The Best Things To Do In Abingdon, Virginia
This far-flung highlands town is remarkably vibrant.
Tucked away in the rolling green highlands of southwestern Virginia, Abingdon comes as a surprise. Who would expect an award-winning theater in this distant corner of the state? Or chef-driven restaurants that would easily fit into a New York City neighborhood? Or a popular rail-trail zipping down a mountainside? But there it is, a sweet Appalachian town filled with upscale boutiques, acclaimed restaurants, sophisticated museums, historic inns, a thriving arts culture, and 8,000-ish residents who aren’t shy to share their hometown pride.
Abingdon has long been a go-to place, thanks to its location at the intersection of several transportation routes dating back to Native American times. The colonial-era Great Wagon Road, linking Philadelphia with the South, became I-81, making Abingdon easy to access for modern-day travelers as well.
And that’s a good thing, because this vivacious town has a lot to offer. Here are seven things to see and do for starters. Be forewarned: You’ll want to stay a week or more.
Get a Taste of the Restaurant Scene
Locals claim Abingdon has more restaurants per capita than New York City, so the challenge here is picking just which eateries to try during your stay. Summers is the place to go for stunning rooftop sunset views over the hazy blue Appalachians. Enjoy innovative American cuisine on the airy rooftop or in the candle-lit cellar. Foresta serves up Mediterranean-Italian fusion amid artwork and fairy lights. 128 Pecan is a buzzy, casual spot, offering sandwiches and salads for lunch and chili-rubbed salmon, low-country pasta, and other blue plate specials for dinner. The Tavern, established in 1779, reigns as Virginia’s oldest bar; today, the menu features American cuisine with German flair (and plenty of ales).
Stay at a Historic Inn
The Martha Washington Inn and Spa was built as a private mansion in 1832 and later was converted into a women’s college. Today, it’s a rambling historic inn, with antiques and historic photos conveying the spirit of yore, and plenty of cozy corners to discover. The spa and fitness center are state of the art, and the well-manicured grounds include pickleball and tennis courts. After a day out on the town, there’s nothing better than posting up on one of the lobby’s couches with a glass of port, offered nightly at the reception desk.
But the Martha isn’t the only inn in town. Other alluring options include A Tailor’s Lodging, in an 1840s home; antique-filled Black's Fort Inn, occupying nine mountain-embraced acres just five minutes from town; and the Queen-Anne Shepherd’s Joy, located on an in-town sheep farm.
Whoosh Down a Mountain
Trains trundled down the Virginia Creeper Rail Line—the Abingdon Branch of the Norfolk & Western Railway, no doubt nicknamed for its slow pace—from Whitetop Mountain to Abingdon until 1977. Today, the railway has been converted into a rail-trail, offering one of the most exhilarating bike rides anywhere. You start atop the mountain, following the trail for 34.3 miles through farmlands and across rushing streams, spanned by 50-some wooden trestles. You’ll pass through small towns and restored railroad depots, while you admire rhododendron, mountain laurel, and apple trees all along the way. It’s gorgeous to take in any time of year, but especially spectacular in fall. Shuttle services in Abingdon and Damascus will get you and your bike to the top, so you have to do is enjoy the ride down. You can also walk, run, horseback ride, and cross-country ski this trail.
Delve into Abingdon’s History
The Abingdon Muster Grounds may look like just a fenced-in grassy expanse, but if you enter the interpretive center, run by the National Park Service, you’ll dive into a whole world of colonial history. Exhibits discuss the roles of African Americans and Native Americans during the time period, as well as tell the stories of women on the home front. Abingdon was the mustering site for 400 soldiers heading to the pivotal Kings Mountain battle in 1780 during the Revolutionary War. The 330-mile Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail begins here, following the route the soldiers took. Nearby, the hilly, tombstone-speckled Sinking Spring Cemetery, dating back to the Revolutionary War, promises plenty of ghosts in its midst.
Watch Five Plays in Two Days
During the Great Depression, out-of-work New York City actors came up with the idea to establish a “barter theater” in Abingdon. Here, farmers couldn’t sell their crops and livestock, so the thought was to keep the arts alive by bartering “a good laugh” for farm goods. It’s said by the end of the first season in 1933, the theater made $4.35 in cash, but the actors gained 300 collective pounds thanks to their new-found provisions.
The Barter Theatre went on to become highly acclaimed, even giving Gregory Peck his start. These days, you can pack five exquisitely produced plays into a weekend by visiting the historic theater and its sister performance venue, The Smith Stage, located right across the street. The theater enacts an intricate set change twice daily to facilitate shows. Tickets, unfortunately, can no longer be obtained by trading for a head of cabbage.
Jump into the World of Art
High on a hill overlooking Abingdon, the remarkable William King Museum of Art opened in 1992, occupying a former college. “The motto is ‘never the same museum,’” says director Betty White. You get a sense of this by the surprising variety of its exhibits: Recent exhibitions range from Bernini and the Baroque to George Washington to motorcycles to long rifles.
Abingdon’s arts thrive throughout town, including in the Arts Depot, where three galleries and artist studios occupy a 19th-century train depot; and at Holston Mountain Artisans, one of the country’s oldest art collectives, where you can buy crafts and take classes.
Shop Abingdon’s Main Street
It seems everyone strolling Abingdon’s tree-shaded Main Street carries a tissue-paper-stuffed shopping bag. And why not? It's easy to find something for everyone (including yourself) in the cornucopia of tempting boutiques that offer everything from clothes to homewares to gourmet food. Favorites include Shady Business for antique home decor and furnishings, Chellas on Main for a diverse range of gifts, and Camella’s Remember When beloved handmade goods, gifts, and lovely collection of teas.
And don’t forget the Abingdon Farmers Market, a bounty of local produce and regionally made goods unfurling year-round on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the green-roofed market space behind the visitor center.
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