You’d be hard pressed to find a city or town in the entire state that didn’t have some sort of historical significance. Whether it’s the site of an historic battle, the home or birthplace of a president or founding father, or just a beautiful old town with deep roots in the history of our state, many Virginia cities and towns retain the charm of times long gone and tell the stories of our past. Here are some of the places in Virginia that offer a chance to step back in time and take a walk through history.
During these uncertain times, please keep safety in mind and consider adding destinations to your bucket list to visit at a later date.
This may seem almost TOO obvious of a choice - and perhaps it is. But Colonial Williamsburg operates as the largest living history museum in Virginia, with incredible restorations and replications of life in Colonial times. Once the center of colonial life and a former capital, Williamsburg provides a hands-on interactive trip back in time to the earliest foundations of our beautiful state.
Like Williamsburg, Jamestown offers a pretty clear choice for historical significance. Not only was it the site of the first permanent English colony in the United States, it is also an archaeological treasure trove. So much of what we know about our earliest history, both Native American and European, comes from the riches uncovered in Jamestown. With meticulous re-creations of life in Virginia's earliest settlement, Jamestown brings history to life every day.
Few places in Virginia offer the diversity of history that you'll find in Fredericksburg. Not only was it where George Washington spent large parts of his boyhood, it is rich in Native American history, Revolutionary War history, Civil War history (including 5 major battle sites), African American history and more. Visit the Fredericksburg Museum and Cultural Center, take trolley tours, see the James Monroe Museum and stop by Hugh Mercer’s pre-Revolutionary War Apothecary Shop - just to name a few.
Today, Richmond is the capital of Virginia and is dense with history, politics and tradition. But Richmond also provides a deeper look at Virginia history as a central site of many key events that shaped the nation. Richmond offers colonial history, Civil War history, African American history and the evolution of arts and culture in Virginia. Visit the capitol building, see the church where Patrick Henry' gave his most famous speech, explore the Museum of the Confederacy, visit the Edgar Allen Poe House and Museum or simply stroll the sidewalks of Monument Avenue and see the stately homes and statues that made this the only United State's avenue to be named a National Historic Landmark.
5. Old Town Alexandria
There is no question that Alexandria is a key part of Washington D.C.'s metropolitan area. With a vibrant urban scene, there is shopping, dining and entertainment aplenty. But at the heart of Old Town Alexandria lies one of the oldest histories in the state. Located on the Potomac River only 9 miles from historic Mount Vernon, George Washington called Alexandria home as an adult and many of the sites you can visit today are places where the founding fathers met and built our nation. Take colonial tours, visit historic sites like Gadsby's Tavern and Christ Church or simply walk the streets that have been beautifully preserved over the 300 years of of their existence.
Known as the Birthplace of Country Music, Bristol is where it all begins for music lovers. When Ralph Peer, a New Jersey record executive, came to Bristol in 1927, he wanted to find “hillbilly” music. What he found was history. Over two weeks, he recorded 76 songs that reflected the history of Virginia's traditional mountain music by 19 artists including The Carter Family (known as “The First Family of Country Music”) and Jimmie Rodgers (known as “The Father of Country Music). In 2002, The Library of Congress recognized the Bristol Session recordings as one of the 50 most significant sound recording events in history. Today, The Birthplace of Country Music Museum can be found in historic downtown Bristol.
7. Tangier Island
This quaint little island off of the Eastern Shore of Virginia is like the land that time forgot. While the Tidewater accent found on the Eastern Shore of Viriginia is unique, Tangerians have kept it truly old school with their distinct, post-Shakespearean English similar to what original settlers would have spoken. The accent has deteriorated somewhat with TV and technology, but true Tangerians can still be found speaking the “old tongue” on this tiny island 12 miles off the Virginia coast. Inhabited mostly by commercial fishermen, the island can only be reached by boat or small aircraft and retains much of its original charm and history.
This small city in Central Virginia may not be an urban center, but there was a time where it was where history happened in a big way. As the hometown of Thomas Jefferson, Charlottesville is home to his academic village at the University of Virginia, as well as his home at Monticello. With a charming downtown, historic homes and buildings, museums and monuments, Charlottesville provides history and culture, both in town and in the surrounding areas.
Located in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, Lexington saw history in the making. Two historic colleges, Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University, call this small town home. During the Civil War, Lexington served as the home and burial place of Stonewall Jackson, and after the war, Robert E. Lee became the president of Washington College, which was renamed Washington and Lee after his death. Full of historic homes and museums, Lexington offers a beautifully preserved downtown that is on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places.
As a former tobacco trading and manufacturing center for Virginia in the mid-19th century, Danville is a small town with a big history. In the final days of the Civil War, The Sutherlin Mansion, as it was formerly known, served as the headquarters for the Confederate Army after Richmond fell. This stately home-turned-museum now houses fine art collections, as well as providing a history of the site itself. The museum sits on Millionaire’s Row, which is part of Danville's Historic District and provides a look at some of the finest Victorian and Edwardian architecture remaining in Virginia. Other historic districts include the Tobacco Warehouse and Residential District, the North Danville Historic District and the Schoolfield Historic Mill District, an old mill village with quaint residential homes.
Although it only takes up 6 blocks, this town is packed with history and surrounded by some of the most beautiful horse country anywhere in the nation. The Middleburg Historic District, made up of many beautifully preserved 18th and 19th century buildings, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes the . Red Fox Inn. Considered one of the oldest continuously operating inns in the U.S., it was founded in 1728 and is Middleburg’s oldest structure. Since the early 1900s, Middleburg has been a destination for fox hunting and steeplechase events, earning it the title of “Horse and Hunt Capital of the United States.”
If you're looking to go back to a time when life was simpler and Main Street was the heart of town, then Culpeper is the place to be. As a National Trust 2012 Great American Main Street, Culpeper is a quaint town with antiques, artisans, traditional or eclectic dining options and friendly people. Surrounded by beautiful farmland and countryside, Culpeper reminds us of what life once was. And for history that is straight from the books, visit Civil War battlefields like Cedar Mountain, Kelly’s Ford and Brandy Station.
13. Cape Charles
The town of Cape Charles sits near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on Virginia's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1884, the town was originally a planned community intended to support a new railroad and the Little Creek-Cape Charles Ferry. Today, with a population just topping 1,000, Cape Charles maintains its quaint, post-Victorian charm. After walking the streets lined with old-fashioned shops and restaurants, including a old school soda fountain, the Cape Charles Museum is the perfect place to explore this seaside town's history.
Rich with history, this small town was once home to the Cherokee Nation and by the mid-18th century, had been explored by the likes of William Byrd and Daniel Boone. Abingdon, named after Martha Washington’s ancestral home in England, became a town in 1778 and today its historic downtown is home to a thriving arts and culture scene, featuring venues like the historic Barter Theatre, as well as galleries, museums and markets. With a population of just over 8,000, this charming small town is surrounded by natural beauty, including the start (or finish, depending on your direction) of the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Founded in 1733 by Pennsylvania Quakers, Waterford was once a thriving mill town along Catoctin Creek, and served as the second largest town in Loudoun County before the Civil War. After the war, the town's economy went downhill. Old homes and farms were left to fall into disrepair for generations, until, In the 1930s, a handful of old Waterford families began buying and restoring buildings. By 1943, the Waterford Foundation was formed and the town saw a revitalization. In 1970, Waterford and 1,420 surrounding acres were added to the list of National Historic Landmarks and today, the majority of the town's building date before 1840, offering a uniquely preserved look at life in early rural Virginia.
Founded in 1772 and named after the son of Virginia's last royal governor, Fincastle might be small in size, but its historical significance is huge. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned by then President Thomas Jeffeson to explore the Louisiana Purchase, they left from Fincastle. Today, the town is a designated Lewis and Clark community, due to ties to the famous explorers, and offers a self-guided walking tour through the town, highlighting many of local homes and buildings that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The historic courthouse, designed by Thomas Jefferson, still houses county government functions and holds archives related to late colonial Virginia and the Western expansion periods. At least 10 significant sites in Fincastle are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which is pretty impressive for a town of less than 400.
Of course, these are far from the only historic places in Virginia…in fact, these 16 spots are just the tip of the iceberg. So tell about some of your favorite places. What is your favorite historical city or town in Virginia? Please share in the comments below!