Why are people from around the world flocking to Staunton, Virginia, a little railroad town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley?
Staunton, pronounced “Stant-on,” isn’t content to merely be a scenic historic stop 10 miles west of the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can’t call it “a quiet valley town,” as they host world-class music performances and a wildly popular Shakespeare theater. The hometown of President Woodrow Wilson and David McCullough’s favorite museum also has sophisticated dining featuring the bounty of the Shenandoah Valley.
What to do. When you took a college Shakespeare class, did you find yourself zoning out, only to perk up at the descriptions of double entendres? The mighty Bard has whole new life breathed into him at the American Shakespeare Theater's Blackfriars Playhouse.
Blackfriars itself is a recreation of the original 16th-century Blackfriars Theatre, with simple backdrops and the same lighting in the audience as on stage. It’s considered one of the most historically accurate and important theaters in the world for Elizabethan-era plays. Each show begins with a musical prelude by the actors, transforming popular songs into Renaissance-like ditties. For the most fun, get a seat onstage, where the actors will mess with you Don Rickles–style.
Have you despaired that the future of American musicians is in people like Ke$ha? Fret not! Internationally renowned violinist Daniel Heifetz has moved his summer music institute to Staunton’s Mary Baldwin College. Catch the young stars of tomorrow – as taught by the greatest of living virtuosos – in live performances throughout the season.
Hometown hero President Woodrow Wilson was forced by circumstances into the modern-era spotlight. Learn more about him and see cool artifacts – including his Pierce-Arrow limousine driven in local parades – at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum(left). Don’t miss the newest exhibit in the basement, which recreates a WWI underground bunker to harrowing detail.
Bruce Elder Antique and Classic Automobiles is known around the world for its cool vintage vehicles, and the store/body shop serves as a museum of sorts. It’s conveniently located a block from the visitor’s center.
Recreation of a 1700s Irish-immigrant homestead.
Living, breathing history: that’s why Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough loves the Frontier Culture Museum. Several farms of different settler cultures from the 1600s and 1700s are recreated, including English, Irish, German, American and West African. (A Native American farm is in the works.) Wear comfy walking shoes to see the heirloom animals in stunning scenery and talk to learned reenactor educators.
On the edge of the historic part of town by the railroad tracks, the “Wharf District,” there are a number of hidden things to do. Besides antique and coffee shops, there’s live glass-blowing at Sunspots Studios(see video below). American-made art glass is becoming a rare thing and Sunspots Studios has beautiful examples of it. Also in the Wharf District is Ox-Eye Tasting Room, located in a historic building with wines from a local family farm and local art.
The R.R. Smith Center for History and Art holds special events, has local genealogy information, exhibits local artists and sells their works in the museum store.
What to eat.Cranberry’s Grocery and Eatery is somewhere in the middle ground between hippie health food store and "Whole Paycheck." Go there for the customized fresh fruit smoothie and relaxing atmosphere.
Zynodoa is the ancient name for “Shenandoah.” Today, it’s a restaurant with a passionate commitment to serving the bounty of the Shenandoah Valley in a sleek environment that would be at home in NYC. The list of the local farms, foragers, purveyors, vineyards and breweries used at Zynodoa is astounding. The ingredients go into Southern-inspired dishes with definitely modern takes.
Where to stay. The Stonewall Jackson Hotel, opened in 1924, was a place where society weddings and debutante cotillions once took place. Grandly located on top of a hill, it overlooks downtown. Their original Wurlitzer is the only 1924 Wurlitzer organ still playable. The hotel has modern amenities, too: a full service restaurant, indoor pool/hot tub, WiFi and pet friendly.