One of Virginia’s greatest assets is her abundance of small towns. But just because a town is small doesn’t mean it’s boring. In fact, many of these towns are filled with history, natural wonders and more than a little excitement. These 18 small towns in Virginia with big attractions are the perfect example.
1. Smithfield - World's Oldest Ham...and much more!
Best known as the ham capital of the world, Smithfield is where world-famous Smithfield Ham began. But with more than 70 historic buildings representing Colonial, Federal and Victorian architecture, Smithfield's Historic District also attracts tourists with the Isle of Wight County Museum (where you can see the aforementioned "World's Oldest Ham"), historic Fort Huger, the Schoolhouse Museum, the Old Courthouse of 1750 and historic St. Luke's Church. Just outside of town, attractions like Boykins Tavern Museum, the Isle of Wight Courthouse of 1800, Darden's Country Store & Smokehouse, Smithfield Station Inn and Marina and are big draws.
2. Damascus - Trail Town, U.S.A.
For a tiny town of fewer than 1,000 residents, Damascus has a big reputation for the 4 scenic trails that converge there: the Appalachian Trail, U.S. Bicycle Route 76, The Iron Mountain Trail and the Virginia Creeper Trail. Damascus is also home to the annual Trail Days Festival, hosting crowds up to 20,000 strong. Adding to its trail credits, the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail and the Crooked Road Music Heritage Trail makes stops in this pretty little Southwestern Virginia town.
3. Hot Springs - The Homestead and the Jefferson Pools
Bath County's Hot Springs is home to less than 800 people, but it attracts thousands more every year thanks to the luxurious Homestead Resort and the nearby Jefferson Pools, a series of natural warm springs first used by Native Americans but made famous by Thomas Jefferson. The first inn to facilitate the springs was built in 1766 and is considered the predecessor to today's Homestead, which is owned and operated by the Omni hotel chain.
4. Tangier - The island that time forgot. Oh yes, and lots of soft shell crabs!
This tiny island off the coast of Virginia has long been a good place to get away, having first been used as a summer retreat for the Pocomoke Indians before Europeans arrived in the 1700s. The majority of the original European settlers were from South West England and over time, the island remained isolated. Today, Tangier remains accessible by boat or plane and most residents get around on bikes, scooters or golf carts as cars are difficult to transport to the island. Tangier is also a hotbed for linguists, because many of the inhabitants still speak a special English Restoration-era dialect, much like the original colonists would have spoken. With crabbing and tourism as the main industries, Tangier is often called the "soft-shell crab capital of the world." The majority of Tangier Island has been designated on the National Register of Historic Places.
5. Middleburg - A Horse Haven
Established in 1787, just after the Revolutionary War, Middleburg became a go-to for fox hunting and steeplechase enthusiasts beginning in the early 1900s. This small village of under 800 people soon became know as "The Nation's Horse and Hunt Capital", drawing visitors from all around the United States for annual events and competitions. In addition to the National Sporting Library, a research center for horse and field sports, Middleburg is home to a beautiful historic district, featuring many original 19th-century structures. The district has been named to the National Register of Historic Places and includes the Red Fox Inn, which was originally built in 1728.
6. Floyd - A Music Lovers' Paradise
Located in Southwest Virginia, Floyd is small, but makes a lot of noise -- in a good way, of course. For years, bluegrass and old-time mountain music fans have been flocking to the Floyd Country Store for the Friday Night Jamboree, featuring heritage music and dancing every weekend. Likewise, Floyd has drawn national and international artists and performers for the 4-day FloydFest Music Festival held each year just outside of town.
7. Quantico and Triangle - A Military Stronghold
Quantico and Triangle have fewer than 9,000 civilian residents combined, but they hold a great deal of military significance. The town of Quantico is home to one of the largest U.S. Marine Corps bases in the world. Marine Corps Base (MCB) Quantico is also the site of Marine Corps Combat Development Command and HMX-1 (the President's helicopter squadron), Officer Candidate School and Basic School, the Drug Enforcement Administration's training academy, the FBI Academy, the FBI Laboratory, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations headquarters. Visitors to the area can check out the National Museum of the Marine Corps, an historical military museum, located adjacent to MCB Quantico in Triangle, Virginia. Open since 2006, the museum is now one of the states most visited sites, attracting around 500,000 visitors every year.
8. The Plains - The Virginia Gold Cup
This town in Fauquier County may only have 221 residents, but The Plains has plenty to offer. Situated in some of the state’s most beautiful horse country, The Plains is home to Great Meadow, an outdoor venue that hosts several large annual events, including the Virginia Gold Cup steeplechase horse race which brings more than 50,000 visitors to this small town every May.
9. Schuyler - Home of the Waltons
Located in Nelson County, Schuyler may not have a large population, but it got a big name for itself in the 1970s and 80s with the TV series “The Waltons.” Based on the books by author and Schulyler native, Earl Hamner, Jr., “The Walton’s” provided a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in rural Virginia during the Depression Era. Today, the Walton’s Mountain Museum in the old Schuyler High School offers replicas of John-Boy’s bedroom, the family’s kitchen and living room and, of course, Ike Godsey’s Store. Since it opened in 1992, the museum’s admission price has helped the Schuyler food bank and volunteer fire and rescue squad. Visitors can browse through exhibits from the show, original manuscripts and other historical displays from the area.
10. Natural Bridge - Natural Wonders and More
Best known as the site of the Natural Bridge, a gorge and National Historic Landmark, the community of Natural Bridge is unincorporated community, but has its own zip code and a post office that's been open since 1800. The bridge itself has been called one of the Wonders of the World since its "discovery" by Europeans in the 1700s. Long a part of Monacan Indian folklore, the bridge is a completely natural limestone formation carved out over time by Cedar Creek. While the bridge is the area's most popular attraction, other popular spots include Foamhenge (a replica of Stonehenge made entirely of foam), as well as the nearby Natural Bridge Zoo and the Virginia Safari Park.
11. Galax - Old Fiddler's Convention and the Music of Appalachia
Called the Gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Galax has long been a haven for old time music lovers. Since 1935, this quaint little town of 7,000 has hosted the Old Fiddler's Convention. The event is one of the most prestigious competitions for traditional music in the country, and according the event's website, it is the world's oldest and largest Old Fiddler's Convention. Other nearby attractions include The Blue Ridge Music Center, which is located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 213. The center has a museum of old time mountain music history and features performances in a state-of-the-art amphitheater.
12. Chincoteague - World Famous Ponies
First settled in the 1700s, Chincoteague gained the spotlight in the 1960s with the publication of “Misty of Chincoteague,” a story about one of the island’s now famous wild ponies. Today, Chincoteague is best known for its Annual Pony Swim and Auction which attracts tens of thousands of spectators every year. However, should you miss the Pony Swim, Chincoteague also offers pristine beaches, amazing seafood, boat tours, home tours and an all-around chilled out beach town experience.
13. Hiltons - The Carter Family Fold
At the foot of Clinch Mountain, in an area once known as Maces Spring, sits the Carter Family Fold. The Carter Family is known as one of the first families of country music, having been part of the original Bristol recordings that serve historically as the "birth" of country music. The Carters, including June Carter Cash, lived in Maces Spring, which is now considered part of Hiltons as it no longer has a post office. Today, visitors can see the cabin where the famous Carter Family lived and made the music that has inspired generations. A museum dedicated to the music and life of this family is open for tours, and live music performances are available every weekend.
14. Duffield - Home of Natural Tunnel…and plenty of natural beauty
According to estimated 2014 census reports, the town of Duffield has 87 residents. But while the population may be small, Natural Tunnel, the town's main attraction is huge - literally. Once called the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, Natural Tunnel is a nearly 300-yard tunnel running through the Appalachian Mountains. The opening is so large that it has served as a railway tunnel since 1893. While Native Americans knew of the tunnel long before Europeans, Daniel Boone is thought to be the first European to see the tunnel in the 18th century. Tours and events are held at the surrounding Natural Tunnel State Park year-round – including an annual Christmas lights celebration inside the tunnel.
15. Bedford, National D-Day Memorial
In 1941, the small town of Bedford sent a company of soldiers overseas to fight during World War II. 30 of these men were on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 during the invasion of Normandy, but only 11 survived the day. Their death represented the nation’s highest per capita loss in a community on D-Day. The National D-Day Memorial honors these men, now known as "The Bedford Boys," as well as the 4,413 Allied soldiers that fought and died during the war. Named the #1 Attraction in Virginia by TripAdvisor, the Memorial emotionally, yet beautifully, remembers the sacrifice and dedication of the brave men and women who served our country.
16. Abingdon - History, theater and a ghost or two...
Nestled down in the far Southwest corner of the state, Abingdon offers everything from world-class performances at the historic Barter Theatre to breathtaking views along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Another one of the town's highlights is The Martha Washington Inn and Spa. Built in 1832 as a private residence, the inn went on to serve as a women’s college, a Civil War hospital and eventually a lodging house for actors from the nearby Barter Theater. Over the years, “The Martha” has hosted guests such as Eleanor Roosevelt, President Harry Truman, Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Elizabeth Taylor. And of course, like any good historic hotel, especially one that served as a Civil War hospital, stories of ghosts, lost loves and vengeful hauntings are plentiful.
17. Staunton - Shakespeare and Frontier Culture: an odd-pairing, but one worth the trip
Set in the beautiful town of Staunton, the American Shakespeare Center features the Blackfriars Playhouse. The Playhouse is the world's only replica of the original Blackfriars Monastery, a 16th century indoor theater designed and built with input from William Shakespeare himself. Everything about the theater, from lighting to staging, has been precisely designed to mirror productions in Shakespeare’s time.
Staunton also features the Frontier Culture Museum, a living history museum that encompasses all of the cultures that came together to make Virginia what it is. The museum features a 1700s West African Farm, a 1600s English Farm, a 1700s Irish Farm and Forge, a 1700s German Farm, a 1700s Ganatastwi Indian village, a 1740s American Settlement, an 1820s American Farm, an 1850s American Farm, an Early American Schoolhouse.
18. Luray - Caverns…and so much more.
Best known as the site of Luray Caverns, Luray has nearly as many attractions as residents. In addition to being the largest cavern series in the East and a U.S. Natural Landmark, Luray Caverns features guided underground cavern tours, museums, a 7-acre 19th century farming village, gem sluicing, a garden maze, a ropes course, a 47-bell tower, a country club and a vineyard. The town itself features the Luray Downtown Historic District and is both a Virginia Main Street Community and a registered National Historic District. Filled with historic homes, buildings and archaeological sites, Luray offers more than enough to keep you busy for days.
What are your favorite big attractions in a small town? We would love to hear about some of your favorite places to visit…especially the ones that may not be at the top of every tourist guidebook. Let us know about your favorite small town activities in the comments below!