What most Hampton Roads residents know about the town is that ham comes from there. It’s true: Smithfield is known as the “Ham Capital of the World,” and members of the English monarchy had standing orders for their famous hams prior to the Revolution.
But, did you know that Smithfield is steeped in history and was one of the eight original shires in Virginia? Isle of Wight County is nestled along the banks of the Pagan and James Rivers, a spot that was discovered by Captain John Smith and other early settlers of Virginia.
People also think that it’s far away. Actually, it’s just minutes from the south side of the James River Bridge, and from downtown Norfolk, you can drive to Smithfield in about 25 minutes. You can also take the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry or sail down the river and dock at Smithfield Station Waterfront Restaurant, Inn and Marina (415 S. Church St., 757-357-7700).
Just inside the city limits, you’ll be able to visit Historic St. Luke’s Church (14477 Benns Church Blvd., 757-357-3367), the oldest existing church of English foundation in America and our nation’s only surviving original brick Gothic church. It also houses the nation’s oldest intact organ.
When I visit Smithfield, I go there for three things: the food, the cultural and historical attractions, and the antique shopping. A great place to start is the historic district, where you can walk easily from shop to historic house. A great first stop is always the Smithfield & Isle of Wight Visitor Center (319 Main St., 757-357-5182). There, you can pick up a map for a walking tour of the historic district and then make your way down the street to see more than 50 homes featuring Colonial, Federal, and Victorian architecture, some still private residences and businesses, but some transformed into museums, inns, restaurants and unique antique and specialty shops.
Along Main Street, the walking tour will take you to some spectacular attractions. The 1889 Mansion on Main (36 Main St., 757-357-0006) is not only home to one of Smithfield’s bed and breakfasts, but offers a tour of the historic home.
The Isle of Wight County Museum (103 Main St., 757-356-1223) is great for adults and kids alike, hosing collections that interpret local history, prehistoric fossils, Native American and Colonial artifacts, and the world’s oldest, edible cured ham dating back to 1902. Hayden’s Lane on Main St. was originally the driveway to Hayden Hall, a girls’ school.
The garden department of the Woman’s Club of Smithfield and the town created a lovely sitting garden and walkway to relax and enjoy the peaceful surroundings. Down the street, The Old Courthouse of 1750 (130 Main St., 757-356-9016) was originally modeled after the Capitol building in Colonial Williamsburg and offers free tours.
For those who never get their fill of history, a short drive away from downtown Smithfield offers Historic Fort Huger (15080 Talcott Terr., 757-357-0115), where you can view the scenic James River and take a self-guided walking tour through the trails and see the cannon mounted along the edges of the fort. In Isle of Wight, you’ll find Boykin’s Tavern Museum (17130 Monument Circle, Isle of Wight, 757-365-9771), named after Francis Boykin, who served in the Revolutionary War with Patrick Henry and George Washington. Also nearby is Fort Boykin Historic Park (7410 Ft. Boykin Tr., Isle of Wight, 757-357-5182) set on the bluffs of the James River. Construction there began in 1623 to protect the colonists from raiding Spaniards, and the fort is great example of the military architecture of the Civil War.
Also in the historic district and all throughout the town are many unique places to shop, ranging from furniture and stores, to confectioneries and specialty shops. For lovers of buying local, you can’t find anything better than the Smithfield Farmers Market, located behind the Bank of Southside Virginia, (115 Main St.). Along Main street, there seems to be an antique store every block. I collect old post cards, and I have spent hours browsing the different shops’ collections. Another store which is a favorite to locals and tourists alike is The Christmas Store (108 Main St., 757-357-7891).
The arts also abound in Smithfield. The Arts Center @ 319 (319 Main St., 757-357-7707) is a great place to see the work of local and regional artists. And, throughout the historic district, there are plenty of opportunities to wander in and out of many small, local galleries.
Live music is standard fare in many of the local restaurants, including the Smithfield Station, and in the summer, the Friday Night Summer Concert Series at The Smithfield Times’ gazebo and lawn (228 Main St.), a free series featuring local and regional artists, is where you’ll find the locals enjoying a warm summer night.
One the gems of Smithfield is the Smithfield Little Theatre (210 N. Church St., box office: 757-357-7338) which produces several plays annually as well as many special events. Take in a show there. I’ve been nearly a dozen times, and it wasn’t just because many of my friends (and some of Hampton Roads best actors) appear there regularly.
Now that we’ve walked the town, soaking in the history, art, and culture and shopping for antiques and post cards from the 1920s, it’s time to eat. Smithfield is home to some of my favorite restaurants in Hampton Roads. There are dozens upon dozens of great restaurants, but let’s focus on four—three in Smithfield and one that is on the way.
That one is Captain Chuck-A-Muck’s Sandbar and Grill (21088 Marina Rd., Rescue, 757-356-1005) and no article about this part of Hampton Roads would be complete without mentioning it. It’s a casual place where friends enjoy fresh, local seafood and homemade desserts. It’s a fun place where you’ll probably run into someone you know, and if not, you’ll have ten new friends before you leave.
But back in the center of Smithfield, you can’t go wrong with Smithfield Station. Their menu is deep, and they host live music on weekends in the lounge. If you like pork ribs, this is the place to go. I’ve never had better pork ribs anywhere in Hampton Roads or in America. And yes, that includes all the barbecue hot spots across the country. Perhaps it’s because they just have to walk down the street to get their meat…
Perhaps the most famous Smithfield restaurant is the Smithfield Inn (112 Main St., 757-357-1752). The inn dates back to 1752 and features multiple dining rooms with menus ranging from casual pub fare to elegant dining options. Their ham rolls are famous, and their Southern Tasting—featuring fried green tomatoes, Smithfield ham, butter pickles, and pimiento cheese—is one of my favorites.
My favorite place to eat in Smithfield, though, is the Smithfield Gourmet Bakery & Cafe (218 Main St., 757-357-0045). It’s open for breakfast and lunch during the week as well as dinner on weekends. As the name implies, they house a gourmet bakery and have fantastic desserts, but the best meals on the menu may be the Smoked Pork and Pinot wrap and The Bakery Burger, a hamburger with homemade pimento cheese, ham salad, and pickled onion. My dad and I get the burgers every time we visit.
One day really doesn’t give you enough time to fully embrace what Smithfield has to offer. So, do what I’ve done. Stay there. There are many bed and breakfasts to choose from, and of course there is the Inn, which offers posh accommodations. A great place to stay, though, is the Station. We recently had a small cabana alongside the marina—a perfect place for a romantic getaway.
No matter how much time you have or what you are in the mood for, Smithfield is one of Hampton Roads’ most fun places to be.