There was a time when “Main Street” was the lifeline of a community and the center of social and economic life. As urban sprawl has taken over and suburbs have become the norm in many places, “Main Streets” have all to often been lost in the shuffle.
In 1985, the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development launched the Virginia Main Street Program in an effort to restore these essential community lifelines. Today, 30 years later, the program has adopted 25 communities, investing millions of dollars to revitalize downtown areas, preserve historical architecture and create jobs to boost local economies.
Preservation Virginia, a non-profit organization dedicated to historic preservation in the state, reports that 11,908 net new jobs have been created by Virginia Main Street businesses, roughly 3,365 net new businesses have formed and more than $1.2 billion has been invested, with the majority coming from the private sector. The impact of these efforts are immense and nearly immeasurable in their ongoing impact.
Here’s a complete list of the Virginia’s Main Street communities (in alphabetical order) and why you won’t want to miss them.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, this small town of just over 8,000 was once home to Cherokee Nation and by the mid-18th century, had been explored by the likes of William Byrd and Daniel Boone. Today, its historic downtown is home to a thriving arts and culture scene, featuring venues like the historic Barter Theatre and the William King Museum, as well as many other galleries, antique shops, historic museums and markets.
2. Alta Vista
Located in Campbell County, Alta Vista offers a scenic stroll through late 19th and early 20th century Virginia. The town grew up around the railroad industry, followed by the formation of the now famous Lane Home Furnishings. The Avoca Museum and the Alta Vista Historic District are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Just north of Richmond sits the quaint little town of Ashland. Long famous for its historic railroad and train station, Ashland was originally founded as a mineral springs resort in the 1840s. Today, Ashland is home to the prestigious Randolph-Macon College, as well as popular sites like the music venue, Ashland Coffee and Tea, the historic railroad station and countless specialty shops, theaters, businesses and local hangouts.
The town of Bedford may be best known as the hometown of "The Bedford Boys." On June 6, 1944, 30 men from Bedford were part of the Normandy Beach invasion known as D-Day. Only 11 survived the day, making Bedford the community to suffer the nation’s highest per capita loss. Today, Bedford is home to The National D-Day Memorial, which has been named the #1 Attraction in Virginia by TripAdvisor. Other highlights include the nearby Peaks of Otter, the Bedford Historic District and many shops, museums and historic sites.
Located in Clarke County, Berryville also serves as the county seat. Founded in the mid-1700s, Berryville is home to a thriving community and many historical sites. Highlights of this pretty little Shenandoah Valley town include the Holy Cross Abbey (a Trappist Monastery) and Rosemont (former home of Governor Harry F. Byrd), as well as many local business and specialty shops and restaurants.
With a history that dates back to pre-Revolutionary times, Blackstone was first called the Village of Blacks and Whites, referring to two rival tavern owners. One of the taverns, Schwartz's Tavern, still stands today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With a quaint downtown full of old Southern charm, Blackstone offers a newly revitalized Main Street, with a perfect blend of new and old shops, boutiques and restaurants.
Long considered the "Birthplace of County Music" because of its role in early commercial recordings, Bristol is also one of only 2 "twin" cities in Virginia. Bristol carries the same name and shares its main street, State Street, with neighboring Bristol, Tennessee. Today, Bristol's "main streets" offer music venues, theaters, art galleries, specialty shops and dining establishment in every genre.
If you're looking to back to a time when life was simpler and Main Street was the heart of town, then Culpeper is the place to go. As a National Trust 2012 Great American Main Street, Culpeper is a quaint town with historic sites like the State Theatre, antiques, artisans, traditional or eclectic dining options and friendly people. Surrounded by beautiful farmland and countryside, Culpeper is also home to a number of significant Civil War battlefields like Cedar Mountain, Kelly’s Ford and Brandy Station.
Farmville sits just south of the geographic center of the state, meaning that it is “literally” in the heart of Virginia. Located next to High Bridge Trail State Park and home to Longwood University, one of the nation’s oldest public institutions, Farmville is filled with history, charm, friendly people and high quality of life. Recognized by CitiesJournal as one of Virginia’s Best Small Towns and surrounded by natural beauty, this lovely little town serves as the area’s economic hub with local businesses, specialty shops, restaurants and cultural activities.
Franklin (not to be confused with Franklin County) is an independent city in southeastern Virginia. Franklin's economy is largely dependent on farming and manufacturing and is listed as the 13th-most profitable and 12th-largest farming community in the state. Franklin was originally founded as a railroad stop in the 1830s but today offers shopping, historic sites, and many local community events throughout the year.
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 or stop by Hugh Mercer’s pre-Revolutionary War Apothecary Shop…just to name a few of the attraction available.
Located in the Shenandoah Valley, Harrisonburg is an idependent city that was first settled in 1737 at the head of a Native American trail that ran through the valley. The area eventually became home to James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University. In the early 2000s, the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance began and in 2004, Harrisonburg became a Virginia Main Street Community, investing nearly a million dollars to revitalize the Historic Downtown district. Today, the city has a thriving arts and culture scene, as well as many other local specialty shops, boutiques and businesses.
The City of Hopewell has a long history, dating as far back as the early 17th century and features a number of Civil War battlefields and other historical sites. Today, this city of around 23,000 is home to several large chemical plants and a paper mill. Since becoming a Virginia Main Street Community in 2001, Hopewell's historic downtown has undergone such renovations as a Farmer's Market, the re-opening of the Beacon Theatre, a new library, a remodeled Marina and renovation of the Butterworth Warehouse into the Butterworth Lofts.
While Luray is well know for its caverns, the largest cavern series in the East, not as many people know about the beauty of the town itself. The town grew up around the blacksmith shop of "Lu" Ramey, for whom the town was eventually named. Today, as a Main Street Community, Luray offers many charming sites like the Grand Old Mimslyn Inn, as well as the Luray Singing Tower, archaeological sites, the Historic District, and many beautiful outdoor attractions.
This independent city at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountain is known as the "City of Seven Hills" or "The Hill City" and was the only major city that avoided capture by the Union Army during the Civil War. Set on the James River, Lynchburg is home to two major universities, Lynchburg College and Liberty University. The downtown offers many historic and cultural activities, including the Lynchburg Symphony Orchestra, an Academy of Fine Arts, the Renaissance Theatre, a farmer's market, restaurants and nightlife.
The city of Manassas, near Prince William County, played a big part in the Civil War as the site of two major battles, known as the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. The area became a town in 1873 and a city in 1975. As part of the DC Metropolitan Area, Manassas has access to many urban amenities, but the city itself maintains a close community and harbors a small town feel with an historic downtown, community events, historic sites, and local shops and businesses.
Nestled in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, Marion serves as an official Virginia Main Street Community AND National Main Street Community. Marion is home to The Lincoln Theatre, one of the country's only Art-Deco Mayan Revival style theaters, and host to the nationally syndicated bluegrass program "Song of the Mountains," as well as the historic General Francis Marion Hotel. With community events like the ArtWalk, famers' markets, museums and more, this town of fewer than 6,000 has all the charisma of a much larger city.
Martinsville is a small, independent city in Henry County in the southern part of the state. Formerly a hub for furniture making and textile manufacturing, changing economies in the early 90s forced many of the larger plants to close. However, Martinsville remains a charming town, making great efforts to revive and revitalize its beauty and history. Still home to the Martinsville Speedway NASCAR track, Martinsville also offers attractions like an historic downtown, the Virginia Museum of Natural History, the Piedmont Arts Association, and the Reynolds Homestead, as well as a farmer's market and community events.
Located nearly 30 mile northeast of Charlottesville, Orange is the county seat of Orange County. Founded in the 18th century, Orange offers many historical attractions, including Montpelier, the home of James and Dolly Madison. As a Virginia Main Street Community, Orange has made great strides in preserving historical buildings and architecture, and today, visitors can see sites like the historic train depot, the County Courthouse and the Holladay House, as well as visit many of the local shops, eateries and businesses.
20. Saint Paul
Founded along the banks of the Clinch River, Saint Paul may have fewer than 1,000 residents, but they offer a wealth of natural beauty and history. First settled by French immigrants in the 1700s, Saint Paul's history is long and rich, a fact that they have tried to preserve in their community events, local activities and historic district. With attractions like a farmer's market, festivals and community-centered shops and businesses, Saint Paul is a gem in Southwest Virginia.
21. South Boston
First incorporated as a town in 1884, South Boston (and yes, it WAS named after Boston, Massachusetts) became an independent city in 1960...only to become a town once more in 1995. Despite its changes in status, its deep history remains constant. Once a major railroad stop and tobacco market, South Boston offers many historic sites, including Berry Hill Plantation , E. L. Evans House, Fourqurean House, Glennmary, Reedy Creek Site, Seaton, South Boston Historic District, and Tarover.
Already called one of the best small towns in America by Smithsonian Magazine and Frommer’s, TheCultureTrip.com recently named Staunton the most beautiful small town in Virginia, as well. Founded in 1732, this lovely little town in the Shenandoah Valley offers beautiful architecture, history and culture with sites like the American Shakespeare Center and The Frontier Culture Museum, as well as specialty shopping, dining and night life opportunities.
Incorporated in 1810 and named for Revolutionary war hero General Joseph Warren, this town of less than 10,000 in Fauquier County features beautifully preserved historic sites like an original 1790s courthouse and jail house, which serve as a museum for Native American artifacts, Civil War exhibits and original jail cells. Featuring beautiful architecture, a close-knit community and plenty of charming shops, boutiques and eateries, Warrenton truly captures the "Main Street" experience.
Waynesboro's history dates to pre-Revolutionary War times and served as a major thoroughfare for travelers headed west through the Shenandoah Valley. Today, Waynesboro is a small city that features Native American and early pioneer history, as well as Civil War history. Featured sites include Swannanoa Palace, museums, theaters, cultural and community events, eateries, and local businesses.
The city of Winchester offers close community, rich history and a quaint small town vibe. Originally a frontier town, settlement of Winchester began as early as 1729. Later, the city played roles in the French-Indian war, the Revolutionary War and the Civil war. Today, Winchester is home to the annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival and is known for its beautiful downtown and countless historic sites, including the Stonewall Jackson's Headquarters Museum, Old Stone Church and Winchester Historic District.
While your town may or may not be on this list, I’m sure there are many other Main Streets out there that are well worth the visit. Do you have a favorite downtown, historic district of “main” street in Virginia? We would love to hear about them in the comments below!