WHY GO: Paul Simon crooned about Newport News VA in his song, Was A Sunny Day: “He was a Navy Man, stationed in Newport News/ She was a high school queen with nothing really left to lose.”
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of this town’s charms – of which there are many. One of the best Maritime Museums in the world is located here with exhibits even landlubbers will lubb.
In addition, the fun, live-animal packed “Living Museum” offers some of the coolest “behind the scenes tours” this Maven has ever experienced.
Find the only Army Transportation Museum in the country, two homes of prominent Black Attorneys who practiced here after the Civil War, and mansions that housed Confederate Generals during the war. And, of course, we don’t forget the arts.
Although geographically large, we bring Newport News down to size so you can zero in on the best and most quirky experiences for a great two-day getaway. Perhaps you’ll even meet “Speedo – though his Christian name was Mister Earl.”
Extend your trip by exploring neighboring Norfolk VA, a cool new foodie and arts destination.
Or pair this stay with another surprising historic ocean-front town (known more for pleasure than for its history), Virginia Beach.
Things to do in Newport News VA
DRIVE: Newport News Passport Driving Tour
Newport News VA is large and very spread out. The best way to tackle it is through one of these Driving Tours. From the comfort of your own car, knowledgeable guides take you turn by turn through Newport News, expounding on the intimate details of history and landscape.
Start at the Visitor’s Center. You’ll discover how the town got its name, the best spot to play Disc Golf, cool haunted plantations, and newly developed “town-square” neighborhoods. These include Port Warwick (built in 2000 to look like Mayberry RFD) and Styron Square, named after famous Southern-Lit author, William Styron who was born in Newport News.
It’s a compelling way to really get to know this maritime city. The free tour can be downloaded from here. CD Driving tour with brochure and map can be picked up at the Newport News Visitor’s Center.
VISIT: The Mariner’s Museum
One of the top Maritime Museums in the United States, and called a “National Treasure” by the Washington Post, The Mariners Museum and Park is a revelation even if you don’t care about boats or the dusty past.
Furthermore, if you’re doing research on worldwide Maritime History, you’ll have access to the largest Maritime archives in the Western Hemisphere.
To see and do everything requires a weekend. But if you only have an hour or two, most noteworthy are the following two exhibits.
First, the August and Winifred Crabtree Exhibit, showcases 16 precisely rendered, glowing miniature ships in near-complete darkness. It’s ghostly, otherworldly, and unlike anything you’ve seen before.
USS Monitor Center
Secondly, head to the $30 million USS Monitor Center, which opened in 2007 and was awarded the Excellence in Exhibition Award by the American Association of Museums.
On March 9, 1862, two Ironclad warships, the Confederate CSS Virginia and the Union USS Monitor clashed nearby in The Battle of Hampton Roads. This confrontation was the first in american military history between iron-plated Warships.
These ships “ushered in the iron age of Naval warfare, and marked a defining moment in the course of the Civil War.” In 1862, the 173 ft. USS Monitor, a technological marvel with the first revolving gun turret and below-waterline toilets, was caught in a bad storm and sank off of the North Carolina Coast.
In 2002, scientists lifted the turret from the sea floor, leaving the decayed hull below. To their surprise, it contained two fully articulated human skeletons,
Now, museumgoers can look through a bank of observation windows into the Largest Marine Metals Conservation Lab in the world. This very same turret is soaking in a 90,000 gallon treatment tank, filled with an alkaline solution of sodium hydroxide in reverse osmosis water. The process promotes electrolysis and desalination to gently remove 140 years of salt and sediment.
Behind the Scenes Tour
Take a behind-the-scenes guided tour, to see extraordinary artifacts, salvaged from the wreck. Most noteworthy are remnants of a double-breasted sack coat with just-invented rubber buttons stamped US Navy on one side and Goodyear on the other.
The museum also features a full-scale reconstructed walk-through model of the CSS Virginia. Its polished wood and high-ceilinged officer’s quarters are as nice as any high-end cruise ship stateroom.
VISIT: Virginia Living Museum
This inside-outside zoo/aquarium with “behind the scenes” tours is one of the best of its kind. Throughout a slew of habitats from steamy swamp to woodlands, “you’ll see more animals native to Virginia in two hours at the Virginia Living Museum than you’ll see in a lifetime of outdoor adventures in the Commonwealth.”
Teal ducks tool over trout at eye level. A poisonous Water Moccasin muscles up rocks in its thick-walled tank. Kids will love the “Gator Bites” Tour, which includes pizza (while the alligators get something a bit more…meaty). On Thursdays, divers clean the baby-shark tank where the most menacing creature is a massive sea turtle.
Depending on your “Behind the Scenes Tour” choice (which can be customized), you’ll go through “employee only” doors and see fridges full of frozen fish, seahorse breeding tanks, multiple trout roiling, splashing, and hoisting out of the water for food, and my personal favorite, the “orphaned animal room.”
Imprinted on humans, the woodchuck and screech owl are particularly beguiling. All along, the message is “Conservation.” These animals belong in the wild, no matter how much we might want to take that adorable woodchuck home.
VISIT: Virginia War Museum
Covering U.S. Military History from 1775 on, the Virginia War Museum also houses some rather extraordinary remnants of world history. Aside from its extensive collection of propaganda posters (aka, pre-internet social media), the museum features a section of the Berlin Wall, and a portion of the outer wall from the Dachau Concentration Camp.
VISIT: Lee Hall Mansion
It took 38 enslaved people to run the Greek Revival Italianate Georgian brick Lee Hall Mansion on 2100 acres. Owned by Richard Decatur Lee (no relation to Robert E), the home became the “nerve center” for the Civil War as Confederate Army headquarters.
Be sure to check out the small exhibit downstairs. Look for General John Magruder’s silver bejeweled revolver with engraved solid gold butt. A leather pouch called “The House Wife” is also intriguing. It’s basically a gentleman’s sewing kit bundled with the Holy Bible, most likely read after nipping from (also displayed) whiskey flasks and canteens.
Look for the picture of a unique Confederate surveillance tactic. Officers deployed a tethered hot air balloon a few hundred feet in the air to observe Union troop movements way off in the distance. Human stories in these small, but noteworthy museums make the Civil War come to life.
Tour the extravagant-for-its-day Lee Hall to see how plantation owners lived. The difference between a Ladies Parlor and Gentlemen’s parlor (tea/cakes vs. cigars/whiskey) is unambiguously sexist and of-its-time.
VISIT: Historic Endview
One of the last remaining Colonial Era homes in Newport News, Endview is best known for its owner during the Civil War, Dr Humphrey Harwood Curtis. Although a practicing medical doctor, Curtis organized a volunteer Confederate militia company, known as the Warwick Beauregards, to provide local defense during the Civil War. At the close of the war, however, Curtis resumed his medical practice in this building. So, if you are interested 400 years of history, and in the drugs and medical procedures of the 19th Century, come for an eye opening tour.
VISIT: The Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center
Prominent African-American attorney, J. Thomas Newsome, and his wife Mary Winfield Newsome owned this recently restored 1899 Queen Anne home at the turn of last century. Newsome advocated for education, voting rights, and social justice – and his home, now the Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center – was a gathering place and base for community involvement.
VISIT: James A Fields House
Newsome was not the only prominent Black lawyer in Newport News. James A. Fields was born into slavery, found refuse at Fort Monroe in 1862 during the Civil War, and went on to graduate from Howard University School of Law in 1881. Although the James Fields House was one of 15 properties that Fields owned in Newport News, this property served as his Law Office and primary residence from 1897 until his death in 1903. Visit By Appointment.
VISIT: US Army Transportation Museum
Newport News VA was the embarkation port for Army personnel and cargo during both World Wars, so it makes sense that the US Army Transportation Museum is situated here. Dynamic dioramas and other exhibits cover the history of transporting troops: from horse drawn wagons during the American Revolutionary War to the armored vehicles of today. As the museum is on an Army Base, be prepared to stop at the Langley-Eustis Guard House to show ID and get a Visitor’s Pass.
ATTEND: Ferguson Center for the Arts
The Ferguson Center for the Arts offers couples an evening of elegance and culture with its diverse lineup of performances, ranging from Broadway shows to live concerts. Its modern architecture and intimate seating create the perfect setting for a memorable, romance-filled night out.
GO: Downing Gross Cultural Arts Center
Pop into this fine and performing arts Downing-Gross Cultural Arts Center to peruse artistic works in several galleries. Or, see what’s on stage in the 276-seat Ella Fitzgerald Theater. Built in 1918 as a high school for White kids, it was almost immediately turned into a hospital for those suffering from the Spanish Flu. Abandoned in 1990, it was gutted, renovated, and reopened as this Arts Center in 2008.
Best Places to Eat in Newport News VA
EAT: Circa 1918 Kitchen
Historic Hilton Village was the first government-subsidized neighborhood. Homes, shops and recreational opportunities were available for shipbuilders in wartime 1918. A flood of families moved to this quaint section of Newport News to support the men working in the yards.
Now, Hilton Village is becoming gentrified with innovative, earth-to-plate restaurants like Circa 1918 Kitchen which defies classification. It’s “French-Italian-Asian-Regional Contemporary American,” says Chef-owner Chad Martin, who loves to experiment with local ingredients.
Also in Hilton Village, this little Kismet Bistro was a forerunner of upscale dining in the area and still draws aficionados of casual dining in a “relaxed atmosphere.” Pizza, cocktails, and bourbon nights are high on the list.
EAT: Locals Also Love
Second Street American Bistro for burgers and wine, Amirtha Curry and Bar for Indo-Chinese.
Best Place to Stay in Newport News VA
STAY: Best Chain Hotels
Although lacking in boutique flair, most of the large hotel chains meet our standards for accommodations. Rooms are fresh, clean, and reasonably priced at Marriott City Center, Homewood Suites, Hampton Inn.
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