Virginia Pride (org" target="_blank">vapride.org) is by far the gayest thing to do in the Old Dominion state, and that includes visiting Colonial Williamsburg in drag. So, if you’re interested in doing something gay at the end of September, you’re in luck. Richmond is the site for Virginia Pride, Sept. 28-29, and thousands are expected for the entertainment, music, food and frolicking from noon- 8 p.m. that Sunday in Kanawha Plaza.
Rather than just going down for a weekend, which can make for some long travel stretches, why not add a couple days? Many LGBT outsiders might overlook this capital city of Virginia, but once you wrap your head around the fact that you can’t turn a corner without tripping over something to do with the American Civil War, you can start exploring this riverfront town and find a vast and varied gay community with a long history.
If Richmond has any area that is more welcoming to LGBT visitors than Carytown, we didn’t find it. Called the “Mile of Style,” Carytown is about 10 blocks long on West Cary Street. There are scores of locally owned shops, boutiques and specialty stores, many of which are LGBT-owned, and all very welcoming. Carytown was even voted “Best Neighborhood to Shop In” in 2011 by Southern Living magazine’s readers.
Nacho Mama’s (3449 W. Cary St., nachomamasva.com) is a great place to start and end an afternoon in Carytown. For one thing, you can’t go wrong with a selection of more than two-dozen flavors of margaritas. Openly gay owner Raul Cantu serves up an incredible mix of great food, splendid spirits and a charming, colorfully appointed space. Nacho Mama’s gets the nod for “Best Patio Dining” locally and is sure to please your spirit as well as your palate. Try the coco loco shrimp with mango sauce or Carmines diablos before your fajitas, enchiladas, tacos or chimichangas. There is something for every taste and Scoville heat units.
For dinner one night, you’ll want to hit up Selba (2416 W. Cary St., selbarichmond.com). Selba has a distinctive mission, menu and décor and continues to be one of the most popular date spots in Richmond. Their mission is to honor the food that they serve in the oldest of traditions — the meal — featuring fresh, natural ingredients from local and regional farmers. Menu options vary by the season, of course.
For any non-dining portions of your stroll, stop in Bangles and Beads (banglesandbeads.net), Eurotrash (shopeurotrash.com), World of Mirth (worldofmirth.com) and maybe stop into Can Can Brasserie (cancanbrasserie.com) for a locally brewed pint. The Boyd Theater is a small yet grand classic theater in which, if your timing is good, you may have a chance to hear an organ recital.
Before you depart, make sure you stop off at lesbian-owned For the Love of Chocolate (3136 W. Cary St., lovchoc.com) for walking-around sweets or a fabulous after-dinner treat. Handmade chocolates abound, and the aroma will catch your attention yards before you get to the door. Besides the Virginia-made and international varieties of chocolate, there are hundreds of classic candies, retro favorites, gourmet items, kosher, vegan and organic offerings. Definitely go in. Definitely don’t go in hungry.
Taking in the scenery
The great outdoors have much to offer in Richmond also. The most dominant geographic influence in Richmond is the James River, of Jamestown relation. The lower part of the river is part of the Chesapeake Tidal Basin, and upriver is one of the country’s most popular urban rapids. Kayaking goes on here nearly all year. Highly recommended is a stroll over to Belle Isle for hiking, biking, running, fishing, wading, rock bathing or about any other fine seasonal activity. Once a compound for Union prisoners of war, it is now 54 acres of recreation, with no motor-vehicle access.
Alongside the river is the inviting Kanawha Canal and the canal walk. Following the canal from its southern endpoint near Shockoe Bottom can take you along trails, rails and paved sidewalks as the serpentine path criss-crosses the canal.
At one point, water levels permitting, you can climb down a ladder and “walk the pipe.” A large runoff pipe with platform and rails allows you to walk over the river a short distance from the shore and has numerous places to hop off onto the sand, wade in the shallows or out onto the rocks with a fishing net.
In the most temperate times of the year, you can also take a canal boat ride with Canal Cruises (venturerichmond.com) that includes a scenic, historic and entertaining narration. It’s a perfect way to relax and enjoy a slow-down moment of the day. You can even bring some snacks and beverages for a light lunch as you slide along the smooth canal waters.
A few blocks from the boat launch is LaDifférence (125 S. 14th St., ladiff.com), owned by life partners Andrew Thornton and Ivor Massey. The two have crafted a fine contemporary interior-design store in a four-story modernized warehouse packed with unusual and one-of-a-kind items from around the world, with regular customers from around the world as well. It is their intention to greet customers with genuine joy, enthusiasm and interest and they use fantastic color, music and a pervasive sense of humor to surround the shopping experience.
Also very close is Bottom’s Up Pizza (1700 Dock St., bottomsuppizza.com) for a quick slice or cool bev on the deck or patio. Arguably the best pizza in the city, natives and visitors alike agree that the freshly made, hand-tossed pies are worth a special trip to Shockoe Bottom.
Historically, Richmond had been a great manufacturing and tobacco town, and it might have been a much different city had it not been for Lewis Ginter. A savvy businessman, abundantly generous, Ginter was a highly decorated war veteran who was the first major American marketer of hand-rolled cigarettes. Ginter and his long-time business and domestic partner John Pope were very well liked, yet the two remained fairly reclusive, preferring not to be in the public eye frequently.
Upon their deaths, the 85-acre Ginter Farm and all attached wealth were bequeathed to Ginter’s niece, Grace Arent. Arent, who also had a same-sex companion, Mary Garland Smith, passed away in 1926, and her will stated that upon the death of Smith, the farm would go to the city for a botanical garden.
The Ginter legacy exists today in the form of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (lewisginter.org) on that site. It’s a beautiful space where one can learn about plants or just relax in a beautiful setting of trees, shrubs and flowers from around the world. The garden’s butterfly conservatory is one of the country’s largest and is home to thousands of butterflies and hundreds of varieties. Walk through and watch them feed and dance in the air, and become a landing perch for them during your stroll. No worries, everyone is thoroughly examined for stowaways at the exit.
For art, you can’t do much better than the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA, 200 N. Blvd., vmfa.state.va.us), which is home to more than 33,000 works of art spanning 5,000 years and the globe. VMFA has some of the finest art-nouveau and art-deco collections in the nation and ranks as one of the top comprehensive art museums in the United States. Popular 20th-century artists include Jasper Johns, Claus Oldenburg, Cindy Sherman, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder and Roy Lichtenstein.
Check out VMFA After Dark. It’s the weekly social time on Thursdays and Fridays when the museum, Best Café and Amuse Restaurant are open late. The two dining and sipping options offer excellent views of exhibits inside, and the grounds and sculptures outside, and make it a popular place to stop for an after-work encounter. VMFA is open 365 days a year and general admission is always free.
Another don’t-miss is the Drag Brunch at Godfrey’s (308 E. Grace St., godfreysva.com), which is just plain fun. What’s better than bloodies, brunch, drag and dramatics to recover from a Saturday night on the town? Voted the best brunch in Richmond for eight years in a row, Godfrey’s has a simple a-la-carte menu of good food, some great entertainers and some rowdy staff to pull it off. Two seatings every Sunday (crowd and weather permitting) and reservations for more than four are a must at least two weeks out. Bring a handful of ones for tipping because the girls will come after you if they think you’re trying to stay under the radar or gaydar.
Another club stop should include Barcode (barcoderva.com), with its happy-hour specials and large patio out back for chatting up the events of your day or planning the next. They also offer some bar foods to cover the afternoon snackies and late-night munchies. And check out the amusement crane in the corner carefully. It’s not your father’s toys in there.
Where to stay
Of course there are places to stay that run the gamut, from low-end motel to the luxury of The Jefferson (thejeffersonhotel.com). Nearly destroyed once by fire, it is a standing testament to Ginter’s desire to restore the original magnificence. Located near the capitol building, Jefferson Hotel may not be in the budget for an entire stay, but an overnight visit or just stopping in for tea should be considered. There is also the Maury Place at Monument Bed & Breakfast (mauryplace.com), a contemporarily furnished near-100-year-old home of the Monument Avenue historic area owned by another pair of LGBT entrepreneurs. Maury Place is truly a perfect romantic getaway. Rooms start at $199 but are well worth the value when you consider the pool, hot tub, views and the fact that you are located perfectly for excursions near and far. Whether you plan to spend all your waking hours out and about or ache for a quiet weekend of seclusion in a harsh winter month, you will be drawn to spend time in this magnificent and spacious mansion. The B&B is TAG certified.
As for travel, you can make your Richmond entrance a number of ways, but arriving at Main Street Station via Amtrak is by far more convenient and comfortable than five hours on the interstate. Built in 1901 and surviving several floods and a fire, the station is a landmark of downtown Richmond.
If you drive into town, you’ll find ample parking throughout the city, or you can easily let the car stay in one place and travel by public transportation or taxicab. Many parts of the city are quite walkable.
Out and about
There are plenty of other considerations for a trip to Richmond. The Flying Squirrels are the minor-league team in town and they regularly host the Reading Phillies. For a play, check out the Richmond Triangle Players (rtriangle.org.) They have been producing LGBT-themed theater for more than 20 years — longer than any establishment in the mid-Atlantic states. Hollywood Cemetery (hollywoodcemetery.org) is the final resting place of more than 18,000 Confederate soldiers, scores of officers and three presidents — if you count Jefferson Davis. And of course, only a short drive from Richmond are Historic Williamsburg, the founding city of Jamestown, Busch Gardens, King’s Dominion and the Virginia beaches.
Give Richmond a try. A little southern hospitality can go a long way.
Some information came from “Lewis Ginter: Richmond’s Gilded Age Icon.”The book was written by Brian Burns, co-producer of “The Rainbow Minute,” a radio show about gay and lesbian heroes, history and culture.