With just a little research on where to visit in Virginia, you’ll find that Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Mount Vernon, and Monticello are huge history draws for tourism in Virginia. But there are plenty of significant destinations in Virginia that get a little less fanfare (and more importantly, smaller crowds). If you want to discover a few of Virginia’s historical gems without waiting in long lines or making reservations weeks in advance, add these locations to your itinerary.
With the Coal Heritage Trail running through Wise County, much of the town’s history deals with Virginia coal mining. This town was once a booming coal mining area, and some of the coal mines are still in operation today. In addition to coal, Wise is a mountain town, with the roots of the community firmly planted in Appalachia philosophy. Visitors will find that the traditions, culture, and heritage of southwest Virginia are still a part of everyday life in Wise.
Outdoor lovers will enjoy the nearby state and national parks, including Breaks Interstate Park, located in Dickinson and known as the “Grand Canyon of the South”. The Clinch River, running through Wise, is a popular outdoor destination for kayakers and canoers. For a glimpse of some of Virginia’s best scenery and wildlife, take a drive through the winding Appalachian backroads that surround Wise.
Stay at: The Inn at Wise is a historic gem in southwest Virginia that is over a century old, but the renovated interior gives an impression of elegance rather than age. Find more lodging options in Wise.
Dine: Get crisp pizza with a wide array of delicious topping at Moon Dog Brick Oven. This pie-crazy restaurant doesn’t stop at brick-oven pizzas; they serve pizza muffins and decadent dessert pizza, too. Not into pizza? Try one of these other restaurants in Wise.
Other Nearby Historic Destinations: Tour the Harry W. Meador Coal Museum and the Southwest Virginia Museum for a walk-through glimpse at early mountain living in Virginia. The Pocahontas Exhibition Mine and Museum in Tazewell is another interesting destination for visitors looking to learn more about the coal mining process, while the Richlands Coal Miners’ Memorial pays tribute to the workers that lost their lives in the mines.
Photography by Sam Dean
Outdoor Activities: Go off-roading on the Spear Head Trails, 60 miles of trails built specifically for ATVs and dirt bikes.
Fun Fact: Film fans can discover some of the same landmarks made famous by author Adriana Trigiani in her book Big Stone Gap, a book named after the real town less than 30 minutes from Wise. In 2013, she returned to her hometown to turn her well-known novel into a movie. Big Stone Gap tells a (somewhat) fictional account of growing up in a small southwestern Virginia town and stars Whoopi Goldberg, Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, Jenna Elfman, and Jane Krakowski.
Westmoreland sits at the top of the Northern Neck, a coastal Virginia region bordered by the Potomac River to the North, the Rappahannock River to the South, and the Chesapeake Bay on the east. Because of the peninsular geography, visitors find that a great deal of the historical accounts in the area involve water. For instance, Captain John Smith once journeyed up the Rappahannock as a captive of the Powhatan Indians and made landfall on the Northern Neck. This is the first recorded history of a European arriving in the Northern Neck of Virginia.
Many important Virginians were born and raised in Westmoreland, including President’s George Washington and James Monroe. The fourth President of the United States, James Madison, was also born nearby on the Northern Neck in Port Conway. Today, Westmoreland and the Northern Neck region is well known for fishing and agriculture.
Stay at: The Bell House Bed & Breakfast in Colonial Beach overlooks the Potomac River, making it one of the most stunning locations in Virginia to take in a sunrise. The owners provide endless hospitality, creating an atmosphere of genteel manners and etiquette that speak to eras gone by, while including comfortable amenities that you expect in an upscale bed and breakfast.
Another option is the Inn at Stratford Hall, where guests can stay in accommodations and explore over 2,000 acres of untouched nature, all located on the sprawling grounds of Robert E. Lee’s ancestral home. The Inn has a restaurant on the property as well, creating fine Southern dishes that reflect the history of the area.
Stay at the Belle Grove Plantation Bed & Breakfast in King George for an authentic historic experience. This B&B sits on the banks of the Rappahannock River and offers elegant accommodations with historically decorated rooms and gourmet breakfasts.
Dine: For fresh seafood in an historic atmosphere, eat at the Inn at Montross. Another option is The Chesapeake Restaurant at the Tides Inn in Irvington, and while it is almost an hour away, their impressive menu makes it worth the drive.
Other Historic Destinations: Washington’s first home has not survived over the years, but the place is marked by the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, which is still open to the general public for tours. The birthplace of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee, Stratford Hall, is still standing and holds daily tours. Another notable historic spot is Gunston Hall, the residence of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a framer of the United States Constitution.
Outdoor Activities: Learn how to navigate the bay waters with Norton’s Sailing Classes, or traverse the waters yourself and rent kayaks and paddleboards from Jackson Creek Outfitter’s, both in Deltaville.
Fun Fact: The Northern Neck is the birthplace of three of the first five U.S. presidents. And it seems like the wildlife is fully aware of this fact; eagles flock to the Northern Neck in some of the highest numbers seen on the eastern seaboard.
Originally a town where trappers, traders, and hunters gathered, Floyd’s historical significance has spread to include music, culture, and a strong literary scene. The town sits on the famous “Crooked Road”, the heritage music trail where the mountain songs and the region’s deeply religious roots helped shape new musical genres. For a look at how Floyd contributed to the American music scene, stop by Floyd Country Store on the weekends. There, you’ll find live music and dancing during the Friday Night Jamboree, Americana tunes played on Saturday afternoons, and traditional mountain music played each Sunday. No matter what time of year you visit Floyd, live music will always be on the schedule.
Stay at: There are a few options for accommodations located right in Floyd, and less than 30 minutes away, Woodberry Inn in nearby Meadows of Dan offers beautiful grounds, a fantastic cocktail bar, and a popular restaurant. Right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, the inn attracts guests looked to hike or bike in the region. If you are looking for unbeatable scenery, there are several parkway overlooks close to the inn where you can get a front-row seat to nature’s gorgeous views.
Dine: Wine fans should consider dining at Chateau Morrisette Winery and Restaurant, where delicious meals are paired with their excellent wines, made right on the property. Some notable dishes include the Virginia littleneck clam starter, steamed in Chardonnay, and the bacon-wrapped stuffed trout, served with haricot vert (more commonly known as green beans) and a savory sauce made with tomatoes, lemon juice, and hazelnuts.
For a more budget-friendly option, try Mabry Mill Restaurant in Meadows of Dan, less than a 30 minute drive from Floyd. The restaurant is located right beside the historic Mabry Mill, an iconic Virginia landmark, and serves Southern favorites like pulled pork barbecue and chicken pot pie along with hearty breakfast options that are served all day long.
Other Historic Destinations: Nearby Mabry Mill is a restored sawmill, gristmill, woodworking shop, and blacksmith shop. Learn forgotten skills like spinning, weaving, and seat caning during your visit to the mill.
Outdoor Activities: Fairy Stone State Park is open year-round and has numerous trails for hiking, as well as rowboats, canoes, paddle boats, and hydro-bikes available to rent and take out on the park’s lake. Camp overnight at the on-site campgrounds or rent a cabin for the entire family. Discover a spectacular view of the Virginia mountains (as well as a very romantic backstory) from Lover’s Leap, a popular viewpoint in Meadows of Dan.
Fun Fact: The area has a very unique, interesting culture that differs from the surrounding counties. This is because of a popular hippie movement that thrived there in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Named “One of a Dozen Distinctive Destinations in the United States” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Staunton is known for its historic architecture. There are six historic neighborhoods within Staunton that are protected by local ordinances that prevent modern day from encroaching on the striking architecture.
In addition to preserved buildings, you’ll find many other historic sites in Staunton. The Frontier Culture Museum reconstructs farm life in both Europe and America over the centuries, teaching visitors about harvests, livestock care, blacksmith work, and every other aspect of life on a 17th 18th, or 19th century farm. Head to President Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace and take a tour of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, the only Presidential Library in Virginia.
Stay at: The Berkeley House Bed & Breakfast, a historical mansion with modern conveniences, is right across the street from Woodrow Wilson’s birthplace. The Montclair is a bed and breakfast in downtown Staunton run by gracious hosts, Sheri and Mark Bang. Another downtown lodging is the Frederick House, a small hotel that provides comfort and charm along with a full hot breakfast every morning.
Dine: Award-winning Zynodoa serves southern cuisine that emphasizes local ingredients. For a real treat, try the four-course Chef Tasting Menu with the wining pairing. Find more dining options in Staunton here.
Fun Fact: Staunton came out of the Civil War as one of the only towns in the region virtually untouched by battles. Many of the 18th and 19th century buildings still stand, preserved and untouched by the destruction of the war.
When George Washington’s family left Westmoreland, they packed up and moved to Fredericksburg. This area holds history from almost every significant time period, dating back to when Native Americans occupied the territory. Fredericksburg acted as a munitions hub during the Revolutionary War, has five major battle sites from the Civil War, and was an important region in African American history, as well.
James Monroe also lived in Fredericksburg before he moved to Charlottesville, and there is a commemorative museum where visitors can find the President’s belongings, writings, and even clothing. Robert E. Lee’s acquaintance with the area was more than passing; the Confederate general fought several battles here, using the Rappahannock River to the north of the town as a defense line. Along with the battlefields in town, the nearby sites at Chancellorsville and Wilderness can all be visited in one day, making the area a huge attraction for Civil War buffs.
Stay at: There are several luxurious, historic lodging options around Fredericksburg. A few of our picks are Lavender Heights Bed and Breakfast, Kenmore Inn Bed and Bistro, or Braehead Manor Bed and Breakfast, a B&B made famous as the spot that General Lee took breakfast before heading out to the battlefield at Lee’s Hill.
Dine: If you enjoy meals derived from local organic sources, eat at either FoodE or Kybecca, a restaurant that uses seasonal, local ingredients, including fresh Virginia oysters, to craft an inspired menu. Plus, the cocktails are out of this world!
Other Historic Destinations: It seems like every time you turn around in Fredericksburg, you can find even more history! The Historic Kenmore Plantation & Gardens, built by George Washington’s sister and her husband, shows how pre-Revolutionary War merchants in the area lived in both wealth and status. The John J. Wright Educational & Cultural Center Museum teaches visitors about African American education in the area and its transformation during integration. At the Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop, you can study common medical practices before the Revolutionary War, including the use of leeches for curing ailments.
Fun Fact: About ten miles outside of Fredericksburg in Chancellorsville, there is a grave where Stonewall Jackson’s arm is buried, which he lost in the most notorious account of “friendly fire” ever recorded.
Virginia is absolutely full of history, and planning a trip around these lesser-known historical destinations gives you a peek behind the scenes of our country’s great origin story. Find information on the birth of the nation, the Revolutionary War, the downfall of slavery and the Confederacy, and much more when you visit these five often-overlooked historical towns. We’ve told you a few of ours; what are your favorite places for history in Virginia?