Things to Do in Richmond, Virginia: Best Outdoor Activities for Kids
Richmond, Virginia may be full of Southern charm, but it's also a city with a wild side. Wild, as in wilderness. With the James River at the heart of the city, activities like swimming, rafting, kayaking, and paddleboarding are central to city life. The James is a haven for resident bald eagles, blue herons, and other wildlife, too.
The river is only the beginning. Outdoor activities abound in Richmond, making it a fun city to visit with kids. Outdoor arts and museum exhibits, sports, gardens, wildlife and more; if you want to devote your vacation days to the pursuit of outdoor fun, you're in the right place.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts VMFA Robins Sculpture Garden
Sometimes you want to be outdoors, but without hiking boots, paddles, or dirt bikes. The Robins Sculpture Garden at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is just the place. Enjoy the soft sound of water skipping down steps as you ascend a parallel staircase, thought-provoking and magnificent sculptures, manicured gardens, vistas of green and blue splashed with a rainbow of flowers, and impressive architecture from a time long past. The centerpiece is a reflecting pool featuring lily pads, water plants, and a newly acquired Chihuly glass reed installation. The pool cozies up to a deck extending from the museum’s café, overlooking the garden. While you’re there, you’ll want to explore the museum’s indoor collections – admission to the museum is free, so you really have nothing to lose. Plus, the museum offers wonderful education programs for families with babies up through teens. Take a look at the Youth Studio program schedule before you go to find out what’s happening for families during your visit.
If your kids are older (ages 8 and up) and looking for adventure, connect with Riverside Outfitters (RO). Friendly, skilled and knowledgeable guides will lead you on an adventure your family won’t soon forget, whether it’s paddleboarding, kayaking, canoeing, or rafting down the rapids of the James River. You can also learn to climb trees like professional arborists, choosing from high-ropes challenges like vertical climbs into the tree canopy, limb walks, high-elevation ziplines, canopy rope bridges, and plunging tree swings. If you’re more of a DIY adventurer, the RO Outpost on Brown’s Island (right in the city), is a great place to rent stand up paddleboards, kayaks, and mountain bikes. It’s also a secure place to stow your valuables while you’re out on the river or the trails.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
That Lewis Ginter was quite a guy. Not only was he responsible for the magnificent Jefferson Hotel (hello, brunch spot), the creation of a botanical garden for the city was willed by Ginter’s niece in his honor. It took many years, but the Lewis Ginter Botanical Center finally came to fruition and is now a sparkling gem in the city of Richmond. The Children’s Garden, truly a bright spot in the Botanical Center, has everything for a family day outdoors: A fully accessible treehouse overlooking the Garden’s Lake, a bathtub filled with dirt for hands-on fun, an enchanting playhouse that makes you feel as though you’ve entered a storybook world, a shaded nook for story time, natural playthings for building and imagining, a garden of unusual plants, and an international village. If you go in the summer, bring swimsuits for the kids – you can relax in the shaded Parent Rest Area while your little ones splash about on the spray pad. Beyond the Children's Garden, a stroll through the rose garden is a must, and the kids will want to see the little cottage inside the conservatory. Peek in the windows for a delightful surprise!
Discover the James Wildlife Tour
Fisherman, naturalist, and amateur historian Captain Mike Ostrander leads fishing expeditions and boat tours down the James River. The Wildlife & History Tour, combining history with wildlife, is a delightful two hours of learning about and observing the beauty of the James River. Captain Mike is not only a font of knowledge, he is a keen observer of the herons, bald eagles and other wildlife on the James, and tells dramatic stories of their lives, loves and losses. Discover the James offers a whole menu of excursions on the James River. If the timing of your trip is right, you might get lucky and be able to get a coveted spot for your child (ages 9-15) in one of the Just for Kids fishing programs.
Maymont is glorious. You could easily spend an entire day there, between visiting the mansion, carriage collection, nature center, Children’s Farm, Japanese Garden, Italian Garden, and all the live animals throughout the park (including black bears, oh my!). The place is huge, so you may want to start with the topographical map in the Visitor Center to plan your day. If you go on the weekend, you can catch a tram, carriage, or even a hay ride in the summer ($) from one area of the park to another. Best picnic spot? On the boulders next to the waterfall in the Japanese Garden. If you find yourself snack-less, not to worry: Snacks and souvenirs can be purchased in the Visitor Center.
Crossing the Belle Isle pedestrian bridge is itself an adventure, especially for little ones. But once you've reached the other side, on the isle with a storied past, your adventure goes up a notch. When the water level and weather are cooperative, locals step out onto the broad rocks and bask in the sun with the rapids rushing by. A hike is pleasant and relatively easy with kids, and the blooms are gorgeous in spring. On your hike you’ll see still standing archways, remnants from a manufactory of the 1800’s.There’s also an old quarry that has become a recreational climbing wall. Even if it’s not open for climbing, I recommend heading that way anyway, as it overlooks a beautiful pond. Lately, though, it’s the new Belle Isle Bike Skills Course that families make their way over to the Isle for. The course, intended for newbies, includes a pump track, rock gardens, rock drops, skinny logs and rocks made with old granite curb stones. If you didn’t bring your dirt bike with you, don’t stress. You can rent one from the Riverside Outfitters Outpost on Brown’s Island (see above) and ride to Belle Isle. Tip for visiting Belle Isle with kids: The Isle hasn’t always been an urban oasis, nor has it always been the most family-friendly place. Go in the morning, when the other families visit, before a more boisterous crowd descends upon the isle in the afternoon.
The Canal Walk highlights two great things about Richmond: The juxtaposition of urban and outdoorsy and the blending of the city’s past with its present. Stretching 1.25 miles along the James River canal and the Kanawha and Haxall canals, Canal Walk has access points at nearly every block between 5th and 17th streets. Stroll along the canal and enjoy the street art in the outdoor gallery along Richmond’s James River Power Plant Building and Floodwall, filled from top to bottom with murals. On the other side of the canal, you’ll see signs of the burgeoning foodie scene. The walk encompasses significant historical sites like millennia-old Indian trade routes, early Colonial settlements, the restored Tredegar Iron Works, and an early African-American church. Portions of the canal walk are part of the Richmond Liberty Trail, a self-guided walking tour of downtown Richmond's historic sites, attractions and neighborhoods. The Canal Walk steers you through Brown’s Island (where the annual outdoor adventure festival, Dominion Riverrock, is held) and on to Belle Isle. If the history isn’t a draw for your family, the loveliness of the walk will be.