While the Commonwealth of Virginia is filled with spectacular natural sites ranging from Shenandoah National Park to False Cape State Park, there is a particularly fascinating array of attractions awaiting nature lovers in Norfolk. Although best known for its naval prowess, this maritime city is home to a host of fascinating institutions and attractions that showcase the abundant beauty of the Old Dominion.
Areas like Ghent and Chelsea are particularly popular in Norfolk, but one of the city’s most stunning nature destinations can be found just outside the airport. Known as the Norfolk Botanical Garden, this historic institution is home to over 60 individual gardens spread over 175 acres, offering a diverse bouquet of cultivated plants to explore. During the warmer months, guests can stroll through the Margaret Moore Hall Rose Garden, one of the largest of its kind on the East Coast, to bask in the beauty of over 2,000 rose bushes, while the winter provides the opportunity to spot over 350 different cone plants in the evergreen garden.
There are hundreds of thousands of plant species across the world, and many of them would cease to exist without the help of pollinators, a fact the Norfolk Botanical Garden knows only too well. During a visit to the property’s Butterfly House, younger guests can marvel at the beauty of butterflies native to North America – and even spot a mature butterfly emerging from its chrysalis – while adults can learn first-hand knowledge of how to be a better steward for local species, ensuring the survival of these fascinating insects for years to come.
Although the Botanical Garden has earned a solid reputation for its wealth of native and non-native flora, there is no shortage of fascinating wildlife in the city either. For animal lovers in particular, the famous Virginia Zoo sits on the banks of the Lafayette River, offering over 700 individual animals to see. Exhibits range from Reptile World to the Tiger Trail, a leafy walkway home to red pandas, siamangs and Malayan tigers, but there’s more to the park than just its diverse collection of creatures. Behind the scenes, Virginia Zoo staff work tirelessly to preserve global and local biodiversity, enshrined in a host of initiatives targeting vulnerable species.
As for non-native wildlife, the Virginia Zoo is home to both rhinos and southern ground hornbills, and these fascinating creatures have spurred a close partnership with the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project, with the zoo providing funds to the institution to protect critical habitat used. by nesting hornbills. Other partners include the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and the Red Panda Network, but closer to home the zoo also works with the Elizabeth River Project, an organization dedicated to ensuring the health of the waterway’s many native fish and shellfish. .
In addition to vibrant outdoor institutions, Norfolk also offers an incredible opportunity for visiting cyclists in the form of the Elizabeth River Trail. Stretching 10.5 miles along the city’s main water feature, this scenic trail winds through a host of charming neighborhoods across Norfolk, with plenty of breweries and restaurants to be found along the way. Starting at Norfolk State University, cyclists can head west along the trail, passing through the downtown waterfront district and cruising to iconic destinations ranging from 1790s Fort Norfolk at Old Dominion University.
After a day of trekking through bustling flower gardens and zipping along the Elizabeth River, you’re sure to have a serious appetite. Fortunately, there is no shortage of outdoor bars and restaurants to spend the evening. For beer lovers in particular, the rustic Torch Bistro is a go-to spot, stocked with a slew of hearty IPAs and crisp lagers. In addition to craft beers, the restaurant is also home to savory favorites, including Fried Chilli Cheese Balls, Shrimp Po’boys, and Buffalo Chicken Grilled Cheese, all of which can be enjoyed by the outdoor fire pits — and as a bonus , Chelsea’s favorite Benchtop Brewing Company, is a short walk to the east, offering a particularly eclectic range of beers from goose pickle to maple syrup barleywine and bourbon barleywine.
Norfolk may not be particularly renowned for its nature-based attractions, but this city is sure to appeal to all forms of ecotourism. Although around 250,000 people call the city home — and that’s before you count the populations of nearby Chesapeake, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach — the Hampton Roads metro area is full of idyllic hidden gems between all those urban sprawls. When planning your next vacation, don’t miss this underrated, yet very rewarding coastal town.