Best of the Blocks: CoVa’s Coolest Neighborhoods
Our picks for the region's hippest, most eclectic historic neighborhoods
What gives a neighborhood its character? Is it the homes, the people, the location? Sure. But then there’s the vibe, the energy, the golf carts, the dog parks, the corner cafes. There’s the history and comradery. The theaters, restaurants, churches and schools. There are the beaches, nature trails and pub crawls. And then there’s that certain elusive something that transforms a collection of homes and businesses into a place with a personality all its own.
For our 2021 Best Of issue, we decided to explore a few of Coastal Virginia’s coolest, most eclectic historic neighborhoods. In selecting the five neighborhoods featured here, we chose to showcase those with a mixture of residences and businesses like breweries, retail shops and arts venues. These are neighborhoods with a multigenerational history and a sense of community and creative culture that makes them a destination, even for people who don’t live there.
Hope you enjoy, and welcome to the neighborhood!
The Neighborhood: Olde Towne
The City: Portsmouth
By Beth Hester
You might live in Olde Towne if…You appreciate a mix of hip and history, downtown dining and waterfront access. This is a walkable urban community anchored by noteworthy architecture and welcoming neighbors.
Did You Know? Olde Towne’s ample tree canopy and proximity to water attracts both woodland and shore birds. Multiple families of Yellow-crowned Night-Heron return to the same trees annually to nest.
“In Olde Towne, I found the type of urban community I’d always hoped for but never found in NYC,” says Jennifer Deason, a Portsmouth native who lived in New York City for 19 years before returning home. Deason is the executive assistant at the Virginia Maritime Association in Norfolk and is Technology Committee Chair for the Olde Towne Portsmouth Civic League.
Attracted by the intimate small-town feel, local music and arts scene—and sense of being connected to history—Deason and her husband adopted two girls, renovated a house on Court Street and never looked back. “Olde Towne is the kind of place where you can build a network of relationships with like-minded people who want to preserve history for the next generation,” Deason explains.
Robin Altice, learning strategist for Booz Allen Hamilton, and Civic League President, echoes Deason’s sentiments. “I moved here from Virginia Beach to renovate a historic home and establish a B&B. It’s magical how time can be measured here by the sound of tolling church bells, shift-change whistles from the Naval Shipyard, trumpet notes from daily ceremonies at the Naval Hospital and the persistent tunes of the ice cream truck. We love the option to take the ferry over to Norfolk to work, or to catch a Tides game. Olde Towne has a creative spirit about it and a very diverse demographic. I never expected to find such a sense of community. Everyone knows their neighbor’s names…and the names of their dogs.”
Olde Towne’s maritime roots date to Captain John Smith’s explorations in 1608 when the area’s deep waters were deemed ideal for shipbuilding. The community survived multiple wars, devastating fires, a Yellow Fever pandemic and unfortunate decisions made during the “urban renewal” movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Today, Olde Towne is experiencing a refreshing and well-deserved renaissance on all fronts.
Residents have described Olde Towne’s atmosphere as being similar to that of historic neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, Georgetown, Charleston and Savannah. Olde Towne’s diverse family-friendly culture, beloved seasonal traditions, civic-mindedness and human-scale orientation are part of the district’s magic.
Parents with young children flock to Red Lion Park on Middle Street to socialize while the kids let off steam on the playground. Workers on lunch breaks enjoy open-air dining. LGBTQ+ Pride, American and Virginia flags wave on porches overflowing with enviable examples of container gardening. Entrepreneurs and creatives nurture their startups at nearby coworking spaces and business incubators. Shop owners chat with customers. Long-time residents stroll along the waterfront. Customers queue up for movies at the Commodore Theater. History reenactors in period costume startle unsuspecting visitors.
Olde Towne retains the most important collection of late-18th and early-19th century architecture in the greater Coastal Virginia region: Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, New Orleans style, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, Late Victorian and homes with distinctive English-style basements.
Fresh produce lovers hang at the Saturday Farmers Market behind St. John’s Episcopal. Sun-soaked boaters chilling at the Tidewater Yacht Marina grab a frosty beverage and a water view at Fish-n-Slips. Multiple chef-owned restaurants feature cuisines from around the world. There’s satisfying menu offerings and eye-catching signage at Gosport Tavern, tapas and cocktails at Still, chicken shawarma wraps at Five Boroughs. Historic houses of worship welcome the congregationally oriented. Those seeking a more individual experience can unwind in a shady courtyard or meditation garden.
The Neighborhood: Chic’s Beach
The City: Virginia Beach
By Grace Silipigni
You might live in Chic’s Beach if…You own a golf cart. The cart doubles as an easy-to-park beach buggy by day; come sunset, you play Uber to chauffeur friends to Chic’s hidden bars.
Did you know? The naming of Lookout Road pays homage to Chesapeake Beach’s former use as a vantage point for Revolutionary soldiers searching for British ships during the late 1700s.
Chic’s Beach is the epitome of “locals only.” The neighborhood streets depart from Shore Drive, the city’s coastal highway, to weave through lush greenery and around Lake Joyce before making a dead end at the sandy shores of the glistening Chesapeake Bay. While wandering these streets, you are instantly struck by the “hang loose” vibe that resonates from Chic’s Beach homes. Towels hang from porch railings, bikes line driveways, and whimsical signs adorn residences with beach-centric quotes like Life is better with a little sand between your toes.
The folks that reside in these beach bungalows are equally as relaxed and proud of their Chic’s Beach locale. “Chic’s Beach [has] a much more laid-back lifestyle compared to the Oceanfront,” says a former resident. “I always felt safe [when walking home], only a few streets over from Commonwealth Brewing. Everyone is so kind and friendly. Chic’s Beach really is its own community.”
The neighborhood isn’t entirely residential, though. Between the apartment complexes, single-family homes and beachfront villas are a handful of businesses that thrive on the support of the Chic’s Beach community. The Commonwealth taproom and beachfront deck of Buoy 44 are mainstays for Chic’s Beach residents. “It [has] been really cool to get to know the locals, especially their taste in beer,” says one Commonwealth beertender.
Establishing such an involved and caring community takes a neighborhood effort, however, and Chic’s Beach tenants never shy away from the challenge. “[We] are diligent, devoted and passionate about [doing what is] best for the community, its residents and the environment,” says a longtime Virginia Beach resident. “We want to preserve the community feeling and are also very aware about present and future political decisions that [impact] our neighborhood.”
The neighborhood was first incorporated as Chesapeake Beach in 1919. Luther “Chic” Ledington bestowed a new name upon the community—Chic’s Beach—nearly 30 years later. Whether or not to bookend the moniker with a “k” remains up for debate, as does its trending identity as CXB.
Imagine the perfect summer getaway—a quaint beach cottage within walking distance to the beach and surrounded by local fare—and you’ve got Chic’s Beach. It’s breezy, sunny and swimming with friendly locals, not to mention their furry friends too. Another plus, you can hear and smell the salty bay from nearly anywhere in the neighborhood.
Whether they’re flown here, grown here, young or old, all Chic’s Beach residents share a love for the water. Recent graduates flock to Chic’s for surf access and proximity to bars, while seasoned residents relish afternoon walks and beach barbecues with the family. Several folks work at Chic’s Beach businesses too.
Sprinkled throughout the community are single-family homes, duplexes, condos and apartments, all of which boast easy access to the shoreline. Homes overlooking the bay are stacked three to four stories high, most of which offer sweeping views of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and neighboring Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.
When locals aren’t sunbathing or picnicking at Chesapeake Beach Park, they can be found imbibing brews and playing cornhole at Commonwealth, noshing on tacos at Buoy 44, savoring Italian at Zia Marie or kicking off their Sunday Funday with brunch at HK on the Bay. Also at the front of the neighborhood stands the beloved Leaping Lizard Café.
The Neighborhood: Chelsea
The City: Norfolk
By Grace Silipigni
You might live in Chelsea if…you don’t live in West Ghent. Sounds strange, right? Here’s why: non-Norfolk residents often use Ghent as a misnomer for an umbrella location under which all of the city’s riverside districts fall. In reality, Ghent is a community of its own, as is Chelsea and the surrounding Lambert’s Point and North Colley neighborhoods. For Chelsea locals, the boundaries of their home district are anything but blurred.
Did you know? To accommodate Elizabeth River Trail bikers, Chelsea installed large, circular bike racks throughout the neighborhood. They are, in truly Chelsea fashion, adorned with the district’s name in bold, red script.
When descending upon Chelsea, it emerges as a refuge of sorts from the hustle and bustle of Downtown Norfolk and its sprawling medical campus. Chelsea pulsates with a more relaxed energy than its urban neighbor, enticing visitors to revel in the district’s plethora of outdoor spaces and unwind at its handful of foodie destinations.
Immediately apparent is Chelsea residents’ commitment to preserving the district’s history. Rather than erect contemporary structures, homeowners restore the 20th-century beauty of single-family homes and reconfigure others into multi-family dwellings. Business spaces appear the same; breweries, boutiques and European-style restaurants infuse formerly bare warehouse spaces with modern fare and trending décor.
Further establishing Chelsea as an art district of sorts is the Little Theater of Norfolk. The red-faced building is as much of a destination for performing arts lovers as the nearby Chrysler Hall. “We love having the Little Theater in our neighborhood,” says one Chelsea resident. “Walking from our house to grab a bite to eat before a show makes for a great night out.”
Perhaps the biggest draw to the Chelsea neighborhood is its proximity to the Elizabeth River Trail. The 9.5-mile trail traverses Chelsea via Redgate Avenue and Claremont Avenue. Residents often hop on the ERT for an evening jog or navigate the paved trail during their morning commute. “We [serve] so many bikers from the Elizabeth River Trail. It’s really cool to talk to them about what brought them to Norfolk and we, of course, [encourage] them to tour around Chelsea,” says one Benchtop Brewing employee. “Folks in Chelsea are very excited to share [our] community with out-of-towners.”
The origins of Chelsea continue to stump Norfolk historians. Aside from a plaque on the Midtown Tunnel and a one-off appearance on a dated map, mentions of Chelsea are scarce. Developers expressed interest in the area in 2013 and initiated a revitalization plan that created the Chelsea that stands today.
Chelsea’s energy, much like its history, is undefined; constantly teetering between mellow and animated. Its weekdays are relatively quiet. Chelsea residents hunker down for their daily activities and many businesses close their doors on Mondays and Tuesdays. Come midweek, outdoor spaces buzz with activity and local eateries host late-night crowds.
Chelsea folk are free-spirited. The community is flush with young professionals, budding artists and aspiring foodies, all of whom see the beauty in Chelsea’s eclectic vibe. The community’s dwellers represent a host of demographics too like third-generation Norfolk residents, Europeans and out-of-state students, just to name a few.
Like many of Norfolk’s residential areas, Chelsea lulls in a constant state of repair. The mix of brightly colored 20th-century homes and crumbling industrial sites give the community a unique allure, however, as if residing within these historic boundaries, place residents at the cusp of something greater. The community thrives on revitalizing defunct spaces into gyms, studios, restaurants and more.
The better question is, where can’t you hang out? Get a buzz at Smartmouth Brewing, Benchtop Brewing or The Birch. Satisfy your hankering for pizza at Chelsea Bakehouse or go Greek at Orapax. Looking for a staycation? Sip natural wines and nibble on vegetarian small plates in Grandiflora Wine Bar’s Garden Bedroom. Dogs can have a night out too at Chelsea’s indoor dog park, Dog Perk.
The Neighborhood: Hilton Village
The City: Newport News
By Betsy DiJulio
You might live in Hilton Village if…you found your solid cherry dining table on the side of the road. This neighborhood is prime for “pickin’” and cars cruise the curbs the night before trash collection.
Did you know? Hilton Village and Newport News figure prominently in the novels and short stories of native son and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, William Styron, of Sophie’s Choice fame.
Nestled on the James River’s east bluff, the 100-acre historic English revival-style enclave of Hilton Village occupies roughly four by 11 blocks bounded by River Road to the southwest. Its southern neighbor is the largest industrial employer in Virginia and to the north is a confluence of museums, natural areas and Christopher Newport University. No one blames some of the businesses just outside Hilton proper for claiming village status.
Sidewalk-lined streets stretch for many shady blocks with restored vintage Mustangs taking their place beside Lexus. Says one new resident who grew up in Newport News, “Hilton was always the goal.” A self-described stay-at-home mom with a husband who works at Ferguson, she coveted for her young family the “cute and quaint English village vibe,” the safe and neighborly community, and enrollment for her kids at Hilton Elementary, a magnet school for Communication Arts.
A young dad with a small business in walking distance from his home lived for a time in his wife’s native Japan. When they moved back to the U.S., he knew he wanted to reside in an affordable, walkable community where neighbors call out to inquire about business, form bonds through their kids’ school activities, and mobilize around common causes. He wanted the opposite of what he calls the “bubble” lifestyle where people travel to and from one bubble—their homes—in another bubble—their cars. Though he admits that his business would be more profitable in Norfolk or Virginia Beach, he is committed to improving the place where he has chosen to live.
Though not all of the villagers are prospering, neighbors pride themselves on helping. A patron of Saffron Mediterranean Cuisine recently witnessed a man entering the restaurant and asking if he could work for a meal. The proprietor, widely known for his warmth and generosity, said, “You are hungry? I will feed you.” He then disappeared into the kitchen and gifted the man with a bundle of warm, freshly made, fragrant and nutritious food.
On the National Register of Historic Places, Hilton Village is a pioneer in urban planning, as its 500 English cottage-style homes were built between 1918-1921 to house wartime workers at Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company. Its streets are named after shipyard and government officials with Ferguson, Hopkins and Post Streets the namesakes of early company presidents.
Hilton Village is easy like Sunday morning. Modern life seems to shed its frenetic pace and complexity in favor of a more relaxed and casual lifestyle. Whether you are fishing off the busy pier, playing in the park behind Hilton Elementary, or shoulder to shoulder with neighbors for the legendary Halloween celebration, folks here are friendly.
Young families, retirees and college students are drawn to Hilton Village’s historically hip yet affordable housing where stars and stripes hang next to Pride banners and decorative garden flags. Packs of kids plus couples and singles, often with a stroller or dog, rove the tree-canopied streets that belie the neighborhood’s proximity to large employers, higher ed and interstate arteries.
Lining this planned community’s narrow streets that intentionally limit automobile traffic and enhance the green streetscape are 1 ½ to 2 ½ story single family homes and duplexes in a handful of English, Dutch Colonial and pre-Georgian styles. Fourteen randomly placed house designs with varied roofs and sheathing materials up the quaint quotient. Locally owned shops and services occupy similarly styled rowhouse storefronts—some with residential space upstairs—punctuated by lower-slung more modern structures.
Locals love specially priced pizza and beer for date night at Kismet with its friendly neighborhood bar, beer and better bar food at Hilton Tavern Brewing Company, a fancy cocktail or upscale dinner at Circa 1918, and a family ice cream outing at Plantiques with a cupcake chaser from Couture Cakes by Nika.
The Neighborhood: Phoebus
The City: Hampton
By Hannah Serrano
You might live in Phoebus if… you’re from an old Hampton family; you moved there for a nearby military, university, or hospital job; or you’re a creative type investing in the community’s renaissance.
Did you know? Phoebus was once known as “Little Chicago,” as it was the final stop on a C&O railroad line from the Windy City and an enclave for bootlegging Prohibition-era gangsters like Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson.
“What I love about Phoebus,” says Doug Smith, who co-owns Sly Clyde Ciderworks, “is seeing the power of creative capital being used to bring back a community.”
A few years ago, when Smith and brother, Tim, were turning their grandfather Clyde’s 100-year-old house into a cidery and tasting room; developer Dan Astin was breaking ground on Monroe Gates, a now full apartment complex; and local businessman, Richard Levin, was buying and rehabbing numerous historic buildings along Mellen Street that are now inhabited by restaurants and shops.
“Unique shops, bars and restaurants are nestled into beautiful late Victorian architecture,” says neighborhood commissioner, Joe Griffith. “People want to be a part of that vibe.” But perhaps what makes Phoebus truly beautiful is its diversity.
“We’re an inherently diverse and accepting community,” says Griffith. “In fact, it was among the first municipalities in Virginia to elect African-Americans to its town council. The community has not only endured but flourished in that spirit of inclusivity.”
Black business owners—like Lashonda Sanford of Scratch Bakery, for instance—are thriving in Phoebus. Hampton Economic Development Director, Chuck Rigney, reports that the “Mango Ladies” of Shark Tank fame have expanded their lifestyle brand, Simply Panache, into nine businesses. Coming soon is 1865 Brewery, which, as Rigney explains, is unique because “only 9% of the country’s breweries are owned by African-American investors.”
Notable, too, is that “with more than 1.9% of residents living with a same-sex partner,” as reported by NeighborhoodScout.com, “Phoebus has a greater concentration of same-sex couples than 96.3% of U.S. neighborhoods.”
“Phoebus has become this place in Hampton Roads where you can come and be who you are, and people genuinely welcome you in,” says Smith. “I mean, it’s not utopia; it’s still Virginia… But it has set itself apart as a place where people can come and explore some of the best of Virginia.”
In 1610, English settlers seized it from the Kecoughtan. It was later a Union Army camp, then home to the first freed slave community in the South. During the Spanish-American War, it boasted 63 saloons. Phoebus was extremely popular during and after the Prohibition. In 1952 it was consolidated into the City of Hampton.
Come as you are. Similar to Key West, it’s an old fishing village with a tolerant, laid-back attitude—but with urban conveniences. “There’s an unmistakable charm about Phoebus,” says Griffith. “It’s a walkable, vibrant coastal neighborhood with a small-town feel right in the center of this sprawling metro area.”
Residents and business owners are extraordinarily diverse across many demographics—age, income, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Lifelong resident Sam Haywood describes the “old-school Phoebus ethos that still lingers despite all the changes and is seen in the unique characteristics of people from the area: extremely hard working… and feisty.”
“With over 300 buildings, Phoebus displays a wide variety of architectural styles ranging from late Victorian to Modern Movement buildings,” says Paige Pollard, who prepared the National Register nomination for Phoebus’ Historic District, which, she notes, “has benefited from a variety of eye-catching renovations over the years.” Those include the American Theatre, originally opened in 1908.
Mellen Street has everything from shopping and antiquing to upscale dining (Mango Mangeaux, Fox Tail Wine Bar, The Baker’s Wife), eateries/cocktail bars (El Diablo, Fuller’s Raw Bar), and watering holes (Phoebus Dive Bar, Sly Clyde). For live music, there’s Victorian Station and Stuft, both on Mallory Street.