“All forward!” yelled Robby, our river guide. “Paddle hard!” The four of us—my husband, me, and our two teen children—dug our paddles into the churning James River as we had been taught. But it didn’t seem to make any difference. We had turned sideways, and our rubber raft was picking up speed as we headed toward a steep plunge. “Keep paddling,” Robby commanded from the back of the boat as we dropped. A wall of water washed over the front of the boat, drenching us. Then it was over. We were on the other side of the famous “Pipeline,” the water once again calm. The skyline of Richmond, VA, was ahead of us, dominated by the sleek Federal Reserve Bank building. Along the shore, people were throwing balls to dogs, splashing in the cool water, and sunning on large, flat rocks.
Though Richmond is small, with a population of just over 200,000 (about a third the size of Baltimore), this capital city, college town, and former seat of the Confederacy is far from sleepy.
In fact, it’s the only city in America with Class IV rapids running through it. A great way to experience them is with a guided rafting tour from Riverside Outfitters (6836 Old Westham Rd., riversideoutfitters.net), which also provides guided kayak trips, as well as rentals of kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, mountain bikes, and tubes.
Less than three hours from Baltimore, Richmond provides an ideal long-weekend getaway filled with outdoor activities, shopping, great restaurants, fun bars, fascinating museums, and, of course, plenty of history.
Richmond is a city of contrasts—an outdoor mecca in the midst of urban neighborhoods and a city that draws pride from its tragic past, while also celebrating how far it has come.
The almost 150 years since the end of the Civil War seem like an eye blink in Richmond. The city’s defining conflict is always nearby—in museums, of course, but also in the larger-than-life statues of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and others lining Monument Avenue, a wide, easy-to-drive, five-mile road through the heart of town. Even change that seems like progress can open wounds. In 1996, a statue of Richmond native Arthur Ashe was added to Monument Avenue with much criticism from people who said the tennis great and civil-rights activist shouldn’t share a street with Confederate War heroes.
During our visit, we met Jay, who has lived in Richmond since 1989. He told me Confederate widows were still living in the Home for Needy Confederate Women (now the site of offices and meeting rooms for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts) when he first moved there. Now, the city is defined by activities and events like the Greek Festival, which drew crowds during our visit, or the First Friday art walks amid the galleries along Broad Street.
Talk to Richmonders for more than a few minutes, and you’ll likely hear that the men’s basketball team of Virginia Commonwealth University made the Final Four in 2011. That victory brought a jolt of electricity to VCU, which enrolls more than 31,000 students and is known for its engineering and arts programs that have energized the city.
A good starting point for a Richmond visit is the Valentine Richmond History Center (1015 E. Clay St., richmondhistorycenter.com), located on a shady street among the buildings of the VCU Medical Center. Sculptor Edward V. Valentine—the brother of Mann S. Valentine Jr., who made his fortune selling a “Meat Juice” health tonic—opened the museum in 1898 for his collection of art and artifacts.
Today, exhibits include a look at Richmond social events through the years (check out the turn-of-the-century outfits), photographs of Richmond, and a gallery of First Lady portraits. A timeline on the floor, in the shape of a river, winds through several rooms, highlighting the importance of the James River, which made this inland city a significant port from its earliest days.