Start planning your perfect weekend in Norfolk, one of Virginia’s surprising cities on the water that is small, and low key. There are a ton of things to do in Norfolk with kids, plus great food options for parents, including family-friendly breweries and coffee shops.
Just don’t forget the Battleship USS Wisconsin, even if you aren’t into military history. You really can’t miss walking by this huge navy ship downtown. Plus, it is one of our favorite spots to watch the sunset.
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Things to do in Norfolk Virginia with Kids
One thing I love about Norfolk with kids is that everything is 5-10 minutes from everything else. No matter where you are in the city, your GPS will tell you your next destination is moments away.
Kind of crazy, but it’s true.
From the Virginia Zoo to the Nauticus, you can pop in your car and be there before the kids ask “are we there yet.”
Before you dive into our list, keep in mind that I stretch my kids on every trip and there will always be things my kids CAN do, but whether they want to or not isn’t always an option.
A zoo is a no brainer when you are traveling with kids. The Virginia Zoo was no exception.
We’d been to the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach, but I was curious how this Norfolk zoo stacked up to others we have been to in the past. After all, we live right near the National Zoo in DC.
The Virginia Zoo was the perfect size to wander around for a morning, even as it began to rain. One thing I loved was the huge habitats, many shared by multiple animals (mostly the herbivores).
We saw ostriches mingling with the giraffes, and zebras sharing the same enclosure with crazy horned steer. They had multiple sections to wander, not just a small bit of grass.
Animal encounters were plentiful. We got up close to a Tawny Frogmouth, an Australian-native who had his eye on something in the trees. Even the handlers couldn’t figure out what it was, but he sure was interested.
There are two gorgeous cheetahs at the zoo too. Since we were there around Halloween, plenty of kids were in costume. One cheetah seemed to be stalking kids in costume as they wandered by. He or she was very drawn to pink, so beware little ones. Don’t climb that fence with your pink rainbow unicorn costumes on!
The Red Pandas are a big draw to the zoo, but sadly they were all hiding in their homes during our visit. That didn’t stop my youngest from grabbing a stuffed animal red panda from the small gift shop near the entrance as we left.
Nauticus and Battleship USS Wisconsin
Anyone with grandparents and great grandparents who served in WWII and beyond, will want to tour the USS Wisconsin.
The museum at the Nauticus is the best way to understand naval history in America, and get a taste for what the older generations of our family, especially those who served in the navy, experienced while at war and during peacetime.
Docents are onboard the Battleship USS Wisconsin to answer all of your questions, and even point out things you might not have notice.
You can normally tour a huge amount on the ship, going down multiple levels and through rooms, just as the sailors would have while the Wisconsin was still an active ship.
If you have children who love battle history, and anything to do with the military, plan on spending a good chunk of your day here.
Not only are there several fun, hands-on exhibits in Nauticus that you can explore, but the ship can take you an hour or more to wander. You can easily make this a full day trip, it just depends on how deep you want to dive into naval life.
Also included in your ticket is entry into the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which walks you through the proud naval station history in Norfolk, as well as national maritime culture and lore.
Douglas MacArthur Memorial Museum
Smack in the middle of downtown Norfolk, you will find the MacArthur Memorial, which is also where Norfolk City Hall is located.
The museum is dedicated to General MacArthur and the men and women who served with him during World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Best of all, admission is free.
The MacArthur Memorial also included the archive and research center, education center, theater, welcome center and a gift shop.
Kayaking on the Lafayette River
Newer to the city is Norfolk Kayak Rentals. The owner Josh saw a need for locals and visitors to get on the waterways he grew up taking for granted, so he opened a kayak rental at Highland Park Veterans Kayak Launch, bringing water sports to the masses.
You can rent singles or tandems. If your kids are old enough, I highly recommend they get their own kayak.
Hauling younger kids was a real work out as we paddles from the dock to Cooley Bridge and over to Granby Bridge to see the beautiful homes of Colonial Place (a neighborhood in Norfolk, VA).
Mural Tour of the NEON District
The NEON District, or New Energy of Norfolk, is a neighborhood just north of Downtown that is has created a public art space both visitors and locals enjoy.
There is always something happening in this part of the city, but our favorite thing to do in take a tour of the murals.
Book a tour with Joshua Weinstein from the Norfolk Tour Company. As a local, he not only knows the history of Norfolk, but has seen the NEON District rise in prominence, celebrating local and international artists along the way.
While some murals are commissioned pieces, others are local graffiti artists showing off their skills. Weinstein will tell you why these pieces are so important to the city, to racial justice in America and how the district continues to morph and grow every year.
While you can tour the NEON on your own, a guided tour will really bring this part of the city to life for you and your children. I can not recommend booking a tour while in Norfolk enough.
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Norfolk Virginia Beaches
While Virginia Beach is only 20 minutes away, there are plenty of Norfolk beaches to play on and explore. Norfolk has 7.3 miles of public beaches along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.
Lifeguards are on duty daily the Saturday before Memorial Day through Labor Day, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free parking is widely available, so you can easily explore the sunny beaches just minutes from your hotel.
Where are the Norfolk VA Beaches?
- Sarah Constant Beach
- Community Beach
- Ocean View Beach
Check out the interactive light and sound sculpture in MacArthur Square Station whose flowers give an individual response when prompted by visitors below.
There are several family-friendly breweries in Norfolk, VA. Some have restaurants connected to them, while others are also whipping up their own sodas for kids to enjoy while mom and dad check out a flight of the lastest batch of beers.
Norfolk Breweries to check out:
- Benchtop Craft Brewing Company
- Smartmouth Brewing Co.
- The Veil Brewing- Norfolk
- O’Connor Brewing Company
- Rip rap Brewing Company
- Maker’s Craft Brewing
- Elation Brewing
- Bold Mariner
- Cova Brewing Co.
Norfolk Botanical Garden
Whenever we head to Norfolk, VA, I love to pop into the Norfolk Botanical Garden to see what is in bloom. Not only can we let the kids run around, but I’ve been inspired to add things to my own garden at home.
If you happen to be traveling during Christmas in Norfolk, you will definitely want to grab tickets to see the garden lights. There are several displays, from the fun and playful, to the artistic and fantastical, to see when you visit.
My favorites are the fairy lights in the fields, and the stars dripping down as you walk across a bridge, making me think I’m headed to the moon and back again.
Pagoda & Oriental Garden
If you are downtown, you can’t miss the Norfolk Pagoda and Oriental Garden. A curious park right on the water, it’s stunning in autumn as the leaves start to change colors.
You will see various outdoor events take place in front of the pagoda, and even tai chi classes from time to time. It’s a quiet place to sit in the city, when you need to forget your troubles too.
You can also see sections of the Cannonball Trail near the Pagoda. If you love history, take the full self-guided tour that walks you through 400 years of Norfolk and American history.
Chrysler Museum of Art
Norfolk, VA has a surprising number of topnotch art museums, including the Chrysler Museum of Art, which could rival most museums in the United States and it is free to enter year round.
Named for the family who owned the Chrysler car company, Walter P. Chrysler Jr., donated most of his art collection to the museum in 1971, helping the collection grow to more than 30,000 objects.
There are interactive spaces for families to explore, as well as the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio. Grab free tickets for a glass blowing demonstration. They break a lot of glass, which always impresses the kids.
If you need more art, buy tickets to the Hermitage Museum and Gardens. This historic home is filled with a fine arts collection that represents 5000 years of art from more than 50 countries.
Reward the kids with a wander through the garden, where they won’t have to keep their hands in their pockets quite as much. Thankfully, gardens are a bit less fragile than antiques, but do stay to the paths.
History meets modern architecture at the Slover Library. On rainy days, plan on spending the morning in this warm, light-filled library with more books than your kids have seen in a while.
You can also access leading technology, children’s story hours and special events throughout the year.
Town Point Park
Located right on the waterfront this 7-acre city park is home to many special events, including Norfolk Harborfest, Bayou Boogaloo and 4th of July Celebrations.
If events aren’t happening, you can still let the kids run around, ride their scooters and explore this portion of the Elizabeth River Trail (a 9-mile trail that runs from Norfolk State University following the Elizabeth River northward to Terminal Boulevard).
If you love battleships and naval cruises as much as my youngest son, you will want to book a tour with Victory Rover Naval Base Cruises.
You’ll cruise around the Elizabeth River and Norfolk Harbor, seeing destroyers, submarines, guided missile cruisers, aircraft carriers and other naval vessels.
Cruises depart from Nauticus, and can hold up to 150 guests. There is plenty of comfortable seating, an air-conditioned enclosed deck, an open-air shaded upper deck and snack bar onboard.
If you are looking for more historical cruises to book, check out the American Rover Tall Ship Cruises. Their sunset sailings are our favorite, as you can see the light hit the horizon, casting colors all across the clouds, water and harbor.
Norfolk Tides Baseball
Catch a Norfolk Tides baseball game at Harbor Park in Norfolk, VA. This minor league (Triple-A) baseball team is affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles (previously the New York Mets).
The Junior Tides program is great for kids who will go to several games. The club membership includes ticket discounts for companions, membership card, Junior Tides drawstring backpack, Junior Tides t-shirt, Junior Tides lanyard, four exclusive pre-game photo opportunities with a Tides player, and five free vouchers for concourse games (Speed Pitch and Kids’ Bounce).
Children’s Museum of Virginia (Portsmouth)
Rainy days in Norfolk mean families head indoors to explore. What better spot than the Children’s Museum of Virginia just across the river in Portsmouth?
The museum includes hands-on play centers, bubble stations, train exhibit, the Lancaster Antique Train and Toy Collection, and performance spaces that encourage dance, music making, plus Make It & Take It workshops.
Our favorite spot is the Beazley Planetarium. Here we can “travel” to distant planets in the digital full-dome projection theater, and learn about the wonders of the universe.
Norfolk Coffee Shops
We love a good cup of coffee, and Norfolk coffee shops don’t disappoint. Each of these had hot cocoa or alternate beverages for the kids, while we caffeinated up.
- Cure, 503 Botetourt St, Norfolk, VA 23510
- Town Center Cold Press, 1902 Colley Ave, Norfolk, VA 23517
- Coalescence, 226 W 24th St, Norfolk, VA 23517
- Café Stella, 116 Granby St, Norfolk, VA 23510
- Kobros, 430 W 24th St, Norfolk, VA 23517
- Vessel Craft Coffee, 208 E Main St #1, Norfolk, VA 23510 (inside Seldon Market)
Family-friendly Norfolk Restaurants
You can’t go to Norfolk, VA and not try the local foods. Where there are plenty of downtown Norfolk Restaurants, you will want to make sure you get out into the neighborhoods to eat with the locals and support local businesses.
A few of our favorite Norfolk, VA restaurants:
- Starving Artist Café, 4408 Colley Ave, Norfolk, VA 23508
- Handsome Biscuit, 2511 Colonial Ave, Norfolk, VA 23517
- Auntie’s, 4314 Colley Ave, Norfolk, VA 23508
- Leone’s Italian, 455 Granby St, Norfolk, VA 23510
- Redwood Smoke Shack Texas Inspired BBQ, 2001 Manteo St, Norfolk, VA 23517
- Toast, 2406 Colonial Ave, Norfolk, VA 23517
- The Bakehouse at Chelsea, 1233 W Olney Rd, Norfolk, VA 23507
Family Hotels in Norfolk, VA
Every parent knows that if you book a hotel, it needs to have a pool (and maybe breakfast included). Here are a few of our favorites hotels in Norfolk that are walkable to many of the best attractions in downtown Norfolk.
Norfolk Waterside Marriott hotel
Book connecting rooms at this downtown hotel with gorgeous waterfront and sunset views over the city. The indoor pool is sure to make the kids happy, while mom and dad will love the Marriott Club that offers up breakfast in the morning, plus snacks and beverages all day.
Make sure you order something to your room, so that MarriBot has to deliver it to your door. The kids will get a huge kick out of this hotel robot who can bring them water, candy, etc.
Looking for more Norfolk hotels?
- Hilton Norfolk THE MAIN– #1 rated on TripAdvisor
- Residence Inn Norfolk Downtown– perfect for families who need a full kitchen
- The Inn at Four Eleven York– Cute B&B with free parking and Wi-Fi
- Courtyard Norfolk Downtown– Budget-friendly hotel right downtown
- Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel– outdoor pool, bike rentals and pet-friendly
Still need more options? Search for a great deal on Booking.com!
Best Rentals and Airbnbs in Norfolk, VA for Families
While you may not get the pool, these Airbnbs give you plenty of space for the whole family. You can also save money by making meals in your full kitchen at these Superhost properties.
- Private downtown Norfolk condo
- Entire House in Ghent Neighborhood (steps from downtown)
- Loft in the Norfolk Arts District
- Mid-Century Spirit Through & Through
- Hanover House