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Richmond, VA, Art Lovers' Getaway

Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts surprised us. After a $150 million expansion, the facility blooms with new galleries, a sculpture garden and two eateries. With more than 545,000 square feet on 13.5 acres, the revitalized museum makes Richmond an art lovers’ getaway.

To put it another way: we came for the city’s Civil War legacy, but fell in love with this major museum’s collection. Although the sizeable addition--165,000 square feet-- was completed in May 2010, we hadn’t been back to Richmond until recently.

The changes include a glass walled, three-story atrium that connects the new wing to the older two wings, flooding the ground floor with light. From here we walked to the second floor where Barry Flanagan’s bronze and steel Large Leaping Hare offers a whimsical greeting.

We spent the most time browsing the mid-to-late Twentieth Century art, a collection that features Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollack, Cindy Sherman, Robert Rauschenberg and other noted artists. Two other favorite galleries of ours were the Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art and the Fabergé gallery.

Dogs and horses dominate the canvases of the predominantly 18th and 19th century paintings. After viewing the many hunting hounds, we especially liked ending the gallery with Philip Reinagle’s Musical Dog, an amusing 1905 portrait of a brown cocker spaniel playing the piano. Satire or not, the artist must have loved dogs.

The museum is also known for its Fabergé Collection, one of the best in the U.S. and the largest group of Imperial Easter Eggs outside of Russia. Many of these items, including the four dazzling Easter eggs, finely crafted and embellished with gold, diamonds and pearls, will be on tour. Some Fabergé items will remain. We were lucky enough to see the exquisitely wrought eggs as well as such Fabergé items as a gold cigarette case with rubies, an enamel box decorated with a miniature painting of a Russian fairytale, a silver rabbit pitcher and more.

Both the museum’s Best Café and its Amuse Restaurant overlook the sculpture garden. The café offers sandwiches, salads and snacks in a light-filled, airy space. Although we didn’t have time to lunch at Amuse, we plan to on our next trip. Richmond Magazine named Amuse “2011 Best New Restaurant.”

We did dine at Bistro Bobette, E.Carey Street. The chef calls the cuisine at the two-year-old restaurant “French comfort food.” The food was excellent. Our entrees, Dover sole and the monkfish with wheat berry risotto, were exceptional. For foodies, that restaurant alone makes Richmond worth the drive.

The Berkeley Hotel, across E. Carey Street from Bistro Bobette, proved somewhat disappointing. Our room overlooked E. Carey Street and the noise from the crowds at the nearby club kept us up as did the drafty windows. The staff was friendly and welcoming. If you stay at the Berkeley, ask for a room that does not face E. Carey Street and visit in warm weather or be sure to ask for extra blankets.

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