Happening Harrisonburg

Photo by Adam Ewing

Massanutten Mountain viewed from White Oak Lavender Farm. 

If you imagine Harrisonburg as a sleepy Shenandoah Valley college town, think again. Yes, the town is indeed home to the dynamic and growing James Madison University with its nearly 20,000 undergraduate students, who enliven the campus and nearby streets. Lately, though, the city’s focus has shifted to reimaging its core, 10-block downtown area. Most of these historic blocks have been revitalized and are buzzing with energy and a multitude of sensory delights for you to explore.

Photo by Adam Ewing

Downtown Harrisonburg signage.

The downtown area, which was designated as a Great American Main Street in 2014, is named as an Arts and Cultural District, and—most recently—a Downtown Culinary District, the first in Virginia (as self-declared by their city council). The local, energetic, and community-focused businesses are at the core of this welcome downtown renaissance. “Harrisonburg has always been very independent business-focused and a little bit ahead of the curve,” says Tim Brady, the founder of the award-winning, four-year-old Pale Fire Brewery. It’s this quality that makes the town a welcoming location for innovators to build their businesses. He’s been brewing professionally in the area for 20 years.

Farm to table

Photo by Adam Ewing

Mashita chef and owner Mike Resienberg.

As the largest city thereabouts, Harrisonburg is also a beneficiary of the valley’s rich agricultural offerings and dining traditions. This bounty is inspiring local chefs, brewers, and artisans who then serve their customers truly fresh farm-to-table fare and add their own flare, including some global offerings, such as Mashita, a Korean-inspired restaurant. To make any town shine, “you need the individual entrepreneurs to give it character, flavor, and energy,” says Jeff Hill, the owner of the historic Joshua Wilton Inn and its bistro-inspired restaurant, along with Local Chop & Grill House, a casual, meat-centric restaurant. Born in Harrisonburg, Hill lived everywhere from Europe to Seattle before returning to his family roots and helping to revitalize the downtown, including his Victorian inn which was recently updated. Hill’s locally inspired restaurants rely on nearly 50 valley farms as their suppliers, including local wineries.

Start your visit at the historic Hardesty-Higgins House Visitors Center where you can immerse yourself in local history. Originally known as “Rocktown,” Harrisonburg was settled in the 1700s as groups of settlers migrated through the Shenandoah Valley along the Wilderness Road. The visitors center offers a locally focused gift shop, the Valley Turnpike Museum which focuses on the area’s history, and the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Civil War Orientation Center, which can direct travelers to key sites, such as cemeteries and battlefields. 

Photo by Adam Ewing

Rockingham County Courthouse.

In fact, if you love following trails of any kind, Harrisonburg and the surrounding Rockingham County offer a cornucopia of themed explorations. Boasting 45 wineries, breweries, cideries, and distilleries, the Shenandoah Spirits Trail has multiple stops in town, including Brothers Craft Brewing, located in a reconfigured Coca-Cola bottling plant. If you enjoy watching adept artists at work in their studios, the Artisan Trail Network lists 30 area artisans who specialize in everything from stained glass to handmade guitars to blacksmithing. If your tastes are more specialized, focus on the more than 15 craft breweries on the Beerwerks Trail. 

In short, Harrisonburg and its surrounding area has a pathway to please any palate. After checking out the visitors center, be sure to saunter over to Heritage Café, a charming mother-daughter run café with outdoor tables, which serves up tea, coffee, and truly irresistible delicacies like cinnamon-chocolate homemade “pop tarts.” While Harrisonburg’s downtown district appears on both the State and National Register of Historic Places, as you walk these friendly streets, you’ll also admire how local visionaries and builders have meshed the rich architectural traditions on display with the new. 

GO SHOPPIN’

Photo by Adam Ewing

Barbara Camph on a mosaic staircase she created.

At Oasis, a centrally located shop celebrating 20 successful years as a self-supporting co-op completely run by its artist members, you can “see the depth of art available in this relatively small community,” says the co-op’s founder Barbara Camph. Its multi-textured riches include everything from gorgeous ceramics to hand-dyed fiber art to paintings, which are available at a variety of price points. An array of Oasis artists also displays their offerings on rotation at a vendor space in the nearby Saturday farmers’ market. 

The twice-weekly and popular Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market has had to make adjustments during the coronavirus crisis, but the vibrant, 20-year-old community is still finding ways to connect discerning consumers with their local farmers, chefs, and artisans. “We are blessed to be in the heart of a really wonderful agricultural area, so the diversity and quality of products that’s available at our market is really amazing,” says Josie Showalter, the market manager. Located under a huge outdoor pavilion that has 40 spaces for vendors, this producer-only market is a fun Saturday (or Tuesday, under usual conditions) destination. Many vendors use sustainable practices and offer alluring heirloom varieties of produce. Wandering the stalls, you’ll find fermented products to boost your immune system, tie-dyed products to brighten your world, and an herbal bath and body vendor to keep you sweet-smelling. You can also pick up a made-to-order coffee, a breakfast taco, or fresh crepes, both sweet and savory.

Photo by Adam Ewing

Vintage sewing machine at the Virginia Quilt Museum.

While the nearby Virginia Quilt Museum might sound a bit old-fashioned, it’s anything but. Inside the spacious and beautiful 1856 Classical Revival house, you’ll find three floors of fascinating exhibits of both historic and more modern quilts. In 2019, they featured an Elvis-themed quilt display. Their current exhibition, Treasures from the Vault, runs through December and commemorates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage by looking at the movement through the quilts of the women who lived at that time. On designated days, you can also bring in a family quilt for them to assess its provenance and value, just like the popular Antiques Roadshow. 

A COOL TRADITION

An easy stroll away, the former icehouse—which is renovated in a warehouse style—is a particular success story for the town. Inside, the unique Museum of American Jewelry Design and Manufacturing offers both tours of the museum and intriguing jewelry. Visitors can watch goldsmiths at their craft and see some of the more than 3,000 pieces in their collection of hubs, dies, and rolls that were once used to make jewelry in the 19th century, along with much of the antique machinery of the trade. The owner and collector’s Hugo Kohl collection features lovely vintage-inspired earrings, pendants, bracelets, and rings for sale.  

Photo by Adam Ewing

Black Sheep baker Georgia Good with a fresh pear spice and honey torte.

Inside the icehouse, you can also warm up or buzz up at Black Sheep Coffee which offers a cozy setting to catch up with friends, along with breakfast sandwiches and sweets. Pale Fire Brewing also boasts a spacious, open-air tap room with roll-up garage doors and a dog-friendly outdoor patio. While imbibing, visitors can observe the brewery works from floor to ceiling. While the tap room serves only locally produced snacks, such as Route 11 potato chips, patrons are free to bring food from any other local establishments into the tap room to enjoy with a pint or two.

Pale Fire owner Tim Brady describes the Harrisonburg and valley area as fertile ground for brewing, particularly because of the good water that’s available there. “We have fantastic water,” says Brady. “Beer is roughly 95 percent water, so if your water isn’t good, your beer’s not good.” Their crowd pleaser is Red Molly Irish red ale, which is “malt-forward with a little bit of chocolate and dark cherry notes,” he adds. 

STROLL AROUND

Photo by Adam Ewing

Baked goods from Magpie Diner.

The North End of Harrisonburg was once full of neglected and vacant warehouses, but the area has recently become the focus of visionary entrepreneurs, including Kirsten Moore, the owner of the summer launched Magpie Diner and Bakery which is housed in a former tire store. Moore describes the restaurant’s offerings as “familiar but elevated;” they may include delicacies, such as pork belly and pickled watermelon salad and sweet grits pie. The European-style, in-house bakery focuses on artisan breads and pastries, along with more pies. She hopes to also welcome diners for happy hours on an outdoor patio. Additionally, Moore is the force behind The Perch, a hip co-working space above her restaurant.

Other North End businesses include Sage Bird Ciderworks, which uses locally sourced fruits to produce small batch hard cider; Merge Coffee Company, which roasts sustainably sourced coffee on site and has several locations around town; and the craft space for Lineage, a local leather goods business that sells handcrafted wallets, belts, and purses and has a storefront in the main downtown area.

Photo by Adam Ewing

White Oak manager Rebecca Haushalter.

With Shenandoah National Park, Skyline Drive, and Massanutten to its east and the George Washington National Forest to its west, Harrisonburg provides an ideal launching pad for a multitude of outdoor activities for all four seasons. In town, you can stroll the lush grounds of the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum, a 125-acre woodland sanctuary and gardens on the JMU campus. The trails at Hillandale Park offer bikers 74 acres of stacked mountain biking loop trails that both novices and experts will tackle with joy. Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, a store in town, can outfit you with tackle, clinics, and fishing guides to the south fork of the Shenandoah River and other scenic streams. And, of course, hiking trails abound in the nearby national parks.

To experience the valley’s agricultural riches in person, check out the many farms and orchards that let you pick your own, including White Oak Lavender Farm for fresh lavender, an impressive gift shop, and lovely acres to wander; Paugh’s Orchard for peaches; and Showalter’s Orchard and Greenhouse for apples and cider.

Finally, no trip to relish the riches of Harrisonburg is complete without a stop at nearby Mt. Crawford Creamery and Smiley’s Ice Cream where animal lovers can doubly indulge themselves by petting the cows and then tasting some of the so-fresh and luscious ice cream, including the unmissable Death-By-Chocolate and Cherries Jubilee. In short, the hip and happening town of Harrisonburg offers a kaleidoscope of culinary and visual indulgences, along with a multitude of ways to burn those calories off. 

Photo by Adam Ewing

Lauren Johnson harvests lavender.


This article originally appeared in our October 2020  issue.

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