24 Hours in Richmond, Virginia

National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Christopher Elliott recently spent a day in Richmond, Virginia, with his family. Here’s what he discovered.

You can’t see a place like Richmond in just a day. You can only begin to, and that’s especially true if you have three young kids in tow. My advice? Pick the best this city has to offer, and focus on its historical heritage.

If I had to narrow it down to just two attractions–and I recently did–then I’d start with the State Capitol and The American Civil War Center.

If you’ve been to the United States Capitol in Washington D.C., which has an impressive underground visitor complex, then the architecture of Richmond will seem familiar. The visitors center of the recently renovated Capitol sits at street level, one floor below the Capitol, which rests on a hill. The visitors center houses several fascinating exhibits that describe Virginia’s place in American history.

The highlight of our tour was the unique, life-size marble statue of George Washington under the interior dome of the rotunda. The sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon used Washington himself as a model, making it the statue that most closely resembles America’s first president. The impressive statue has been standing here since 1796.

After the Capitol tour, another can’t-miss attraction is The American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, the nation’s first museum to interpret the Civil War from Union, Confederate, and African American perspectives. Although I don’t consider myself a Civil War buff, I do appreciate a good debate, and if you want to have a spirited discussion about war, race, and economics, this is the place to go. The exhibits walk you through each year of the war, explaining the conflict from the three different viewpoints. Then the interactive exhibits ask you to vote on the likely causes of the war.

The museum is on the site of the old Tredegar Ironworks, which manufactured cannons, locomotives, and ships. During the Civil War, Tredegar built armor plates for the CSS Virginia. Don’t forget to check out the National Parks Service exhibit next to the center, which shows off the cannons built here during the war and has several floors of artifacts and interactive exhibits that bring the Civil War battles to life.

If you’re traveling with kids and want to teach them about the Civil War without lecturing, both the State Capitol and the Tredegar are excellent stops. For us, it was just the beginning of our discovery of Richmond.

Elliott writes the Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience at Away Is Home.


  1. Ronnie Moore
    Charlotte, NC
    October 13, 2011, 12:20 pm

    Totally agree about the 2 museums, great places to visit for history buffs. In seasonally pleasant weather, also take the Canal Tour by boat, best $6 I spent on my trip. Stay at the Omni, it has the best location to visit all of the historical spots and you can walk to a ton of restaurants!

  2. Alice Lynch
    Richmond, VA
    September 6, 2011, 11:21 am

    The statue of George Washington in the Virginia State Capitol is the only full-length sculpture of our first president sculpted from life. The sculptor, Houdon, travelled from France to Mount Vernon where he stayed for two weeks, studying Washington, measuring him, studying his clothes, and completing a life mask (while the father of our country was stretched out on the kitchen table with turkey quills up his nose!). Houdon was known has the best portrait sculptor of his time – he was obsessive about details – and so we can be assurred that the sculpture of Washington is an exact likeness. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited the Virginia State Capitol, he proclaimed “it is the man” upon seeing the statue.

    I’m not sure what the guides in Philly tell visitors, but it’s the marble statue of Washington, in the Rotunda of the Capitol of his home state, that is the best likeness of the man found anywhere. If you have not seen it, please come to Richmond. It is a priceless work of art and of of the most valuable in our nation.

    In April, a new sculpture of Thomas Jefferson will be unveiled in the visitor extension of the Capitol, as well as a visitor film telling the stories of individuals who have made our country great.

  3. Sally Smith
    Ventura, California
    September 4, 2011, 12:17 pm

    Interesting story about the statue of Washington. It is interesting because I recently heard the very same story in Philadelphia about the statue of Washington in Washington Square. Is there a connection here, or is this just a story for tourists?

  4. Melissa
    August 30, 2011, 1:33 am

    Couldn’t agree more! Good follow-on trip: Nimes, France, where the Greek Temple of Diana served as Jefferson’s model for the central building of the Va. Capitol. And if you go back to Richmond, look up Joe’s Inn on Shields Ave. in the Fan district, and order Joe’s Greek spaghetti, but only if you have someplace to store the leftovers!