Hill City Charm

A flourishing downtown is just one reason to visit Lynchburg now.

(Photography by Stacey Van Berkel)

It’s got everything you need for a weekend getaway: fantastic food, a thriving creative community, and an outdoorsy vibe. Toss in striking architecture, a rich history, and friendly locals, and Lynchburg—a city that boasts five colleges and universities—offers plenty to see and do.

The Hill City nickname is no exaggeration. Downtown Lynchburg can feel like a compact San Francisco. Start in Riverfront Park and walk the quarter-mile to Court Street. Along the way, you’ll ascend 200 feet—the equivalent of a 19-story building—with help on weekdays from the public elevator.

(Photography by Stacey Van Berkel)

From Court, take 9th Street to Monument Terrace, a 139-step memorial honoring locals lost in our military conflicts, from the Civil War to today. There, at midday on Fridays, you’ll catch the Troop Rally, a weekly gathering and show of support for veterans and active military, held on the bottom steps.

Climb the stairs to visit the Old Court House, a Greek Revival building that houses the Lynchburg Museum, where you’ll see exhibits such as the tribute to NASA astronaut and local legend Leland Melvin.

A new downtown pedestrian zone, Bluffwalk, attracts the empty nesters and recent grads who’ve flocked to the upscale condos in the area’s renovated historic warehouses. And nearby neighborhoods, like Diamond Hill and Garland Hill, offer architectural eye candy in Federal, Georgian Revival, and Queen Anne homes.


YOUNG PEOPLE ARE STAYING

“Young people come for the colleges and they’re staying,” says Thorne McCraw, who operates McCraw’s Lamp Shop in the same Civil War-era building where his father once sold furniture. In fact, the influx of postgrads has lowered Lynchburg’s average resident-age to a youthful 28.3. Now, McCraw adds, “there’s nightlife, pubs, and restaurants.”

(Photography by Stacey Van Berkel)

“Downtown has great walkability and great places to stay,” adds Rebekah Moody, whose Linen Provisions shares space in McCraw’s shop.

It’s a proud comeback story for an area that languished after the city’s first suburban mall, Pittman Plaza, opened in 1960. Suburban housing soon followed, draining downtown’s foot traffic. But a revitalization plan adopted in 2001 has supported business development and funneled more than $50 million into public park and infrastructure improvements. As a result, real estate values downtown have more than doubled over the last decade, according to the Lynchburg Office of Economic Development and Tourism.

You’ll see it in the city’s bustling Community Market, which dates to 1783. On busy Saturdays, market visitors line up early at Country Cooking by Irene, where owner Irene Revelry is famous for her comfort food.

(Photography by Stacey Van Berkel)

It’s also in shops like Ayven Avenue Boutique and Bittersweet, both of which offer stylish women’s clothing, and Spearman Artisanry, with its impressive array of fair-trade items. At Empire Fleet Vintage, a bright, open space tucked behind Greys, a Fifth Street restaurant, you’ll find fashions for everyone along with a selection of home accessories.

Along Main, Enchanted Antiques specializes in English, American, and Continental antiques, as well as modern works from Virginia artists. The store’s inventory turns over so quickly that owner Mary Brockman says she “can’t get too attached” to any single piece. The same is true at L. Oppleman Pawn on Main, founded in 1890. Longing for a Fender guitar or an $8,000 aquamarine pendant? You can probably find it here.

Also on Main, TaleTellers Fly Shop offers everything from rods and reels to lessons in casting and fly-tying, so you can try your hand at making intricate lures by hand. The folks at Tale-Tellers can also set up guided fishing trips to the many trout streams in the area.


A RICH HISTORY

Named for John Lynch, who took over his family’s ferry boat business in the mid-1700s, this riverfront tobacco town was a hub of shipping and industry well into the 20th century. Back then, Lynchburg was one of the richest cities in the U.S. per capita, as the grand old homes along Rivermont Avenue attest.

Thomas Jefferson wasn’t the first to note the area’s charms. But in a ringing endorsement, he built his summer retreat, Poplar Forest, in the nearby town of Forest in 1806. An architectural gem, Poplar Forest now offers living history demonstrations, an ongoing architectural dig, outdoor theater productions, and tours.

Later, Lynchburg boasted the world’s fifth-largest shoe manufacturer, the Craddock Terry Shoe Company. Founded in 1888, in its heyday, the company produced 100,000 pairs of shoes a day. The factory closed in 1988, but in 2007, the building was transformed into a boutique hotel bearing the Craddock Terry name.

The city attracts Civil War buffs, too, perhaps fascinated by the fact that Sandusky House served as Union Army headquarters for two days in 1864 during the Battle of Lynchburg. The city was also the South’s largest hospital outpost during the war, with trains delivering the wounded and sick to its 30 military hospitals. And 20 miles to the east, at Appomattox Court House National Park, you can visit the site where Robert E. Lee ended the war when he surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in 1865.


THE ARTS SCENE

At Riverviews Artspace’s rotating gallery shows, you can meet the artists in their studios. While you’re there, try your hand at the WordPlay Wall. Across the street, pint-sized artists and scientists can roam four floors of hands-on activities in Lynchburg’s award-winning children’s museum, Amazement Square.

For live performances, check out Opera on the James. This local professional opera company performs Rossini’s Barber of Seville in November.

At Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, the impressive collection of American art includes paintings by Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mary Cassatt. Built in the 1950s under the code-name “Project Y”, the Maier was designed to provide a safe depository for the National Gallery of Art’s collection in the event of an attack.


WHERE TO STAY

Looking for luxury? The pet-friendly Craddock Terry Hotel greets visitors with a giant red shoe on the building, a not-so-subtle nod to its factory history. Guest rooms are marked with footwear instead of numbers—so you might find yourself in the “loafer room”—and room service breakfast arrives in a shoe-shine box.

At the other end of downtown, The Virginian Lynchburg, part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, brings hospitality back to a 1913 building and offers great views from Skyline, their rooftop bar. If Airbnb is more your style, you can find downtown lofts, historic homes, and even a train car overlooking the river.


WHERE TO EAT

(Photography by Stacey Van Berkel)

Downtown delivers on the food front, too. Start the day at My Dog Duke’s Diner, where breakfast, brunch, and lunch are so popular that lines routinely snake out the door. Downhill from the diner, the Water Dog offers river views with an impressive selection of seafood, including fresh oyster shooters, street tacos, and their signature Water Dog: an all-beef hot dog dressed with seasoned crab meat, scallions, diced tomato, and celery seed.

Water Dog owner Dave Henderson traded a job in commercial banking to open this popular spot with his brother, Chris. “I could see what downtown Lynchburg was becoming, and I wanted to be part of it,” Henderson says. “I felt like all that existed was white tablecloth steak-andpotato restaurants. I wanted a place where we could hang out, a brewery feel with music, where kids could run around.” Clearly, Henderson got it right: The Water Dog was named Restaurant of the Year in 2019 by the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging, and Travel Association.

Downtown also boasts No. 7 Rooftop Bar perched above the Bluffwalk with views of the James and the longstanding Depot Grille, located in a former (you guessed it) train depot.

For your sweet tooth, visit Mrs. Joy’s Absolutely Fabulous Treats, owned by Tarsha Joyner, winner of the 2015 Food Network Christmas Cookie Challenge. When she opened her downtown shop in 2016, Joyner knew she “would have to bring the people to me.” And she has. Her cupcakes and ever-changing lineup of macarons proved pandemic-proof, with 2020 her best year yet. Joyner is among Lynchburg’s biggest fans. “There’s so much to do and see here,” she notes. “It’s got everything you need—you just have to look for it.”

Need a little ice cream? Pop into May Lynn’s Creamery—with locations downtown and in the Boonsboro shopping center. Or head to Rolled Cold Creamery for vegan and dairy-free options, even better when drizzled with their homemade rose petal syrup. For handcrafted ice cream sandwiches, stop in Rookie’s newest outpost on Rivermont Avenue.

At Mama Crockett’s Cider Donuts, the star attraction is made with apple cider sourced from nearby Nelson County. They’re served warm with an ever-changing array of coatings and dips, including maple, cinnamon, Nutella, and cream cheese. Or stop by Chestnut Hill Bakers on Fort Avenue for a taste of old-school Lynchburg. They’ve been baking for 50 years.

And for a true local favorite, grab a counter stool at the Texas Inn—the T-Room to regulars, who know to order the “Cheesy Western,” a cheeseburger topped with an egg and their “famous” homemade sweet relish.

For finer dining, the newly remodeled Milano’s offers delectable Italian dishes with flair. And if Mexican is what you’re craving, there’s always a debate as to whether La Carreta or Mi Patron serves up the best.

Our recommendation? Head to Lynchburg and decide for yourself.


OTHER LYNCHBURG MUST-SEES
  • Point of Honor, a former plantation home where historic interpreters capture life in the 19th-century.
  • Old City Cemetery, site of a small collection of museums which tell the story of the 20,000 individuals buried on the grounds of this 27-acre public garden. Take a swing under the large pecan tree opposite the chapel.
  • Anne Spencer’s House and Garden, home to the Harlem Renaissance poet whose garden, open free year-round, includes her private workspace and carefully tended plants and walking paths.
  • Hollins Mill Tunnel, located along the Blackwater Creek Bike Trail, was cut through 508 feet of solid rock in 1852-’53 to make way for the Norfolk & Western railway.
  • Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre, open year-round, offers skiing and snowboarding on snowless slopes.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue.

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