A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Hug the curves of the two-lane, 105-mile route that follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, and you’ll be overwhelmed by

Madison County Championship Rodeo

Hug the curves of the two-lane, 105-mile route that follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, and you’ll be overwhelmed by

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Hug the curves of the two-lane, 105-mile route that follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, and you’ll be overwhelmed by

Artisan Culture in an Outdoor Mecca

Hug the curves of the two-lane, 105-mile route that follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, and you’ll be overwhelmed by natural beauty. In a little more than three hours, the winding, iconic Skyline Drive — a National Scenic Byway — passes beneath lush forest canopies and offers panoramic views of rolling green mountains and valleys at more than 70 overlooks.

But don’t settle for the views through the windshield: The national park offers 500 miles of hiking trails, from short treks through old-growth forests that lead to roaring waterfalls and scenic overlooks to overnight backcountry adventures — all just 20 miles from the charming city of Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Nature lovers of all stripes flock to Harrisonburg — known as the outdoor adventure capital of the Shenandoah Valley — to explore the beautiful mountain landscape that surrounds it. And after they’ve had their fill of nature, they head downtown to discover the award-winning Main Street Community. Because the best part about making Harrisonburg your home base for outdoor adventures? It’s filled with incredible artisans of all kinds — at local bakeries, breweries, restaurants, shops, and galleries — to discover in between excursions.



 

Shop for unique artwork at Oasis Fine Art and Craft. Photography courtesy of Harrisonburg Tourism and Visitor Services

A Downtown with an Artistic Soul

Harrisonburg — just a three-hour drive from Greensboro — was one of the first designated arts and culture districts in Virginia. Kick off your explorations with a self-guided art tour through the walkable downtown, which is filled with galleries and museums.

Start by shopping and browsing at Oasis Fine Art and Craft, an artisan co-operative on South Main Street featuring the work of almost 30 local and regional artists. Then, take a three-minute walk down the block to the Smith House Galleries, an exhibit space for local and emerging artists located in a historic 1867 house — also home to the Arts Council of the Valley. Next, explore the Harrisonburg Downtown Art Walk, an outdoor gallery spread throughout downtown that features 30 pieces of public art, including murals, mosaics, and sculptures. An interactive map will help you find and learn more about each stop — like the LOVEworks sculpture, located just outside of the Smith House. The perfect backdrop for a selfie, each of the sculpture’s four letters represents an area of the Shenandoah Valley and is made of locally sourced and repurposed materials.

“Public art provides a snapshot of Harrisonburg’s personality and values and offers a warm welcome to people from diverse backgrounds,” says Jenny Burden, executive director of Arts Council of the Valley.

For a foray into art and history, head to the Virginia Quilt Museum, housed in an 1856 Greek Revival style house located right next door to the Smith House on South Main Street, which is dedicated to preserving the quilting arts in Virginia.

“It’s a place to be awed by the beauty and craftsmanship of quilts and to see the vast array of what a quilt can be,” explains executive director Alicia Thomas. “Ensuring that current generations appreciate and understand the work and artistry of quilting means that we are honoring that work and telling a more complete version of history.”

Catch a beautiful view at the Brethren and Mennonite Heritage Center. Photography courtesy of Harrisonburg Tourism and Visitor Services

Quilting is also one of the traditional arts highlighted at the Brethren and Mennonite Heritage Center. The unique living history museum explores the role that these faith communities have had in the Shenandoah Valley through stories, artifacts, historic buildings, and demonstrations of the traditional arts, like blacksmithing, that helped the communities thrive. The center is an eight-minute drive from downtown, but it’s worth hopping in the car. Plus, the mountain and valley views from the 24-acre property are incredible.

If you’d rather take a piece of Harrisonburg home with you, head to downtown shops where local, regional, and international artisans are crafting one-of-a-kind items.

Downtown’s withSimplicity has been nationally recognized for its makeup and skincare products.  Photography courtesy of withSimplicity

Find elegant handmade rings and bracelets at Hugo Kohl, and pendants at Elk Run Mining Co. on Water Street, where owner Stuart Mercer personally mines, cuts, and polishes Virginia gems, and sets them in silver and gold. Even if you don’t take home a piece of jewelry, Mercer’s shop is worth a visit to check out the antique mining tools on display. Then, take a four-minute walk back to South Main Street to stock up on small-batch, all-natural bath and body, makeup, and skincare products at withSimplicity; and fall in love with the adorable and irreverent gifts and home goods at The Lady Jane Shop across the street. Finally, be sure to stop into Agora Downtown Market next door to Lady Jane to shop several small businesses’ wares, from clothing to yarn to toys, in a single marketplace.

 

Order a pour-over at Chestnut Ridge Coffee Roasters for an incredible cup of single-origin coffee. Photography courtesy of Chestnut Ridge Coffee Roasters

Artisanal Food & Drink

After you work up an appetite exploring the outdoors and downtown, it’s time to appreciate the edible artisan offerings — because downtown Harrisonburg is chock full of amazing local coffee shops, bakeries, breweries, and restaurants.

In the morning, grab a cup of coffee from Chestnut Ridge Coffee Roasters, housed in a renovated 1950s car repair shop on the edge of downtown, where Honduran-born owner Jose Thompson roasts small batches of beans and serves single-origin brews to go and delights in explaining the process.

Sip coffee and snack on a pastry at Magpie Diner. photograph by Amelia Eliza

If you’re looking for a full breakfast (or brunch), grab a table at Magpie Diner, located in the same building, which offers a menu of elevated diner foods like smoked salmon toast, an asparagus soft egg scramble, and a ham-and-jam grilled cheese. The on-site bakery is also the perfect spot to grab gourmet goods for a picnic or hike.

Or, head back to the heart of downtown to enjoy a croissant breakfast sandwich and drip coffee on the leafy patio at Heritage Bakery & Cafe. Oh, and maybe a French macaron — or five. The beautiful pastry case is hard to ignore.

For lunch or dinner, branch out: Although Harrisonburg is a small city, it has a significant international population — more than 50 languages are spoken in local schools — and the global presence is (blessedly) evident in the dining scene. Check out some of the international restaurants, like Vito’s Italian Market, Xenia, a Kebab Grille, Cuban Burger, Taj of India, and Mashita. And there are many more options, too — because of its vibrant food culture, downtown Harrisonburg was designated the first Culinary District in Virginia.

Want to eat like a king or queen? British-born Tom French, prepared dishes at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle — yes, really! — before taking over as executive chef at the Joshua Wilton House, a fine-dining restaurant in a restored Victorian home on South Main Street that’s known for artisanal dishes like crab-crusted flounder, filet mignon, and pan-seared scallops.

Order a flight of local brews at The Friendly Fermenter. Photography courtesy of Harrisonburg Tourism and Visitor Services

After dinner — or a long hike — explore downtown’s five local breweries and one cidery, where, yes, artisan culture also runs strong. The craft beverage scene here has exploded, turning Harrisonburg into a hot spot for local sips. Enjoy a pint at The Friendly Fermenter, a nano-brewery with an ever-changing tap list just a few blocks off Main Street. Then head right next door to Three Notch’d Valley Collab House, where head brewer Nick Branson releases a new brew every Friday. Or start off at the cute backyard beer garden at Restless Moons Brewing Company before taking a three-minute walk to Sage Bird Ciderworks, where owners Amberlee and Zach Carlson source local fruits to make small-batch, hand-crafted hard cider like Sweet Shenandoah, Dolly Hops, and fresh-squeezed “cidermosas.”

After a day filled with Shenandoah Valley adventures and appreciating artisan craftmanship, you’ll want to toast to Harrisonburg.

This story was published on May 25, 2022

Jodi Helmer

North Carolina-based journalist Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment.