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Alex Schechter
December 16, 2017
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Though historically a military town, there’s more to love about Virginia Beach than naval air stations and military museums. After all, the city is unofficially nicknamed the ‘City of 3 Beaches.’ This means travelers have their pick of where to go for a refreshing dip: there’s the main Oceanfront, which runs alongside a 3-mile boardwalk packed with shops and restaurants, and Sandbridge to the south (good waves, fewer shops). And to the north, there's Chesapeake Bay (calmer, more family-oriented).

Between these three areas, Virginia’s most populous city offers up plenty of fun things to do for beach lovers. The original Jamestown settlers landed here in 1607, making Virginia Beach a great vacation spot for history buffs — but with adventure activities, a coastline speckled with scenic hotels, and some of the best seafood in the country, it’s also a destination for the entire family.

Where is Virginia Beach, Virginia?

Located at the state’s southeastern tip, a visit to Virginia Beach brings you to the place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Chesapeake Bay. Virginia Beach is considered a part of Hampton Roads metro area, which includes other bayside towns like Newport News, Norfolk, Hampton, and Chesapeake. The nation’s capital is three and a half hours away by car, making it a popular weekend destination for travelers based in Washington, D.C.

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Virginia Beach’s Top Attractions

When you’re this close to the ocean, it’s hard to think of doing anything else but lying on the beach all day. Fortunately, this isn’t your typical beach town: you’ll find enchanting nature parks, military attractions, shopping neighborhoods, and other points of interest that make fun alternatives as you decide what to do in Virginia Beach.

While Town Center is technically considered “downtown,” the heart of Virginia Beach is without a doubt its Boardwalk. This 3-mile oceanfront promenade, also known as ‘the strip,’ offers refreshing walks along the sea, and each summer it’s packed with outdoor vendors, live music performances, and a great choice of bars to sip a beer or cocktail while enjoying views of the surf. While you’re exploring, don’t forget to stop by King Neptune: a 12-ton bronze statue who stands guard over the entrance to the beach, and is one of the most photographed points in the city.

Half an hour south of Virginia Beach you’ll find one of its key attractions, the Military Aviation Museum. Opened in 2008 by private collector Jerry Yagen, it now contains one of the world’s largest private collections of military fighter planes and jets from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Groups tours at the museum are led by veteran pilots, who have unique insight into what’s needed to keep these antique planes in working order.

It’s worth heading into nature to witness the landing site of the first Jamestown settlers. First Landing State Park, formerly named Seashore State Park, is Virginia’s most visited state park. Perfect for a solitary stroll or an invigorating outdoor adventure, the 2,888-acre park contains beautiful dunes, maritime forest with Spanish moss, and 19 miles of hiking trails. The Cape Henry Lighthouse, the first federally-funded monument to be commissioned by George Washington in 1792, sits here, too.

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Best Beaches in Virginia Beach

Just 15 miles south of the Oceanfront, Sandbridge is where locals go for a laid-back, undisturbed day at the beach. The shoreline is unblemished, there are no distracting hotels or shops, and no lifeguards either — so it has an untouched, more rugged feel to it. Set back 100 yards from the beach is a row of attractive rental homes and condos with breathtaking ocean views, allowing travelers to skip the hotel and pretend they’re marooned on a deserted island for the week.

If you’re feeling adventurous, the beach sits adjacent to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which offers a stunning network of marshes, trails, and open waters that are perfect for kayaking and paddleboarding.

While Sandbridge and Chick’s Beach provide a more secluded, focused beach experience, there’s nothing like the Oceanfront. Connected by the boardwalk and dotted with ice cream stands and laid-back seafood grills, it’s also possible to explore the main beach strip via bike.

Courtesy of Visit Virginia Beach

Major Events and Festivals in Virginia Beach

Much ado is made about the annual Neptune Festival in September, and with good reason: the event takes over the entire Oceanfront boardwalk with vendor tents and live music performances. In fact, there’s practically a different entertainer on every street corner once the festival is in full swing. Though the highly anticipated International Sandsculpting Championship is one of the headliners, the weekend also incorporates sporting events (golf, tennis, running races, and surfing), plus 300 art and craft exhibitors, food trucks, a parade, and three stages of entertainment. You’ll want to book your hotel early, as the Neptune Festival draws big crowds.

The East Coast Surfing Championship takes place in Virginia Beach every August, and over its 55-year history has become a required event for both pros as well as amateurs. But even if you’re not necessarily the surfing type, the weekend-long festival has a broader appeal, with beauty pageants, volleyball tournaments, and live music.

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Shopping in Virginia Beach

If you’re looking to get a closer look at Virginia Beach’s artisan culture (and also browse for a few worthy souvenirs), the VIBE Creative District is your one-stop shop. The tiny neighborhood is exclusively small business owned and operated, and has recently benefited from the addition of charming murals and public art installations. Start off at the North End Bag Co., a bustling studio that churns out handsome waxed canvas totes and duffel bags, all sewn in-house.

Meanwhile, at the consignment store 17th Street Marketplace, the shelves are brimming with quirky paintings, ocean-themed decor, and locally made jewelry. Through an exclusive partnership, French Twist Boutique stocks a curated line of women’s clothing by all French designers.

Courtesy of Waterman's

Virginia Beach’s Best Restaurants

Seafood is an obvious staple for most coastal towns, but in Virginia Beach, it’s a way of life. Home to the state’s eight main oyster regions, Virginia Beach has access to some of the freshest oysters on the East Coast, while also supplying abundant bluefin tuna, rockfish, sea bass, mackerel, mahi mahi, and more from neighboring Chesapeake Bay. In short, with places to eat like the renowned Catch 31 and the classic Waterman’s Surfside Grille, it’s a seafood lover’s paradise.

Most romantic restaurant: Terrapin

Best cheap eats: Doc Taylor’s

Best New American cuisine: Commune

Best vegan and smoothie bar: Fruitive

Best Seafood restaurant: Rockafeller’s

Best burger spot: Craft

Best tacos: Gringo’s Taqueria

Best Bars in Virginia Beach

Best brewery: Back Bay Brewing Co.

Best vodka bar: Chesapeake Bay Distillery

Best outdoor bar: The Shack

Best tiki bar: Chick’s Oyster Bar

Best cocktails: H Bar

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Easy Day Trips from Virginia Beach

For those trekking out to see the famous site of the settlers’ first stateside landing, it’s reasonable that you’d want to soak up as much early American history as possible. In that case, plan a quick getaway to Colonial Williamsburg, which sits only an hour’s drive from Virginia Beach. The living history town is loaded with fun, educational sites that offer a glimpse into life the way our forefathers would have known it: from old-time candy shops to art museums and even cool haunted houses.

Courtesy of Hilton Beach Oceanfront

Where to Stay in Virginia Beach

All along Virginia Beach’s iconic boardwalk, hotels of different price points and styles crowd the skyline, offering quite a variety of choices for places to stay. The biggest perk of Virginia Beach’s hotels? Vast ocean views. With windows and balconies that look right out onto the sand, you won’t have a hard time catching a glimpse of those rolling breakers.

Luxury Hotels

For an upscale choice, Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront is one of the finest oceanfront hotels along the strip. The hotel towers reaches 20 stories high, with an exclusive top-floor club lounge that offers complimentary evening hors d’oeuvres and a bar.

Away from the Oceanfront, Westin Virginia Beach is Virginia Beach’s luxury hotel option for those who require added service. The high-end hotel sits in Town Center, and comes equipped with a 24-hour business center, indoor heated pool, and a fitness center.

Boutique Hotels

Virginia Beach’s newest hotel opening is also its most popular boutique hotel: Hyatt House Virginia Beach focuses on extended-stay visits, with kitchens and direct ocean views in all the rooms. The best part may be downstairs, with the stylish H Bar offering cocktails and a patio with small bites like burgers and pizza.

Affordable Hotels

All along the boardwalk, there are more than enough affordable hotels to keep you within your budget. If it’s a standard room with brisk water views you’re after, hole up at places like Econo Lodge Virginia Beach on the Ocean, La Quinta Inn & Suites Virginia Beach, or Four Points by Sheraton Virginia Beach Oceanfront and have all the action on the strip at your fingertips.

Vacation Rentals in Virginia Beach

Meanwhile, Virginia Beach does brisk business when it comes to vacation rentals. Families looking to rent a beachfront house with full working appliances as well as an added sense of seclusion on Sandbridge beach should check out listings at Siebert Realty, as well as sites like Airbnb and Homeaway.

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