NORFOLK, Va. -- The "new" Norfolk hasn't yet sparked the hype of, say, Atlanta or Charlotte. But this historic city's continuing urban renaissance could make it the next gleaming gem of the so-called New South.
Situated along waterways where the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean meet, the nearly 400-year-old city has chiefly been known for maritime operations, shipbuilding and as home to the world's largest naval station.
In the last few years, however, Norfolk has begun revamping that port and military image, while keeping intact its rich Colonial-era legacy. After all, this is a place where you can still walk the state's Civil War trail and view a monument honoring African-American war heroes.
But thanks to redevelopment initiatives, modern improvements and other changes, visitors will also find a more contemporary, polished and exciting Southern metropolis.
"The growth has just been phenomenal," says resident and businessman Jerry Meltsner, a Los Angeles transplant who arrived in 1983 and now operates two popular restaurants in the historic Ghent area. "If you'd taken a picture three years ago, you'd see that the development, especially residences, has been unbelievable."
The impact of all the new urban growth has been a boost to the economy and a surge in tourism. Indeed, millions of conventioneers and tourists are flocking to Norfolk for events from military reunions to jazz festivals.
The city's premier attraction is its 20-year-old revamped waterfront; overlooking the Elizabeth River, with dozens of specialty shops, eateries and nightspots, it is reminiscent of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.
Town Point Park is here; its seven grassy acres are perfect for picnics, chilling and festivals/concerts (more than 60 are held here annually). Up next is the 27th annual HarborFest (June 6-8), a huge nautical celebration that typically draws a half-million people.
This year's event will feature a parade of tall ships, water-skiing demonstrations, and entertainment on five stages, including music from Nickel Creek (of O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie and CD fame), the Charlie Daniels Band and Morris Day and the Time.
In the "new" Norfolk, you can take in the trendy ambience of downtown hub Granby Street, with its Cuban fare, designer duds and furniture; or, in the historic part of town, pray in St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which survived British attacks during the Revolution.
Norfolk also boasts lovely parks and gardens, along with a thriving cultural community, lately hailed nationwide. There are art-house theaters, ballet and opera companies, plus a symphony.
While the city has an assortment of fine-arts venues like the Chrysler Art Museum, even public art is plentiful. You'll find extravagant sculptures or notice that whimsical mermaids dot the landscape.
On the waterfront
The Waterside Festival Marketplace (333 Waterside Drive, 757-627-3300): Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Waterside has dozens of neat specialty shops, restaurants, nightclubs and international eats aplenty. All this, plus great views of the Elizabeth River.
Nauticus, The National Maritime Center (One Waterside Drive, 757-664-1000/800-664-1080): A science/tech center that lets you touch sharks, design a weather forecast and explore 150 hands-on exhibits dedicated to the sea. A must-see is the Oscar-nominated film The Living Sea, featuring music by Sting.
Hampton Roads Naval Museum (757-444-8971): Located inside Nauticus, with rare photographs, memorabilia and artifacts of the region's naval history.
The Battleship Wisconsin, among the largest and last battleships ever built by the U.S. Navy. Berthed next to Nauticus, it's open for tours.
MacArthur Center (300 Monticello Ave., 757-627-6000): Most malls are pretty much the same, but the Mac's more upscale panache (Nordstrom, Restoration Hardware) and size set it apart. With 140 stores, an 18-screen megaplex and a food court that seats 600, this one packs plenty of punch.
Norfolk Botanical Garden (6700 Azalea Garden Road, 757-441-5830): Mother Nature personified in magnificent theme gardens, 95 species of birds, plus 34 types of butterflies. The marble statuary and 430 varieties of colorful rose bushes make it popular for weddings.
Chrysler Museum of Art (245 W. Olney Road, 757-664-6200): Besides a world-renowned Tiffany glass collection, the museum has 30,000 original works from Rembrandt to Andy Warhol. Through July, check out the "La Bella Macchina: The Art of Ferrari" (12 vintage automobiles). The museum also manages historic homes and offers concerts, lectures and children's programs.
Civil War Trail (Various locations; 757-441-1852): This statewide program uncovers more than 200 Civil War sites. Stops include West Point Monument, said to be the South's only memorial commemorating black Union troops.
d'Art Center (125 College Place and Bousch Street, 757-625-4211): Regional visual art facility and studios where visitors can watch artists craft exquisite jewelry, pottery, sculpture and more. Three-dozen resident artists also display and sell fine art.
Where to eat
No Frill Bar and Grill (806 Spotswood Ave., 757-627-4262): Casually elegant spot in Ghent with local art and gourmet comfort food. Great Sunday brunch with mango mimosas and dishes like grilled pork chops, white cheddar grits and scrambled eggs.
Freemason Abbey Restaurant & Tavern (209 W. Freemason St., 757-622-3966): Norfolk loves crab dishes, too, and you'll find that and more tasty American fare on the menu of this 127-year-old renovated church in the historic Freemason District. Despite the Victorian decor, there's an easy feel that attracts both locals and tourists.
219 (219 Granby St., 757-627-2896): International fusion food and decor with upbeat flair along the city's main downtown thoroughfare. Try the crisp, perfectly seasoned calamari and lime grilled chicken.
Norfolk is 232 miles from Baltimore, a four- to five-hour drive. Take Interstate 95 South toward Richmond, then I-295 South toward Norfolk/Virginia Beach, bypassing Richmond. Pick up Interstate 64 East. Continue to I-264 West; take Exit 284A toward Norfolk.
Southwest Airlines flies from BWI to Norfolk; the 50-minute flights are $49 and up each way.
Norfolk Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-368-3097; online: www.norfolkcvb.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun