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Military history and much more in Norfolk, Va.

Lisa Elia
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The Battleship Wisconsin is anchored along the water in downtown Norfolk and is open for tours.

Norfolk, Virginia, a genteel Southern town, is home to the largest naval base in the world. But the state’s second-largest city has more in its artillery than just hulking, fearsome grey battleships.

“Norfolk’s Southern location on the water provides for mild weather practically year-round to enjoy endless outdoor and water recreation activities like river cruises and kayaking,” said Nicole Nussbaum, communications manager for VisitNorfolk. “With 12 downtown city blocks it is highly walkable, giving visitors easy access to eclectic shopping, vibrant art, historic attractions and an abundance of chef-owned dining options.”

This Colonial-era town — settled in 1636 — was a prosperous and important shipping port in the 1700s but was almost destroyed during the Revolutionary War, when Virginia’s British royal governor burned down two-thirds of the city. One building left standing was St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which has a melon-sized cannonball lodged in its outer wall, a result of the British attack on the colonists in 1776. The house of worship, built in 1739, is Norfolk’s only remaining Colonial-era building.

One of the best ways to see Norfolk is to bike or walk its 10.5-mile Elizabeth River Trail, which makes its way through downtown and some historic neighborhoods such as the Freemason District, where cobblestone lanes are lined with sycamore and oak trees, and brick and wood Federal, Queen Anne and Victorian homes.

The trail also meanders through Ghent, where there is no shortage of historic homes, antique shops, boutiques, galleries and cutting-edge eateries that fuse the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay with urban flair.

While walking through the Ghent neighborhood, you’ll recognize the sweet smell of vanilla-scented batter coming from Doumar’s, a diner and curbside eatery. This is where the first waffle cones were made, and the four-iron waffle machine is still churning them out today, as well as made-from-scratch ice cream and barbecue pork sandwiches.

Military buffs will want to visit the MacArthur Memorial — a museum, research center and the mausoleum of Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur — and the USS Wisconsin — one of the largest Navy battleships that served in World War II, the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm.

Norfolk has a vibrant, homegrown arts scene, and the Chrysler Museum of Art has one of the country’s largest art glass collections. The NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) district is home to 70 public murals and art installations, and the PUSH comedy club.

Perhaps the most whimsical pieces of art around city streets are the mermaid sculptures. City officials adopted the siren of the sea as its unofficial mascot about 20 years ago, and about 100 of the creatures can be seen “swimming” around town.

The Attucks Theatre, which celebrated its centennial in 2019, is the oldest Black-owned, -financed and -built theater in the country. It was known as the “Apollo of the South” in its heyday, and entertainers like Dizzy Gillepsie, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington performed there. It still draws top-notch talent today.

For more information, go to VisitNorfolk.com.