Writing a more-than-300-page guidebook to the region — Insiders' Guide to Richmond , now in bookstores around the country — gave me a bald eagle's-eye view of our diverse offerings, including quite the close-up of our quirks and quandaries. As a travel writer and essayist who's lived in Richmond since 1992, I'm excited to share the wealth with tourists, newcomers and perhaps even some longtime residents (and no, sales of the book don't earn me a dime. It was work-for-hire).
My slightly rose-colored CliffsNotes spin is that Richmond is a vibrant, beautiful, artsy, outdoorsy place with an unassuming vibe and finally the vision to incorporate the layers of our painful past into a more perfect future. Between you and me, though, we have a ways to go to before we're a tourist-friendly destination that expects and impresses visitors more than it frustrates and bewilders them. Opportunities for improvement are all over the map.
Most of our region's 5.75 million visitors are residents' friends and family. That's fine, but we have treasures here that we shouldn't just keep in the family, not to mention untold untapped possibilities. We're justly proud of our river, the VMFA, our Folk Festival, our races, First Fridays and other locally produced events, but we need more year-round richness for tourists. We are worthy, but we're not quite ready. It's time for the creative class to build on our area's strengths and address our weaknesses to take Richmond beyond "Clean and Safe" to "Cool!" and "Wow!"
I'm tempted to write a book about what Richmond needs to do to become a true tourist destination, but I'll faux-Tweet instead (and I'm not just a cranky travel writer — after the tweets, I'll suggest five strengths we can build on).
- Richmond! Stop introducing yourself as "Hi, I'm two hours from the beach, mtns, and D.C." You're worthy of being a destination yourself.
- Tourists (and our town) need options, information, and infrastructure. Rafting, Segwaying, walking and Canal Boat tours are just a start.
- Dress to impress. Visitor centers need video and big photos of the river and us in motion around our photogenic sites to energize visitors.
- Wacky might work. Duck Boat Tours: Ancarrow's Landing, John Smith, Powhatan, Slave Trail, Church & Libby Hills, Shockoe, Capitol, Tredegar.
- Real works. Elegba Folklore Society should do mini-versions of Slave Trail walk at least once a month — honestly much more often. Charge $.
- Better yet, Richmond corporations that benefited from slavery should subsidize the performances and ensure they are regularly scheduled.
- And yes, we need that Slavery Museum. It's the right time. Richmond's the right place. Corporations, universities & govts, step up, please.
- History lives in living history. Ethereal & educational Historic Polegreen Church has tech. Apps tell stories year-round when actors can't.
- We're friendly; our Internet infrastructure sometimes isn't. It can take a detective to find a park at VisitRichmondVA.com, for example.
- Commemoration of Emancipation and Civil War needs art component. Christo won't come. Commission works by Martin Puryear or Andy Goldsworthy.
- The curated annual downtown event InLight could tie in with themes of war/slavery/remembrance/emancipation/struggle/striving. Major moment.
- Doesn't mean we want Robert E. Lee brandishing a lightsaber on Monument Ave. Pair art and history to move beyond the static — transform us.
- We confuse visitors. Some hotels with Richmond in their names are in Short Pump, but the addresses say Glen Allen. Henrico VA is nowhere.
- Give visitors info. Mark James River Park System trails. Add classy kiosks at trailheads. Donations, anyone? (FYI, I'm FOJRP prez.)
- Think you don't want tourists here? Think again. Tourism is an economic engine. We aren't close to tapping our job-creating potential.
- Let them eat cake — or something! Civil War museums, JRPS & Fed Experience near the river and nowhere to get food. Not Southern hospitality.
- Assume you have nothing to do with tourism? Wrong. Big biz along riverfront, help improve parking near Tredegar for Belle Isle and museums.
- VCU Medical Center hallways and patient rooms full of posters promoting other cities' museums — NYC, Chicago, Toledo, Omaha?!! Decorate local!
- We're artsy yet museum etc. gift shops don't stock much local art. Photos of dead guys on horses don't count. Creativity + commerce, people.
- Visit my blog, maureenegan.wordpress.com , to discuss how to improve Richmond tourism. I have many ideas and plans. I hope you do, too.
Five Strengths to Build On
River + Adventures = Unique
No need to stand still like those statues. Fly high during Fearless Fridays at Challenge Discovery's Odyssey Course on the University of Richmond's campus, rock-climb with Peak Experiences or head up a tree with Riverside Outfitters on Saturday morning, zip through Class IV rapids downtown with River City Rafting or Riverside Outfitters in the afternoon, and on Sunday take a pontoon boat ride with Discover the James to see bald eagles close up. A Sports Backers event or the dozens of miles of mountain-biking trails in Forest Hill Park and the James River Park System should take care of any extra adrenaline.
Richmond Slave Trail
I've walked the Slave Trail twice, once years ago with a James River Park guide in a somber small group and again at night, as one of 300 people commemorating Juneteenth with Elegba Folklore Society's exuberant additions. Seeing torches move across the Mayo Bridge and conjuring up those who once walked this route in chains is powerful stuff. It takes a difficult piece of U.S. history and makes it raw, robust and relevant. I've never seen the Canal Walk so alive as when we jammed the stairs to take in the drumming, dancing and drama. Passersby hung over the bridges to see what was happening. Torches lit the tunnel eerily as we walked to Henry "Box" Brown Plaza, where children and adults crawled into a box the size of the one in which he escaped Richmond. That night, we were in a city that knew its history, embraced it and didn't shrink from it. We need to share that more often.
Richmond's architecture won't give you a crick in the neck from looking up at skyscrapers, but it sure takes you back — to the 17th century, including James River Plantations to the east — to the 15th century, including Agecroft to the west. In between, there's all manner of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century buildings in a surprising variety of styles, including Jefferson's State Capitol, one of the 50 best buildings in the U.S. according to the American Institute of Architects. We have buildings designed by Philip Johnson, Richard Neutra and the architects of the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Faneuil Hall Market and the World Trade Center Towers. We have one home designed by John A. Lankford, one of the first African-American architects. Then there's the Egyptian Building, Old City Hall and Main Street Station, to name a few. Lucky guests can lodge in style at gracious and gorgeous B&B's in the Fan and Museum District. Diners and theatergoers are surrounded by authentic architecture. It's OK to brag.
A Lot of Night Music
The variety and quality of arts going on in Richmond on any given night is impressive. With The National, Maymont and Lewis Ginter bringing great concerts, UR's Modlin Center for the Arts providing international flair, and smaller venues including dozens of restaurants offering live music, your wallet is the limit. Even then, Dogwood Dell shows are free. Richmond's theater scene is stacked with more than a dozen professional companies. Try Richmond Ballet at CenterStage or its Studio Series for a more intimate experience. Let Dogtown Dance in Manchester change your definition of dance. Don't tell me First Fridays is the only thing to do.
Universities 'R' Us
Though I've taught at two of the three universities in Richmond, I hadn't anticipated how often I would write about them in this guidebook in chapters such as Area Overview, Performing Arts, Spectator Sports and more. All those professors, programs and students add dynamism, new blood and dollars that this town needs. Richmond hasn't fully embraced its identity as a creative college town, but it should. First Fridays and the Future of Richmond's Past are just two of the best ideas to come out of partnerships between universities and cultural organizations.