Like many other quaint, small towns in Southeast Virginia, Gloucester is steeped in history. Founded in 1651, history is what it is most proud of – other than the many restaurants, boutiques, art stores and antique stores in the lively, historic downtown.
A drive along U.S. Route 17 into Gloucester, shows the expected urban sprawl with many chain restaurants and stores. But make the turn onto Main Street and into the Historic Court House District, and things change. Visitors are greeted with a sea of red brick exteriors and many of the buildings in the historic courthouse area are original.
The most famous of these buildings, the Gloucester County Courthouse, built in 1766, is the oldest courthouse in continuous use in Virginia. No longer used as a courthouse, county committees frequently hold meetings in the building.
To get a good sense of the place, one’s first stop in Gloucester should be the Museum of History, located just outside the historic circle on Main Street. The museum has a good exhibit on Gloucester’s role in the Revolutionary War and the Battle of the Hook.
Be sure to take a quick look at the buildings in the historic circle before heading down Main Street where shopping, art and food await.
Ralph Priestly, a volunteer at the Visitor’s Center, names several restaurants that are local favorites, including Olivia’s, The Courthouse Restaurant, Lulu Birds Kitchen and Bangkok Noi.
If you are looking for something sweet to go along with your cup of coffee, stop in at Sweet Tooth Café & Bakery. The bakery has an array of fresh baked goodies such as cookies, cupcakes, pies, and brownies. They also sell ice cream. Just the right touch after an afternoon of browsing the stores and historic sites.
For art lovers, Gloucester Arts on Main displays work from local artists, offers art classes, drama and music to entice residents and visitors to indulge in the arts. The Stewart Gallery also focuses on works by Virginia artists.
For a stop that blends history and art, visit the Village Blacksmith and watch a demonstration of the craft of shaping iron.
For more adventure — and history — take a drive out of town to see popular sites such as Walter Reed’s birthplace, Warner Hall or the Rosewell Plantation home. Rosewell is considered one of the finest mansions in the colonies, doubling the size of the governor’s mansion in Williamsburg, when built in 1725.
Gloucester also has several parks for outdoor activities including Beaverdam Park, a 635-acre reservoir surrounded by park lands. The park has 10 miles of hiking trails, boat ramps, boat, canoes and kayak rentals, fishing, picnic sites and summer nature camps.
Priestly said although Gloucester is off the beaten path, many visitors come into the area every year.
If you go, stop by the Visitor’s Center next to the Historic Courthouse, for brochures, pamphlets and guidance from the experts.