Photo by Theresa G. Medoff
Walking around downtown Staunton today, it can be hard to imagine at first that this picturesque city in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was a commercial hub for nearly a century, from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, with numerous hotels near the train station serving travelers and as many as 35 passenger and freight trains daily stopping at the railroad station. (Today, Amtrak serves Staunton three times a week.) But an attentive stroll around the town center dispels that skepticism as the layers of architecture reveal the city’s nearly three centuries of history.
Staunton (pronounced as if there were no “u” in the word)—founded in 1747 and one of the oldest towns west of the Blue Ridge Mountains—may not be the bustling center of industry and trade that it once was, but it can entice today’s visitors with museums, performing arts, restaurants and shops. And it’s all served up in a setting that feels at once quaint and vibrant, thanks to locals intent on preserving the architecture of the past while bringing new life to the Augusta County seat.
Spend your first day exploring Staunton’s main commercial districts and surrounding neighborhoods, all of which can be seen in a few hours—not counting time for shopping, that is. The best strategy is to tour first and return later to browse. Don’t pass up the Wharf neighborhood near the train station with shops and restaurants in old warehouse buildings. It’s not a literal wharf, but a figurative one, so-called for its bustling commerce back in the day.
If it’s Saturday, head to the Historic Staunton Foundation at the R.R. Smith Center for History and Art to join the free two-hour walking tour, offered at 10 a.m. from May through October. Otherwise, pick up the foundation’s brochure A Self-Guided Tour of Staunton’s Historic Districts, and then set out on your own to explore the five neighborhoods in the downtown area listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Downtown Staunton is known for its varied architecture.
Photo by Theresa G. Medoff
Some 200 Staunton buildings were designed by just one architecture firm, T.J. Collins and Sons. From 1891 to 2006, the firm (later run by Collins’ sons and grandson) designed government and commercial buildings and private homes in a surprisingly broad repertoire of styles, from Romanesque Revival and Second Empire to Mediterranean Revival and Arts and Crafts.
If you’re a fan of Tiffany, be sure to stop at the Neo-Gothic Trinity Episcopal Church, which has 12 exquisite stained-glass windows by Tiffany.
At some point in your wanderings, your stomach will start to growl. Prime lunch spots in town include the healthful choices at Cranberry’s Grocery and Eatery and the gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches served at Yelping Dog. Bring home a bottle or two from Yelping Dog’s excellent wine selection.
The home where President Woodrow Wilson was born
Photo courtesy of Staunton CVB
After lunch, head to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. Wilson, who was born in Staunton, was a two-term president best known for leading the country through World War I and being the architect of the League of Nations, predecessor to the United Nations. Take a guided tour of Wilson’s early home, and then peruse the well-done museum about his life and the major themes of his presidency. The exhibit on World War I is particularly effective.
Dinner and the Theater
For dinner, consider Zynodoa, which serves up contemporary fare à la carte or in a four-course tasting menu. A chalkboard at the back of the restaurant lists the local farms, dairies and purveyors from which ingredients are sourced. Be sure to try the fried oyster appetizer, a staple on the menu, and the cornbread, which was written up recently in the Los Angeles Times. Other options include Aioli for Mediterranean cuisine and Mill Street Grill, featuring traditional American fare (think barbeque ribs, crab cakes and beef sirloin) in a repurposed turn-of-the-20th-century White Star flour mill.
Plan an early dinner because you’ll need to finish in time for the 7:30 p.m. performance at the American Shakespeare Center. If you’re still scarred from high-school English and tend to avoid Shakespeare, you’ll want to overcome your hesitation because a performance at the American Shakespeare Center is a treat.
Plays are performed year-round at the American Shakespeare Center.
Photo courtesy of American Shakespeare Center
The intimate theater, Blackfriars Playhouse, is the only re-creation in the world of Shakespeare’s indoor theater. In this period setting, the actors perform Shakespeare as it was done during the Renaissance, complete with audience interaction and, when called for, broad slapstick humor. The accomplished acting makes the works accessible, even if the actors are speaking 16th-century English. Matinee and evening performances are given year-round.
Staunton Music Festival
Photo courtesy of Staunton CVB
If you’re a classical music lover, you’ll want to put these 2019 dates on your calendar: August 16–25 for the Staunton Music Festival, which offers 30 chamber music performances in 10 days, and June 30–August 9 for Heifetz Summer, a series of 50 day and evening concerts performed by advanced string players ages 13 to 27 who are studying at the Heifetz International.
Music Institute in Staunton
Bed down at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel & Conference Center, a modern reincarnation of a hotel that opened in 1924. It’s adjacent to Blackfriars Playhouse and just a few minutes’ walk from all of downtown Staunton. Also nearby is the charming Frederick House, a boutique hotel in repurposed historic buildings.
A spiral staircase at the Blackburn Inn.
Photo courtesy of The Blackburn Inn
Or stay just outside the town center at the newly opened Blackburn Inn, a boutique hotel in a building that served first as part of Western State Hospital and then as Staunton Correctional Institute until 2002. The 1828 building was designed by Thomas Jefferson protégé Thomas R. Blackburn. Its elegant arches, classical moldings and two-and-a-half-story cupola contrast nicely with the hotel’s sleek contemporary décor.
Start your morning with coffee and pastries at Reunion Bakery & Café or a full breakfast at Farmhouse Kitchen and Wares. After fueling up, it’s time for touring.
If last night’s Shakespeare performance has you wanting more, Blackfriars Playhouse gives guided tours of the theater Monday through Saturday. Or, stroll over to the Camera Heritage Museum, a gem for anyone interested in photography or cameras. Photographer and curator David Schwartz began collecting cameras as a teen, and the museum’s collection now approaches 6,000 cameras, about a third of which are stuffed into the front of Schwartz’s camera store on Beverley Street. You’ll see tiny cameras used by spies; a sort of early GoPro called the Cycle Poco; Brownie and Fotodisc cameras; and examples of photo technology, including early daguerreotypes, an original photo of Abraham Lincoln and the John Wilkes Booth family album.
For a retro lunch, hop in the car and head to Wright’s Dairy Rite, a family-owned burger joint that looks as if it hasn’t changed since opening in 1952. Dine at the Formica tables inside, or order from your car and have a carhop bring your food to you. The milkshakes are particularly good.
An interpreter performs field work at the Frontier Culture Museum’s German farm.
Photo courtesy of Frontier Culture Museum
You have one more sightseeing stop this afternoon: the Frontier Culture Museum. Long before Americans were settling the Midwest or heading out on the Oregon Trail—back in the mid- to late-1700s—western Virginia was, indeed, the frontier. Using outdoor exhibits, period buildings and living history interpreters, the Frontier Culture Museum tells the story of how a distinctively American folk culture developed in the region out of the cultures of the peoples who settled here. Eleven homesteads represent the Old World (West Africa, England, Ireland and Germany) and the New. A two-mile path wends through the exhibit area, with golf carts providing transportation for those who need it.
A costumed interpreter at the 1820s American Farm at the Frontier Culture Museum
Photo courtesy of frontier culture museum
After wrapping up a satisfying two-day visit to Staunton, you certainly won’t question why the city has raked in accolades, including being named recently as one of the 8 Small Southern Towns to Visit in 2018 by USA Today, one of the 30 Most Beautiful Main Streets Across America by Architectural.
Digest and one of America’s Favorite Towns by Travel + Leisure. Instead, the only question left will be this: When are you coming back?
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of AAA World.