Yep, without even spending a dime. From Richmond landmarks to museums to other cool places, I’m telling you all about the best things to do in Richmond for free.
There’s a Google Map at the bottom of the post to help you see where all the places are and plan your free activities in Richmond.
Free Landmarks in Richmond, Virginia
1. The Virginia State Capitol
Naturally there’s a ton of history to be learned here, and you can tour the Capitol for free on your own or with a tour guide. Major renovations in the early 2000s created a large underground visitor area where you enter the building from below. The whole underground complex is literally underneath the grass and steps in the photo above!
For hours of operation, parking, and other visitor information see the Virginia State Capitol website.
2. Hollywood Cemetery
The cemetery was established in 1847, and instead of symmetrical rows of headstones it features a winding style with mature trees and beautiful views of the James River.
Many famous people are buried in Hollywood Cemetery, including 2 US presidents (James Monroe and John Tyler), Jefferson Davis (the president of the Confederacy) and his family, many Confederate generals, and other high-ranking national and state politicians.
Hollywood Cemetery is quite large, so I don’t recommend going on foot. The driving path through the cemetery is marked with blue arrows on the pavement, and if you keep them on your right hand side it will take you on a drive through the whole cemetery.
It’s not free, but if you’d like to explore the cemetery more there are guided historic walking tours, segway tours, and gem car tours. For further information see the Hollywood Cemetery website.
3. Monument Avenue
I don’t know if anything on this list truly captures the complexity of Richmond so much as Monument Avenue, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Monument Avenue is a street in Richmond with several large monuments of Confederate military men and Jefferson Davis that were built from 1890 to 1929, as well as one of Arthur Ashe, a famous African American tennis player from the city, that was placed in 1996.
Some see the Confederate monuments as oppressive to the black community, where those that defended slavery are literally put on a pedestal for everyone to revere. Some see the monuments as representative of Richmond’s history and leaders, and nothing to be ashamed of. And some see them as a mix of both.
As a white person, I believe Richmond to be moving toward inclusivity when it comes to telling the story of its people. For example, the Museum of the Confederacy no longer exists, and instead the American Civil War Museum has reoriented it’s focus to show all sides (not just North and South, but of the people involved). As you walk along the Canal Walk and other places in Richmond, you’ll see placards explaining the tobacco industry and the part that African Americans played in it, or explaining that the square used to be used for slave auctions. But Monument Avenue still represents a difficult subject, not just for Richmonders or Virginians, but the US as a whole.
In 2018 after receiving public input, Richmond’s mayor has recommended removing the Jefferson Davis statue and altering the remaining Confederate statues “with permanent signage in the short term and the creation of a museum exhibit, mobile app and video to convey the history of the monuments and what they stand for.” (Richmond Times Dispatch)
I recommend taking a drive down Monument Avenue, seeing the statues, and then thinking about what you would do with them in this day and age.
There’s a lot of great reading on Monument Avenue and Confederate statues in general. The American Civil War Museum has a website dedicated to discussing this called On Monument Avenue, and 60 Minutes explored the issue as well.
4. St. John’s Church
We talk a lot about Confederate history since Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, but Richmond goes further back than that.
Did you know that Patrick Henry gave his famous ‘Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death’ speech in 1775 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond?
I actually stumbled upon this church while heading out for coffee one day and couldn’t believe this historic place wasn’t that far from my apartment! Henry’s speech is credited with convincing the Second Virginia Convention to mobilize troops against the British for the American Revolution.
You can visit the church (which is still active, by the way) for free, or pay for a tour complete with costumed guide.
If you need a caffeine boost while exploring the city, check out my post on where to find the best coffee in Richmond!
5. Maymont Gardens
These aren’t your regular kind of gardens, either. There are themed gardens, specifically the Japanese and Italian gardens, that are definitely worth strolling through, and then trails that lead you through animal exhibits, too. There’s a bear sanctuary, hawk enclosures, and a few cows roaming about.
On the day we went there were lots of families exploring the gardens and people playing with footballs on the grassy lawns.
It’s wonderful how these expansive gardens are within such easy reach of the city. They’re perfect for a picnic!
You can learn more about visiting the Maymont here.
Free Museums in Richmond, Virginia
6. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so cool as when I visited the VMFA. I mean, as an average girl I was VERY impressed by the art, but they also have happy hour! During happy hour all of the exhibits are open and you can even do a guided 30 minute tour to have someone who knows what they’re talking about help you think through some of the pieces in the museum.
There are several galleries with ancient Chinese and Egyptian artifacts, Faberge eggs, modern art, handmade furniture, and all sorts of unique and beautiful things. Special exhibits will also come to the museum, which can usually be seen for a small fee.
Even if you don’t consider yourself an art lover, the sculpture garden outside is well-sized and nice for enjoying a coffee or reading a book. The VMFA is a must see in my opinion when visiting Richmond.
7. The Virginia Holocaust Museum
In the front of the museum is an original train car used by the Third Reich during the Holocaust, and train tracks lead the way up to the museum entrance.
It’s a very harrowing experience to see the car, walk in the museum, and then hear the stories of survivors in the introduction video.
The Virginia Holocaust Museum is free and has free parking right out front as well.
Free Cool Places in Richmond, Virginia
8. The Canal Walk and Murals
Nowadays the tobacco warehouses are loft apartments, and the canal is a lovely place for a stroll with information podiums, scenic overlooks, and really cool murals.
9. Potterfield Memorial Bridge
You can often see people kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, or even swimming in the small beach area near Brown’s Island.
As you approach the bridge you’ll see quotes and information on the fall of Richmond as the capital of the Confederacy in 1865. History really is everywhere in the city!
On the other side of the bridge is a rock climbing wall and a path that continues southeast across the James River. It makes for a great running path with even more great views of the city.
10. Belle Isle
With plenty of trails, a mountain biking course, large rocks for sunbathing along the river, and lots of wildlife, Belle Isle is a must for nature lovers.
Rascal loved our hike there! It’s amazing that you can be immersed in the woods right by the city.
Belle Isle has a really interesting history, too. It was first inhabited by Native Americans, and was explored by John Smith in the 1600s. During the Civil War a prison for Union soldiers was placed here, and the Battle of Walkerton was an unsuccessful Union attempt to free them.
11. Unique Neighborhoods
I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing Richmond’s distinct neighborhoods while I lived there. I loved taking Rascal on walks through Church Hill, Richmond’s oldest neighborhood since it was untouched by the fires at the end of the Civil War. There are lovely historic townhomes, beautiful views of downtown, and Chimborazo park, the site of a Confederate military hospital that now is open green space with park benches and a nearby dog park.
Jackson Ward, near downtown, is a historically black district that played an integral role during the Civil Rights movement. It features large murals, repurposed buildings (like Tarrant’s Cafe, a former pharmacy turned hip dining spot), and local shops.
Carytown is a popular neighborhood for the mix of thrift stores, coffee shops, boutiques, and all sorts of food.
Scott’s Addition isn’t the prettiest since it’s made up of a lot of warehouses, but it’s a budding area with craft breweries and cideries.
While doing some shopping or grabbing a bite to eat isn’t free, taking a walk through these neighborhoods to get a feel for all the different sides of Richmond certainly is. I’m partial to Shockoe Bottom and Church Hill since they were my part of town, but all of the neighborhoods have something to offer.
Richmond may not be the first place that comes to your mind when you think of taking your next trip, but definitely keep it in mind for an affordable (AKA lots of free things) city to visit!
You can find all the places mentioned in the post on the Google Map below.
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