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Hampton Roads Area, VA

Best Attractions in Hampton Roads AreaIn an area with a surplus of world-class attractions, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are the highlights for Hampton Roads, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

One can travel many “roads” when it comes to seeing attractions in Hampton Roads. Of course, because this is a coastal region, quite a few of the area's sites are water-centered, but there also are excellent art venues and children's museums. In addition you'll find many beautiful gardens and large nature preserves brimming with wildlife.

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If sailing the seven seas isn't an option, go on another type of seafaring escapade at The Mariners' Museum and Park , where you can pace around the ready room of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier or take the helm of a submarine. The interactive museum displays more than 35,000 prized artifacts, including old maps, handcrafted ship models, small sea craft, rare carved figureheads and ancient navigational instruments. This AAA GEM attraction also offers a fascinating exhibit devoted to the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor. You'll learn about its fateful battle with the CSS Virginia and see hundreds of salvaged parts from the ship's resting place at the bottom of the sea.

At the Virginia Air & Space Center , a AAA GEM attraction, you can sit in a jetfighter's cockpit, assist in a plane's landing as an air traffic controller or take a wing walk on a biplane. Interactive exhibits, including Space Racers for the kids and NASA displays, entice sure-footed earth dwellers to take flight. An IMAX theater and a seven-story observation deck top off the exciting skyward adventures.

Find your way to the Lightship Portsmouth Museum at London Boulevard and Water Street (it is affiliated with the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum at 2 High St.). Much like a lighthouse, lighted ships once shined their lanterns into the night, helping mariners navigate hazardous waters. Built in 1915 and operated by the Coast Guard, the Portsmouth lightship served as a beacon for nearly 50 years. Visitors can board the craft and see what life was like for 15 longtime members of the crew. The museum also presents exhibits about the Coast Guard and lightship service.

Hike the trails at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge . Some elevated paths in this 9,000-acre preserve traverse over marsh or water, and all the trails take explorers through a range of habitats—meadows, beaches, dunes, woods and marsh. You'll enter a world of quiet beauty where sea grass swishes in the wind and bald eagles and peregrine falcons nest in the trees. In December, visitors encounter 10,000 migrating snow geese.

Touch a live shark at Nauticus , a AAA GEM attraction. Norfolk's interactive, maritime-themed museum provides all kinds of hands-on opportunities to learn about the harbor's naval history and sea environment—you can even rub the head and dorsal fin of a sleeping nurse shark, practice tying rope knots or call the shots in a sea battle simulation.

While you're at Nauticus, visit The Battleship Wisconsin docked alongside. One of the largest battleships built by the U.S. Navy, the vessel saw combat in three wars, including World War II and the Korean War. Visitors can explore the main deck on self-guiding tours; interactive exhibits describe life aboard the hulking craft.

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For an in-depth look at African-American art history (with a healthy dose of Native American and African history, too) head to The Hampton University Museum . Founded in 1868, the museum is one of Virginia's oldest and boasts more than 9,000 pieces of art, sculpture and cultural objects. Collections include traditional and contemporary art from North America, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Learn about the Harlem Renaissance and folk art and see such rare objects as an ivory tusk trumpet and a Mukenga mask.

Stop to smell the roses—and hundreds of other plants at the Norfolk Botanical Garden . This AAA GEM attraction's 155-acre spread includes a vast collection of azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons and roses along 12 miles of paths. Hundreds of varieties of tropical plants are displayed inside the greenhouses. Warm-weather boat rides take visitors on a trip through the garden's waterways, where the luxuriant foliage along the bank provides a verdant canopy.

The Italianate exterior at the Chrysler Museum of Art is a wonder to behold. Inside this AAA GEM attraction, the nearly 40,000-piece collection is broad and deep in scope. A maze of brightly colored galleries spans 5,000 years of paintings and sculptures, including works by Cassatt, Degas, Homer, Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, Renoir, Rodin, Rothko, Rubens and Warhol. Don't forget to visit the photography gallery and glass collection.

Edgy, educational and edifying, the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center is a modern-art experience. The exterior might be staid, but inside is anything but old-fashioned. Visitors learn about artistic forms such as trompe l'oeil and photorealism while perusing exhibits featuring noted regional or international artists. The gallery's art shows are ever changing, so there's always something new to see.

From the lifesaving tower, sight a ship on the horizon at Virginia Beach Surf & Rescue Museum . The United States Life-Saving Service, now known as the Coast Guard, once ran this facility, and visitors can learn about the service's lifesaving role in hundreds of shipwrecks off the Mid-Atlantic coast. Video displays include a breathtaking helicopter rescue at sea, and the museum displays a computer system that identifies vessels as they make their way into port. Want to learn about lifeguards and hurricanes? They make a splash here, too.

Things to Do with Kids

Talk to the animals—all kinds of animals—at the scenic 53-acre Virginia Zoo . Creatures of all shapes and sizes live in habitats reminiscent of their indigenous homes in Africa, Asia, South America, North America and Australia. Popular residents include prairie dogs, tigers, white rhinos, elephants—more than 350 animals are present. Don't miss the lovely gardens.

Hang the jib and duck for the boom onboard the American Rover Tall Sailing Ship Cruises . Topside, you'll hone your sea legs and trade fish stories while watching the crew harness the wind. This 135-foot-long, three-mast topsail schooner cuts a fast wake through the harbor. Keep one eye on the seas—passengers sometimes spot whales swimming in these waters.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur's notable words “I shall return” are engraved in bronze at the MacArthur Memorial . The museum in Norfolk's old city hall celebrates MacArthur's life and 20th-century war campaigns. At this AAA GEM attraction, chronologically arranged galleries circle the rotunda on two levels. On display are the general's famous corncob pipe, battered field cap, dark wire sunglasses and shiny black limo still sporting its five-star license plate. In addition to personal objects, letters, newspapers and gifts, visitors can view educational exhibits about America's history and wars. Before departing, pause for a moment in the main rotunda, where the great man is entombed alongside his wife.

From mountains to underground caverns to seashore, all the state's diverse ecosystems are represented at the 10-acre Virginia Living Museum . Visitors to this interactive AAA GEM attraction see wildlife firsthand—mountain laurel sways in the wildlife park; fish, crabs, turtles and amphibious creatures swim through aquariums; bald eagles call to one another through the tall trees; egrets swoop through a thick swamp; coyotes, red wolves, bobcats run through thickets. In the Virginia Underground Gallery's limestone caves, discover cave-dwelling animals alongside minerals and fossils. Nocturnal animals, including sharks and flying squirrels, come alive in Virginia's World of Darkness Gallery.

More than 800,000 gallons of water, 300 interactive exhibits, acres of marshland habitat, a .3-mile nature trail, three touch tanks, one outdoor aviary—it all adds up to a great time and a great learning experience at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center . At this hands-on AAA GEM attraction, visitors can do more than touch sea cucumbers or watch river otters play. There's a harbor seal exhibit, a sea turtle aquarium and a huge ocean habitat for sharks. Catch a movie at the IMAX Theater, which presents 3-D nature films.

On a hot day, nothing's better than cooling down with a dip at Ocean Breeze Waterpark . The park offers 16 waterslides, white-water tubing along the Amazon and a million-gallon wave pool where surfers can hang ten on breaking 6-foot waves. No worries, mon—this Caribbean-themed park also has a large area just for kids.

See all the AAA recommended attractions for this destination.

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Hampton Roads Area, VA

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Norfolk Waterside Marriott

235 E Main St. Norfolk, VA 23510

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Hampton Inn & Suites

200 Vincents Crossing. Smithfield, VA 23430

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The Westin Virginia Beach Town Center

4535 Commerce St. Virginia Beach, VA 23462

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1330 E Ocean View Ave. Norfolk, VA 23503

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