Written by Mary & Bill Burnham for the Virginia Travel Guide
The phrase “small town” evokes nostalgia, authenticity and heartfelt warmth in many of us. What’s not to love? They are authentic, accessible, friendly and stocked with locally-owned businesses. These are communities where you can get off the crowded highway, park the car and walk, ride a bike or even kayak through downtown. Small, family-run businesses offer one-of a-kind handmade items, from jewelry and art to craft beers and wine. Farmers markets offer locally-grown produce and seafood spring through fall. With almost 200 incorporated towns, dozens more villages and hamlets, plus nearly 30 designated Virginia Main Street Communities, the hard part is deciding which Virginia towns to visit.
Here are some of our favorites, starting in southwest Virginia, and ending with a shameless plug for our hometown on the Eastern Shore.
BIG STONE GAP
Southwest Virginia’s coal-mining history comes to life in the “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” Virginia’s longest-running outdoor drama, performed Thursday through Saturday nights, late June through August. Before you go, be sure to read the Big Stone Gap novels by Adriana Trigiani, or watch the Hollywood film by the same name starring Ashley Judd and Whoopi Goldberg. Upon arrival, you can visit places featured in the film, such as Mutual Pharmacy, the Book Mobile, the Farmers Market, as well as the outdoor drama. Fine, well-preserved period homes house The John Fox Jr. Museum, the Southwest Virginia Museum and the June Tolliver House. Cozy B&Bs, cafes and a variety of antique and curio shops round out this small town gem.
Fun Festival: Annual Tri State Singing Convention, June
Luray is known as “Cabin Capital of Virginia” due to hundreds of cabins and home rentals in the area. Luray is home to the spectacular Luray Caverns, the largest caverns in the East, and is a gateway town into Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest. Spend a week in a cabin and have your pick of day trip options with more than 500 miles of National Park hiking trails, local paddling outfitters along the Shenandoah River, and underground wonders at Luray Caverns. Enjoy leisurely biking around town on the Hawksbill Greenway. If you’re looking for a more luxurious overnight stay, book a room at the historic Mimslyn Inn, and if you’re interested in Virginia’s wine, spirits, and craft beer industry, follow the Blue Ridge Whiskey Wine Loop.
This formerly industrial town has been reinvented for recreation, craft beverage and shopping lovers. The Appomattox River that once carried tobacco barges is now a designated Scenic River carrying paddlers in search of whitewater or the calmer four-mile Farmville Blueway. The railroad that once carried coal now carries hikers, bikers and equestrians on the 30-mile-long High Bridge Trail State Park. Repurposed tobacco packing houses and lumber warehouses are reincarnated to house Appomattox River Company, Green Front Furniture and the Three Roads Brewery, serving up local beer, live music, games for the kids and a pet-friendly beer garden. Together with the Virginia Tasting Cellar and the soon-to-open second location of James River Brewing, Farmville is fast becoming a destination for craft beverage lovers.
Fun Festival: Heart of Virginia Festival, May/June
Set amidst the vast playground of the idyllic Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg has been called “one of the best mountain bike towns in America” by National Geographic. Forward-thinking entrepreneurs and artisans have blended the past with the present to create a lively melting pot that is distinctive to this college town. Named Virginia’s first Culinary District in 2014, Harrisonburg’s cultural diversity serves up fare from around the world, while taking advantage of locally sourced farm-to-table ingredients. Mashita serves clean, fresh Korean food, while a mother-daughter team creates soul-soothing pastries at Heritage Bakery & Café. The arts scene is equally diverse, epitomized by the Agora Downtown Market, a community of small businesses under one roof in an historic building. Named for James Madison, fourth president and the “Father of the Constitution,” are the stunning Hotel Madison and James Madison University (JMU), where nearly 20,000 students lend a youthful vitality to this historic town.
Fun Festival: Harrisonburg International Festival, September
Immerse yourself in Virginia’s Lake Country at Virginia’s only lakeside town. Buggs Island Lake, also known as Kerr Reservoir, draws anglers to dozens of fishing tournaments yearly, and the annual Hydroplane Challenge fast boat race. Stay in style at Cooper’s Landing Inn and Traveler’s Tavern, or a bit more rustic in a lakefront cabin at Occoneechee State Park. The craft beverage scene is brewing with Buggs Island Brewing Company. At Three Sisters of Shiney Rock Vineyard, the three Powell sisters are reviving Native American grape-growing such as Muscadine and Scuppernong. (Open Saturdays only and by appointment other days.)
Fun Festival: Virginia Lake Festival, July
Back-to-the-earth bohemian blends with traditional bluegrass in this town of less than 500, but with so much to offer. Along Virginia’s Crooked Road Music Trail, The Floyd Country Store hosts jam sessions and performances. Just like in days gone by, the Country Store is the heart of town, hosting Friday Night Jamborees and clogging sessions and selling all the things you’d expect from a country store (and some that you wouldn’t!), from local preserves to suspenders. Surrounding town is the expanse of the Blue Ridge Plateau where hiking, biking and scenic drives await along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway.
Fun Festival: Floydfest, July
With five miles of sheltered waterway leading to the Chesapeake Bay, it’s no wonder Onancock has been an active port on the Eastern Shore since 1680. Today you can take a sailing or motorboat excursion, rent a kayak or paddleboard or hop on the ferry to Tangier Island, 12 miles out in the Bay. With just 1,200 people and shaded streets lined with shops and galleries, Onancock is the perfect walking or biking town. Slow down with lunch at The Wharf or an outdoor patio café, or sit on the
Liar’s Bench to watch the fishing boats come and go and the osprey and great blue heron feed. Visit the artist studios at the Historic Onancock School, the Federal-period Ker Place House Museum or the newly opened Samuel Outlaw Blacksmith Shop.
Elegant B&Bs housed in Victorian beauties, an eclectic dining scene, from Irish pub fare to Thai fusion, live theatre and an old-fashioned movie house showing first-run films promise that Onancock will not disappoint.
BONUS: Notable Neighborhoods
Within Virginia’s larger cities, find pockets of uniqueness that make you feel like you’re in a small town!
ROANOKE’S HISTORIC GRANDIN VILLAGE
This walkable urban village is eclectic and family-friendly at the same time. Spend Saturday morning at the Community Market, dine on an outdoor patio, shop independently owned boutiques and take in a first-run or classic film at the 1930s Grandin Theatre.
A running trail and dog park, summer concert series and live theater, an Irish pub and a cheese and wine shop, all within walking distance to a Hilton Garden Inn. Shop charming Campbell Avenue, an eclectic pedestrian friendly area packed with local shops and eateries.
RICHMOND’S SCOTT’S ADDITION
One of the hottest, newly revitalized neighborhoods in the state capital. Warehouses converted to breweries, cideries and distilleries, bold street murals, a cinema and a retro bowling alley make this a happening night scene.
NORFOLK’S GHENT DISTRICT
Arguably Virginia’s quintessential historic neighborhood within Virginia’s port city, Ghent boasts an amazing span of architecture from Colonial to Victorian to Frank Lloyd Wright-era homes. Antiquing, eclectic dining and the arts galore can be found in this waterfront community along the Hague.
OLD TOWN ALEXANDRIA
Just across the river from the nation’s capital, American history comes alive as you walk in patriots’ footsteps on cobblestone streets to trendy boutiques and international eateries. Four-legged travelers will find Alexandria truly is for the dogs, with water dishes outside the shops, upscale pet boutiques and restaurants that allow pups to dine with their masters.
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