Set in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton) is chock-full with architectural highlights. From columned porches to colorful storefronts and cone-shaped turrets, if you look up and around in Staunton, you’ll notice a wide variety of beautiful architectural details.
The reason for this small town’s wealth of architectural highlights is that, unlike other Shenandoah Valley towns, it escaped the Civil War pretty much untouched. Many of the buildings in the Staunton town center date from the 18th and 19th centuries.
- An Architectural Gem in the Shenandoah Valley
- Surprisingly Cultural
- Easy Access to the Great Outdoors
- How to Spend a Day in Staunton
- Staunton’s Three Main Attractions
- Like It? Pint it!
An Architectural Gem in the Shenandoah Valley
Staunton is home to no fewer than six historic districts, all of which are in the National Register of Historic Places. There’s no use to delve too deeply into Staunton’s long and rich history here—if you want to know more, Wikipedia can, naturally, help you out.
One of the main things to do when visiting Staunton, Virginia is simply exploring its historic districts. Your primary focus should be the Beverley District, though. This area occupies historic Beverley Street and its side streets. Beverley Street can be regarded as the town’s “main street.”
In fact, Beverley Street is one of America’s most celebrated Main Streets. Moreover, because of the town’s immense collection of historical architecture, the American Planning Association has declared Staunton one of “the Great Places in America.”
Exploring downtown Staunton is fun, its streets lined with craft shops, farm-to-table restaurants, quirky cafés, and wine bars and craft breweries.
There’s more to this Shenandoah Valley town than just its dazzling density of historic architecture, though. Staunton oozes culture. Its long history as a crossroads and railroad town in the Shenandoah Valley—it is one of the oldest towns west of the Blue Ridge Mountains—has made it a popular stopover place for travelers.
Since the 1800s, people have come to Staunton to enjoy nightlife, opera, theater and vaudeville. Nowadays, that tradition is kept very much alive in Staunton’s performing arts centers.
Staunton is home to the Mary Baldwin College Theatre, the Heifetz Internal Music Institute and, most notably, the American Shakespeare Center. The latter houses the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse. More about that below.
Additionally, there are education institutions such as Mary Baldwin College and the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. The Frontier Culture Museum offers a unique insight into pioneering life in the Shenandoah Valley. Also more about that in a short while.
Easy Access to the Great Outdoors
If all that history and culture, architecture and shopping is too much for you, you’ll be pleased to know that you can be frolicking in the wilderness in less than a half-hour.
Staunton happens to be located near the entrance to both the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive. The point where those two epic roads meet lies merely fifteen minutes from downtown Staunton. You can literally be on two of America’s greatest mountain roads within mere minutes.
Once there, the options are endless. There are numerous hiking trails, especially in Shenandoah National Park. Both roads are phenomenal, offering great mountain and valley views, beautiful forest scenery and occasional wildlife sightings.
How to Spend a Day in Staunton
Not considering the six historic districts as individual attractions, there are three main highlights that you should absolutely include in your itinerary when visiting Staunton. If you’re thinking about how to spend a day in Staunton, the following three Staunton attractions should be the framework around which your plans are built.
Staunton’s Three Main Attractions
1. The Frontier Culture Museum
Covering a period from the 1600s to the mid-1800s, the Frontier Culture Museum offers you an amazing overview of the evolution of life in rural Virginia. It focuses on the time period when this region was the western frontier of the British Colonies in North America and, later, the young United States.
It’s a fantastic open-air museum and I recommend it as the first thing you should do when visiting Staunton.
Start your visit to Staunton by exploring the Shenandoah Valley’s pioneering history. Allow at least two hours for this unique museum.
I dedicated an entire blog post to the Frontier Culture Museum, so I’d like to direct you that way for much more information.
Website: Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia
2. Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum
Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, was born in Staunton in 1856. He led the United States through World War I and made the rest of the world aware of its awesome power.
His birthplace is now open to the public. In addition to Woodrow Wilson’s Birthplace, there’s also the great Woodrow Wilson Museum, Wilson’s 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine, a fascinating First World War trench exhibit and Victorian-style gardens.
A visit to this National Historic Landmark includes a guided tour through the Presbyterian mansion in which Wilson was born. The Presidential Library, incidentally the only presidential library in Virginia, is open only by appointment.
Covering all the highlights at this museum takes about an hour and a half—the guided tour lasts about 40 minutes.
This is a perfect activity to do right after lunch.
3. The American Shakespeare Center
Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center is home to the only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, the Blackfriars Playhouse, in the world. It’s also the world’s only Shakespeare-focused theater that produces plays every single week of the year. Needless to say, this is where you need to be to watch a historic play (albeit with a contemporary touch).
The theater is absolutely unique, consisting of wooden seats and balconies, the stage set amid the spectators. The experience of a catching a play at the Blackfriars Playhouse resembles that which people in Shakespeare’s time (the 1600s) had. For example, the lights remain on so that actors and the audience can see each other.
Although tickets are numbered and everyone has a designated seat, once the play starts, you’re allowed to move around and find a better seat if you please. A select number of seats are actually on the stage, meaning that those people are sometimes asked to act with the actors—much like what happened during Shakespeare’s own plays.
I strongly, strongly recommend planning your trip to Staunton around a play at the American Shakespeare Center. The experience is simply too good to miss. Plays take place on weekend afternoons and/or in the evenings.
Depending on your play’s time, the American Shakespeare Center is a place to visit either before or after dinner.
Website: American Shakespeare Center
Bonus: Food & Drinks
After all that history and culture, it is time to relax. Luckily, Staunton features plenty of eateries and bars, including a few great wine bars. For food and wine, I recommend going to the Yelping Dog on Beverley Street.
Craft beers lovers might want to check out one of Staunton’s three breweries—Redbeard Brewing Company, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Company and Queen City Brewing. All these breweries are part of the self-evidently fun Shenandoah Beerwerks Trail.
My visit to Staunton was made possible with the help of the friendly folks from Visit Staunton. All opinions are, of course, my own.