Skip to main content
Bristol sessions

A Virginia quintet

Five small towns offer big-time experiences along Interstate 81
Story by
postedJune 1, 2021

Small towns are like goodie bags. Each offers a sample of local heritage, art, products, entertainment, and food. Small towns don’t have as many options as a big city, but they make up for it in authenticity. The art … the flavors … the heritage … and the people on Main Street: They own it.

Virginia’s large cities offer a wealth of experiences, yet its small towns are unhidden gems, easy to find and explore. When you visit these five towns, each located along Interstate 81, you’ll feel like you’ve really been somewhere. Just be sure you bring a bag to fill with small-town goodies.


Bristol straddles two states (Virginia and Tennessee) and has at least three claims to fame:

  1. It is the birthplace of country music.
  2. It’s home to Bristol Motor Speedway, a NASCAR short-track venue and NHRA dragway.
  3. And Bristol is a world-class fly-fishing destination.

Visitors will find a vibrant downtown that features two award-winning boutique hotels, the best new craft distillery (USA Today 10Best), and a great selection of shopping and food. You can stroll through antique shops, boutiques, and galleries on both sides of the state line. Just make sure you stroll into the Birthplace of Country Music, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum that tells the story of the 1927 Bristol Sessions recordings by the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and others.

State Theatre of Virginia
Barter Theatre


Abingdon is a Blue Ridge Mountain town that’s been welcoming visitors for more than 200 years. Along the brick sidewalks of the downtown historical district, you can take in a show at Barter Theatre, the state theater of Virginia; immerse yourself in the headquarters of the Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail; and enjoy lunch in one of Abingdon’s 30 independently owned restaurants. For dinner, consider the iconic Tavern Restaurant, built in 1778 and lovingly restored.

Other items for your itinerary:

  • Watch an artisan working at the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center and Marketplace.
  • Sip some wine at the idyllic riverside property of Abingdon Vineyards
  • Check in to the gracious Martha Washington Inn & Spa, a AAA 4-diamond resort property.

Instrument making
Instrument making in Marion


Called “America’s Coolest Hometown,” Marion has a vibrant downtown serving up a unique mix of dining options. What’s for lunch? Take your pick:

  • Homemade soup and sandwich at Sister’s Café inside a classic Piggly Wiggly grocery store
  • Regional cuisine at Macado’s, the preserved Main Street post office
  • Japanese cuisine, Texas-style BBQ, and world-class Appalachian fusion at Waterlily, inside the General Francis Marion Hotel
  • Local favorites at The Wooden Pickle American Bistro

Folks come from around the country to learn instrument making from master luthier Wayne Henderson. And seasonally, Marion’s restaurants and streets are filled with live entertainment, from bands to solo pickers to cruise-ins. There’s also outdoor recreation: hiking, swimming, and kayaking at nearby Hungry Mother State Park or viewing wild ponies at Grayson Highlands State Park.



Farmstead in Staunton


With the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop, Staunton is a bustling town with an eclectic vibe and a Main Street filled with distinctive architecture, historic sites, and a vibrant arts scene.

You can learn about daily life of the Shenandoah Valley’s earliest settlers at the Frontier Culture Museum, with working farmsteads from Africa, England, Germany, and Ireland. Then dive into the life and legacy of the 28th U.S. president at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, which includes Wilson’s Pierce-Arrow limousine, an interactive World War I trench, and seven exhibit galleries.

To see and sample what’s made in Staunton, consider these options:

  • Live glassblowing demonstrations at Sunspots working studio and gift shop
  • 19 craft breweries on the Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail
  • Learn the basics of home cheesemaking from Louella Hill

Craft brewery in Harrisonburg


Nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg is known for its artisan culture—from traditional crafts to fine arts—and its distinction as Virginia’s first Culinary District, with more than 200 restaurants to pick from.

And then pick an experience:

  • The Virginia Quilt Museum celebrates and nurtures Virginia’s quilting heritage.
  • The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum & Botanical Gardens offers a 125-acre public urban garden year-round free admission.
  • Agora Market houses many local artisan shops including Lineage, a maker of high-quality canvas bags and leather products.
  • The Brethren & Mennonite Heritage Center offers historical buildings that highlight the lifestyle of original settlers to the area.
  • Local vineyards and Harrisonburg’s six craft breweries offer spots—either relaxing or rollicking—to sit back and savor the flavor.

You can think of these five small towns as your Virginia starter set. For more information and ideas, visit Virginia’s group tour Vimeo channel and the state’s website, and contact Joni Johnson, CTP, at the Virginia Tourism Corporation.

Photos by Virginia Tourism Corporation