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, in no particular order, 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.
2. Wright’s Dairy-Rite
Ever heard of the country group The Statler Brothers? They grew up hanging out at the 1950s-era Wright’s Dairy-Rite Drive-In, and it is very much the same today. Pull to the curb, order from the authentic call box, and have a carhop deliver your freshly-cooked meal while listening to 50s music — hamburgers, onion rings, ice cream goodies, fries, and lots more. 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 Virginia Governor/U.S. Senator George Allen. It’s a local favorite.
3. Ox-Eye Vineyards Tasting Room
Ox-Eye Vineyards is owned by John and Susan Kiers who lovingly renovated an historic building in the Wharf area of downtown Staunton. The Tasting Room offers wine tastings of their varied selections of reds and whites. Ox-Eye Vineyards 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 around 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 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 April.
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. They are now open for dinner. Visit the new outdoor beer garden that features a summer music series on Saturday nights. 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. The By & By Café (formerly Coffee On The Corner)
Located on the corner of Market and Beverley streets and next-door to Blackfriars Theater, the By & By Café, formerly Coffee On The Corner, offers a cozy atmosphere that makes it a popular spot for Mary Baldwin College students, tourists, actors and patrons from Blackfriars (#8), and locals. Besides the obvious coffee and tea selections, they also offer 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. American Shakespeare Center’s 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, get involved in their camps for young and old alike, and much more. 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 Tea Room
What better way to enjoy a little slice of England in downtown Staunton than to enjoy High Tea and light lunches at the charming Anne Hathaway’s Cottage Tea Room? Named for Shakespeare’s wife, the thatched-roof vintage-styled building that was formerly a bed and breakfast presents all the ambiance of a period residence but was newly constructed and opened in 2011. Surrounded by a blooming garden, you can walk next-door for freshly-baked goodies from Newtown Bakery (#5). It is located on Thornrose Avenue 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 preserving the tradition for the next generations. The price is right — $7 for adults, $3 for elementary children, and free for kids 4 and under. Each night offers a double feature so bring your lawn chairs or settle back in your car for the night’s currently-showing movie. Check the website for what’s showing and times. And be sure to save room for the snack bar.
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 parking lot 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, Irish forge, American Indian village, and Early American school house, 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.
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. Don’t miss the Gypsy Food Truck Roundup held the second Saturdays in June, July, and August from noon until 5 p.m. at the Bandstand. On Friday nights throughout the summer, Gypsy Hill Family Night Movies offer family-friendly movies at the Bandstand. Movies begin at dark (usually around 8:30). Bring chairs or blankets. Here’s the 2016 schedule. Check the Staunton Parks and Recreation Facebook page for updates and additions to the summer schedule.
14. Staunton Guided Tours
Staunton resident Marney Gibbs offers Staunton Guided Tours year-round with tours of Staunton while learning of its rich history, with emphasis on the five historic districts, the buildings, and tales of interest. Check out the walking and driving tours. Narrated trolley tours are available on Friday-Saturday and holidays. Park the car, sit back, and enjoy the ride! Check the website for more choices.
15. Staunton Farmers Market
Voted one of the best farmers markets in Virginia, the Staunton 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 April through mid-November. New: Open Wednesdays from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. May through September.
16. Oak Grove Theater
Not far from Staunton’s city limits is Oak Grove Theater, a community theater group that performs an annual five-play summer season in a quiet, wooded area of Augusta County. The plays are performed at night, out-of-doors, at beautiful Oak Grove near Verona. Patrons picnic and tailgate in the Grove before the sun sets and the play begins — 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, who traditionally stay with local families, to the Shenandoah Valley. Games are held in June and July, at home and away. 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 in Staunton 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 and the Third Friday Nights music entertainment held monthly. It is located in Fishersville, a fifteen-minute drive from Staunton.
20. Ghosts of Staunton Tours
What better way to see the architecture of historic downtown Staunton and well-known landmarks than with the Ghosts of Staunton Tour that is offered Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. from April through October. Tours strive to blend history and hauntings while educating, enlightening, and entertaining visitors with a “unique blend of the paranormal, science, history, and local legend.” If you are looking for something different and unusual, this is the tour for you!
21. Sunspots Studio and Glass Blowing
Experience the magic of live glassblowing as dedicated artisans create jewelry, garden art, bird feeders, decor, and other glass items at Sunspots. You can even blow your own glass ornament, or purchase a handcrafted one. The viewing window allows visitors to observe the craftsmanship seven days a week. Located in the historic Wharf District of Staunton near Ox-Eye Vineyards Tasting Room (#3).
22. Stonewall Brigade Band
The Stonewall Brigade Band is the nation’s oldest continuous-running community band whose history dates back to 1855. This will be the 128th year they have entertained in Gypsy Hill Park (#13) with a free summer series of concerts on Monday nights at the Gazebo. Visitors and locals take their lawn chairs and relax under the massive trees to enjoy a concert under the stars. Here’s the 2016 schedule.
23. Jazz in the Park
The summer Jazz in the Park series is held at the Gazebo in Gypsy Hill Park (#13) every Thursday evening at 7:00 p.m. Bring lawn chairs, sit under the shade trees, and hear some of the region’s jazz greats.
24. Cocoa Mill Chocolatier
Located in downtown Staunton, Cocoa Mill Chocolatier offers yummy chocolate delights that are handmade like the ones that can be found in their 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
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
An Appalachian 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. Authentic cabins and farm buildings along a quarter-mile trail illustrate the lifestyle of mountain farmers with interpretive signs for the self-guided tour. Costumed interpreters are on hand weekends and on select days throughout the summer to provide information and tales of the past. Farm animals, a real garden, mountain music, and more round out the experience. Visitor Center on site.
28. Grand Caverns
The Shenandoah Valley is full of caverns because of 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. This National Natural Landmark also provides picnic tables and shelters on the extensive grounds along the banks of the South River as well as hiking trails, a bike trail, miniature golf course, and other entertainment.
29. Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail and Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail
The Shenandoah Valley has a growing network of wineries and breweries nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, Appalachian, and Massanutten Mountains. With 12 breweries along the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail and 22 wineries on the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail, it is easy to find something to like in and around Staunton.
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 (Stonewall Brigade Band, #22). Admission is free and tours are available.
31. The Wildlife Center of Virginia
A hospital for native wildlife, the Wildlife Center of Virginia has been teaching the world to care for wildlife and the environment since 1982. From its center in Waynesboro adjacent to the George Washington National Forest at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, staff and volunteers are on call to provide emergency care for wild creatures from native birds to black bears. Check the events calendar for summer workshops, book reading, and to arrange tours. See how the late singer John Denver inspired a man to dedicating his life in wildlife conservation.
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
Formerly an executive pastry chef at The Homestead and Keswick Hall, Giancarlo opened his own shop to create unique and delectable offerings from his home. Giancarlo’s Fine European Pastries shop is tucked away in a former garage where he bakes and sells bread, superb cakes, candies, tarts, and pastries that have that extra flair. His retail shop is only open Friday and Saturday with a case full of goodies, and he specializes in that anything-but-ordinary wedding cake and adds exquisite details to everything. Located about three minutes from downtown Staunton, it 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. In 2016, MBC saw its last graduating class as a college before officially becoming a university.
35. Polyface Farm
Polyface, Inc. is a family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm and informational outreach located a short distance from Staunton. Joel Salatin has become known throughout the natural food community, leading seminars around the world about how to get back to nature with our food supply. There’s a store on the premises and visitors are welcome to walk around the farm on their own. Join them for Free Range Saturdays on June 18, July 16, and August 27. Details at the website.
36. R.R. Smith Center for History and Art / Staunton-Augusta Art Center
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 as well as the Staunton-Augusta Art Center, Historic Staunton Foundation and Augusta County Historical Society. Inside are art galleries, a lecture hall, library, and gift shop. Besides offering classes and workshops, the Center’s Memorial Garden is an oasis in downtown Staunton.
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 highest 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 to honor them was dedicated at 110 West 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. It is a reminder of the group’s tradition during concerts of sitting on stools and talking about family and home while singing gospel songs. 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 B&Bs to camping is 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 Staunton including: Depot Grille, Byers Street Bistro, Split Banana, Shenandoah Pizza, Mrs. Rowe’s, Clock Tower, Kline’s, Mill Street Grill, Cranberries, Pampered Palate, Zynodoa, Baja Bean Co., and Emilio’s. There’s also Joe’s Steak House, George Bowers Grocery, The Store, AVA Restaurant & Wine Bar, Taste of India, Mike Lund Food, and The Shack. Many of the chain restaurants are also available in the Staunton-Waynesboro area.
Photo by Lynn R. Mitchell