ONE-OF-A-KIND THEATER AND REALLY FINE FOOD ARE AMONG THE GREAT REASONS TO VISIT THE ARTS AND HISTORY HUB OF VIRGINIA’S FAMOUS VALLEY.
SPRING HAS COME to the Shenandoah Valley, a picturesque spot framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegheny branch of the Appalachians. You might come for the views, but this corner of western Virginia also will seduce you with its art, theater and neighborly vibe.
Staunton, known as the “Queen City” of the Shenandoah, is the valley’s heartbeat. Founded in 1787 and named for a Royal Lieutenant-Governor’s wife, today it promises Victorian charm, one-of-a-kind theater, antiques, art and some of the best restaurants in the state.
This city of about 25,000, is pronounced STANN-ton, by the way. It likely won’t be the only word you encounter that looks one way and is spoken another. Locals good-naturedly joke that that’s how they tell who’s from Staunton and who’s not.
Either way, you’ll find a pedestrian-friendly downtown and beautiful Victorian architecture.
Staunton has five historic districts plus the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and the Gothic-Revival style Trinity Episcopal Church, which sits on 9.9 acres and dates to 1875. Grab a map from the Staunton Visitors Center on South New Street and take a self-guided tour, or check out Staunton Guided Tours (540.885.2430), which offers year-round trolley and walking tours.
April is Shakespeare’s birthday, making it a perfect time to treat yourself to a show (or two or three) at the American Shakespeare Center (540.851.1733 or 877.MUCH.ADO). If you like your Shakespeare stuffy, don’t see it here.
The internationally acclaimed professional theater company performs year-round in the beautiful 300-seat Blackfriars Playhouse, the only re-creation of the first indoor theater (used by the bard and friends) in the English-speaking world.
The ASC’s actors perform four or five shows in repertory for a few months at a time before moving to a different repertoire. Many are by Shakespeare, but not all.
If you visit by mid-April, you’ll see The Merchant of Venice, Coriolanus, Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, the contemporary Shakespeare’s Sister and/or The Fair Maid of the Day, a 400-year-old script whose playwright is unknown.
If you visit from mid-April to mid-June, you’ll see Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and/or Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), a 1988 comedy.
There are two things you should know before you go.
First, all shows are performed under Shakespeare’s original staging conditions — on a simple stage without elaborate sets and with the audience sharing the same light as the actors (similar to but not exactly like Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse). Onstage seats are available, and don’t be surprised if an actor delivers his/her aside to you or gives you a prop to hold.
Second, arrive early. The actors sing and play music — often folk, country and/or rock — before the show begins and at intermission. The music is contemporary and themed to that evening’s or afternoon’s show. It’s a lively, occasionally raucous and communal experience that makes you feel less like an audience member and more like a co-conspirator.
Staunton’s commitment to the arts also is evident in several galleries that display the work of local and regional artists. The R.R. Smith Center, a block from the Blackfriars Playhouse, rotates shows monthly. CoArt Gallery, at the other end of downtown, exhibits work by members of the Beverley Street Studio School and other locals. If watching artists in action is your thing, visit Sunspots Studios, where you can see glassblowers work seven days a week (and take home a souvenir).
Dozens of women-owned independent businesses await your shopping skills on the main street named for founder William Beverley. Expect a range of local, regional and global fair-trade gifts and products.
You’ll also find three antique shops on Beverley — Inside Newtown, Staunton Antiques Center and 17 E. Beverley Antiques. The latter two offer booths from multiple vendors. Factory Antique Mall, the largest antique mall on the East Coast, is a six-mile drive away in Verona.
If all of this leaves you with an appetite, or you want to fill up before or after an ASC curtain, you’re in the right place. In the past decade, Staunton has become a go-to source for farm-to-table eateries. Topping the list is the acclaimed Zynodoa (a Native American word for “Shenandoah”). You will need to think a bit ahead and make a reservation here (540.885.7775).
When you arrive, your host will politely ask if you’re going to the Playhouse that evening, so your meal can be properly timed. Then you can dance your way around a seasonally inspired menu — creamy cauliflower and Granny Smith apple soup or a curly kale salad, perhaps, followed by citrus-molasses brined chicken breast, slow-roasted pork or Virginia peanut-crusted catfish. Do get the bruleed cast-iron cornbread with house-made apple butter. The cocktails, by the way, are just as precise as the food.
Staunton’s national attention as a foodie destination also comes from The Shack (540.490.1961), where chef Ian Boden, a James Beard Award nominee, creates his own kind of American cuisine. You’ll need a reservation for this tiny gem of a restaurant, too, with its mismatched chairs and shared tables tucked beneath funky art. The prix-fixe menu rarely disappoints.
For breakfast and lunch, Cranberry’s Grocery and Eatery, the Pampered Palate, and Farmhouse Kitchen and Wares all offer fresh-to-order food. You’ll find independent coffee shops on every block and even more local art. And for a city its size, Staunton has a generous sprinkling of craft breweries, including, but probably not limited to, Bedlam Brewing, Redbeard Brewing Co., Shenandoah Hops, Shenandoah Valley Brewing Co. and Queen City Brewing,
If you’re willing to venture a bit out of downtown, Newtown Baking across from historic Thornrose Cemetery, and Lundch (named for owner/chef Mike Lund) on Springhill Road next to Gypsy Hill Park, offer delectable menus from acclaimed bakers/chefs.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Take I-85 north to I-485 north to Charlotte. Then take I-77 north to I-81 north. Take Exit 225 and follow the signs to the historic downtown area.
WHERE TO STAY: Options include the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel in the middle of downtown, which puts you within walking distance of most of Staunton’s best attractions. For the B&B experience, try the Frederick House. Airbnb can connect you with delightful lodgings in the city’s “small hotels” like The Bard’s Nest or The Storefront, as well as rooms in historic homes.
ESTIMATED COST: About $1,100 for a four-day weekend.