What do Woodrow Wilson, The Statler Brothers, and Harry Potter have in common? Staunton, VA!
I chose Staunton as a travel destination while looking for somewhere along I-95 going south from Baltimore that wasn’t more than about a 5-hour drive. I had been to Roanoke several years before and knew it would fit the bill but wanted to see if there was another exciting destination I could explore. A quick look on the map revealed a dot that seemed to a pretty good size. Next to it was the word “Staunton.”
More precisely located approximately 1-1/2-hours north of Roanoke and a tad longer than that west of Richmond, Staunton, VA is a unique, historic and unexpected surprise!
The first thing you need to know is how to properly pronounce its name—STANN-tun—named after Lady Rebecca Staunton, the wife of Sir William Gooch, who served as colonial governor when the city was settled in 1732. History reveals that as the capital of the Northwest Territory from the mid- to late-1770s Staunton was also the county seat of Augusta, which at one time stretched all the way to the Mississippi River.
Staunton’s location was pivotal in several ways. It was one of the first cities settled in west of the Blue Ridge Mountains and early settlers to the region had to cross those mountains to reach Staunton. And, because the county stretched so far west, Staunton was also the last city before entering the frontier leading to the westward expansion.
As such, it earned the nickname “The Queen City of the Valley.” That valley is the Shenandoah Valley, stretching from Harper’s Ferry in Maryland to the north, all the way south to Roanoke, in between encompassing the cities of Staunton, Winchester, Front Royal, Luray, Harrisonburg and Lexington.
Staunton also became a central transportation and commercial hub upon the arrival of the Virginia Central Railroad in 1854, remaining so during the Civil War as well. All of this activity is what spurred establishment of the downtown area, including mercantile shops, warehouses, hotels, dining and beverage halls, entertainment theaters, and the like.
Although some frontiersmen only stopped here on their way to other parts of the country, many stayed, establishing families that have proudly remained for generations.
What you will find today is a vibrant boutique community of approximately 24,000 denizens (about 75,000 throughout Augusta County), yet with a great deal to offer both residents and visitors alike all year round.
For a city of this size, it is quite a surprise to find six contiguous and distinctive historic districts, all six listed on the National Register of Historic Places and most noted for their significant architecture and early engineering. One note is that The Wharf District has nothing to do with water, rather where you’ll find the city’s unusual Bungalow style train depot, one of many stops along Staunton’s ghost tours.
Staunton’s downtown area is absolutely charming and here it’s easy to see why it has been named “One of the Most Beautiful Main Streets in America,” as well as “One of America’s Favorite Mountain Towns.” I didn't know this until after I got here, but Southern Living honored Staunton as one of the prettiest and most progressive towns in the South, Forbes ranked it as #79 of the Best Small Places for Business and Careers, and Travel + Leisure named it among the “Greatest Main Streets in America.”
Spanning eleven, easily walkable square blocks where the main thoroughfare is Beverley Street, downtown is filled with delightful locally owned restaurants, coffee and tea shops, boutiques, brewery and tap rooms and wine bars, specialty food stores, art galleries, jewelry stores and more. You could easily spend hours here meandering around to each little unique slice of the city made even more enjoyable by the absence of any traditional chain establishments.
The architecture in Staunton, particularly downtown, is stunning. A great many of the churches, storefronts, warehouses, city government and other structures here have been meticulously maintained and persevered to retain their original character and charm.
Despite the boutique size of the population, Staunton has a great deal to offer from historic attractions and museums, to the visual and performing arts, live music, tours (including a free trolley that makes a loop around the city), wine and beer tasting, outdoor recreation, culinary adventures, family entertainment and a great deal more.
One of the biggest draws to town is the annual Queen City Mischief and Magic Festival, described as “a home-grown fan festival celebrating J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series as well as all things magical and mystical.” Held every September, the festival draws over 15,000 people from all over the country (more than half of the city’s population!) to enjoy a wide array of events and features; everything from quidditch matches to ghost tours, wand-making and dueling demonstrations, wizard house sorting, a fire circus, and English teas, just to name a few.
Another major festival in town is the annual African American Heritage Festival. Also held in September (celebrating its 31st anniversary in 2019), it is known as the largest and the oldest event of its kind in Western Virginia celebrating black culture and history. Old-fashioned “under the tent” worship services, food, live entertainment, local and regional artisan booths, and cultural dancing are all part of the fun.
OK, so what about the Statler Brothers and Woodrow Wilson? All of them are Staunton natives! The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Gospel Music Hall of Fame Statler Brothers have always proudly boasted Staunton as their home, even choosing to photograph two of their album covers in town.
Where they did so was the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum which celebrates the life, work and legacy of this nation’s 28th President. The property encompasses his Birthplace -TheManse, a beautifully restored Greek Revival building; the official Museum, housed in an adaptively-renovated chateau style mansion; The Smith House, a gift from the late Mrs. Woodrow Wilson and where you’ll find The President’s Shop; and the Historic Gardens.
We’re just getting started! Check out these other features about what makes Staunton a great travel destination!