Nearly 175 years ago, Henry Robinson looked up into the canopy of a Hickory tree and decided to build a tavern under its outstretched branches. Hickory Tavern, as the town was originally called, lent its name and a legacy of hospitality to this gem of a city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Hickory, known for textiles and furniture, also draws artists, potters, and those who value craftsmanship. With a university, a number of farm-to-table restaurants, breweries, locally owned businesses, and an emphasis on culture, Hickory has the feel of a larger city. As Jenny Hines, owner of Jenny’s Gifts and Accessories, puts it, “We’re small, but we have a big-city attitude.”
Hickory thinks big as well — in the past few years, the city began building 10 miles of trails to connect its varied and vibrant sections. City Walk, one part of this trail system, takes the first step toward making Hickory walkable for residents and visitors alike. The 10-foot-wide path runs about 1.7 miles from Lenoir-Rhyne University (LRU) through a bustling downtown.
Want to spend the day exploring by foot? Read on for your guide to Hickory by City Walk.
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Before you hit the pavement, park in the visitor LRU lot on 7th Avenue Northeast, across the street from the 15-foot statue of a bear — the school’s mascot — carved from a massive red oak trunk. While you’re close to campus, wander through the shade trees and majestic brick buildings surrounding Rhyne Quad.
Make your way back to 7th Avenue Northeast, and at the intersection with 8th Avenue Northeast, find the start of City Walk, a newly paved, 10-foot-wide path lined with old-style lamp posts and street lights.
“This stretch of City Walk near LRU is known as the University Mill District,” says Sarah Killian with the city of Hickory. The area brims with restaurants, retail shops, and other businesses in revitalized mill buildings. As you pass Hickory Granary, a former flour mill turned office space, look across the railroad tracks to Hollar Mill, now home to popular restaurants and shops.
When you reach the green-brick Hickory HUB Coworking Center on the corner of 3rd Avenue Northeast, take a quick detour to the SALT Block, the city’s museums and cultural arts campus. Visitors of any age will find something appealing here — from stargazing in the planetarium at the Catawba Science Center to touring the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Hickory Museum of Art.
Tour the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Hickory Museum of Art, located in the SALT Block, the city’s museums and cultural arts campus. photograph by Hickory Metro CVB
Back on City Walk, a short walk down 1st Avenue Northeast takes you to the Ivey Arboretum at Sally Fox Park. Paths run through the 7-acre park’s sloped lawn with cheerfully painted benches and sculptures by local artists. Mature trees surround the elegant two-story Queen Anne-style house, a former parsonage, that sits on the property.
When you return to City Walk, cross the brand-new pedestrian bridge spanning Highway 127 under a pair of towering intertwining arches crafted from Douglas fir. Before you know it, you’re at Union Square, in the heart of Hickory.
The recently renovated square with generous outdoor seating provides the perfect spot to enjoy a burger and a signature Old Hickory Brewery option from Olde Hickory Tap Room, or tapas from Notions, like pimento cheese and tempura cauliflower.
In the heart of Hickory, you can enjoy a variety of tapas from Notions. photograph by Hickory Metro CVB
Groups of rocking chairs face grassy stretches, where children frolic and dogs lounge in the afternoon sun. A brick spiral ramp creates “Cannon Hill,” where a World War I German Howitzer sits as a memorial to those who served our country.
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the Hickory Farmers Market finds shelter under The Sails on the Square. While you pick locally grown organic produce from Tumbling Shoals Farm and colorful zinnias from Summer Fresh Flower Farm, musicians provide a backdrop on Sails Stage. “A lot of it is Americana — country, folk, bluegrass, some rock. It lends a wonderful aspect to our healthy outdoor market,” says market manager Kim Bost.
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the Hickory Farmers Market finds shelter under The Sails on the Square. photograph by Hickory Metro CVB
After browsing the market, step into The Natural Olive, where the aroma of freshly baked ciabatta bread embraces you. Customers are encouraged to use the ciabatta to taste some of the 50 fresh olive oils and balsamic vinegars offered at the store.
Tuscan herb extra-virgin olive oil and 18-year traditional balsamic are customer favorites, but with infused selections like espresso balsamic and Persian lime organic olive oil, you may find yourself tasting for a while. Although you don’t have to be a foodie to shop here, “one visit to The Natural Olive may turn you into one!” owner Noelle Walker says.
Browse the hand-selected wines and kitchen goods and enjoy a scoop of peach gelato before you head out to the square. The helpful staff will hold your purchases until you have finished your walk around the city.
Union Square has so many can’t-miss locally owned stores, you could spend the afternoon visiting them all. Stop into Ella Blu, a modern women’s clothing boutique. Make a selection from Hickory Wine Shoppe, featuring wines from small wine producers and wines made with organic and sustainable farming practices. From Lou Lou’s Corner, a toy store and more, to Bottega: a Soulful Place, a local art gallery with clothing, jewelry, and everything in between, there’s a store for everyone.
Union Square has so many can’t-miss locally owned stores, including Lou Lou’s Corner. photograph by Hickory Metro CVB
For something a little different, Bisque N Beads has activities for crafty (and not so crafty) folks. Create beaded jewelry or choose to paint one of the many pottery pieces — like vases, flower pots, frames, and figurines — that fill the shop’s wall of shelves.
Beyond the Square
Hickory’s downtown offerings extend beyond Union Square. Across the train tracks, Olde Hickory Station and Market resides in the historic former Southern Railroad Passenger Depot. And the Craft Beer Cellar is a quick walk from the station, in the same building that sports the cheery Welcome to Hickory mural.
As you leave Union Square, the bright sounds of marimbas and children’s voices lead you over the Third Street pedestrian bridge to Lowes Foods City Park, a must-visit if you’re traveling with children. Tile mosaics adorn shady benches and meander through the splash pad that operates during summer months. A multi-level sphere webbed with sturdy ropes beckons climbers and a collection of hand drums and other instruments inspires group jam sessions.
A multi-level sphere webbed with sturdy ropes beckons little climbers at Lowes Foods City Park. photograph by Hickory Metro CVB
Heading west from the playground, the City Walk continues to trace the railroad tracks that curve their way through town. A few minutes of strolling brings you to the 1888 Clement Geitner House, the oldest standing brick home in Hickory. The wide front porch invites passersby inside to shop at Jenny’s Gifts and Accessories, which now occupies the former dwelling.
Lustrous handmade Beatriz Ball trays, bright Vietri china, and gifts suitable for everything from house warmings to baby showers line the mantles, bookcases, and shelves throughout the beautifully restored home.
Approaching 9th Street Northwest on City Walk, catch glimpses of distant mountains over the roofs of buildings across the road. The path ends here for now with the historic former Piedmont Wagon building in view.
Walking back through Hickory to LRU, the late-day sun gives the evening a warm glow. A right on 6th Street Place Northeast takes you to Hollar Mill, a great place to find dinner at the end of a full day. If you’re in the mood for Tex-Mex, follow the neon sign upstairs to Mas Amor Cantina. If burgers, hearty sandwiches, and pizza are more your speed, head to Blowing Rock Draft House and Brewery on the mill’s lower level.
Grab some Tex-Mex at Mas Amor Cantina in Hollar Mill. photograph by Hickory Metro CVB
After your meal, make your way back to your car in the fading sunset while memories of the day fill your mind. This forward-thinking city rooted in a deep history is sure to draw you back for another visit. As Noelle Walker reflects, “Hickory has managed to find the perfect recipe for bringing in ‘new’ while preserving the character of the historic landscape.”
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