Family Vacations to Norfolk, Virginia

American Rover Norfolk, Virginia
American Rover (courtesy, Norfolk CVB)

Home to the world's largest naval installation, Norfolk's history is intimately tied to the sea. The renovated downtown harbor, especially Waterside Festival Marketplace with its many shops and eateries, has a family-friendly feel. In fact, more than two dozen mermaid sculptures decorated by artists dot the downtown, a fun way for kids to map the town. Norfolk, a mere 20 minutes from Virginia Beach, also makes a good break for beach-bound families as well as for those embarking on cruises. Because more and more ships are sailing from Norfolk, a new cruise terminal is slated to open in 2006.

Bellied up to the port, aircraft carriers look really big. You will often see some of these behemoths of the oceans on the 45-minute bus tour of the Norfolk Naval Base, home port to more than 100 ships of the Atlantic fleet. Tours depart from the Naval Base year-round, and from Waterside Festival Marketplace from March to December. Always check ahead to confirm tours haven't been canceled for security issues.

At NAUTICUS, The National Maritime Center, more than 150 hands-on exhibits provide oceans of educational fun. Kids can land a warplane on an aircraft carrier, design a seaworthy ship, watch a hurricane form, and pet a real shark. At the Aegis Theater, live actors and video involve the audience in a high-tech naval battle. Moored alongside the center, the battleship USS Wisconsin can be toured for free.

Fort Norfolk, on the banks of the Elizabeth River near Ghent, is the oldest fort on the Virginia waterfront and one of the best-preserved War of 1812 sites in America. You can tour the dungeon, the officers' quarters, and the ramparts. At select times throughout the year there are also military re-enactments.

Another way to enjoy Norfolk is to get out on the water for a few hours. In season, the Spirit of Norfolk offers a Kids Discovery Cruise complete with historical tidbits served up between the buffet and the DJ. The American Rover takes you for a two- to three-hour cruise aboard a three-masted topsail schooner.

Don't miss the Norfolk Botanical Garden, especially when the roses, camellias, and many other of the more than 20 themed areas are in full bloom. Stroll the 12 miles of pathways, or take a canal boat or tram tour to ease weary legs. On Bike Nights, bring your own cycle and pedal through the petals for another fun way to explore. "World of Wonders: A Children's Adventure Garden," scheduled to open in 2006, will have a walk-through world map and a theater for child-oriented shows.

Although not large compared with some other city zoos, the Virginia Zoo will appeal to families with young kids. Highlights among the nearly 400 animals are the Siberian tigers, a clouded leopard, a giraffe, and a white rhinoceros. Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Art has a vast collection of ceramics, paintings, bronzes, other fine objects from Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. Kids especially like the colorful Tiffany lamps and glass items, as well as the prints of Norfolk by Ansel Adams, Alfred Steiglitz, and other famous photographers.

Tip: Passport to Fun offers a 25 percent discount to participating attractions, including Nauticus, the Norfolk Botanical Garden, and the Virginia Zoological Park, plus 10 to 20 percent off at selected restaurants.

Recommended Side Trips: Virginia Beach, Williamsburg, Petersburg, Richmond, Chincoteague's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 23 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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