Portsmouth, VA, a historic seaport at Mile Marker Zero of the Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway, is just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, VA and west of Virginia Beach.
But why should you visit?
Well, Portsmouth, Virginia has fabulous locally-owned restaurants, a beautiful waterfront, historic architecture, and a variety of entertainment opportunities.
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Portsmouth in Hampton Roads
The Hampton Roads harbor has 13 miles of shoreline and plenty of docks and marinas to anchor your boat.
Stroll down Portsmouth’s High Street and enjoy the eclectic shops, art galleries and public art, or participate in one of the many walking tours through Olde Towne.
Portsmouth VA Museums
Portsmouth has eight museums, five of which are owned and operated by the city. Visit them to learn a little more about Portsmouth’s culture, heritage, and history.
The 102-foot-long Lightship Portsmouth (also known as the United States Lightship 101) was built in 1915 and served 48 years in Cape Charles, Virginia, Delaware, and Massachusetts. It was decommissioned in 1964 and brought to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum to be a museum ship.
A visit to this floating lighthouse sitting dry berthed along the Elizabeth River includes the galley, windlass room, officers’ and crew’s quarters, and the engine room.
From outside, you can check out the ½-ton bronze bell, mast, and 2½ ton anchor.
Guide to every lighthouses in Virginia
Children’s Museum of Virginia
The kids will love a museum just for them. It is the largest children’s museum in Virginia and well worth your time.
For those with children between the ages of five and ten, I recommend packing a lunch and enjoying it outside the museum before returning for more playtime. Kids can discover, explore, and play at interactive exhibits that span two floors. It’ll be hard to pull them away from the trains, bubbles, working port activities, hands-on experiments, and energy and science activities.
When you need to take a break and have a little quiet time, head to the Beazley Planetarium to learn about the night sky, mythology, and volcanoes.
Portsmouth Art and Culture Center
The Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center is in an 1846 Greek Revival building that was once the Norfolk County Courthouse. Its two extensive galleries host a variety of exhibits throughout the year. The Cultural Center also offers various art demonstrations, lectures, workshops, and classes led by local and world-renowned artists.
During First Fridays (May – October), you can set up your chair or throw down a blanket, enjoy free entertainment in the courtyard, and see the featured exhibits for free.
At the gift shop, you can find handmade accessories, scarves, and jewelry or the perfect local artists’ book, artwork, or sculpture for sale.
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is the oldest and largest shipyard in the US. There are over 250 years of history to explore in the museum. You’ll find a wealth of exhibits on shipbuilding and Portsmouth’s maritime heritage.
Learn about the shipyard’s part in the Revolutionary war, its three fires, and the ships that have been built and repaired there.
Portsmouth Colored Community Library
The Portsmouth Community Library first opened in 1945 and served the African American population before the main library was integrated in 1963.
Step inside this small library to find memorabilia, books, journals, and photographs. Children can discover interactive programs, storytelling, and hands-on activities that focus on diversity
Railroad Museum of Virginia
Train lovers will flock to the Railroad Museum of Virginia, which houses a 1910 steam locomotive, two galley mail cars, a dining car, and a Norfolk Southern caboose.
The centerpiece of the museum is Norfolk and Western’s Lost Engine of Roanoke. Find out more about the connection between shipping and the American railroad at the Railroad Museum of Virginia.
Other Museums in Portsmouth
If you’re still craving museum time, check out the Hill House and the Jewish Museum and Cultural Center of Portsmouth.
Discover the Arts in Portsmouth VA
Those who enjoy live music, visual arts, and films will find Portsmouth full of various places to visit and explore. Peruse spectacular galleries like the Visual Art Center at Tidewater Community College or the David Chance Gallery filled with architectural photographs.
Head to one of the indoor or outdoor entertainment venues like the Commodore Theatre, Atlantic Union Bank Pavilion, or High Street Landing.
The Commodore Theatre (aka the Commodore Theater) is a restored 1945 Art Deco theatre in Olde Towne that features both a traditional theater seating and an area where you can enjoy a delicious dinner while watching a movie.
Atlantic Union Bank Pavilion
The 6,500-seat Atlantic Union Bank Pavilion is Portsmouth’s best summertime concert venue. The amphitheater has both covered seating and a lawn area where you can throw down your blanket and enjoy the show.
High Street Landing’s Sunset Thursdays
From early June to just before Labor Day, you can enjoy local bands for free as they perform blues, jazz, beach music, rock, and R&B from 6:00 – 9:00 PM each Thursday.
Set up your chair or put down your blanket to enjoy the sunset and some great music. There are food vendors and a dance floor on site.
Other Art Venues
For more art venues, check out the Visual Art Center at Tidewater Community College and the David Chance Photography Gallery.
The Umoja Festival takes place Memorial Day weekend in Festival Park on Crawford Circle. The festival celebrates African-American heritage and culture and focuses on the unity of family, community, and nation.
Visitors can enjoy live music, vendors with ethnic foods, artisans with handmade quilts, baskets, artwork, and more during the festival.
Take one of the Heritage tours or enjoy a performance during the festival, which concludes on Sunday with traditional Gospel music.
Seawall Music Festival
During the first full week of June, the Seawall along High Street Landing is home to the Seawall Music Festival.
Sit back and enjoy the Portsmouth waterfront as you listen to Top 40, Rock and Roll, Jazz, and Country bands play along the seawall.
Besides the music, there are plenty of vendors selling their wares along with food and beer vendors.
This festival coincides with Harborfest across the Elizabeth River. Catch the Elizabeth River Ferry if you want to go festival hopping.
Cock Island Race
Stand along the banks of the Elizabeth River at the Intercoastal Waterway Mile Marker Zero and cheer on your favorite sailboat.
Along High Street Landing, there’s plenty to do and see during the race. Afterward, celebrate with great food and music.
The race takes place each year in mid-June.
Other Portsmouth Festivals
For more festivals, check out the Seawall Art Show at the end of August and the Olde Towne Holiday Music Festival on the second Saturday of December.
Explore Portsmouth’s Nature Areas
Portsmouth City Park
The City Park is Portsmouth’s crown jewel with tennis courts, golf course, a certified FootGolf Course, fishing pier, skate park, and boat launch. The park is also a beautiful setting for those who just want to watch the river go by, enjoy the scents of landscaped gardens, or walk.
Hoffler Creek Wildlife Preserve
The preserve is a 142-acre parcel perfect for kayaking tidal waters, walking three miles of trails, and seeing over 200 species of birds that might include the resident bald eagles.
You’ll find beautiful views for fishing and birdwatching along the walkways and decks overlooking the marsh, lake, and creek.
Between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM, you can rent either a regular or tandem kayak and take it to the usually flat tidal waters. If you’re uncomfortable kayaking on your own, try one of the early riser, full moon, or sunset guided trips.
The preserve is open Tuesday – Sunday from 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM.
Portsmouth Splash Park
Who doesn’t love a splash park? This park in Columbia Park is fun for children of all ages who love to have a blast getting sprayed with water.
The park features 12 types of fountains, sprinklers, and a splash pad.
Walk Along the Elizabeth River
Put on your walking shoes and enjoy a scenic stroll along Portsmouth’s Elizabeth River Boardwalk and the Seawall.
You’ll enjoy perfect photo ops, a peek into history, and plenty of spots to sit by the water.
From the Seawall, look for the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. It is the Navy’s oldest continuously run hospital and has been in operation since 1830.
History lovers will enjoy reading the Civil War Trails placards along the trail. Learn about when the CSS Virginia sailed down the river on March 8, 1862. You’ll also learn more about the May 10, 1862 Federal occupation of Portsmouth.
As you pass behind the Renaissance Hotel, look out onto the river and find the Titan. This 950-foot long piece of steel is a floating dry dock.
Paradise Creek Nature Park
The Paradise Creek Nature Park is a 40-acre waterfront park with more than two miles of trails to explore.
There is also a kayak launch area for those with their own vessel.
Other Places to enjoy Nature in Portsmouth
If you’re craving more nature time, check out the Bird-a-Wee Golf Course and the Links at City Park Executive Golf Course.
Elizabeth River Ferry
Take a 15-minute ride on one of the 150-passenger ferries that travel between Portsmouth’s High Street or North Street Landing and Norfolk’s Town Point Park.
During baseball season, the ferry even docks at Harbor Park for convenient transportation to and from the game.
Olde Towne Ghost Walk
Take part in this 40-year-old walking tour where you’ll discover the ghostly history of Portsmouth’s Olde Towne.
For 20 blocks, you’ll meet re-enactors who will share eerie tales of long ago.
Annual Lunchtime Bike Ride
Get outside and enjoy the fresh air during National Bike Month. During this free event in late May, you’ll pedal two miles through Olde Towne and Park View, passing historic homes and beautiful waterfront views.
Toads on High Street – A Scavenger Hunt for Kids
Kids of all ages will love this new twist on their favorite Frog and Toad books. During this scavenger hunt, Bufo makes 13 stops along Olde Towne’s High Street, and you’ll have to help him find his friend Ana.
Tours of Olde Towne Churches
Explore the Olde Towne churches with the largest Viscount organ, Underground Railroad history, and Tiffany stained glass windows.
St. John’s Episcopal Church
St. John’s Episcopal Church is an 1898 gothic building constructed of North Carolina rose granite. The church was built in a cruciform and has a gorgeous rose window.
A Watts memorial Tiffany altar window overlooks the altar and marble reredos designed by Mary Brown Channel, the first female licensed architect in Virginia.
Trinity Episcopal Church
Trinity Episcopal Church has six Tiffany stained glass windows as well as other beautiful hand-painted windows.
Monumental Methodist Church
Monumental Methodist Church is a Victorian Gothic-style church with a 182-foot-tall central tower
First Presbyterian Church
First Presbyterian Church was built in 1877. Grover Cleveland’s father served as the minister for five years.
Emanuel AME Church
Emanuel AME Church was an Underground Railroad station. Its water duct entrance connected to the Elizbeth River and it safely housed all slaves that passed through its doors. This church also served as the post office for Lincolnville African Americans.
St. Paul’s Catholic Church
St. Paul’s Catholic Church features Tracery windows, Gothic arches, and a magnificent relief of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemene. This church has 28 stained glass windows and 11 murals dating back to the early 1900s.
Court Street Baptist Church
Court Street Baptist Church has an extraordinary stained glass window that ascends the tower stairwell. When the sun hits the glass, the inside of the church is bathed in a golden glow.
Other Tours to Take
- Path of History Walking Tour
- Mary Veale and the Colonials
- Black History Tour
- Doors, Porches, and Gardens Tour
- Walk Your Art Out: Art Scavenger Hunt
Shopping in Portsmouth VA
Old Towne Antique and Flea Market
On the first Saturday of the month, stroll through the Antique and Flea Market to find over 70 vendors.
The eclectic wares include furniture, china, art, musical instruments, books, handmade crafts, toys, and one-of-a-kind treasures.
Take your pick of fresh meats, seafood, and seasonal vegetables every Saturday beginning at 10:00 AM.
You’ll also be able to find a wide variety of candles, jewelry, soaps, handcrafted items, and baked goods.
Skipjack Marine Gallery
This unique shop has everything you could want to decorate a sailor or water lover’s home. Peruse the ship bells, nautical wares, ship models, jewelry, artwork, and military memorabilia.
Portsmouth VA Restaurants
The family-owned Lobscouser Restaurant offers a casual atmosphere specializing in fresh seafood.
Watercolor paintings and framed newspaper columns throughout the restaurant show Portsmouth’s renovation efforts.
Humboldt Steel Corporation
This family-owned pizzeria has 40 craft beers on tap. Choose between hand-tossed or California-style pizza and a variety of other Italian food favorites.