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11 Small Towns in Virginia With Big Charm

by Staff

It is certainly almost heaven in the state of Virginia. As home of the first permanent English settlement in the New World, the many small towns of Virginia continue to show big charm with their unique amenities and cultures. Wild ponies roam liberally in Chincoteague while students learn of freedom and equality in Farmville. Staunton and Onancock are villages filled with natural wonders, while Smithfield and Fredericksburg carry the scars of historic battles.

Virginia is a region where American liberty was born out of Patrick Henry’s statement, “Give me liberty or give me death,” in Richmond, and where freedom was won in the many battles of the Civil War. So spend your Thanksgiving where Thanksgiving first began (or on any other holiday of your convenience), and venture into these charming small towns of Virginia.

Chincoteague

Hotels by the marina in Chincoteague. Image credit Kosoff via Shutterstock.com

Chincoteague is a seaside town on an island sharing the same time. Situated in Virginia’s Eastern Shore region, Chincoteague is a gateway to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the adjacent island called Assateague Island. There, a unique breed of wild ponies roams majestically through the warm beaches and inland. One can ride out to view these gorgeous steeds with Queen Hive Farm. Aside from these sublime creatures, both Chincoteague and Assateague islands have an abundance of wildlife that you can survey in the “Scenic Nature Cruises.” You can also participate in crabbing and clamming on the wide beaches.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Chincoteague Island displays oyster-industry artifacts, model boats, and shipwreck dioramas. The Assateague Lighthouse is an excellent, towering vantage point of historic and modern value for the many ships and boats in the water. And if you are lucky, you might get a chance to see a small rocket launched from Wallops Island (the Barrier Island south of Chincoteague) by NASA, delivering supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). To top it off, you will want to spend your trip at the Anchor Inn, Marina Bay Hotel & Suites, or The Reef.

Abingdon

Street view in Abingdon, Virginia
Street in Abingdon, Virginia.

Only about two hours away from Roanoke, the town of Abingdon is located on what was called the Great Wagon Road or the Great Road. It was a wilderness route that many pioneers used to traverse the Blue Ridge Mountains. Today, visitors can get a hands-on experience of those pioneers’ hardships by exploring Abingdon’s many natural landmarks. The 2,190-mile footpath of the Appalachian Trail, for instance, meanders from Whitetop Laurel Creek to the cloud-hatted Mount Rogers and onwards to the ridgelines above Burkes Garden.

You can also wander into the Virginia Creeper Trail, a former train track that was converted into a 34-mile trail that connects Abingdon with its sister city, Damascus. Feel free to travel further into the untroubled Virginian landscape and kayak on the expansive Holston Lake. Or venture into the Great Channels, a labyrinth of boulders and crevices where many secrets await. When the sun begins to set, and it is time to return to the industrial nature of Abingdon, recharge and replenish at A Tailor’s Lodging, Black’s Fort Inn, or Creeper’s End Lodging.

Smithfield

St Lukes Church and Cemetery in Smithfield, Virginia.
St Lukes Church and Cemetery in Smithfield, Virginia.

With all the character and 18th and 19th-century architecture of a colonial seaport (minus the colonialism), the town of Smithfield is a charming place to get some sun and fun. Because of the town’s position along the Pagan River, Smithfield was a brief site of contention during the American Civil War. The Isle of Wight County Museum memorializes some of the wartime epochs of the period while also being home to the world’s oldest ham since 1902. In addition, a motley crew of bronze statues—made by acclaimed sculptor George Lundeen—welcomes visitors and residents alike. St. Luke’s Historic Church Museum, Virginia’s oldest brick church, stands as a vital symbol of Virginia’s American spirit. Lastly, the Smithfield Station and the Mansion at Main are some of the finest lodgings you can find in town.

Lexington

Historic downtown street in Lexington, Virginia.
Historic downtown of Lexington, Virginia. Image credit Kristi Blokhin via Shutterstock

Tucked in the Shenandoah Valley on the Maury River’s banks is the small town of Lexington. Long before Scottish, Irish, and German pioneers established a settlement in the area, regional peoples like the Monocan, Saponi, and Tutelo tribes dominated the valley. Today, two waysides commemorate two distinct individuals for their historic contributions. One, the Sam Houston Wayside, honors Sam Houston, former governor of Tennessee and Texas. The other, Goshen Pass Wayside, pays tribute to former VMI (Virginia Military Institute) professor Matthew Fontaine Maury, whose research on oceanography and mapmaking revolutionized maritime navigation.

The town is most famous for a 215-foot-high limestone arch aptly called the Natural Bridge. Nearby, McCormick Farm displays the prototype of the mechanical reaper that kick-started modern industrial agriculture. Meanwhile, the Miller’s House Museum provides lessons on the industrial and transportation heritage at Jordan’s Point. More importantly, Abigail Inn, The Georges, and Grace House are good examples of accommodations to stay at.

Onancock

Looking down a street in Onancock, Virginia.
Downtown Onancock, Virginia.

Onancock, “the Gem of the Eastern Shore,” as famed explorer John Smith once called it, continues to be a shining example of delightful Virginian simplicity. Only about 40 minutes from Chincoteague, experience watching an international film once a month in the Roseland Theater. Learn all about Onancock’s laidback and simple history in either the maritime museum (a small volunteer-run museum) or the Eastern Shore Historical Society.

Paddle through the vast and placid Onancock Creek, which trickles out into the expansive Chesapeake Bay, and explore numerous points like Onley Point and Bailey Point. You can also charter a ferry for the faraway Tangier Island every day from May to October. Survey the wonderfully artistic galleries and artisan studios that Onancock is famous for. Most of all, remember to book a room at The Inn at Onancock, The Charlotte Hotel, or The Spinning Wheel Bed & Breakfast.

Staunton

Buildings along Beverley St in Downtown Historic Staunton, Virginia.
Buildings along Beverley St in Downtown Historic Staunton, Virginia. Image credit Kyle J Little via Shutterstock.com

As one of the oldest cities west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Staunton is the kind of town that will enchant you. About 40 minutes from Lexington, board an old-school locomotive in Staunton at the Virginia Scenic Railway. From there, you can experience sublime and tranquil travels across Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Travel back in time at the Frontier Culture Museum and witness live performances displaying the life and customs of the various cultures that inhabited Shenandoah Valley.

Additionally, you can learn all about the 28th American President, Woodrow Wilson, in the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum. Do more exploring by trekking the Wilderness Road or Virginia’s Heritage Migration Route (closely related to the Great Road), where you can learn all about the early immigrations from Philadelphia. Then get comfortable at the Avid Hotel Staunton, Howard Johnson Express Inn, or The Blackburn Inn and Conference Center.

Farmville

Overlooking the Longwood University Campus in Farmville, Virginia.
The Longwood University Campus in Farmville, Virginia.

The small town of Farmville, only 65 miles west of Richmond, is home to two prestigious universities, Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College. History enthusiasts will love to explore High Bridge Trail State Park and Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park, two landmarks that memorialize the final battles of the Civil War. You might also be fascinated by the nearby Appomattox Court House, where Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant negotiated the terms of surrender to end the Civil War.

In addition, young people can feel inspired when touring the Robert Russa Moton Museum. It is an inspiring place that commemorates how a 16-year-old student named Barbara Rose Johns Powell led a strike against the Robert Russa Moton High School in 1951. This act later revolutionized Civil Rights awareness for years to come. Feel free to stay in the Hotel Weyanoke, Hilton Tru, or The Manor Cottages.

Luray

Downtown Luray in Virginia
Downtown Luray in Virginia.

Situated near Hawksbill Creek and Lake Arrowhead and about 90 miles west of Washington, DC, the town of Luray is a perfect place to go spelunking. Beneath the grassy earth awaits the country-famous Luray Caverns. It is a gargantuan expanse of subterranean passages with cathedral-sized chambers full of stalagmites and stalactites. It is also the largest cave system in the eastern US. Among the many attractions around that geographical wonder is the Stonyman Mining Company Gem Sluice, where kids and adults can get a hands-on experience of old-school, pioneering sluicing.

If you prefer taking your adventures up in the sunlight, then trek along Old Rag Mountain for vista-humbling views of the Shenandoah Valley. While walking through Luray’s quiet streets, listen to the 47 cast bells in the Luray Singing Tower, officially known as the Belle Brown Northcott Memorial. Finally, schedule a long respite in The Hawksbill House, Cardinal Inn, or Hotel Laurance.

Cape Charles

Aerial view of beach homes in Cape Charles, Virginia.
Beach homes in Cape Charles, Virginia. Image credit Kyle J. Little via IStock

The Eastern Shore of Virginia was one of the earliest colonized and busiest areas in America. Cape Charles, as a port city, is certainly no stranger to numerous visitors from all sorts of places. The Bay Coast Railroad transformed the town from farmlands and wetlands to a prosperous railroad town, establishing trade across the Chesapeake Bay to Norfolk. Today, Cape Charles continues to promote tourism.

Take a jubilant splash on the beach, where the waters of the vast Chesapeake Bay shine brightly in the sun. Consider a visit to the oldest library on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the Cape Charles Memorial Library. You might also be interested in walking the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 17.6-mile structure spanning the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Or stroll leisurely through the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge and Kiptopeke State Park. Keep in mind to find lodgings first at the Northampton Hotel, Fig Street Inn, or Hotel Cape Charles.

Occoquan

Historic Occoquan, Prince William County, Virginia.
Historic Occoquan, Prince William County, Virginia. Image credit Malachi Jacobs via Shutterstock.com

On the vibrant banks of the Occoquan River is the town of Occoquan. The entire town is a Historic District as a myriad of important though small events transpired there, from a visit by John Smith to the Doeg settlement of Tauxenent to other visits like the one by Thomas Jefferson. Occoquan is also renowned for its plentiful grist mills. Visitors can learn all about these significant grist mills in the Mill House Museum. Furthermore, you will enjoy scenic strolls through River Mill Park and Lake Ridge Park. Or walk along the historic Nathaniel Ellicott Bridge connecting Occoquan to Fairfax County. Occoquan’s street is laden with historical markers, from Civil War trails to well-preserved Victorian architecture, so be mindful and imaginative of where you are walking.

Fredericksburg

Street in old town Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Old town Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Fredericksburg is, as far as historians can note, the place where the American Civil War came to a brutal conclusion. Around the Rappahannock River are historical memorabilia of the last four major engagements between Union and Confederate soldiers. First, a ferocious battle in the whole of Fredericksburg in 1862. Then one in nearby Chancellorsville in 1863; next, the Battle of Wilderness (1864); and finally, the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse (1864). The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park now serves as a museum and a national cemetery for the graves of about 17,000 Union soldiers.

You might also be interested to know that President George Washington and his mother, Mary Washington, resided in Fredericksburg for many years. The Mary Washington House, Ferry Farm, is where Washington spent much of his boyhood, and Historic Kenmore was Washington’s sister’s, Betty Washington Lewis. Continue exploring Fredericksburg after getting acquainted with The Silk Mill, Kenmore Inn, or Silver Collection Hotel.

If you have been listening to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road” along your journey, then you have the right mood to soak in the big charms each Virginian small town has to offer. In a town like Fredericksburg, where George Washington lived and where the last Civil War battles took place, or in seaside locations like Cape Charles, which overlook the fathomless Chesapeake Bay, Virginia is not short of spectacular surprises. There are many more wonders in the hallowed land where the world-famous Mountain Dew was formed. So let the country roads take you to where you belong and experience a land where life is older than the trees and younger than the mountains.

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