Virginia’s 3 best budget-friendly vacations, according to readers

Sign that says, "Welcome to Virginia. Virginia is for lovers."

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By Stacy Rounds

May 30, 2024

When it comes to planning the perfect vacation, finding destinations that offer both adventure and relaxation without breaking the bank can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack. Luckily, Virginia has a treasure trove of affordable getaways that deliver on all fronts. From pristine beaches and bustling boardwalks to majestic mountains and serene national parks, Virginia caters to a variety of tastes and preferences, all while keeping your wallet happy.

In this guide, we delve into the top three budget-friendly vacation spots in Virginia, as voted by enthusiastic travelers in our recent poll. Whether you’re drawn to bustling beaches, quiet capes, or natural splendor, each location promises unique experiences, breathtaking scenery, and plenty of fun activities. So pack your bags, grab your gear, and get ready to explore some of the best cheap vacation spots in Virginia.

A fact sign at Shenandoah National Forest.

Dogwood photo: Stacy Rounds

3. Shenandoah National Park

If your idea of a perfect vacation involves breathtaking landscapes, diverse wildlife, and a plethora of outdoor activities, Shenandoah National Park is the spot for you. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this natural haven offers a serene escape from the hustle and bustle, all while being incredibly budget-friendly.

The crown jewel of Shenandoah National Park is Skyline Drive, a 105-mile road that runs the length of the park along the crest of the mountains. This scenic drive offers stunning views of the valleys below, especially during the fall when the foliage turns into a kaleidoscope of colors. There are numerous overlooks where you can pull over, take photos, and simply soak in the beauty.

Shenandoah is a hiker’s paradise, boasting over 500 miles of trails that cater to all levels of experience. For a challenging trek, hike up Old Rag Mountain, which involves a bit of rock scrambling and rewards you with panoramic views at the summit. For something a bit easier, the Dark Hollow Falls Trail is a short but rewarding hike that leads to a picturesque waterfall. The park is also part of the Appalachian Trail, so if you’re up for it, you can hike a portion of this legendary path.

The park is teeming with wildlife, making it a great destination for animal enthusiasts. Keep an eye out for white-tailed deer, black bears, and wild turkeys. Birdwatchers will also be delighted with the variety of avian species, from hawks and eagles to vibrant songbirds. Early morning or late afternoon are the best times for wildlife spotting.

For an immersive experience, consider camping within the park. There are several campgrounds to choose from, each offering a unique setting. Big Meadows Campground is a popular choice, known for its open fields and proximity to several trailheads. If camping isn’t your style, the park also offers lodges and cabins, such as the historic Skyland Resort, which provides comfortable accommodations with spectacular views.

Each season brings a unique charm to Shenandoah National Park. Spring is perfect for wildflower viewing, with the park bursting into bloom. Summer offers lush greenery and cool mountain breezes, making it ideal for hiking and picnicking. Fall, of course, is famous for its foliage, drawing visitors from all over to witness the vibrant colors. Even winter has its allure, with the possibility of snow transforming the landscape into a serene winter wonderland.

The park’s visitor centers, such as the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and the Byrd Visitor Center, provide a wealth of information about the park’s natural and cultural history. Rangers offer guided hikes and educational programs, which are great for families and those looking to learn more about the park’s unique ecosystem.

One of the best things about Shenandoah National Park is how budget-friendly it can be. The entrance fee is relatively low, and once you’re in the park, there’s no shortage of free activities. Pack a picnic to save on food costs, and take advantage of the numerous picnic areas throughout the park. For those who plan on visiting multiple national parks, consider purchasing an annual pass, which offers access to all national parks for one year.

Shenandoah National Park is a place to reconnect with nature, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and find peace and tranquility away from the daily grind. Whether you’re gazing at the stars on a clear night, listening to the sounds of the forest, or simply sitting quietly at an overlook, the park offers countless moments of natural beauty that are sure to rejuvenate your spirit.

A ship on the water at Virginia Beach

Dogwood photo: Stacy Rounds

2. Virginia Beach

Virginia Beach is a classic choice for a fun, affordable vacation, blending miles of sandy shores, a bustling boardwalk, and plenty of family-friendly activities. If you’re looking for a spot where you can sunbathe by day and enjoy exciting nightlife after sundown without emptying your wallet, Virginia Beach is your go-to destination.

Virginia Beach is famed for its expansive coastline. The main beach area is ideal for swimming, sunbathing, and sandcastle building. For those looking for a bit more action, there’s a variety of watersports available, from surfing to paddleboarding. Sandbridge Beach, a little further south, offers a quieter, more relaxed vibe, perfect for families or those looking to escape the hustle and bustle.

Stretching three miles along the oceanfront, the Virginia Beach Boardwalk is full of action. This well-maintained path is perfect for strolling, biking, or rollerblading. Along the way, you’ll find plenty of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options. Don’t miss the Neptune Statue, a massive bronze sculpture that’s become an iconic symbol of the city.

If you’re interested in marine life, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is a must-visit. It features over 800,000 gallons of aquariums and live animal habitats, including sharks, sea turtles, and otters. For an unforgettable experience, take a dolphin-watching boat tour, which offers a high chance of spotting these playful creatures in their natural habitat.

For a break from the beach, explore First Landing State Park, where the English colonists first landed in 1607. The park offers a range of outdoor activities, including hiking, biking, and kayaking. The diverse ecosystem, including tidal marshes, cypress swamps, and maritime forests, provides a beautiful backdrop for a day in nature.

Virginia Beach is home to a diverse culinary scene, with plenty of affordable options. For a taste of local seafood, head to Waterman’s Surfside Grille, known for its crab cakes and refreshing Orange Crush cocktails. If you’re in the mood for something different, Taste Unlimited offers delicious sandwiches, salads, and gourmet snacks, perfect for a picnic on the beach.

As the sun sets, Virginia Beach’s nightlife comes alive. From live music at beachfront bars to family-friendly events like the summer fireworks and free concerts along the boardwalk, there’s always something happening. Check out the ViBe Creative District for a dose of local art and culture, with its colorful murals, art galleries, and trendy cafes.

A quiet stroll in the morning on the boardwalk at Cape Charles Beach.

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1. Cape Charles Beach

If you’re looking for a quaint, budget-friendly escape with a touch of historical charm, Cape Charles Beach on Virginia’s Eastern Shore might just be your perfect destination. Imagine a place where you can stroll along serene, sandy shores without the crowds, where small-town charm meets maritime history, and where the sunsets are some of the most spectacular you’ve ever seen.

Cape Charles Beach isn’t your typical bustling tourist trap. Instead, it offers a tranquil, laid-back atmosphere that makes it ideal for families, couples, or solo travelers looking to unwind. The beach itself is perfectly designed for relaxation. The gently lapping waves are ideal for swimming, especially for young kids or those who prefer a more relaxed dip in the ocean without the risk of rough surf.

This charming town dates back to the late 19th century and was originally a planned community. Walking through Cape Charles feels like stepping back in time, with its beautifully preserved Victorian and Colonial Revival homes. Don’t miss the Cape Charles Museum and Welcome Center to get a peek into the town’s rich history, including its railroad and ferry heritage that once made it a bustling transport hub.

Beyond the beach, Cape Charles offers plenty of affordable outdoor activities. Rent a bike and explore the town on two wheels, or venture a bit further to the nearby Kiptopeke State Park. Here, you can hike through maritime forests, go birdwatching (it’s a key spot on the Eastern Flyway), or even try your hand at fishing off the park’s pier. For those looking to hit the links without breaking the bank, the Bay Creek Resort offers a stunning golf course with views of the Chesapeake Bay.

After a day of sun and adventure, you’ll be ready to dig into some local fare. Cape Charles boasts a surprising variety of dining options for a town of its size. Enjoy fresh seafood at The Shanty, where you can feast on Chesapeake Bay oysters and crabs while enjoying the waterfront view. Or, for a more casual bite, head to Brown Dog Ice Cream for some locally-famous, handmade ice cream that’s sure to delight your taste buds.

As the day winds down, make sure you head back to the beach for the pièce de résistance: the sunset. Cape Charles Beach faces west, offering some of the most stunning sunset views on the East Coast. Bring a blanket and some snacks, and settle in for a show that paints the sky with hues of orange, pink, and purple — a perfect, budget-friendly end to a perfect, budget-friendly day.

 

  • Stacy Rounds

    Stacy Rounds is a writer and growth producer for Dogwood. Prior to joining the team, Stacy has worked as a writer, editor, and engagement specialist covering topics ranging from local history, disability advocacy, recreation, and food hotspots to relationships and mental health.

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