By Michael Balderston
This hidden gem is praised for having one of the best main streets by the likes of The USA Today, The Huffington Post and Travel + Lesiure. Founded in 1747, Staunton is often referred to as the “Queen City” of the Shenandoah Valley and is quickly becoming a hotbed of culture, offering activities for either the perfect family getaway or a romantic weekend.
All the accolades have brought a lot of attention. Since the Smithsonian dubbed Staunton one of the nation’s best small towns, tourism has not only increased, but the demographics of their visitors have changed as well.
“We are attracting younger audiences,” says Sheryl Wagner, director of tourism for Staunton, “because of our arts and culture offerings.”
As a rail junction in during the 19th century, Staunton was a popular place for traveler’s to come and see operas and vaudeville shows. Though the entertainment may have changed, Staunton’s Red Brick District keeps that cultural spirit alive with music festivals throughout the year, art galleries and live performances.
Chief among them is the Blackfriars Playhouse, home to the American Shakespeare Company. Built in 2001, the Blackfriars Playhouse is the only recreation of the bard’s original indoor theater in the world. Christina Sayer Grey, marketing manager for the ASC, said they don’t “just recreate Shakespeare’s theatre space,” but rather they recreate “the experience that you would have had” during Shakespeare’s time.
The theater achieves this by sharing the same light with the audience, so they can see each other and interact as actors in Elizabethan times did with their audiences. Among the shows currently playing are “Macbeth,” “The Comedy of Errors” and “Edward II.” Performances are put on year round. Tickets range from $24 to $50.
Another hot spot, no pun intended, is Sunspot Studios and Glass Blowing, where patrons can get a live look at the art form and purchase their beautiful creations. During the holiday season you can even get firsthand experience and blow your own Christmas ornament.
Staunton is also birthplace of our 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, and home to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum. Though not as lavish as the homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the museum features the president’s birthplace, a restored version of his personal limousine and a beautiful period garden.
There are also a number of natural riches to experience in and around Staunton. Less than half-an-hour away are both Grand Caverns Regional Park and Natural Chimney Regional Park. Explore what it was like to live during the early years of American settlement with the living history Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia. Or you can take a scenic drive along the famous Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway.
Staunton has also become a destination for quality southern cuisine. Sit down for a fine dinner at Zynodoa, whose menu changes constantly as all of their food comes daily from local farms, or go more casual at The Shack, known for its burger and prix fixe menus.
For the complete Staunton experience, however, stay at or visit their historical Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center located in the heart of downtown. One of 11 Virginia hotels recognized as a Historic Hotel of America, Stonewall Jackson Hotel was been around since 1924 and was built by H.L. Stevens and designed in his colonial revivalist style.
“The story of Staunton has kind of been a secret for all these years,” says Wagner. “People are finally realizing what [the city] has to offer.” Be sure you discover Staunton for yourself.