a geographic overview
You're moving to the land of what some people call the armpit of Virginia. It's a place that experiences all four seasons, and you can enjoy the water at the beaches from May 15th to September 15th, so you get a solid four months of seaside living. The other months the beach is relaxing, but it's just a little chilly to dip in (unless you do the Polar Plunge in February at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront).
It's an area that has no defined regional name. You may have heard it referred to as Hampton Roads, Tidewater, Coastal Virginia, or the 757. It's really just southeastern Virginia, and encompasses seven major cities, but also significantly populated counties as well. Norfolk is widely considered the central hub with the tallest buildings, close to the ports, home to the largest naval base in the world, and is centrally located in the region. It also has the regions only light rail transit system.
The region is mainly divided into two sub regions: the Southside and the Peninsula. Just so you don't feel bad, you'd be surprised at how many locals here don't even know this. Many people on the Southside stay on the Southside and rarely venture to the Peninsula. And many people who live on the Peninsula try their best not to go to the Southside, because it's just too congested, and takes too long to get to.
The Peninsula is a bit more suburban, although holds its own because of its increased "city centers." Prestigious colleges like the College of William & Mary, Christopher Newport University, and Hampton University are on the Peninsula, along with many other staples on this side of the water. Real estate tends to be less expensive on the Peninsula compared to the Southside, but it largely does depend on the neighborhood, school districts, and many other factors. For example, finding a 3 or 4 bedroom home in Yorktown for under $300,000 is difficult.
The water divides these two sub regions, and major connectors are the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (HRBT) and the Monitor Merrimack (M&M). The HRBT connects Hampton to Norfolk and the M&M connects Newport News to Suffolk.
With just Norfolk and Virginia Beach alone, the Southside makes up more than 750,000 residents.
The Southside is comprised of the following cities:
-- Virginia Beach
The Peninsula is comprised of the following cities and counties:
-- Newport News
-- York County
-- James-City County
If you're looking to live in the most dense area, then you want to live in a neighborhood in Norfolk called Ghent. It's filled with shops, restaurants, bars, retail, apartments, condos, and houses -- all walk able. It's by far the most "city" feel you will experience in this region, and it's a five minute drive downtown Norfolk, which is a close runner up to living in a dense area.
Virginia Beach Town Center is becoming more dense and offers the ability to "work, live, and play," but it's a private development less than 15 years old. Ghent is historical and truly a neighborhood. It's kind of like the Carytown in Richmond, the Fan, or the Museum district -- all neighborhoods in Richmond (which is only 1 1/2 hours from Norfolk). Lots of brick, trees, coffee shops, bikes, and a diverse group of people.
Transportation in the region is not terrific by any means; in fact, sometimes it's downright awful, considering the tunnels and bridges we have. Additionally, tolls have been added to the Downtown and Midtown Tunnels (which connect Portsmouth to Norfolk). Public transit, although continually trying to make positive strides, is not nearly as effective as other major metropolitan areas in the U.S. Norfolk has a light rail system, but it's many people's opinions (and mine) that it does not serve the greater population. It just makes sense to get in your car and drive the majority of the time. The City of Virginia Beach is pushed hard to bring light rail to Virginia Beach Town Center -- connecting essentially the two most dense areas of the region together by a train -- but faced tremendous push back from the citizenry, and voted NO to light rail through a referendum.
Nevertheless, transportation in the region remains a sore subject, and the real losers are us: the users of the highway. Traffic congestion is high in all of the major cities, and a six-mile back up at the HRBT is not uncommon on weekdays during rush hour. With that being said, I encourage you carefully consider where you put roots and/or call home as it relates to your job. Buying a nice house in say, midtown Newport News, but working in southern Virginia Beach will be physically, financially, and emotionally taxing on you and your car. It will likely take you over an hour one way to commute back and forth from your job.
If you're looking to find a central area, so that you have flexibility with your employment choices, I would definitely recommend anywhere in Norfolk, as it has pretty good interstate access. Living in Portsmouth is far cheaper and is also very centrally located, although living on that side of the tunnel can get really backed up depending on which way you're traveling each day. Living in an area in Chesapeake called Greenbrier is also nicely centrally located -- and right by Interstate 64. From there, you can realistically get anywhere in Suffolk, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Norfolk, or Portsmouth in about 30 minutes or so.
On the Peninsula, if you're looking for a centrally located area, I completely recommend midtown Newport News close to City Center at Oyster Point. There's a new Whole Foods, so you know the area is doing something right. Living near Peninsula Town Center in Hampton (formerly Coliseum Mall) isn't a bad option either.
Hampton's Buckroe Beach is a place to live on the Chesapeake Bay, and you can find the real estate values are more than 50% cheaper than if you were to live on the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach. Near Buckroe Beach is Poquoson, a quaint little town similar near which backs up to Hampton and York County. York County is big -- it has three high schools (Grafton, York, and Tabb), and it tends to act as the suburbs to Hampton and Newport News.
And further down the line from York County and Newport News is Williamsburg and James City County. Most famously known for Colonial Williamsburg, the Jamestown Settlement, and The College of William & Mary, Williamsburg right on the outer edge of Hampton Roads. In fact, Williamsburg is only about 45 miles from Downtown Richmond. Depending on your occupation and needs, living in Williamsburg presents itself a nice midway point to getting to Newport News (only 30 minutes away) and Richmond (about 1 hour). Oh, and Williamsburg isn't just all history and library -- it's home to Busch Gardens USA, Water Country, and the Williamsburg Premium Outlet, so there's always something fun to do.
Other Nearby Towns
Outside of the Southside and the Peninsula are the following towns:
-- Southampton County
One word to describe these areas: country. But for many, that's not a bad thing; in fact, it's highly desirable, as real estate prices tend be higher on average than in Newport News, Hampton, and Suffolk. I'm very familiar with these towns. I was born and raised in Smithfield, which has less stoplights than I count on my two hands. It has one high school, and that high school houses students from Carrollton and Smithfield. Smithfield is known for Smithfield Foods, and has tagged itself has the Ham Capital of the World. Quiet, quaint, and small yet vibrant, this town of less than 10,000 continues to be highly sought after for people looking to escape the bigger cities in Hampton Roads. Smithfield is located in Isle of Wight County, as is Carrollton and Windsor. Carrollton is only a 15 minute drive to Newport News and as a result, continues to boom with increased commercial and residential development on Route 17.
Down the road a ways about 30 minutes from Smithfield and Carrollton is Windsor, which is a very small town that commuters pass through on Route 460. This town is only 15 minutes from Suffolk and Franklin, and only about 45 minutes from Chesapeake. Windsor is also located in Isle of Wight County.
Franklin was once known for International Paper, but several years ago the plant closed, and the city is not what it once was. Real estate values have dropped, and if you want land, you can get some. Franklin is really only about a 1 hour drive to Downtown Norfolk, but it is far removed. In fact, many people in Virginia Beach and Norfolk don't even know what Franklin is. Another advantage, in my opinion, is that it is only about 2 hours to Raleigh, North Carolina. Depending on job or business plans, Franklin is very centrally located.
Near Franklin is Southampton County, which is pretty big. It has nearly 20,000 residents. Southampton County is near Emporia, Virginia, which is a major stop for people traveling on Interstate 95. Emporia is only 2 1/2 hours to Lynchburg, VA, and only 1 hour to Richmond, VA.
The last main place to mention is Surry County. Surry is located on the James River is just a ferry ride away to Williamsburg/James City County. It's also only 30 minutes to Smithfield, about 1 hour to Richmond. It has about 7,000 residents. Three notable things Surry is known for: it's where former NFL star Michael Vick was caught conducting his dog fights, there is a state park (Chippokes Plantation State Park), and there is a big event each summer called the Pork, Peanut, and Pine Festival.
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Chesapeake, VA 23320