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5 Reasons to Pull off Interstate 95 in Richmond, Virginia

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The next time you are driving up or down  Interstate 95 through the Mid-Atlantic you really should stop and visit Richmond, Virginia, for the night. I know there’s that I-295 that bypasses the Virginia capital city completely, but still, I really think you should do it, and frankly, staying two nights would be even better. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

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Monument Avenue with it’s stately homes and wide median, hosts various city events throughout the year and is a great place to go on a formal walking tour or just take a stroll

Yes, I know, I know, as a native Richmonder; I’ve heard all the stories over the years. You’ve already been there, you say; you drove through it that one time on your way to Florida, twenty plus years ago. You want to tell me about the uncounted toll booths – as if I didn’t know about them, and they are gone by the way – and how as far as cities go, Richmond didn’t really look all that impressive to you as you sped by in the back seat of your parent’s station wagon on your way to Orlando.

It’s okay, you were something like 12, and probably just wanted to get to wherever you were going; and if you did happen to stop it was to spend the night in a roadside hotel, which I don’t think I need to tell you now that we’re all grownups, doesn’t really show a place in its best light. But assuming I have your attention now for a minute or two, I’ve got a few very good reasons for you to take an exit and visit Richmond, Virginia, next time you’re cruising up or down I-95.

Monument Avenue

Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, is considered a premier example of American city planning. The wide boulevard’s most distinguishing feature is that many of the intersections are home to large statuary of everything from Civil War figures to Arthur Ashe, the professional tennis player. One of these days when I get back for a visit, I’d love to go on a walking tour. (You know that phenomenon where we don’t know as much about where we live, or are from, as we do say, one state over?)

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The Robert E. Lee statue was the first of the monuments to be erected on Monument Avenue in 1890

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That this was my favorite monument as a child was not related to whom it honored. I just liked it because it was so fancy.

The Jefferson Hotel, 101 West Franklin St.

In operation since 1895, The Jefferson Hotel has long been the lodging of choice for the Richmond visitor. I’ve never stayed there, but whenever I’m in town I try to stop in for a drink at TJs, or if it’s during the holidays, to peek in and admire the beautiful Christmas tree. Dave’s and my rehearsal dinner was also held here in  The Flemish Room. I don’t remember anything about it.

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The Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia

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The Jefferson Hotel at Christmas looking down the staircase that may or may not have inspired Margaret Mitchell

According to local lore the staircase in Gone with the Wind was modeled on the grand staircase at the Jefferson Hotel. Whenever I hear this story I’m never sure if it refers to the book or the movie version. If asked most Richmonders will tell you whatever story they grew up hearing as swear-on-your-mother’s-grave fact. Personally I cling to the idea of Margaret Mitchell’s eyes falling on the staircase as she swished by, and saying, “Scarlett simply MUST have this!”

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Jefferson Hotel lobby

The Jefferson’s magnificent lobby, known as Palm Court, features a statue of the hotel’s namesake, Thomas Jefferson. See the statue of an alligator next to him on the floor? Back in the day real alligators were kept in the fountain that was once located in this spot. The last alligator, named “Old Pompey,” died in 1948. (I’m seriously noting for the first time, how statue-centric my hometown is.)

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Boulevard

The Virginia Museum has undergone a massive renovation and expansion in recent decades. The museum is currently playing host as the only stop  on the East Coast to the Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris exhibit which runs until May 15. Among the museum’s most well-known permanent exhibits is the largest collection of Fabergé eggs outside of Russia.

The museum’s recent expansion struck me as a flawless integration of indoor and outdoor spaces.

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Virginia Museum

My final pieces of evidence as to why you should visit Richmond are, appropriately, food related. One is a restaurant and the other isn’t a restaurant as much as it is a bakery and a Richmond institution. Come to think of it, both establishments are Richmond institutions.

Millie’s Dinner, 2603 E. Main St.

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Millie’s is located in a 1940s diner and is so close to Interstate 95 you can practically throw a rock at it (wouldn’t suggest it though.) The highly praised restaurant has been serving up their own kind of fusion cuisine since arriving on the Richmond dining scene in 1989. Known best for their changing menu and weekend brunch, it’s always worth the wait. Do you hear that? Something awesome like a crab and egg enchilada is calling you. Generally, Millie’s doesn’t take reservations. In other words, not having a reservation is no excuse not to pull yourself off the highway and go.

Sally Bell’s Kitchen, 708 West Grace St.

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The five elements of a Sally Bells’ boxed lunch

The original Sally Bell’s Kitchen near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, serves Richmond’s quintessential Southern boxed lunch. I always like to choose their chicken salad or ham sandwich which are always served on Sally Bell’s special roll. Other kinds of sandwiches, including pimento cheese, are available, but I think the roll is one of the best parts. Other essential items are potato salad with a pickle on top, one of their famous deviled eggs, a cheese wafer, and last but not least an iced upside down cupcake.

Sally Bell’s has been doing cupcakes forever, long before they were high cool — and that the ingenious ladies who founded this bakery turned them upside down means there is more surface area upon which to ice them, people. Swoon. I haven’t had a chance to visit, but recently Sally Bell’s Kitchen has opened a second location at Byrd Park where they also manage the paddle boat rentals for the lake. (and is also close to another favorite park in Richmond, Maymont.)

There are plenty of other good reasons to visit Richmond that are all within easy reach of Interstate 95. Have you ever been there? If you have, what are some of your favorite things about it?

But what I really want to know is, what are some of the things you would recommend people stop and do in your own hometown?

About the author

Margo Millure lives in Richmond, Virginia. She is a portrait photographer, writer and founder of Travel Belles. Learn more about her at www.MargoMillure.com.

This article has 15 comments

  1. Margo Millure

    It’s definitely worth a stop, Jessica- the main location is only open Mon. – Fri., but I think their new location at Byrd Park would be open on the weekends.

  2. Jessica

    We had brunch at Millie’s last summer when we were in Richmond for a weekend – I concur it was fabulous! Unfortunately, I did not know about Sally Bell’s Kitchen, I will have to seek it out next time I am in the area…

  3. Krista

    I LOVE your pictures, Margo!! That Christmas scene is enough to make me swoon and want to slip into a fancy dress RIGHT NOW just so I can stroll down that staircase. 🙂

  4. Sara

    Thanks for permitting me to reminisce on one of my favorite places! When I was an undergrad at UR, we had our big junior year formal — ring dance — at the Jefferson Hotel. It was a kind of bow to the cotilion tradition, with our parents attending and dads walking their daughters in white dresses down the staircase. Perhaps a little hokey in retrospect, but SUCH a great night at the time! And what a grand place…

    One other dining institution (that I HOPE is still there — haven’t actually visited in probably ten years!) is Strawberry Street Cafe — wonderful for any meal but especially Sunday brunch.

    Thanks again, Margot, for a great piece.

  5. Nicole

    I want that little box lunch! Comfort food+cute. We moved so often when I was growing up, and my family is now spread so far that I hardly know what my home town is. But in Seattle, you must see the Gum Wall. Everyone comes to Pike Place Market, but just a few steps away is the Gum Wall. Not to be missed!

  6. FrenchTwistDC

    I just discovered the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Who knew Richmond had such a great museum?? Well, I’m sure a lot of people did, and now I do too!!
    Great post, I should go back to Richmond soon, clearly I haven’t seen everything 😉

  7. Sophie

    I’m from the UK and visiting Richmond at the moment. Thanks for the eatery tips; I will definitely be checking Millie’s Diner and Sally Bell’s out. For dining, I recommend Bonvenu (bonvenu.com) in Carytown; it has a very interesting menu and the staff are delightful.

  8. Eurotrip Tips

    Beautiful! Very typical east-coast, just the kind of place you WANT to stop at during a road trip. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Margo Millure

    you are welcome!

  10. Margo Millure

    Hope you had a wonderful visit, to a wonderful city!

  11. Margo Millure

    It really is a great museum. And even though I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Richmond in recent years, there are still many places I need to check out!

  12. Catherine B Custalow MD PhD

    I can see my apartment building on Monument Avenue in the first picture!

  13. admin

    cool! What was the address? I once lived a little bit further downtown in the 1600 block. 🙂

  14. Bruce Bailey

    One sad correction if I may. The Jefferson staircase-GWTW story is, alas, a PR hoax that the film’s producers used in several cities in the south hoping to drum up interest in the film. As if they needed to. If you look at the scene in the film and at the Jefferson’s staircase, you’ll see they are definitely different. Sorry to burst that pretty bubble. I was sad to learn the truth too.

  15. Margo Millure

    Thanks for finally clearing that up, Bruce… Having grown up there the story is just one that you want to believe so badly– obviously their PR campaign worked! (I think I went into decades of denial after the first time I saw the film version and no, the staircase was clearly not a match! 🙂

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