Come early May in Virginia Beach, the state's biggest city, and the boardwalk-bordered strip of sand fronting a stretch of Atlantic Ocean suddenly gets crowded, the shops offering bikinis, temporary tattoos and hermit crabs open for business and life guards back at their posts for another warm-weather season. A vacation destination for millions every year, this bustling seaside city may see the most action between its paved bike path, many ocean-side bars, and adjoining streets, but there's certainly more to this southeastern destination than just mini golf and sun-drenched sand.
Though there's plenty to see and do along the boardwalk, Virginia Marine Science Museum, a short drive south of this main drag, draws almost as many visitors as the beach. With over 300 exhibits including a sea turtle hatching laboratory, fresh and seawater aquariums, a ray touch-tank, IMAX theater and harbor seals to greet you, the museum is popular with all ages. A visit to the 1903 Old Coast Guard Station allows visitors to use a roof mounted tower cam to identify far-off ships, but it's fine art that's the focus at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, a few blocks up from the Atlantic on the north side of Interstate 264. Mount Trashmore (a repurposed landfill) inland several miles offer a break from beach-scenery and a pleasant paved recreation path - you can't miss it out your passenger window if you're en route to the water.
Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is Virginia Beach's official symbol. Built in 1791, the light is open to the public and located in First Landing State Park. Over a million visitors come to the park on Cape Henry each year to visit over 2,900 acres of sandy wilderness and see the spot where English settlers first landed in America. Birdwatching, mountain-biking,hiking and boating are popular here, and the Chesapeake Bay Center in the park includes exhibits of the area's aquatic life. Less visited thanks to its comparatively remote location is False Cape State Park, located at the south end of Virginia's sandy coastline, accessible to walkers and bikers through adjoining Back Bay Wildlife Refuge or by boat over Back Bay. In season, there are also daily trips to this state park and its primitive campsites courtesy of the beach transporter, Terra Gator.
While there is a wide range of wining and dining options close to the beach, this city of nearly 500,000 has several mini-downtown areas with an assortment of associated shops and restaurants. Most up-and-coming (and home to also bars and a comedy club) is Town Center set several miles west of the ocean (you can't miss it's defining high-rise tower from I-264); the city's civic buildings are located southwest of the waterfront, closer to the less-crowded beaches of Sandbridge and the agrarian landscapes of Pungo.
Virginia Beach is linked to the Eastern Shore via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, and is edged by Norfolk to the west and Chesapeake to the south.