Virginia’s Norfolk features fun food, fab arts scene

A waterfront oriental garden in Norfolk, Va., offers bronze art work, walking paths and access to a coastal running trail. (Myscha Theriault/TNS)

A waterfront oriental garden in Norfolk, Va., offers bronze art work, walking paths and access to a coastal running trail. (Myscha Theriault/TNS)

Home to the largest naval base in the world, the starting point for the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and a popular stopover point for Canadians heading back and forth to Florida for seasonal visits, Norfolk, Va., has been on the radar of snowbirds and sailors for quite some time.

Those willing to look a bit deeper, however, will discover there’s definitely something different in the air here. From the particularly perky Iraqi gentleman who rang up my order at the local department store and the Persian teen who compiled my kabob order recently, to the woman from my old island home of Guam who waited on my table at the Thai restaurant down the street a few weeks ago, this city is full of good people from all over the world just enjoying one another’s company. In short, Norfolk appears to be pulling off with ease what a number of other North American destinations are still struggling to achieve. Effortless diversity.

Food: Perhaps the most direct way for travelers to experience this diversity is through the city's food scene. Turkish, Hawaiian, Thai, Bolivian, Indian and Persian are just a few of the cuisines that comprise Norfolk's repertoire of nifty noshables. Craving Middle Eastern street food? Head to Mr. Shawarma, where they will serve you up a grilled meat wrap complete with garlic sauce or a combo platter that will have you feeling like you just walked off the streets of Amman. When they really earned their authenticity stripes with me however, was when they added fried eggplant slices and French fries to my vegan falafel pita along with the chopped veggies and tahini sauce. I hadn't seen it served that way since my classroom teaching days in Kuwait.

Bangkok Garden serves up generous portions in high-value lunch specials. For less than 10 bucks, I scored a huge plate of vegetarian pad Thai preceded by a medium-sized garden salad with fresh Asian dressing and a spring roll. Their iced coffee’s not too shabby either. For a fresh take on Turkish food, consider making your way to Pasha Mezze, where they dish up traditional grub in a modern, yet welcoming atmosphere. They also offer growlers to go, frequent live music events and free scheduled tours on the weekends.

Festivals: The city also maintains a multicultural focus with an active festival schedule. Of note is the annual Cajun food and music festival known as Bayou Boogaloo. Featuring everything from alligator-based cuisine to the unique music style Cajun culture is known for, this yearly event is a must for anyone who likes to enjoy tasty treats along with a toe-tapping good time. There's also the Latino Music Festival, an opera-in-the-park event and waterfront jazz performances in late summer.

Perhaps the most impressive jewel in Norfolk’s performance art crown however, is the Virginia International Tattoo. Part of a larger arts festival lasting several weeks, this multinational ceremonial drumming event is arguably one of the largest of its kind outside of Edinburgh, Scotland. Featuring drums, pipes, drill teams and international dance groups for more than two decades, this event marries the city’s diverse cultural scene with its military heritage seamlessly.

Freebies: Norfolk also offers diversity in its green spaces, with a large waterfront oriental garden complete with a giant pagoda and a 75,000-gallon koi pond. Visitors can stroll for free while enjoying the architecture, plants and peaceful serenity. The most fabulous freebie in town is arguably the Chrysler Museum of Art and its massive companion glass studio that offers live demos daily and makes classes available for those interested in taking their creative knowledge to the next level. The museum houses one of the largest glass exhibits on the continent, along with numerous other collections, including antiquities from the ancient world, modern art, photography and more.

Interested in strolling around to get a feel for the city? Pick up one of the NEON arts district walking maps from the visitors bureau, which details the locations of dozens of public art installations, including building murals and a variety of sculptures.

Bottom line? There’s much more to Norfolk than aircraft carriers, Lynnhaven oysters and she-crab soup. If a multicultural food scene, spectacular free art access and international cultural festivals top your list of must-have travel amenities, it might be time to give this coastal destination a try.