Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today Brian Beard—a tour guide business owner—is here to give us the inside scoop on Richmond, Virginia.
First, tell us about you.
Hi! My name is Brian Beard and I grew up in Orlando, Florida. We get a handful of tourists there, so maybe you’ve heard of it? Since 2009, I’ve mostly lived in Richmond, Virginia, and it’s become my home.
Richmond is such an awesome place. I love the city so much that I started my business, River City Food Tours, in January 2015 to show off Richmond to its residents and visitors.
In my free time, I like to exercise, ride my bike, and find new places around town that I haven’t seen before.
If someone is visiting your town/area for the first time, what do you recommend they do and see?
If it’s your first time in Richmond, you need to head to the city’s waterfront. Unlike a lot of east coast cities with a river, Richmond’s is still wild. There are plenty of spots to go swimming, tubing, kayaking, SUPing, and more (but be careful, especially if the water level is high). Richmond is the only place in the US where you can find Class IV rapids within city limits. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are a couple tour operators that will take you on guided rafting/paddling trips through the more advanced rapids.
And if the weather won’t allow that, check out the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It’s truly a world-class art museum and it’s free!
For more experienced travelers, what are some of your favorite hidden gems?
If you like history, you’ll want to explore some of our neighborhoods a little deeper. Jackson Ward, once known as the Harlem of the South, has roots as a hub of African-American business and culture. Walk the streets, check out the murals, and visit The Valentine or the Black History Museum for even more context. Or for something more modern, check out Carytown, Richmond’s eclectic shopping and dining district. This neighborhood was named the one thing you must visit in Virginia by the Huffington Post in 2014. Highlights include The Byrd Theatre, a 1920s-era theatre with most of it’s original parts and charm, and Orange, a quintessential Richmond art shop (think everything from photographs to home decor to jewelry to handmade soap), where all goods are made by people in the Richmond area.
What neighborhoods do you recommend staying in for those who want to get a real taste of the city?
Stay within the city, for sure. Some of our outstanding boutique hotels include the Quirk Hotel, near Jackson Ward; The Berkeley, in historic Shockoe Slip; and The Jefferson, in Monroe Ward. All are within easy walking distance of so many great restaurants, and you can even walk to the riverfront from each. If you go the B&B route, you’ll definitely want to check out the Fan or Museum Districts, which border each other. These walkable, historic neighborhoods feature elegant row houses, beautiful streets and avenues, and a few hidden parks!
Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should we consider visiting?
Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains are just an hour’s drive or so west of Richmond. Some of my favorite things to do out there are to hike Crabtree Falls, a series of cascading waterfalls with a great view from the top, and drive along Skyline Drive (especially during peak fall foliage season). There are also several wineries in the region, for those who would like to make a day of visiting them.
To visit Shenandoah, you will need access to a car, as public transportation options to get out there are limited.
What nearby walking paths, parks, or natural areas would you recommend?
Honestly, there are too many to name them all. Richmond is unique in the way nature is intertwined with the city. Throughout the James River Park System, there are countless walking trails on both the north and south banks, featuring views of the river and the downtown skyline, mountain biking trails, wildlife, and more. My favorite is a loop beginning at Brown’s Island, making my way to and across Belle Isle, then heading east towards the Manchester Climbing Wall (that’s right – you can rock climb on 100+ year old ruins in Richmond, and it’s totally encouraged!), walking along the Floodwall Walk, and finally crossing the Manchester Bridge into downtown before heading back to the starting point.
On a more historical note, the Richmond Slave Trail is a self-guided, three-mile walk through the city that includes several markers along the way with an honest and informative look at Richmond’s former slave trade.
What local dishes and drinks should people try while in your area?
I wouldn’t say that Richmond has a particular specialty, although every southern restaurant has it’s own take on fried green tomatoes and pimento cheese. And the city does go crazy for donuts and biscuits. But our food scene is really diverse and with good reason. The state of Virginia has over 45,000 farms, located on both mountains and lower-elevation flat fields. And Richmond, being centrally located, is within a few hours drive of all of them. Add in several unique, nearby bodies of water (the Atlantic Ocean, the Chesapeake Bay, and the Virginia river system), and what you have is a city where chefs can get their hands on just about any kind of ingredient they could want, locally.
As for drinks, we have a booming beer and cider scene, of course, with several phenomenal brews coming out of Richmond. And craft cocktails have grown tremendously in popularity over the last few years. I’d find the bar at a place like Heritage, Pasture, or The Rogue Gentlemen, and choose a cocktail with locally-made Belle Isle Moonshine in it.
Whatever you might possibly want, you can find it somewhere in Richmond.
What are your top five favorite bars and restaurants in the area?
If you travel for the food, you’ve come to the right place. Richmond is a mecca for food, having won numerous accolades, including being named a top place to travel for food in 2016 by National Geographic!
So where to start? For fresh seafood, give Rappahannock or East Coast Provisions a try. For Italian food, I like Bacchus and 10 Italian Cafe. For southern food, I’ll take my guests to Mama J’s, though you also won’t go wrong with The Roosevelt, Pasture (see above), and many others. For brunch, give me Millie’s Diner or C Street. And for an all-around great dining experience, head on over to Southbound or L’Opossum.
Do you have any tips for saving money while traveling here?
When I’m looking for something delicious that doesn’t cost a lot, I head to Don’t Look Back, a great hole-in-the-wall taco spot that’s within walking distance of my apartment. But that’s not the only one…Richmond’s streets are dotted with cheap eats and drinks, especially on weekdays. As for free things to do, I already mentioned all the walking/hiking trails and the VMFA. And exploring much of the city’s history is free…just look around you and soak it in!
Also worth mentioning is that Richmond’s first hostel opened in 2015, offering low-cost accommodation downtown.
Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange?
There are two things I’d ask tourists to be mindful of:
1) When you visit the James River Park System, take everything that you bring in back out with you. Litter is sometimes a problem (though to be honest, it’s probably locals doing the littering), so please contribute to keeping our wild spaces clean!
2) Learn what RVA means! It literally stands for Richmond, VA and we’re very proud of it here. So much so that a few years ago the city held a contest to come up with an RVA logo, which is how we got those letters in the distinctive font you’ll see all over town. The logo is open for use and modification by anyone and everyone, including individuals and businesses, so you’ll see it on shirts, stickers, license plates, city-wide banners, and more.
What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?
Sign up for stuff! There are lots of free activities around town, whether it’s yoga in the park, hiking meet ups, or cool mystery bike rides. With any of these, you’ll get to explore the city and meet new people. You can also check out the HI Hostel downtown: they are always planning activities for hostelers and it might be possible to tag along.
Where are the best places to get a memorable photograph of your area?
Richmond is a city of hills (small ones, but still). That means there are a few great spots for viewing and photographing the skyline. In my order of preference: the Manchester Climbing Wall, Floodwall Walk, Jefferson Park, and Libby Hill Park, just to name a few. And lately, there’s been a trend of rooftop bars opening downtown. Check out Kabana, a 20th floor bar downtown; Quirk, a 9th floor bar in the Arts District; or the Hofheimer Building in Scott’s Addition to see the city from above.
Where can we find Wi-Fi?
Lift Coffee Shop downtown and 10 Italian Cafe in Carytown are my go-to spots, depending on where in the city I am. Both offer inspired coffee beverages, smoothies, fantastic panini, outdoor seating, and Wi-Fi.
Anything else you want us to know about your city or the surrounding area?
The art and music scene are both booming in Richmond. In particular, visitors should look out for murals all over town – within the city, you can find these murals on the sides of buildings in just about every neighborhood.
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Brian has definitely made me more interested in visiting Richmond someday. It was never on my radar until we met him and he moved back to Richmond and started his food tour company there. If I ever do any east coast traveling, I’ll be sure to add it to my list!