By Lynn R. Mitchell
Voted as one of America’s Top 20 Main Streets by Travel and Leisure magazine, the central Shenandoah Valley city of Staunton was also named one of the 20 Best Small Towns in America by Smithsonian magazine as well as Virginia Living magazine’s Best of 2012.With views east toward the Blue Ridge Mountains and west toward the Appalachians, Staunton is an historic slice of Virginia that offers restored Victorian homes, cozy downtown shops, and small-town atmosphere. Patriotic holidays find her streets lined with American flags, and the always-popular Christmas parade takes place each year on Beverley Street, the main thoroughfare that is lined with restaurants, store fronts, the Dixie Theater, the city courthouse, and old-fashioned lamp posts. Be sure and check the Staunton Convention and Visitor Center Calendar of Events for all the latest happenings including art exhibits and live entertainment.
Staunton is part of the Wilderness Road Initiative to preserve the legacy of this period in America’s history that played a big role in the migration and settlement of Virginia and beyond. The website explains, “As the colonies were thriving along the east coast in the late 1600s, the Appalachian Mountains remained a formidable barrier to the interior of the nation. The Wilderness Road led settlers to the Daniel Boone Trail which led through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky or they traveled south along the Great Warrior Path into Georgia.”
There’s lots to do during the carefree summer months so here are some places and events that may appeal to those visiting the area.
A great way to get around downtown, Staunton’s two trolleys pick up and discharge passengers at stops located throughout the city. It’s one of the best deals around, and offers a way to see the city without driving. Cost is $0.25 a ride or free to visitors with tokens from the Visitor Center. More information can be found at the Staunton Visitors Center on New Street or at the website.
2. Wright’s Dairy-Rite
Ever heard of the Statler Brothers? They grew up hanging out at the 1950s-era Wright’s Dairy-Rite Drive-In and it’s very much the same today. Pull to the curb, order, and watch a carhop deliver your freshly-cooked meal while listening to 50s music. Or go inside to the 1950s-decorated interior complete with tables, booths, and a historical display of those who have visited over the years including the Statler Brothers and Governor/ U.S. Senator George Allen.
3. Ox-Eye Vineyard Tasting Room
Ox-Eye Vineyards, owned by the Kiers family and located in Augusta County, renovated an historic building in the Wharf area of downtown Staunton that now offers wine tastings of their reds and whites. They displayed at the 2012 Shenandoah Valley Wine and Jazz Festival at the Frontier Culture Museum, and in April 2013 the Washington Post named them one of the Top 10 Mid-Atlantic wineries to visit. Where did the name “Ox-Eye” come from? It’s the name of the common field daisy with a yellow center and white petals that grows all over Ox-Eye Farm. Hint: If you like white wines, try their Riesling and White Ox.
4. Sears Hill Bridge
For a perfect Kodak moment, be sure to see the Sears Hill Bridge in downtown Staunton that crosses the railroad tracks behind the Depot Grille and walk up to the overlook for a perfect view from above of downtown Staunton. This historic bridge was removed for three years, renovated, and returned in 2013 to provide access between downtown and the Sears Hill Community. It sparked a now-annual event, Bridge Day, held each spring.
5. Newtown Artisans Bakery
Popular with the locals as well as visitors, Newtown Bakery is a go-to place for pastries and specialty breads that are baked daily. Insider’s tip: Friday is yummy challah and it usually sells out fast. Inside and outside tables provide a friendly setting for sandwiches and other treats from their menu. Located near historic Thornrose Cemetery (#6) and next-door to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (#9).
6. Historic Thornrose Cemetery
Dating to 1740, Staunton’s historic Thornrose Cemetery was originally designed with grassy areas and shade trees for the town people to picnic on hot summer days. Located on a hill that has a view of the Appalachians to the west, Thornrose features Victorian architecture in its gates, buildings, vaults, and headstones. A special Civil War section featuring a marble statue of a Confederate infantryman is the site of over 1,700 graves of Confederate soldiers.
7. Coffee on the Corner Beer Garden
Located on the corner of Market and Beverley streets and next-door to Blackfriars Theater, Coffee on the Corner’s cozy atmosphere as well as free Wi-Fi makes it a popular spot for Mary Baldwin College students, tourists, patrons to Blackfriars (#8), and locals. Besides the obvious coffee and tea selections, COTC also offers a wide variety of sandwiches and bagels to grab a quick bite while working on your laptop. The outdoor beer garden opened in 2011, offering the perfect place to meet up with friends on a warm summer evening and enjoy one of their featured craft beers.
8. Blackfriars Theater
The Blackfriars Theater was built in downtown Staunton in 2001, the world’s only exact replica of William Shakespeare’s indoor theater, and is home to the American Shakespeare Center. It offers a great place to catch a play, tour the facility, or get involved in their camps for young and old alike. Their active schedule means something is almost always going on at Blackfriars. Check their website for current plays and activities.
9. Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
What better way to enjoy a little slice of England in downtown Staunton than to stay at the Anne Hathaway Cottage Bed and Breakfast? Named for Shakespeare’s wife, the thatched-roof inn presents all the ambiance of a period residence but was newly constructed and opened in 2011. Walk next-door for freshly-baked goodies from Newtown Bakery (#5). Located on Thornrose Avenue, it is just down the street from the historical Thornrose Cemetery (#6).
10. Hull’s Drive-In Theater
Get your ’50s on! A favorite for many in the area, nearby Lexington’s Hull’s Drive-In Theater is a non-profit run by volunteers. It’s a blast from the past that is passing the tradition on to the next generations. The price is right — $7 for adults and children 11 and under are free — so bring your lawn chairs or settle back in your car for a double feature of currently-showing movies.
11. Betsy Bell & Mary Gray Mountains
Staunton is unique in that it has two small side-by-side mountains within the city limits. Named Betsy Bell and Mary Gray after two Irish women from the late 1600s, these small wilderness areas offer a close-to-home taste of the outdoors. Drive up, picnic or look out from the observation deck over the Wal-Mart to the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond, and hike or bike the trails. Talk about urban wilderness!
12. Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia
A unique hands-on outdoor museum located on approximately 300 acres in Staunton, the Frontier Culture Museum brings the past alive with costumed interpreters, farm animals, and original or recreated homesteads from the Old World and the New World. A winding, two-mile trail allows guests to visit the English, Irish, German, and American farms as well as the West African village, learning the story of America’s settlement and where we came from. Spend an hour or all day … visitors choose their own pace. Picnic tables are on the grounds, and special events take place year-round. Coming up in 2014: Shenandoah Wine & Jazz Festival on June 28, First Friday in June and August open free to the public from 6-8 pm, summer camps, free Independence Day Celebration on July 4, Blues & Brews Festival in August, and many more events.
13. Gypsy Hill Park
Gypsy Hill Park has a little bit of everything on its 214 acres located within Staunton’s city limits. It offers ball fields, volley ball court, horseshoes, picnic tables, shelters, a public swimming pool that is open during the summer, duck pond, golf course, basketball courts, fishing pond, skateboard park, tennis courts, and an old-time Gazebo that is the center of entertainment throughout the summer. It also has a football field and is home to the Staunton Braves baseball team. The trolley stops at the park for easy access downtown. For $1, you can take a ride on the 50-year-old Gypsy Express mini train located near the duck pond. Newly renovated in 2007, the tradition continues.
14. Guided Tours of Staunton and Nearby Civil War Battlefields
Staunton Guided Tours offers personal year-round tours of the area while learning of its rich history. Narrated trolley tours are available on weekends and holidays. Park the car, sit back, and enjoy the ride! New: A History and Winery Tour has been added to the ever-increasing choices. Check the website for more choices.
15. Staunton-Augusta Farmers Market
Voted one of the best farmers markets in Virginia, the Staunton-Augusta Farmers Market offers fresh, locally grown produce, flowers, herbs, eggs, fruits, meats, and more from the convenience of the Wharf parking lot in downtown Staunton (corner of Byers and Johnson Streets). Area vendors provide fresh locally-grown products. Open Saturdays from 7 a.m.-noon through mid-November.
16. Oak Grove Theater
Just outside Staunton is Oak Grove Theater, a community theater group that performs an annual five-play summer season. The plays are performed at night, out-of-doors, at beautiful Oak Grove near Verona. Patrons picnic in the Grove before the sun sets and the play begins, offering delightfully entertaining plays under the stars, thanks to local philanthropists Fletcher and Margaret Collins. Wrote local reviewer Charles Culbertson, “Here, nestled among the stands of towering oak trees and rhododendrons, reposes one of our area’s most brilliant theatrical jewels and valuable community resources.” Hear, hear.
17. Staunton Braves Baseball Games
The Boys of Summer come to Staunton each year as the Staunton Braves, part of the Valley Baseball League that brings college players to the area. The ball park is located at Gypsy Hill Park (#13) and provides hours of fun on summer evenings.
18. President Woodrow Wilson’s Birthplace
Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, is remembered with the restoration of his birth place as well as his Presidential Library and Museum. His original Pierce Arrow can be seen in the Museum as well as many displays. Wind down your tour with a leisurely stroll through the formal gardens behind the Manse.
19. Barren Ridge Vineyards
Located at the family’s former apple orchard, Barren Ridge Vineyards came to life when the old apple barn was converted into a state-of-the-art winery. The beautiful interior offers up a stone fireplace in the tasting room that features wines for sale, and tours are available. Outdoors, the European-style veranda provides views across the vineyards with Staunton’s Betsy Bell and Mary Gray mountains in the distance. There is an active schedule of events including their annual Vine to Wine 5K.
20. Ghostly Evening Tours
What better way to see the architecture of historic downtown Staunton and well-known landmarks than with the Ghosts of Staunton Tour? Spooky candlelight tours are also offered of what is described as the most haunted area of Staunton, the Depot train station. If you are looking for something different and unusual, this is the tour for you!
21. Sunspots Studio and Glass Blowing
It is fascinating to watch as glassblowers craft jewelry, garden art, bird feeders, decor, and other glass items at Sunspots where the viewing window lets visitors watch the craftsmanship while avoiding the heat. Stop by and see the magic of hot glass.
22. Stonewall Brigade Band
The Stonewall Brigade Band is the nation’s oldest continuous-running community band and still entertains with a free Monday night concert at the Gazebo in Gypsy Hill Park at 8:00 p.m. Visitors and locals take their lawn chairs and relax under the massive trees to enjoy a concert under the stars. Here’s the 2014 schedule.
23. Jazz in the Park
Jazz in the Park is held at the Gazebo in Gypsy Hill Park every Thursday evening at 8:00 p.m. Bring lawn chairs and hear some of the region’s jazz greats. Here’s the 2014 schedule.
24. Cocoa Mill Chocolatier
Located in downtown Staunton, Cocoa Mill Chocolatier offers yummy chocolate delights that are handmade, much as can be found in the shop in nearby Lexington. Voted best overall chocolates by the Wall Street Journal, they are your source for truffles, barks, rich caramels, dipped fruit, chocolate-covered almond butter crunch toffee, chocolate-dipped pretzels, nonpareils, truffles, peanut butter cups, and brandied cherry cordials. Stop by and get your chocolate fix!
25. Visualite and Dixie Movie Theaters
Located in downtown Staunton, these vintage movie theaters offer first-run films as well as golden oldies and artsy selections. They are locally owned and popular with all ages, making your night out an exceptional experience.
26. Shenandoah National Park
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains east of Staunton, Shenandoah National Park offers 200,000 acres of wilderness, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, horseback riding, lodges, and visitor centers along the 100-mile-long Skyline Drive. Escape to the quiet beauty of the mountains.
27. Humpback Rock Farm
A mountain homestead much like the ones from days gone by, Humpback Rock Farm is located at Milepost 5.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Afton. Costumed interpreters are on hand weekends and on select days throughout the summer to answer questions about a bygone era. Farm animals, a working garden, mountain music, and more round out the experience. Visitor Center on site.
28. Grand Caverns
The Shenandoah Valley is full of caverns due to the limestone underfoot. Grand Caverns in nearby Grottoes opened in 1806 and is the longest-running show cave in the U.S. Its interior has signatures from dozens of Civil War soldiers, perhaps because of its close proximity to major Civil War battlefields. With picnicking, hiking trails, a bike trail, and other entertainment located on the banks of the South River, it will be alive with music this fall for the annual summer Blue Grass Festival.
29. Shakin’ at the Station
Every Thursday evening during the summer months, downtown Staunton comes alive with the music of Shakin’ at the Station. Located in the Wharf parking lot, admission is $2, donated to area non-profits, with various local and regional bands on stage from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Here’s the 2014 schedule.
30. Stonewall Brigade Museum
The Stonewall Brigade Museum collection of military history from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan was originally housed at the Thomas Howie Armory in Staunton. However, security measures that were implemented after 9/11 forced its change of location about 10 minutes away in Verona. It honors the 116th Regiment, which is made up of soldiers from the area, and includes sections dedicated to the Civil War, when the Regiment fought for the Confederacy
under Stonewall Jackson. Admission is free and tours are available.
31. Movies in the Park & more music
Throughout the summer, Gypsy Hill offers family-friendly movies at the Bandstand. Movies begin at dark; bring chairs or blankets. More music: Besides the Stonewall Brigade Band and Jazz in the Park, Gypsy Hill offers Praise in the Park on Tuesdays and Bluegrass in the Park on Wednesdays. Both are at the Bandstand. Here’s the 2014 schedule.
32. Camera Museum
The Camera Heritage Museum is located in downtown Staunton and is the largest privately-owned free camera museum on the East Coast. Includes
daguerreotypes, wooden cameras, spy cameras and 100+ Leicas and Zeiss cameras. Ask for a tour — it’s free.
33. Giancarlo Fine European Pastries
Working from his home, Giancarlo’s Fine European Pastries shop is tucked away in a former garage where he bakes and sells bread, superb cakes, and pastries that have that extra flair. His retail shop is only open Friday and Saturday with a case full of goodies. He specializes in that anything-but-ordinary wedding cake and adds exquisite details to everything. His shop is located about three minutes from downtown Staunton and is definitely worth the trip.
34. Mary Baldwin College
It began as Augusta Female Seminary in 1842 and, during the Civil War when it stayed open while other educational institutions in the area closed, a graduate named Mary Baldwin took over and guided the school through those dark days. Today the historic stately white brick buildings of Mary Baldwin College overlook downtown Staunton and continue to provide a quality education in a small-town atmosphere.
35. Polyface Farm
Polyface, Inc. is a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Joel Salatin has become known throughout the natural food community, leading seminars around the world about how to get back to nature with the food supply. There’s a store on the premises and visitors are welcome to walk around the farm on their own. Check the website for details.
36. R.R. Smith Center for History and Art
The former Eakleton Hotel, a 25,200 square foot building designed in 1893 by noted local architect T. J. Collins, now houses the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art in downtown Staunton. Housing the Staunton and Augusta County historical societies as well as the Staunton Augusta Art Center, it provides art galleries, a lecture hall, library, and gift shop.
37. North Mountain Outfitters
If you’re looking for horseback excitement, check out North Mountain Outfitters adjacent to the George Washington National Forest west of Staunton. They offer trail rides, overnighters, and camp cooking like the cowboy ways out west. Get away from it all, step back in time, and slow down the pace by returning to the simplicity of nature in the picturesque Appalachian Mountains. Half day, full day and overnight rides available.
38. Statler Brothers Tribute
These four local celebrities were born in Staunton where they continued to live even after hitting the heights of country music fame. The Statler Brothers — Harold Reid, Don Reid, Phil Balsley, and Jimmy Fortune (who took the place of the late Lou DeWitt) — have never forgotten their roots. After retiring in 2002 from traveling and concerts, a tribute was dedicated on Johnson Street in the historic Wharf District … a round masonry structure with the names of the Statlers engraved on top, and four oversized brass stools. They are a reminder of the group’s tradition during concerts when they sat on stools and talked about family and home, and sang gospel music. Like those four stools, the Statlers continue as pillars in the community they love.
39. Where to stay in Staunton
There’s no shortage of places to stay in Staunton and the surrounding area. Everything from camping to Bed & Breakfasts are offered in this historic, scenic part of the country. Check here to begin looking for an overnight spot during your visit to the Shenandoah Valley.
40. Lots of Eats
There are plenty of places to grab great eats in the Valley … here are a few: Depot Grille, Byers Street Bistro, Split Banana, Shenandoah Pizza, Rowe’s, Clock Tower, Kline’s, Mill Street Grill, Cranberries, Pampered Palate, Zynodoa (pricier fare), Baja Bean Co., and Emilio’s. Many of the chain restaurants are also available in the Staunton-Waynesboro area.
Photo by Lynn R. Mitchell