This tiny Rappahannock town is big on charm, restaurants and history. And, oh yes, a simply colossal oyster festival!
Each October, approximately 75,000 people troop to the Rappahannock River for the Urbanna Oyster Festival, which recently turned 50. While they are there, they discover this special little town, which surprises with its old-world charm and its 21st century amenities. But you don’t need an oyster festival to find this out for yourself. We suggest that you take the 15-mile trip up the river from the Bay to find out why we believe Urbanna is one of the best destinations on the entire Chesapeake.
We’ve been coming to Urbanna for years, occasionally for the Oyster Festival, but usually when we can have the place to ourselves. We fill up with seafood, smoked meats, and milk shakes (not all at the same time) and then walk off the overindulgence by retracing the town’s 300-year history through its wide variety of architecture. We are sure that you too will fall in love with Urbanna. You can cruise upriver and stay in one of its pleasant marinas or stay at its delightful Chesapeake Inn or elegant Atherston Hall Bed & Breakfast. If you are coming by boat, you can combine your trip to Urbanna with any number of stops along the way, The Tides Inn and Irvington across the river, for example, or Deltaville at the river’s mouth. And if you trailer in or bring your canoe or kayak, Urbanna Creek and other nearby tributaries are special places to explore. Urbanna is especially attractive as a weekend adventure if you live in Richmond or Norfolk/Portsmouth. Urbanna is a delight no matter where you begin.
We mentioned earlier that Urbanna is easy to get around on foot. Whether you choose the town marina at the entrance to Urbanna Creek or one of the Bridge marinas farther up the creek, you’ll find that you are already in the middle of town. A short stroll from the town marina up the old rolling road from its days as an important tobacco port will take you by the Old Tobacco Warehouse (James Mill Scottish Factor Store), now the Urbanna Museum & Visitor’s Center. From there, walk up Virginia Street for restaurants, shops, and an actual grocery store. Turn left on Cross Street for old Marshall’s Drug Store, which keeps customers happy at its original lunch counter. Continue down Cross Street to Watling Street and you’ll soon arrive at the Bridge Marinas. The Chesapeake Inn is located on Virginia Street, and the Atherston Hall Bed & Breakfast just one block south on Prince George Street. You can get there from with Cross or Virginia streets.
If you are coming by boat
Here too, it couldn’t be simpler. Go about 15 miles upriver from Stingray or Windmill points at the mouth of the Rappahannock and you’ll find the entrance to Urbanna Creek along the southern shore. You’re there. The Urbanna Town Marina comes first and then, just before the S.R. 227 Bridge, the appropriately named Bridge Marinas.
If you are bringing your boat (or not)
Like Deltaville, its neighbor to the south, Urbanna is not exactly on the way to anywhere, a point that we consider an advantage frankly. In any case, you’ll want to find yourself on historic U.S. 17, which traces much of the southern shore of the Rappahannock. From there, follow the signs to Urbanna, usually using S.R. 615 to S.R. 602. You can launch your trailer boat from the town marina’s boat ramp or go up Urbanna Creek a few miles, where you’ll find the Saluda public boat ramp at Oakes Landing. If you want to launch your paddle craft, you can also use the town marina’s facilities or Oakes Landing boat ramp in Saluda.
We’ve mentioned these, but here they are again. Both are good options. Bridge Marinas are a bit fancier and newer and have a few more options. Both are an easy walk to everything in town.
The first marina up Urbanna Creek is the town marina. Depths are generally about six feet, though the first slips coming are a bit shallower, so go bow in or check with the dockmaster. The docks are aging a bit and have short finger piers, but there is a laundry, restrooms and free bicycles to use. The marina is located in the midst of a popular park.
Bridge Marinas has newly built facilities, renovated existing ones, and some new floating docks. They have also recently added covered slips at the second Bridge Marina, which is the former location of Urbanna Port Marina. The marina has all the usual facilities and has both diesel and ethanol-free gasoline.
The Chesapeake Inn is located in the center of town (well, really, what isn’t?) on Virginia Street. It has 13 suites decorated in a different styles and with plenty of good stuff like big TVs, refrigerators, Wi-Fi and so forth. They also offer packages that include a river cruise. How cool is that?
Bed & Breakfast
Atherston Hall Bed & Breakfast is (you guessed it) right in the middle of town on Prince George Street. The imposing home was built in 1880 by a schooner captain. It has two lovely parks within its grounds, a big welcoming porch and three guest rooms.
If you have an RV or would like to rent a cottage of your own, Bethpage Camp-Resort is located just north of town. It even includes a water park.
Walk around Urbanna
No matter how you choose to visit Urbanna, whether it’s on your own boat or with trailer boat or paddle craft in tow, you’ll want to start your visit with a stroll through the streets of this delightful and charming town. We know that those are hackneyed adjectives, but we also know Urbanna from years of visits and we know that they are no exaggeration. Urbanna is a quiet shady place, with a variety of architecture reflecting its long history. There is even a short walking tour you can download to your phone that will take you past examples of buildings from its pre-Revolutionary days as a tobacco center through its long years as a fishing and shellfish center. Don’t miss R.S. Bristow’s Store, “the home of good goods” since 1876. And whenever you find you need a break, there is always the opportunity for a cold drink or a yummy ice cream just around the corner.
Visit one of the world’s most important maps
What? Go see an old map? What kind of weekend’s entertainment is that? We hear you, but we believe you’ll find it’s worth the trouble. And, really, it’s hardly any trouble at all. You see, this is a first edition of the Mitchell Map of 1755, a map that has been used over the centuries to help settle wars. First, it was used in the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which as you of course remember, marked the end of the Revolutionary War. Later, France, Spain and Great Britain all used the Mitchell Map to settle various disputes. It was even used in 1980 to settle a fishing boundaries dispute between the U.S. and Canada.
John Mitchell, you see, was an Urbanna landowner before he moved to London and became a cartographer. He created a map of the eastern portion of what became the United States and included borders, settlements (including Urbanna) and locations of Indian tribes. It was a beautiful map. Urbanna acquired its Mitchell map through one of its banks, thanks to employee Jesse DeBusk, and the contributions of school children and townspeople. It’s a good story, but unfortunately not one we have room for here. So while you are in Urbanna, be sure to visit the map, which is on display at the town museum in the Old Tobacco Warehouse. It’s conveniently located on Virginia Street.
Get out on the water
Now that you’re up the Rappahannock River, take advantage of it. If you came on your own boat or pulled it behind you, you’ll find plenty of places within easy reach. For example, the beautiful Corrotoman River just across the Rappahannock has miles of shoreline and half-a-dozen navigable branches, all worth exploring. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy. Next door to the Corrotoman, you’ll find Carter Creek, home to one of the Bay’s most elegant resorts, The Tides Inn. Park at their docks and enjoy a delicious lunch, or stay for the evening and enjoy dinner and perhaps a round of golf.
Bring your kayak, canoe or SUP? You’ll find plenty of nearby creeks ideal for paddle craft. After you’ve paddled Urbanna Creek, head upriver about a mile and try Robinson Creek, with its little branches off of branches. Less than a mile north of that is even longer Lagrange Creek, then Weeks Creek, Parrotts Creek and Mud Creek. You get the idea.
Didn’t bring you own boat? No problem. You can charter a fishing boat through Bridge Marinas or you can catch a ride on a historic buyboat through Golden Age Charters or on a 24-foot pontoon boat through Urbanna Cruises.
Urbanna Oyster Festival
We can’t promise that the festival will be on this October 2020, but whenever you do get the opportunity, we suggest you come upriver for a visit. It’s crazy fun! There are shucking contests, of course, and booths for every variety of oyster and crab dish, as well as entertainments, parades and, well, everything else you can think of.
Walking, maps and cruises done, it’s time at last to talk about food. And you’ve come to the right place.
We want to start with Something Different, the weirdest and possibly most delicious restaurant you’ll see. This may be the only restaurant you ever eat at that specializes in “Fine Neanderthal Cuisine.” Yes, it’s all about smoked meats, which of course they do themselves. In fact, they do everything themselves, including make the incredibly delicious ice cream that you will want to have for dessert.
For breakfast, we recommend either Cool Beans or, on the weekends, Big Oak Café (also open for lunch and dinner), although we find ourselves as often as not at Where the Sidewalk Ends on Virginia Street. Delicious baked goods too!
Portside Grill on Urbanna Creek is Urbanna’s only waterside restaurant, and it’s a delight. We know you’ll enjoy the Virginia Street Café, which has great fried oysters. Colonial Pizza is the pizza place in Urbanna, And last but not least, don’t leave town without stopping at Marshall Drug’s lunch counter for a real old-fashioned milk shake. It’s on Cross Street, just around the corner from Bristow’s good goods. See, don’t you love it already? ⚓︎
Points of Interest
|3. Urbanna Creek
|4. Old Tobacco Warehouse
|5. R.S. Bristow’s Store