Walkable Downtown Lexington, Virginia
Lexington, the southern gateway city to the Shenandoah Valley, is easy to explore on foot.
Written by Hope S. Philbrick, editor Foodie Travel USA.
If you battle traffic as part of your daily commute, the chance to ditch your car for a few days feels like its own breath of fresh air. Add in mountain views, quaint architecture, legendary heroes, friendly people, creative arts, and tasty local cuisine for an even sweeter experience.
Convenient access from home to work and play has been a way of life in Lexington, Virginia, since 1777. So leave the stress of driving behind, put on your walking shoes, and come visit. You can park for free at the Visitor Center and explore historic downtown Lexington without getting back into your car, however long you decide to stay.
While strolling the sidewalks be sure to look down: The distinctive bricks were made in the Chilhowie Brick Plant from 1880 to 1910. The brick’s iconic patterned textures were designed to help horses and pedestrians get traction on the steep hills. Originally used to pave Lexington’s streets, the bricks were eventually moved to the sidewalks where they remain today.
The brick pattern has been adopted as a symbol of Lexington. You can find it emblazoned on jewelry, pottery, glass pieces, T-shirts, and other creations at several boutique shops throughout the city. Gallery Row (W. Washington St.) is home to multiple studios showcasing works by local and regional artists. The Cabell Gallery of Fine Art focuses on contemporary emerging and established artists working in a range of mediums from paintings to furnishings. Earth, Fire & Spirit Pottery showcases functional and decorative pottery by Amber Poole, Daniel Caruthers, and Jessy Poole-Caruthers. Their artistic, hand-made, high-fire reduction stoneware is based on family recipes and traditions handed down through generations. Artists in Cahoots offers an eye-popping collection of arts, crafts, and gifts items by artisans and crafters of the Shenandoah Valley. The Nelson Gallery spotlights one or more select artists each month, plus continually carries works by a group of local artists. Stroll the galleries of downtown Lexington on the first Friday of each month from 5 to 7 p.m. to enjoy art, live music, and wine tastings.
Beyond art, shopping... options abound. Find vintage furniture as well as restored, repainted, and refinished pieces at Yesterday Once More. Browse through 40,000 new, used, and rare books at The Bookery. Stock up on outdoor gear at Walkabout Outfitters. Pop into Ladles & Linens for kitchen essentials and fun-to-have finds like wooden spoons branded with the Lexington brick pattern.
Mingling among the bricks on the sidewalks along Main, Washington, and Nelson Streets are pavers that commemorate significant figures in local history, from preachers to con men, artists to generals, singers to teachers. The Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge is a self-guided walking tour of over 60 “story stones” that showcase characters of local history. Connect to the project’s digital portal for an interactive map and an alphabetical list of biographies.
Appreciate architecture? Lexington boasts several well-preserved buildings from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Stop by the Visitor Center to pick up a free Historic Lexington Walking Tour brochure, which includes a map that highlights significant structures and provides informative descriptions. The brochure suggests several themed routes, including downtown (0.8 mile), Washington and Lee University (0.8 mile), Virginia Military Institute (1.9 miles), and residential (2.1 miles).
While at the Visitor Center also pick up a guide for a walking tour through Oak Grove Cemetery, which includes a map of headstone locations and 45 brief biographies. A scavenger hunt for children is also available—which is so interesting and informative grownups can enjoy it, too. More than 3,000 people of different faiths are buried here, including General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, 144 Confederate veterans, two Virginia governors, and Margaret Junkin Preston, “the Civil War Poet Laureate of the South.”
Step into the historic Stonewall Jackson House Museum, the only home ever owned by famed Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The home also served as the city’s first hospital (1906-1954), mayor’s office, and police station. Don’t miss Lee Chapel & Museum, which shares the post-Civil War Reconstruction story of Robert E. Lee and counts the earliest known portrait of George Washington among its collection. The Reeves Center showcases porcelain and ceramics from China, Europe and America made between 1500 and 1900. The Watson Pavilion houses a Japanese tea room, a gallery of portraits from the Washington-Custis-Lee Collection, and changing exhibits. The George C. Marshall Foundation... celebrates the life and contributions of the man credited with a myriad of impressive feats including organizing the World War II victory and peace afterwards.
For a change of pace hop onto a horse-drawn tour with Lexington Carriage Company. A personal guide and team of charismatic horses will share local history when rolling past key sites. While clippity-clopping up and down the hilly streets, learn interesting facts like how and why building Lexington on a hill proved to be both safe and dangerous, and how residents dealt with the matter.
Step into Lexington’s culinary scene at some of its hottest spots. Quench a thirst for local beer at Heliotrope Brewery, where brews are made using local ingredients and served alongside creative pizzas. Or sip cocktails alongside creative pub fare at TAPS. Enjoy upscale contemporary Southern fare at Bistro on Main. Sip wine paired with your choice of fine fare on the locally-sourced, chef-driven menu while listening to live piano entertainment at Haywood’s. Enjoy casual elegance and contemporary American cuisine at Southern Inn Restaurant. Treat yourself to homemade ice cream served in fresh-made waffle cones at Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe.
Stay at a downtown hotel for a perfect car-free vacation. The comfortable Robert E. Lee Hotel was built in 1926 and completely renovated in 2014. Enjoy Blue Ridge Mountain views from windows of all 39 guestrooms and suites. A member of Historic Hotels of America, The Georges occupies two buildings on both sides of Main Street, originally built in 1789 and 1809 and restored in 2014. Each of the 18 elegant rooms is individually decorated. About a block from city center, yet still walkable, Hampton Inn Lexington Historic District... occupies the historic Col Alto Mansion. Enjoy attentive service and genuine hospitality whether you stay in a contemporary room or one of the ten restored manor rooms, some with fireplaces.
With so much to see and do, you’ll want to take more than one lap around Lexington.
Walkable Buena Vista
Another walkable downtown awaits discovery just a short six-mile drive or seven-mile walk along the Chessie Nature Trail... from downtown Lexington. Buena Vista is nestled in the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains and flanked by the Maury River and George Washington National Forest. Enjoy the 315-acre Glen Maury Park, which boasts an 18-hole championship golf course, wooded hiking trails, an Olympic-sized pool, campgrounds and more. Stroll up to the campus of Southern Virginia University and past Victorian houses and storefronts. Mosey along the River Walk. Visit the original Buena Vista Courthouse, which is now a library. Browse local shops for art, antiques and other curiosities. Hungry? Try the popular JJ’s Meat Shak, or savor creative crepes at Mountain Music Café, the newest restaurant in town.
For help planning your visit to Rockbridge County, Virginia, explore www.lexingtonvirginia.com and www.rockbridgeoutdoors.com, or call 540-463-3777. When you arrive, find the Visitor Center at 106 E. Washington St.