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Small wonders in Virginia

Courtesy Virginia Tourism Corp.

Groups today are looking for authentic experiences when they travel, and small-town downtowns, where people greet you on the street and you often meet the owners at local shops, stores and restaurants, are great places for such experiences.

Here is a sampling of small and medium-size towns from various areas of Virginia that have vibrant and interesting downtowns that make great group visits.


In the heart of Virginia’s horse and wine country, Warrenton exudes small-town charm.
“People here have done a good job of maintaining that small-town, historical feel,” said Catherine Payne, tourism coordinator for the Fauquier County Department of Economic Development.

The 200-year-old town has a comfortable mix of retail, dining and history, much of it centered along Main Street in the Old Town area.

“We have several museums,” said Jennifer Heyns, director of Partnership for Warrenton, the town’s Main Street development program, “and tons of historic places around town.”

Among them are the Old Jail Museum; the Liberty Heritage Museum; the former home of Confederate hero John S. Mosby, which will open later this year as a museum; the cemetery with Civil War dead; a statue of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, who once lived in Warrenton; and the building from whose balcony Union Gen. George B. McClellan bid farewell to his troops after being fired by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.

Within easy walking distance of this history are locally owned shops and restaurants such as the Black Bear Bistro, Molly’s Irish Pub and Claire’s at the Depot, located in the historic former train depot.

“The Iron Bridge Wine Company is casual but elegant at the same time,” said Jackson. “It has a small-town feel in an old building but encapsulates the wine country.

“We have a really neat high-end consignment shop, a wine and gift shop and a fair-trade store, Latitudes. It’s a nice mix of retailers.” 

When city officials proposed closing part of downtown Charlottesville to create a pedestrian mall in the 1970s, there were many skeptics. However, the mall has been a huge success and is a focal point of the historic town, which is marking its 250th anniversary this year.

“It’s a half-mile long and features numerous privately owned shops, art galleries and restaurants,” said Brigitte Bélanger-Warner, director of sales and marketing for the Charlottesville/Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And there are a couple of attractions as well.”

At one end of the mall is the Main Street Arena, where people can ice skate all year, and at the Glass Palette, an interactive glass-art studio, visitors can do a glassblowing project.

“It [The mall] has so much character,” said Bélanger-Warner, who noted that during warm weather, there are many opportunities to casually sit at outdoor cafes or on park benches and shop at sidewalk vendors.

“You can enjoy a meal outside away from the sound of cars,” she said. “It is very welcoming. People want to come and spend time on the mall. The pavement is all brick; it is very Jeffersonian and Virginia decor.”

There are also venues for entertainment. A pavilion is the site of outdoor concerts, including free concerts on Friday afternoons to welcome the weekend.

“The Paramount Theatre, which hosts many productions as well as concerts, and the Jefferson Theater, where Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band started his career, are right on the downtown mall,” said Bélanger-Warner.


Downtown Harrisonburg is surrounded by restored 19th- and early-20th-century buildings filled with a variety of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.

“Downtown offers self-guided walking tours, historic churches, farmers market, pocket parks and events,” said Emily DeBenedetto, tourism marketing specialist for Harrisonburg Tourism and Visitor Services. “You can shop, dine, visit museums and art galleries, or take in a show, foreign film or live music at Court Square Theatre.”

DeBenedetto recommended starting a downtown visit at the Hardesty-Higgins House Visitor Center, home to the Valley Turnpike Museum and the Civil War Orientation Center, followed by a stroll down Main Street with visits to shops along the street and the year-round Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market.

“Downtown shopping has several local favorites,” she said. “For example, Glen’s Fair Price is considered Harrisonburg’s most unusual store. Find something memorable at All Things Virginia, or dress for vacation success with a visit to the unusual clothing boutique the Yellow Button.

“Stop by the Oasis Gallery to view their collection of fine arts and crafts.”

There are more than two-dozen locally owned restaurants in the downtown area, with cuisine ranging from Thai-fusion and Ethiopian to Greek. Several restaurants feature local produce from the surrounding Shenandoah Valley.

Among the local favorites are Clementine’s Cafe, Dave’s Downtown Taverna, Jack Brown’s Local Chop and Grill House, and the newly opened Capital Ale House featuring nearly 100 ales and lagers on tap.

You can also visit the Harrisonburg Fire Department Museum and stroll through the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum and Botanical Garden.