Stretching from the salty air of the coast to the peaks and valleys of the mountains, Virginia offers a variety of things to enjoy without spending a bundle of money. Some of the nation's most scenic drives, engrossing historic sites, delightful small towns, and other unique attractions are free to explore, making Virginia an affordable choice for a day trip, weekend getaway, or family vacation. Whether you're driving along one of its scenic byways or you're attending a local festival or event like the President's Day Parade in Alexandria, you're sure to enjoy Virginia without having to break the bank.
Throughout Virginia, there are about 3,000 miles of historic, heritage, and scenic drives. They include five routes officially designated as America's Byways: the Blue Ridge Parkway, Colonial Parkway, George Washington Memorial Parkway, Skyline Drive, and the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway.
- Blue Ridge Parkway: Stretching over 460 miles across Virginia and North Carolina, this scenic road connects Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Colonial Parkway: This 23-mile scenic drive connects Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown—three points of Virginia's Historic Triangle.
- George Washington Memorial Parkway: Running along the Potomac River from Mount Vernon to McLean, this 25-mile parkway is used for both leisurely drives and commuter traffic.
- Skyline Drive: The only public roadway through Shenandoah National Park, this drive follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles and features 75 overlooks of the Shenandoah Valley.
- Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Scenic Byway: Extending 180 miles through the national heritage area—which stretches from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia—this scenic byway features a number of historical sites along the drive.
In addition, there are numerous heritage trails, Civil War itineraries, and wine trails to discover along the way. Thanks to the rich history of the area, you can visit a number of historic sites including the estates of former presidents, nationally important battle sites, and even a few working plantations.
First built in 1888 as a five-block, wooden-planked promenade, the Virginia Beach Boardwalk of today is a three-mile concrete esplanade stretching along the Virginia Beach oceanfront. Throughout the summer and on many spring and fall weekends, the boardwalk is a beehive of activity, often offering free entertainment, festivals, and seasonal evening fireworks as part of its Live on Atlantic event series. It's also a great place to enjoy a relaxing stroll or a bike ride on the adjacent path throughout the year, and there are a number of fantastic sculptures to see along the way including the King Neptune statue, which stands at 34 feet tall, and the Norwegian Lady statue, one of the most beloved landmarks of the boardwalk.
One of the most famous hiking trails in the world, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), extends from Maine to Georgia and covers more than 2,175 miles, including about 550 miles in Virginia. Permits are not required to walk on the trail, although some areas require camping permits. For example, camping permits are required for all backpackers along the 104-mile Shenandoah National Park section of the trail. However, many areas along the Virginia portion of the A.T. are well suited for casual walks and day-hikes as well as for long-distance hikes, although even a short hike requires a bit of planning.
Arlington National Cemetery—located just across the Potomac from the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—receives more than four million visitors each year. Whether paying tribute to a lost loved one or taking a journey through history, a visit to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery is an interesting, powerful, and memorable experience.
There is no admission fee to visit the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, although there is an hourly charge to park in the Visitor Center parking lot. The parking fee can be avoided by taking the Washington Metropolitan Area Metro (Blue Line) to the Arlington Cemetery Station, which is located near the cemetery entrance. Also, on Easter, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, free commemorative ceremonies are open to the public.
In addition to Arlington National Cemetery, there are several interesting monuments and memorials in Arlington that are well worth exploring. The iconic United States Marine Corps War Memorial (also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial) and the lesser-known but equally-moving Navy-Marine Memorial (known affectionately as Waves and Gulls) are both worth visiting, and there is no charge to view them. Other great sights to see in Arlington include the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, the Netherlands Carillon, and the Twilight Tattoo Reenactment—a live-action military pageant that takes place from May through July each year and is free to attend.
Spend a day, a weekend, or longer meandering along the Crooked Road in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, the home of authentic old-time mountain music. Also known as Virginia's Heritage Music Trail, the Crooked Road covers nearly 300 miles of scenic terrain spanning 19 counties and winding through four cities and 54 towns.
While walking or driving along the trail, guests can listen to country music jams on the porches of local establishments, browse the traditional shops of luthiers and fiddle makers, and experience the unique culture and heritage of the region. Plan your stops ahead of time and you will be able to hear plenty of free music during your travels.
Located along the riverfront in Old Town Alexandria and housed in a renovated torpedo factory, the world-renowned Torpedo Factory Art Center is one of the largest visual art centers in the United States and is completely free to enjoy. Along with three floors with 82 working studios, seven galleries, and two workshops, the art center also houses the Art League School and the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. Spend an hour or more browsing the interesting array of ceramics, photography, jewelry, stained glass, fiber, printmaking, and sculptures or touring the two other attractions at the center—free of charge.
Several unique communities dotted across the Virginia landscape have been identified as Virginia Main Street Communities. Recognized for their hospitality, historic and natural attractions, and architectural gems, these communities are fun to explore one-by-one or by combining several into a multi-day itinerary. The National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Tourism Corporation offer a wealth of information about each town to help you plan an interesting self-guided itinerary. The historic districts in Abingdon, Winchester, Lynchburg, Warrenton, Harrisonburg, Franklin, Luray, Waynesboro, Staunton, Lexington, Rocky Mount, Culpeper, Radford, Orange, Blackstone, Martinsville, Berryville, Bedford, Abingdon, and Manassas are a few of the great local sites you can visit along the way.
Located in Northern Virginia near Washington Dulles International Airport, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center is the companion museum to the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Opened in December of 2003, the Udvar-Hazy Center is free to explore, although a hefty daily parking fee is charged for the on-site lot. Among the many aircraft exhibits, visitors will also find such history-making icons as the space shuttle Enterprise and the Enola Gay. However, special exhibits such as flight simulators and IMAX Theater movies cost an additional fee.
Attend Free Virginia Festivals and Events
Many of the wonderful seasonal festivals held throughout Virginia are free, especially those held in downtown areas and sponsored by communities or local organizations. However, while admission is often free, it may not be so easy to attend without spending at least a few dollars on tasty regional foods or unique handmade crafts.
A small sampling of fun free festivals and events includes the annual President's Day George Washington Birthday Parade in Alexandria, Wolf Trap Holiday Sing-A-Long, and the summertime Virginia Highlands Festival. Also, if you're visiting Northern Virginia in the fall, a number of local organizations and communities host free festivals like Fall for Fairfax, the Manassas Fall Jubilee, and the Marine Corps Marathon Finish Festival in Rossyln.