US Route 1 is one of America's greatest roads. Connecting the major cities from the northernmost tip of Maine to the southernmost end of the Florida Keys, it's the country's longest north-south highway. But, though it parallels the busier I-95 for large portions of the route, it's more of a back road, a holdover from the days of auto trails. If you're looking to explore the East Coast off the beaten path, let historic Route 1 be your guide.
The section that winds its way through Virginia is a great example of what makes Route 1 so special. You'll meander through small towns and past big cities, enjoying rich culture and a slow, relaxing pace of life.
A great example of repurposing industrial buildings, Alexandria's Torpedo Factory Art Center has turned an old WWI/WWII munitions plant into a hub for all things artistic. Galleries, studio space, cafes, classes, and even the Alexandria Archaeological Museum are housed within the old factory. Check out the bright green Mark XIV torpedo that was actually crafted here on display in the lobby, then wander the building and enjoy the creativity on display. Whatever medium pleases you, from printmaking and photography to fibers, jewelry and beyond, there will be something here to intrigue.
The Pope Leighey House is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. The beautiful Usonian home was moved to the Woodlawn Plantation after the Virginia Highway Department attempted to condemn the structure to make way for a road. The National Trust for Historic Preservation had it dismantled and reassembled on the new site, where it's still open for tours. The home originally was commissioned by Loren Pope, a journalist who had become fascinated with Wright's designs-- the first time he asked Wright to design a house for him, Wright told him that he only designed houses for "people who deserved them". Pope had to write to Wright, asking again, and Wright finally agreed. After struggling to find someone to loan him the money, Pope managed to get everything in place-- although his dream house had to be downsized a bit. When it was all said and done, Wright considered it to be his ultimate ideal of a Usonian home.
Mount Vernon, George Washington's beloved home, is not too far off Route 1, and since it's one of those classic, iconic stops, it's worth it to visit and pretend like you're back in school on a field trip. Field trip days were the best, right? Admission gets you access to the whole estate, from the mansion and the outbuildings to the gardens and the farm, stocked with heritage breed animals. Washington's tomb and the slave memorial burial ground are also essential stops. There's also the museum stocked with hundreds of artifacts, a distillery (did you know that Washington made his own rye whiskey?) and plenty of other sights to see here. A guided tour is definitely recommended, as you'll get bonus historical insight into the real George Washington, and what life was like during America's earliest years.
The National Museum of the Marine Corps is an incredibly well-curated look into one of the most historic branches of our armed forces. It's next to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, and run by the Marine Corps University, so you know it's going to be fascinating. You'll get a taste for what boot camp is like and a chance to see the Marine Corps' role in battles from the American Revolution on. With 60,000 artifacts, including weapons, uniforms, vehicles, and more, and 240 years of history, there's a ton to see and learn here.
Fredericksburg is a town rich with history. The most unique place to experience its past is the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop. It was once the office and store of George Washington's family friend Dr. Hugh Mercer. Mercer was with Washington at the Crossing of the Delaware and died from wounds received at the Battle of Princeton. His shop today now serves as a museum dedicated to medicine and surgery during the Colonial era. Learn how leeches, crab claws, and other "cures" were used to treat wounds and ailments... and take a moment to appreciate how far medicine has come!
If you're a pop culture geek, then a stop a Little Fish Comics is a must. Whether you're grabbing a memento of your trip or some reading material for the car ride, this place has everything you want from a comic shop. Browse their selection of magazines, books, collectibles, toys, models, games, and, of course, comics, and feel free to ask the staff for suggestions and advice. You'll feel right at home here!
For thrill-seekers on Route 1, you can't do any better than Kings Dominion. This theme park offers rides, 13 roller coasters, shows, a massive water park, and loads more. It's definitely a full-day stop, but kids and adults alike won't have a hard time spending hours roaming the park and taking advantage of the attractions here. If you're a huge fan of thrills, make sure to ride the Intimidator 305, Volcano: The Blast Coaster, and the Dominator; if you're not into loops and drops, there's always Dinosaurs Alive! and Soak City.
As you make your way into Richmond, stop at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. This gem offers 50 acres of lush, perfectly landscaped gardens, an antique conservatory, playgrounds for kids, a treehouse, a farm, cafes, shops, and much more. Various styles of gardens provide endless insight into the beauty and importance of plants, from the healing garden to the Asian Valley to the Cherry Tree Walk. This living museum is one of America's most renowned gardens, and it's easily one of the most beautiful and relaxing spots in Virginia.
Take a break from the road in Richmond. The Linden Row Inn is a gorgeous, historic boutique hotel featuring 70 well-appointed rooms, all with an antique vibe. The convenient downtown location is a plus as well. Plus, the property has ties to famous figures like Edgar Allan Poe, who was childhood friends with the family who lived here and played in the garden, Irene Gibson, the original Gibson Girl, and her sister, Lady Nany Astor, the first female member of the British Parliament.
Richmond has a pretty stellar foodie scene, so you're guaranteed a good meal wherever you go. If you're looking to enjoy a New American spin on Southern staples (you are in Virginia, after all) then try Pasture. Whether classic dishes like pimento cheese (served with Ritz crackers, of course), Frito pie, 7UP cake, and hamburgers peak your interest, or you're more drawn to offerings like steak tartare, marinated Gulf shrimp, lemon buttermilk pie, or house-made pasta, there's plenty of delicious stuff to sample. And don't forget to try a cocktail... even their drinks reflect Richmond's culture in some way.
Although famed poet Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, he spent many of his formative years in Richmond; a family friend adopted him after his father left and his actress mother died. The Poe Museum is a fitting tribute to the author, and the largest collection of Poe artifacts and memorabilia in the world. From original letters, manuscripts, and photos, to clothes, his walking stick, his childhood bed, and even a lock of his hair, they really do have a comprehensive collection of all things Poe. Make sure to visit the touching Poe Shrine and Enchanted Garden (a reference to Poe's "To One in Paradise). Of course, the museum is also not without a sense of fun about the notoriously dark and gloomy author; they hold seasonal monthly "Unhappy Hours" and other cheeky events.
Virginia is also ripe with Civil War history. Petersburg National Battlefield is a key part of the notoriously bloody war. This was where General Grant laid siege to Petersburg for nine and a half months, cutting off their supply lines, and causing the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Robert E. Lee. Explore the battlefield to get an idea of what life was like in the trenches during the siege, learn about the important role the Colored Troops played in the engagement, see the Crater from the famed Battle of the Crater, tour military fortifications, and see re-enactments and artillery demonstrations. They also have 18 miles of trails, for those who just want to enjoy the rolling fields and shady forests of the park.
As you reach the Virginia border, take a little detour off Route 1 to visit Whittle's Mill. This park along the Meherrin River features the remains of 35 water mills, all in various states of ruin and decomposition. All of the mills predate the Civil War, and some were even built before the American Revolution. The park has waterfalls and is the perfect place to take a dip in the river. It's a secret that local families have been visiting for ages, and it's the perfect place to stretch your legs, or simply soak up some sun and fresh air before hitting the road again.
Of course, there are plenty of other gems to see and do along Route 1 in Virginia, but when you're driving the longest North-South road in the country, time might be short for visiting every last thing. Enjoy immersing yourself in the culture and history that Virginia has to offer; no other state along the route is anything like this!