Lexington, Virginia: An Ideal Getaway For Enjoying The Bounty Of The Blue Ridge Mountains

  • Saturday, May 27, 2023
  • Ann N. Yungmeyer

Home to Washington & Lee University (WLU) and Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Lexington, Virginia is best known as a college town. It frequently garners a spot on lists of “Best Small Towns” and deservedly so, as it thrives on the rich cultural and historical aspects of the two institutions, and much more. Lexington’s charming town center is set on a hill with colonial brick and cottage architecture housing attractive boutiques, cafes, restaurants and lodging. Its appeal stretches into surrounding Rockbridge County, dotted with family-owned farms, orchards, vineyards and breweries. This area of the southern Shenandoah Valley boasts an array of local makers who are proud to keep artisanal traditions alive, and the hills are also a hub for scenic drives and outdoor recreation along the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail.

Having spent many parent weekends in the college town, I always emphasized “in Virginia” when mentioning Lexington because Tennesseans nearly always associate the name with Kentucky. I’ve since learned that there are 25 Lexingtons in the U.S. (Lexington, Va. was the second city so named for Lexington, Mass., site of the first shots of the American Revolutionary War.)

I recently made a return visit and walked familiar routes through campus and town, popping into timeless shops like Pappagallo, Artists in Cahoots and Sweet Things, and discovering reimagined spaces that are now new eateries, brewpubs and lovely hotel accommodations. I was reminded of why this so called “small town with a big back yard” is easy to love; its natural beauty and variety of attractions make it a fun getaway or stopover while driving Interstate 81 or I-64. Here are some of my choices for how to fill a few days.

Delve into history, stroll and browse

Stay in the heart of town at The Georges, a hotel consisting of five refurbished historic buildings along Main St., named for George Washington, George Marshall, and maybe others! The well-appointed rooms come with nice amenities including heated bathroom floors and towel racks, and the locations are convenient for browsing the galleries and shops.

Clip clop through town and get your bearings on a carriage tour with Lexington Carriage Company. The drivers are well versed in area history, from Native American inhabitants and early European settlement in the 1730s, to stories of Lexington’s famous citizens. Along the tour, the Haflinger draft horses pause in front of historic attractions, including the Stonewall Jackson home (circa 1800), now a museum.

Have an intimate dinner at The Red Hen, a long-time favorite small restaurant featuring local produce from Shenandoah Valley farms, a fine wine list and creative cocktails.

Architecture, museums and a scenic country drive

Stroll the grounds of the two schools, connected by sidewalks, to see their distinctive architecture. Both are National Historic Landmarks; VMI of simple Gothic Revival style and WLU of Roman Revival featuring a classical Colonnade. VMI was founded in 1839, the oldest state-run military institute. A statue of George Marshall, who taught at the post, is a focal point in front of the barracks, and VMI Museum is a highlight for visitors, honoring the nation’s military heritage with an extensive collection of artifacts and artillery.

WLU was established as Augusta Academy by Scots-Irish settlers in 1749, later renamed to honor George Washington and Robert E. Lee who at various times saved the college from financial demise. A museum on the lower level of University Chapel depicts the history of the institution and informs with changing exhibits. Lee was president of the college from 1865-1870, and his famous horse Traveler is buried beside the Chapel. Nearby, the horse stall doors remain open following popular legend that his spirit can return freely.

Grab lunch at Pure Eats at the former Pure Oil “filling station.” It’s a favorite for casual fare, famous for its juicy burgers and fresh-made donuts.

Take a country drive north of town to Wades Mill and McCormick Farm. You can arrange a tour at Wades Mill, a working flourmill dating from the 1750s with a magnificent water wheel and original mechanisms. The mill Gift Shop offers freshly milled grains including grits, corn muffin mixes and kitchen accessories. Nearby is Cyrus McCormick Farm, where the grain reaper was invented, launching a mechanical revolution in farming. Wander the site and browse exhibits in the recreated gristmill and blacksmith shop.

Visit Rockbridge Vineyard and Brewery, a longstanding winery growing varietals including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling and buying from local growers to produce about 7,000 cases of wine per year. Try a tasting of award-winning wines at the magnificent round bar constructed from an antique silo. Rockbridge also crafts small batch beer and is a recent addition on the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail, a network of 17 breweries in the valley. There’s also a Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail, of which Rockbridge is a member.

Back in town, have dinner at Haywood’s Piano Bar and Grill, where French Chef Xavier prepares local, ingredient-driven cuisine. If you’re in town on a Wednesday morning you might catch him at Lexington Farmers Market selecting produce for the evening meal. He was happy for us to follow along with him and hear his menu plans, based on what’s fresh and in season.

Tastes of the countryside

Start your day back at Haywood’s for freshly baked croissants and coffee offered by Season’s Yield Farm. A variety of wood-fired, naturally leavened breads and pastries is carted in Mon.- Sat. mornings from the family-owned farm and bakery, which also makes maple syrup from local maple trees. Season’s Yield offers a farm-stay Airbnb above the bakery and twice monthly “Bread Days” on Saturdays at the farm.

Explore more of Rockbridge County with a visit to Tantivy Lavender Farm and several vineyards and breweries. Meet Brian and Penny Ross, who began lavender farming after retiring from the equestrian world at Lexington’s state-of-the-art Virginia Horse Center. Stop by their Gift Shop for handmade lavender products, take a hike through the 54-acre farm, or relax and enjoy the mountain views from the Gift Shop porch.

Ecco Adesso Vineyards is a newly opened vineyard that sits on a lush property offering a selection of Virginia wines and ciders plus Airbnb lodging, hiking trails, peach picking from their orchard (in fall), goat yoga and other events. Call ahead to enjoy a tasting with local cheeses in the cellar or to plan your bespoke countryside vineyard experience.

Great Valley Farm Brewery and Winery offers hard-to-beat panoramic views at this combo brewery/winery at the southern end the Beerwerks Trail. Owner Nathan Bailey moved to Rockbridge County about 10 years ago with a passion for quality beer. He specializes in Belgian style farmhouse ales, and in 2019, he began producing wines from Austrian and French varietals grown on the farm and at other Shenandoah Valley vineyards. Try a Hibiscus Wit Beer or a glass of Gruner Veltliner for an excellent refreshment while relaxing in Adirondack chairs overlooking the valley.

Don’t miss Happy Hour at Heliotrope Brewing – the only Beerwerks stop in downtown Lexington. Owners Erik Jones (a WLU alum) and Jenefer Davies moved from Portland, Oregon, to start the brewpub with a distinctive focus on seasonal flavors of the Shenandoah Valley. Their ales and lagers utilize regional malt and locally foraged microflora; wood-fired pizza and small bites are made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Heliotrope’s whimsically named artisan beers such as “Trust Your Mechanic,” “Wiffleball Umpire” and “The Brixton Sun” will tease your curiosity – it’s best to order a flight.

Dinner at Southern Inn – For classic southern cuisine with a modern twist, this Main Street mainstay is a favorite for signature dishes such as fried chicken, mac and cheese and cider-braised greens. Be sure to try the cheese plate, fresh-made locally at Mountain View Farm.

Enjoy the outdoors

Take a walk on the Chessie Nature Trail, a former C&O rail line that connects Lexington and the quaint town of Buena Vista, or enjoy a picnic at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Make time for a stop at Natural Bridge State Park, home of a geologically formed rock bridge estimated to be 500 million years old. You can walk under the bridge on a nice creek-side path that leads to a waterfall. Natural Bridge is an International Dark Sky Park that hosts stargazing nights and year-round events.

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Ann N. Yungmeyer is a freelance travel writer. Read more of her work at www.annyungmeyer.wordpress.com

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