Stretching from the Atlantic Coast to the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, Virginia offers a variety of things to enjoy without spending a bundle of money. Some of the nation's most scenic drives, engrossing historical 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 with one of its scenic byways or attending a local festival like the annual Presidents' 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 historical, 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 to 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 routes, 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, significant 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 shoreline. 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. 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, extends from Maine to Georgia and covers more than 2,000 miles, including about 550 miles in Virginia. Permits are not required to walk on the trail, although some areas, such as the 104-mile stretch that goes through Shenandoah National Park, require permits to camp. Many areas along the Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail are well-suited for casual walks and day-hikes as well as for long-distance hikes. Keep in mind, though, that 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 millions of 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 the cemetery, but there is an hourly charge to park in the Visitor Center 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 entrance. 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 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.
Drive the 300-mile Crooked Road through the Appalachians in southwestern Virginia, not only for the extraordinary mountain scenery but also for a taste of the state's old-time country music. Also known as the Heritage Music Trail, this scenic route connects some of the region's most beloved music venues: Blue Ridge Music Center, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, and the Carter Family Fold, to name a few. Aside from the concerts taking place in these famous halls year-round, you can also catch toe-tapping performances on the porches of local establishments when the weather's nice. The Heritage Music Trail winds through 19 counties, four cities, and 54 towns. Stop for an impromptu jam session or to watch fiddle makers in action during the summer months.
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. Along with three floors, 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 two browsings the interesting array of ceramics, photography, jewelry, stained glass, fiber, printmaking, and sculptures or touring the two other attractions at the center, all free of charge.
Explore Virginia's Main Street Communities
Several unique communities dotted across the state have been identified as Virginia Main Street communities. Recognized for their hospitality, historic and natural attractions, and architectural gems, these little oases 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 tour. 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. The 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 Presidents' Day 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 Rosslyn.