There’s no shortage of fun between Williamsburg, Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia are packed with kid-friendly museums, getaways, and other places of interest, but Hampton Roads in the southern Chesapeake region, also known as Tidewater, Virginia, is no slouch when it comes to providing incredible experiences for visitors of all ages.
Pre-kids, the area drew me in with promises of long beach days, numerous waterfront festivals and concerts, and some incredible restaurant hot spots. Colonial Williamsburg was also an obvious attraction—perhaps the region’s most well known and one that I’d been fortunate to visit several times.
Now that I have two young daughters, I’ve been able to view the Tidewater area anew through the “parent filter,” wondering where can the entire family have fun without much stress or cost. Williamsburg is still an obvious choice, and parents can absolutely bring the kids along for many of the area’s waterfront events. But when it comes to exploring more of Hampton Roads, my family and I have found that the region is teeming with kid-friendly, engaging experiences, if you know where to look.
If you’re unfamiliar with the area, here’s a brief geography lesson. Once you pass Richmond on your way down I-64, you’re entering the beginning of the Virginia peninsula, a collection of cities surrounded by the James and York Rivers that culminates at the junction of the James and the Chesapeake Bay.
If you’re staying in Williamsburg and heading south, Yorktown, Poquoson, Newport News, and Hampton can all be reached within about 35 minutes or so, barring any major traffic incident or construction backup (which do happen regularly in Hampton Roads!).
The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel connects Hampton, the southernmost city on the peninsula, to Norfolk and the beginning of what locals call the “Southside.” This portion of Tidewater is also home to Virginia Beach (about an hour from Williamsburg, depending on the time of day), Chesapeake, Suffolk and Portsmouth.
So buckle up, roll down the windows, and enjoy a quick virtual tour of some of the best family-friendly spots in Hampton Roads.
Families can step back in time—to the 18th-century to be exact—with a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. Touted as the “world’s largest living history museum,” you can see what everyday life was like in Colonial times as historical interpreters and craftspeople bustle about through the town showing off their trades and skills. Visitors can dine in taverns, visit art museums, and even learn about military history and 18th-century fashion. Kids can enjoy horse-drawn carriage rides, work on an archaeology dig, build clay bricks, meet some farm animals and enjoy special tours made specially for kids.
Great Wolf Lodge
Great Wolf Lodge, an indoor water park that packs a punch with more than just fun in the pool, is just a short drive from Colonial Williamsburg.
From exhilarating water rides like the “Howlin’ Tornado” and “Wolf Rider Wipeout” to the mellower Cub Paw Pool and the Raccoon Lagoon, there’s something for everyone who’s ready to make a splash. A variety of activities, an arcade, dining, and a spa round out the lodge experience.
Virginia Living Museum
Named for the sea captain Christopher Newport, who played a significant role in the establishment of Jamestown, Newport News is home to Christopher Newport University, Oyster Point town center shopping, and the stellar Virginia Living Museum.
From plants and animals to the stars above, the Virginia Living Museum (VLM) is a celebration of the natural world. The museum is home to 250 animals species native to Virginia, some of which have been orphaned or injured and found refuge at the VLM. Visitors can get up close and personal with some of the Chesapeake’s animals and habitats in indoor Coastal Plain Gallery and the Noland Chesapeake Bay Aquarium, which measures in at 30,000 gallons. Also inside, kids can play at four different discovery centers, where they can get up-close and personal with Bay critters and examine a beehive.
Outside, the museum’s elevated Outdoor Boardwalk Trail is home to a bevy of animals including wolves, fox, and even bobcats. After a walk on the boardwalk, be sure to check out the Dinosaur Discovery Trail, which includes realistic models of a variety of prehistoric favorites including triceratops, brachiosaurus and the T-Rex. The younger set can enjoy a play area just for kids, and junior paleontologists can test their skill in dig pits. Also keep your eyes peeled for the VLM’s walking T-Rex, which parades around the grounds once a month.
Kids and their families can also enjoy the museum’s Children’s Garden & Playground as well as the permanent “Wild & Well” exhibit, which teaches young animal lovers how to care for different species.
Mariners’ Museum and Park
Not far from the Virginia Living Museum is a celebration of all things maritime, past, present, and future: the Mariners’ Museum and Park! The museum exhibits different types of vessels, historic maritime artifacts and memorabilia, as well as special events and activities for visitors.
Among the many neat draws of the Mariners’ Museum are the International Small Craft Center, which boasts 150 boats from around the world; a world-class library with extensive collections; and the renowned USS Monitor Center. The USS Monitor was the first ironclad warship commissioned in the Union Navy during the Civil War. She was sunk in a storm off Cape Hatteras in 1862 and salvaged in 1973. Parts of the Monitor, including the gun turret, propeller and engine are on display at the center, where an extensive restoration is ongoing.
What’s more, the Mariners’ Museum hosts “Maritime Mondays,” held each Monday at 10:30 a.m. for children ages 18 months to eight years. Each session includes water-focused storytime and a craft. What’s most amazing is that the admission to the museum is only
$1 per person.
Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
The moment you pull up to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, the kids will be wowed by the outdoor sea lion exhibit. Inside, the fun continues with nearly 300 marine species represented in 800,000 gallons of tank space. From sea turtles to sharks to Komodo Dragons, the diversity of species is spectacular. Hands-on exhibits engage young minds, and educational components like 3D documentary films and the Chesapeake Bay history exhibit give visitors a taste of the science behind it all. Guests can head outside to enjoy Adventure Park or the nature trail, and boat excursions offer the chance to spot dolphins and whales in nearby waters. Plus, the aquarium is just a few minutes away from the oceanfront.
The Chrysler Museum of Art
Although thoughts of toting your littles to a space full of priceless artwork just begging to be knocked over may make you shudder, fear not—the Chrysler Museum in the Ghent section of Norfolk isn’t your typical “Do Not Touch!” experience. Sure, it boasts paintings and works by renowned and local artists, but its kid-friendly nature and experiences tailored to younger patrons make this museum a great bet for children.
The Wonder Studio, conveniently located on the museum’s first floor, offers kids an interactive gallery experience. The “Colorscape” area allows young visitors to create colors on the floor through their body movements (dancing included). There’s glass-enclosed art to enjoy, and digital easels give kids the chance to create their
own artwork and have it displayed on large screens.
After the Wonder Studio, families can complete a scavenger hunt throughout the museum while taking in some incredible art. Nothing beats watching your child take a break from the crazy and stop to consider a sculpture staring down at her from the ceiling. Adults, too, can marvel at the museum’s collection, enjoy comfortable viewing areas, and grab a bite in the cafe.
Imagine navigating your way through downtown Norfolk, turning a corner, and suddenly seeing a giant battleship and enormous museum smack dab in the midst of the hustle and bustle. Welcome to Nauticus and the battleship USS Wisconsin, both must-do’s when visiting the Hampton Roads region.
Located on the Norfolk waterfront, the maritime science center Nauticus and the decommissioned battleship Wisconsin (which the City oversees and museum admission helps support) are quite the attractions for fans of all-things water and maritime life. From learning about the history of the Navy (courtesy of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum) and underwater exploration to tsunamis and the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, visitors can get a taste of it all. Touring the leviathan Wisconsin, enjoying 3D films, and even taking a walk around the Nauticus campus to enjoy the waterfront scenery is sure to please the whole family.
There’s the kids’ section in the library, then there is the kids’ section in the Slover Library in downtown Norfolk. The beautifully designed Slover Library, which opened in 2015, lies about a block from Nauticus and the waterfront. From the moment you walk in with your clan, you’ll simultaneously feel right at home and that you’re perhaps in the midst of a work of architectural art. Head to the children’s area on the second floor for a first-class literary and play experience for your littles. In addition to a wealth of book offerings, the massive, open-concept section includes cozy reading areas, a play space made of padded structures just right for young visitors, and a kitchen/toy area for older kids.
A regional educational mecca for children ages one to 11, the Children’s Museum in Portsmouth offers kids (and their care givers) the chance to learn through an impressive variety of hands-on experiences. Exhibits dedicated to bubbles, the market/grocery store, “Pets and Vets,” and instruments as well as a “tot yard,” the planetarium, and a train exhibit comprise just some of the fun on the first floor. Head upstairs to the museum’s second floor to explore the interactive “My House” exhibit, an art and performance area, and the “Dr. Forces Traveling Energy Extravaganza,” a carnival-like exploration of energy and science.
Looking for even more Hampton Roads fun? Don’t forget to add historic Jamestown and Yorktown settlements, plus Busch Gardens, Ocean Breeze Water Park (Virginia Beach), and the Oceanfront to your list!