food scene. Coastal Food Tours Virginia offers the Granby Street Tour through the heart of downtown Norfolk. It lasts about 3-1/2 hours and tastes you through award-winning smoked meats, tapas dishes, crab soups, ethnic specialties and some of the city’s best desserts; there’s coffee sampling and beer tasting, too.
Skip Lunch, Do Dessert
For a behind-the-scenes culinary tour, visit Rowena’s Kitchen on W. 22nd Street, a Norfolk institution whose delectable, original-recipe desserts have been featured on the Food Network and the pages of Gourmet Magazine, Bon Appetit and Southern Living. Free cake factory tours are offered most days and include a generous sampling of their bakes goodies, curds and jams.
Come for the Art, Stay for the Glass
When you visit the Chrysler Museum of Art -- considered one of the best in the country for a collection that features masters like Ansel Adams and Pablo Picasso – check out the glass studio. Opened three years ago, glass is presented here as a performing art. Free demos are presented most days, at noon. And there are several classes, like the two-hour teaser lesson that shows you how to blow through a pipe and use specialty tools to shape molten glass; you’ll leave class with a champagne paperweight souvenir. Single-session classes on stained glass and kiln-working are also available.
After the Museum, Visit a Historic Home
Norfolk is actually home to a bevy of wonderful museums, and many of them are within walking distance of the downtown waterfront. But there are beautiful older homes here, too, which are part and parcel to this city’s history. The Charles Rolling Grandy house, on West Freemason Street, is a Georgian-Revival home built at the turn of the 20th century that features Flemish bond brickwork and that once belonged to a leading doctor in the fight against tuberculosis. The Willoughby-Baylor House, on East Freemason Street, dates back to the late 1700s; today, it houses exhibits that highlight the city’s military and architectural history.
Skip the Beach, Cast a Line
Norfolk is surrounded almost entirely by water, so it’s a no-brainer that watersports and beach activities reign supreme here. But that makes this a great vacation spot to hone your fishing skills, too. The city has two fishing piers that are open around the clock: Ocean View Fishing Pier and Willoughby Fishing Pier. Of course, Chesapeake Bay offers myriad saltwater fish, like trout and flounder, while Lake Whitehurst is home to freshwater fish, like bass. Want to fish deeper? Quality boat charters abound.
Skip the Gym, Stretch (and Breathe)
The yoga scene is growing quickly in Norfolk, with several studios throughout downtown. To make this a more affordable venture, Satya Yoga, on Botetourt Street, offers several donation-based classes. Pay what you will on Friday evenings and Saturdays afternoons, as well as at the once-a-month outdoor classes that take place April through October at waterfront Town Point Park.
Skip the Tour, Attend an Event
The sea is the focus at Nauticus, an interactive science and technology center that makes an awesome day visit; you’ll find a slew of remarkable exhibits, including HD films. This is also home to the Battleship Wisconsin, launched in 1943, one of the last battleships to be built by the U.S. Navy. The tours here are great; you pay $20 extra for a Gold Ticket, which comes with a guided interior tour of the Wisconsin. But don’t stop there. The best way to explore this vessel is by attending one of the special events held here throughout the year. The Spy Ship experience is an interactive espionage game where guests use night vision goggles, navigate through a laser maze and solve cryptic secrets, all on the battleship. And the annual, Halloween-inspired Haunted Ship (not recommended for kids under 13) is frighteningly interactive.
Skip the Kennel, Bring Fido
Many pet owners already know: Norfolk is considered one of the dog friendliest cities in the country. You’ll find no less than a dozen dog parks here, as well as dozens of restaurants that let you bring Fido along. When you need some alone time, though, there are several pet day care centers throughout the city.
Skip Playing Tourist, Volunteer
Several Norfolk attractions have created “voluntourism” opportunities for visitors willing to take a little time to give back. For example, you can call ahead and pledge a few hours at the Norfolk Botanical Garden, the Virginia Zoological Park and the Hermitage Museums & Gardens. You can volunteer with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, too, which focuses on conserving the Bay’s watershed. Voluntourism is gaining ground quickly in the travel industry; these opps in and around Norfolk are promoted by the non-profit VOLUNTEER Hampton Roads.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features a bevy of Norfolk hotel specials, as well as local deals.