This Small Virginia City Is the Perfect Home Base for Beautiful Hikes, Scenic Drives, and an International Dark Sky Park With Epic Stargazing

Lexington, Virginia, is the perfect home base for historic tours, outdoor adventures, and more.

When I arrived in Lexington, Virginia, I exclaimed loudly and to no one in particular, "They should make movies here." As it happened, a gentleman standing on the sidewalk nearby was a film critic. "Oh, they have," he said, pointing to the side of a brick building. "That sign," he continued, "was painted for the movie, 'Sommersby,' with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere. It's very similar in size and style to a sign that was there originally, so they kept it."

A Carriage ride past the Visitor Center in Downtown Lexington
Chris Weisler/Courtesy of Lexington & the Rockbridge Area Tourism Development

I wasn't surprised to learn that Hollywood had already discovered Lexington. If it wasn't for the sight of modern-day vehicles driving down the street, a visitor to the area could easily be lured into believing they'd stumbled back in time. The shops, hotels, and restaurants in the historic district occupy brick buildings built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even the sidewalks are made from antique brick with a textured pattern of lines and circles produced between the late 1800s and early 1900s. Lexington brick, the locals call it, and throughout my visit, I consistently bumped into people wearing earrings and necklaces embossed with the design.

Historic Lexington

A carriage ride with Lexington Carriage Company
Courtesy of Lexington Carriage Company

After I dropped my bags at the hotel, I walked to the pickup location for the Lexington Carriage Company's tour of the historic district. As we set off, I thought about how the modern cars parked along the side of the road looked more out of place than the team of horses pulling visitors like me around town. The tour took me past inviting storefronts brimming with books, antiques, and local crafts. Afterward, we continued to neighborhoods filled with grand houses from previous centuries, historic churches, and a cemetery, and discussed the founding of Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute, both of which are located in downtown Lexington.

Like much of the South, Lexington has a difficult past that includes slavery. This was prominently on display as we passed by residences that once belonged to the Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert. E. Lee. The community today is striving to acknowledge these hard truths and share its history as openly as it can. The Jackson House Museum, located in the historic home of Stonewall Jackson, rotates its tour themes. On my visit, the tour focused on the experiences of enslaved individuals who lived and worked on the property.

Exterior of the Jackson House Museum
Kevin Remington/Courtesy of Virginia Military Institute

Meanwhile, on the Washington and Lee University campus, a marker has been erected with the names of 84 men, women, and children who were enslaved there. In 2020, the Lexington City Council voted unanimously to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Cemetery to Oak Grove Cemetery. This work provides a fuller understanding of Lexington's history, while simultaneously signaling the kind of place this community wants to be.

Outdoor Recreation in Lexington, Virginia

Lexington is located in the fertile Shenandoah Valley, between the tree-covered Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountain ranges. Take just a two- or three-minute drive from town, and you'll be surrounded by bright green hills, forests, and farmland. Drive a bit further, and you'll find state parks, scenic rivers, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the legendary Appalachian Trail.

On my first morning in Lexington, I pushed off into the Upper James River Water Trail in a rented kayak. There are places to pull off and camp along the 60-plus-mile trail, but I wasn't nearly that ambitious. I chose a six-mile stretch in Rockbridge County, where dense thickets hugged the shore and mountains rose across the sky in the distance. A large hawk soared silently over my head. The only sound came from my paddle dipping into the water, until a small set of gently bubbling rapids carried me to flat waters ahead. Before I reached the pullout spot, I passed two turtles sunning on a large rock and waved to them like old friends.

Kayaking down the James River
Sam Dean/Courtesy of Lexington & the Rockbridge Area Tourism Development

The next day, I ventured out to the Blue Ridge Parkway. This scenic drive is one of the most popular places in the National Park System, and visitors can soak in the views from the comfort of their vehicle. The Blue Ridge Parkway winds through 469 miles of dense forests, towering rock formations, waterfalls, and wildlife like deer and bears. There are more than 200 overlooks with jaw-dropping vistas of the valley and hiking trails. The views are spectacular year-round, with shades of emerald and jade in the warmer months turning to brilliant reds and golds come fall. In the winter, when the trees are blanketed with snow, the parkway closes to vehicles as conditions are deemed unsafe, but the road remains open for cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and hikers who revel in having the place to themselves.

Car pov point of view driving on winding road curve road in Appalachian mountains Blue Ridge parkway in Virginia with paved asphalt road and blue sky trees
krblokhin/Getty Images

The Appalachian Trail intersects with the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Lexington area. The entire trail is 2,190 miles long, and it's estimated that only about 25% of hikers who attempt a thru-hike make it every year. That kind of endeavor takes time, equipment, and preparation, so I didn't tackle it. I did, however, walk a short distance on the route.

The Appalachian Trail is often referred to as the Green Tunnel, and it's an apt nickname. Within a few steps, I was enveloped by branches and leaves. Hikers with more ambitious plans can camp in the backcountry adjacent to the trail or stay in one of the shelters set up in the area. As for me, I was happy with a mere taste, so I made my way back to the car.

Natural Bridge geological formation in Rockbridge County, Virginia
AlizadaStudios/Getty Images

Natural Bridge State Park is not as well-known as the Blue Ridge Parkway or Appalachian Trail, but it's every bit as important to see when you're in the area. In fact, I went back twice. The park was officially designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2021, so I made my first visit at night. If you've never been to a dark sky park, perhaps the most surprising thing is the light. The stars and moon burned so brightly, they cast enough light to help me make my way across a field in the dark. The tall grass around me was lit by fireflies, blurring the line between the ground and sky, while the moon glowed above the mountains.

On my last morning in Lexington, I went back to Natural Bridge State Park during the day to see the geological wonder it was named after. The natural arch was owned by Thomas Jefferson, but its history dates back 450 million years ago, when a limestone gorge was slowly carved out by Cedar Creek. I'd seen photographs of the natural bridge, but it was so much larger than I expected. At 215 feet tall, it stands as high as a 20-story building and stretches 90 feet wide. An accessible path took me along the creek, under the arch, and through the other side where I stood, incredulous that the Earth was capable of creating something so beautiful, permanent, and perfect.

Getting to Lexington, Virginia

Lexington is under 200 miles from both Washington, D.C. and Raleigh, North Carolina. If you prefer to fly, it's 52 miles from Roanoke Regional Airport (ROA) and approximately 75 miles from Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport (CHO).

Restaurants in Lexington, Virginia

A table filled with food at The Red Hen
Courtesy of The Red Hen

The farm-to-table movement isn't new, but Lexington sure does it well. You won't have to go far to find local fare in the city. At The Red Hen, the dishes aren't just prepared with local ingredients; they're also served on handmade stoneware crafted locally at Earth, Fire, and Spirit Pottery. The menu here is outstanding and rotates in order to serve what's in season. This is an intimate space and seating is limited, so reservations are recommended.

Interior of Earth, Fire, and Spirit Pottery
Helen Bisset/Curated by Helen/Courtesy of Earth, Fire, and Spirit Pottery

Other standout dinner spots include the Southern Inn Restaurant, which serves outstanding (and generously sized) classic dishes like meatloaf and fried chicken, and Haywood's Piano Bar and Grill, which has live music and a wide selection of hand-cut steaks.

Interior of Haywoods Piano Bar and Grill
Steven M. Shires/Courtesy of Lexington & the Rockbridge Area Tourism Development

Breakfast and lunch options in Lexington are no less appealing, thanks to a commitment to working with local farms and vendors. The sandwiches at Blue Sky Bakery are made on fresh focaccia bread, and the donuts made fresh every day at Pure Eats were so good that I regret not bringing a box home.

Interior of the Blue Sky Bakery
Steven M. Shires/Courtesy of Lexington & the Rockbridge Area Tourism Development
Exterior of the Devil's Backbone Outpost Taproom and Kitchen
Courtesy of Devils Backbone Outpost Taproom and Kitchen

Beer lovers will also be happy to learn that the craft brewery movement has not escaped Lexington. At Devils Backbone Company Outpost Tap Room & Kitchen, the beers and ciders are delicious, and the pastoral and mountain views phenomenal.

Hotels in Lexington, Virginia

Brick exterior of The Georges hotel in Virginia
Courtesy of The Georges

Lexington offers lodging options for different budgets and travel styles. In the historic district, The Georges was named one of the best city hotels in the continental U.S. in Travel + Leisure's 2021 World's Best Awards. Each room in this boutique property is exquisitely decorated, and many have separate sitting areas. Guests can also expect luxury amenities like heated floors, heated towel racks, and white noise machines. A daily complimentary made-to-order breakfast is included, too. Plus, it's ideally located for anyone wanting to walk to the shops, restaurants, and attractions downtown.

A chic guest room at The Georges, voted one of the best city hotels in the United States
Sera Petras/Courtesy of The Georges

Near Natural Bridges State Park, a meticulously restored mansion built in 1806 has been converted into an antique-filled bed-and-breakfast. The Inn at Forest Oaks is situated on a 50-acre estate with rolling pastures and stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Each of the six guest rooms has a private bathroom and many feature fireplaces and claw-foot tubs. The breakfast menu changes daily and often includes items like homemade waffles or frittatas served with bacon or sausage and fresh fruit. Even if you aren't staying here, it's worth stopping by since the owners run a fantastic bakery and antique shop downstairs.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles