The middle-aged man in the blue blazer was clearly impatient, drumming his fingers on the registration desk while the agent checked me in to our downtown Richmond hotel. My husband and I had been reintroducing ourselves to the city and I was eager to exchange my blue jeans for more appropriate attire in time for dinner. The interloper tried to intrude on our transaction. “Can I get a—” Before he could finish, the agent faced him and politely replied, “I will help you in a minute, sir.” 

“But I just want—” Again he received the same even-toned response from the agent, who completed his business with me, asking pleasantly whether I’d ever “visited” them before (I had) and wishing me an enjoyable stay. Odds are that at any other hotel this impatient inquiry, even at such a busy hour, would have evoked the desired response and contributed to check-in chaos. But this isn’t any other hotel; it’s the Jefferson, a landmark AAA five-diamond hotel that has epitomized graciousness and good manners in Virginia’s capital since 1895 (101 W. Franklin Street, 800-424-8014).  

After handing me our room keys and asking whether we required dinner reservations or help with our bags, the agent turned his attention to the finger-percussionist, whose needs were addressed with equal amiability and efficiency. The guest walked away smiling, won over by Southern gentility. Richmond itself can have that effect on you, smoothing away residual irritability caused by long work weeks and short fuses, as we discovered on a recent weekend getaway. 

FRIDAY

It had been at least 10 years since we’d visited this historic city on the James River, and we were curious to see how its renaissance—much of it then in its infancy—was progressing. Rather than make our usual entrance off Interstate 95 and down Boulevard to Monument Avenue, a broad cobblestone street where statues of Richmond’s heroes loom large, we had chosen a more modest portal, Chamberlayne Avenue (via Route 301) on the city’s north side. 

Richmond is defined by its neighborhoods: Carytown, the shoppers’ paradise; Court End, once a lawyers’ neighborhood but now known for its unique concentration of historic landmarks; Downtown, the city’s business and cultural enclave; Jackson Ward, formerly known as the “Black Wall Street”; the Museum District which includes my favorite, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (200 N. Boulevard, 804-340-1400); the River District, now a prime tourist destination; and the neighborhood with which we were most familiar, The Fan, an architecturally diverse community that fans out from downtown. On this trip, however, we wanted to explore places we’d never been.

We stopped first at the Richmond Region Visitor Center at the Greater Richmond Convention Center (405 N. Third Street, 804-783-7450), which opened last year following a $170 million expansion. After arming ourselves with a fistful of brochures and several personal recommendations from the avowed history buff at the information desk, we set out toward the river.

We’d heard about Canal Walk, a scenic mile and a quarter pathway along the restored James River and Kanawha Canal. Here you can peek into the city’s past by reading Canal Walk’s interpretive historic markers and imagine its future by glimpsing Brown’s Island, where an upscale office, retail, and housing complex is being developed by Baltimore’s own Cordish Company. Of course, there’s another way to see the river. Located on the fall line of the James, Richmond boasts some truly white-knuckle whitewater kayaking (including rapids named “Choo Choo” and “Pipeline”). 

After Canal Walk, though, a hike up the broad steps leading to the Virginia State Capitol was enough exercise for us. Unfortunately, the Roman temple-inspired building had closed for the day, so instead we paid our respects to Richmond’s George Washington monument, which guards the entrance to the Capitol grounds.

“Vacant to vibrant” is the unofficial credo of downtown redevelopment, and there is striking evidence that the latter is steadily displacing the former in the historic areas of Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottom, named for a creek that once flowed through the area. Located within blocks of the James River and Kanawha Canal, “the Slip” and “the Bottom” (as they’re better known) have been transformed from dingy warehouse and waterside commercial districts into fashionable neighborhoods for shopping, dining and entertainment—without sacrificing their magnificent 19th-century architecture. 

On the Slip’s main drag, the Richbrau Brewing Company (1214 E. Cary Street, 804-644-3018), the old building’s dark wood, bare brick walls, and cozy corner fireplace (with an elk head mounted above it) give the city’s first brewpub an Old World feel—German beer garden meets British pub. (It’s not just the décor, either; in addition to a variety of American bar fare, the menu features Smoked Bratwurst with Big Nasty Porter-Glazed Onions and Griffin Golden Ale-Battered Fish and Chips.)

You can’t judge all of the Slip’s businesses by their stately historic facades, however. Glass Roots Gallery’s (1301 E. Cary Street, 804-643-3233) bright and festive interior, for example, reflects its selection of contemporary American glass, jewelry, and sculpture, as well as a hairy-scary tarantula, preserved and shadow-boxed (arachnophobia, and a $200 price tag, scared us away). 

SATURDAY

A few blocks to the east of the Slip, Shockoe Bottom received a big boost to its reawakening last December with the resumption of passenger train service to the refurbished Main Street Station

(1500 E. Main Street, 804-646-6246) after a hiatus of nearly 30 years. Built in 1901, the distinctive Beaux Arts structure, topped by a graceful four-faced clock tower and terra cotta roof, has suffered the indignities of floods, a disastrous fire, and the construction of I-95’s flyover lanes, which seem to shove the old station aside as they brush past its uphill west side. But step inside the renovated passenger lounge on the second floor with its bistro tables and marbleized columns, and you can easily imagine the days when train travel set the standard for swift, convenient, and often elegant transportation. Exhibits showcase the history of the two railroads that once served the station, the Chesapeake & Ohio and the Seaboard Air Line. 

The Bottom’s other iconic gathering place is the 17th Street Farmers’ Market (100 N. 17th Street, 804-646-0477), one of the oldest in the country. (Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, who lived nearby, used to shop here.) Housed in an open-air shed stretching between East Main and East Franklin streets, the market operates three days a week in season. Vendors sell produce, herbs, flowers, and handmade crafts on Thursdays at the Growers’ Market; the same selection plus collectibles and imports on Saturdays for Mucho Market, and antiques and collectibles at the Sunday Shockoe Flea.

Once home to a red-light district, Shockoe Bottom has long enjoyed a colorful after-dark reputation. Today, respectable ladies and gents patronize the neighborhood’s trendy restaurants, nightclubs, cafes (and occasionally one of the tattoo parlors) after hours. On either side of the Farmers’ Market sit several of the hippest eateries in town: Havana ’59, a restaurant which evokes pre-Castro Cuba with its cracked concrete floors, strings of naked light bulbs, and old automotive advertisements (16 N. 17th Street, 804-649-2822); Cafe Gutenberg, offering not only gourmet coffees and international food in a library-like setting, but a Bohemian
calendar of poetry slams, music jams, storytellings, and philosophical discussions known as Socrates Cafe (1700 E. Main Street, 804-497-5000); and the Kitchen Table, acclaimed for its creative organic gourmet cuisine (including hormone-free beef and free-range chicken dishes) and sinuous art nouveau décor (3 N. 17th Street, 804-782-9200). 

Our choice for Saturday night dinner, Julep’s, was named one of Richmond magazine’s top seven new restaurants for 2004 (1719 E. Franklin Street, 804-377-3968). “Excellent choice, you’ll enjoy it,” the Jefferson’s concierge told us as we prepared to board the hotel van, which shuttles guests to and from their evening destinations. He was being generous, I know; the Jefferson’s restaurant, Lemaire, is one of the finest in the city (and, like the hotel, also AAA five-diamond rated). The memory of its Oysters Jefferson, a divine combination of cornbread, plump fried oysters, and a sliver of Virginia cured ham still haunts my taste buds.

After dropping off another couple at Tobacco Row, where vacant warehouses are being transformed into upscale housing and retail space, the van delivered us to the corner of East Franklin and 18th streets, the site of the oldest commercial building in the city (circa 1817) and home of Julep’s. Experiencing a “duh” moment, I asked our waitress whether the restaurant actually serves mint juleps. “Yes, we make very good ones,” she assured us. I’m fairly certain the caliber of a julep is a very personal judgment, but those delivered to us in the traditional icy cold silver cups were very good in my estimation: slightly sweet, but not to the point of bourbon Slurpeeness. Under the spell of juleps and candlelight, we enjoyed an excellent nouvelle Southern meal that included sweet-potato bisque, fried green tomatoes with red-pepper coulis, blackened bouillabaisse, and sesame-encrusted tuna on a fried okra pancake. Summoned with one phone call by the maitre d’, the van returned us to our hotel . . . where we learned about the alligators. 

The beasts once inhabited the sunken pools in the hotel’s lobby, splashing at the feet of the imposing statue of Thomas Jefferson. Alas, the last gator up and died in 1948, ending one of the more colorful chapters in the hotel’s history. They must have been well-fed; I read of no casualties among the guests, although I seem to recall one account of a woman severely startled when her “footstool” waddled off.

SUNDAY

Following a relaxing night’s sleep on a feathery-soft mattress, we were ready to tackle Sunday’s itinerary: the Victorian mansion and park at Maymont (2201 Shields Lake Drive, 804-358-7166), the city’s most-visited attraction (which we’d never seen), and Carytown, where we hoped to shop and grab lunch before departing. 

Doing justice to Maymont requires some legwork. Although there are trams circling James and Sallie Dooley’s
100-acre estate along the James River and Kanawha Canal, you simply can’t resist the paths that wind through the terraced Italian Garden and descend to its serene Japanese-themed counterpart; nor the lawns shaded by massive cedars, sweet gums, and more than 200 species of trees brought back from the far corners of the world (like Sawara False-cypress); nor the hillside wildlife enclosures inhabited by elk, sika deer, bison, and Maymont’s famed peacocks. 

Major Dooley (the title is honorary; he was actually a private in the Confederate army) made his post-Reconstruction fortune in banking, railroads, and real estate. He invested a great deal of it building and furnishing Maymont, the couple’s Italianesque Revival-style mansion completed in 1893, and donated the remainder to charities benefiting Richmond’s children, among other causes. Mansion tours conducted on the half-hour provide a dazzling glimpse into the opulence of the Gilded Age: silk damask wall coverings in the Pink and Blue drawing rooms, tapestry-upholstered furniture in the music room, a commissioned Tiffany stained-glass window that bathes one stairway in heavenly colors, and Mrs. Dooley’s bedroom, highlighted by an elaborate carved swan-shaped bed. 

Tromping around Maymont left us little time in Carytown, where we were initially awash in a sea of moviegoers lined up around the block to catch the $1.99 flicks at the art deco Byrd Theatre (2908 W. Cary Street, 804-353-9911)—this particular weekend featured Virginia Commonwealth University’s popular French film festival. Our remaining hour or so bought us only burgers and malts at the retro sci-fi Galaxy Diner (3109 W. Cary Street, 804-213-0510) and a costly foray into Mongrel, where my wallet succumbed to the shop’s tikiana and other tongue-in-chic home furnishings (2924 W. Cary Street, 804-342-1272). 

I fear we disappointed the history buff at the Visitor Center. Except for the State Capitol grounds, we missed his favorites: the church where Patrick Henry delivered his “liberty or death” speech, the John Marshall House, Richmond National Battlefield Park, and its Civil War Visitor Center at Tredegar Iron Works. I’m anxious to return to rectify these omissions, so anxious I feel like drumming my fingers on this laptop. But I know what will cure that. 

Getting There and Getting Around

Richmond lies 150 miles south of Baltimore, about a three- to three-and-a-half-hour drive on I-95, which is prone to congestion in Northern Virginia, particularly on Friday evenings. 

The scenic alternative, roughly the same distance but 30 to 40 minutes longer, is U.S. 301. Take I-95 South to the Capital Beltway and follow the Inner Loop (south toward Virginia) to Exit 7A (MD Rte. 5 South). Rte. 5 merges with U.S. 301: When 301 splits in Bowling Green, Va., follow VA Rte. 207 West to reconnect with I-95 below the traffic snarls.  

Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) runs eight trains daily from Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station to Main Street Station in downtown Richmond. Plan on a three-and-a-half-hour trip one way at a cost of $93 round trip (reserved coach fare). Some trains require transfers at Washington’s Union Station. 

In Richmond, GRTC Transit System buses run throughout downtown seven days a week (fare $1.25, transfers 15 cents). Visit www.ridegrtc.com for schedules and special discounts. For general information, contact the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, 888-RICHMOND, www.visit.richmond.com.

EVENTS

June 3-6: Greek Festival, Sts. Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral, 30 Malvern Avenue, 804-355-8647

July 12-15: Summer City Fest, citywide, 804-788-6466

July 24: Shockoe Tomato Festival, 17th Street Farmers’ Market, 804-646-0477

Aug. 8: Watermelon Festival, Carytown, 804-353-1525