I think Alanis Morissete speaks to me, and not just because I’m a child of the late 80’s. “Ironic” is one of the songs that my brain goes to often, even when things are, well, not ironic nor terrible (most situations described in her song lean toward “terrible” more than ironic, exactly). This song plays in my head when I think of Lexington, Va., because Lexington is the opposite of terrible – but a visit there often features the unexpected.
I met my husband in Lexington, and all of my best friends. I went to school at Washington and Lee University, and when asked to describe my four years there the most accurate description I can give is, “It was just like living in the brochure.” I know this isn’t everyone’s experience. I’m well aware of the negative experiences acquaintances have had, and more familiar with the awful memories close friends have of a determined blanket ignorance of sexual assault, or of an underlying and pervasive acceptance of racism. That knowledge makes me all too aware that I am annoying to many and perpetuating a falsehod to others when I say that my time in Lexington was perfect. But to me, it was. Perfect, I mean.
That’s a loaded way to start a travel blog. Clearly, I’m new to this. But I wouldn’t tell you to visit Havana without warning you about the idealization of “poverty porn,” so I won’t leave out the awful things I’m aware of about Lexington.
That being said: Visit Lexington. It’s a hell of a town – especially if you live in the Washington, D.C. or Richmond areas and can drive there in about three hours. Here are some tips for a weekend in Lexington and Rockbridge County.
Friday afternoon: Arrive in town for a tour of Lee Chapel on Washington and Lee’s Campus. You can tour this museum on your own, but it’s really a hoot to get the full understanding, and it’s a great way to get the lay of the land. Plus, how often do you get to visit a horse’s grave?
After your tour, it should be nearly sunset. Stroll around the Colonnade before you head back to your car. The Colonnade is the main part of W&L’s campus and is home to the university’s very first buildings. If you get there before sunset, you can probably peak your head inside Washington Hall or Tucker Hall – two of the original buildings on campus. During the renovation, students learned a lot about the students before them by playing in the dirt – read about what they uncovered.
After walking around the Colonnade (referred to by students as “The Hill,”) walk back to your car via Washington Street if you need a snack. Refuel at the Hillel House on a weekday, or if you’re ready to indulge your sweet tooth, stop into Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe for a pre-dinner ice cream cone.
Sweet Things serves handpacked, homemade ice cream. The owner started his career in big law, but after feeling burnt out by that career, bought Sweet Things and made a new life in Lexington. Not only does he make and serve incredible pumpkin ice cream, but also his story serves as a little burst of inspiration for students worried about making too many MAJOR LIFE DECISIONS too fast. I probably should spend more time at Sweet Things now at 31 than I did at 21. Alas, my waistline disagrees.
Check into your hotel after ice cream or bagels and refresh. The Georges on Main Street is a gorgeous boutique hotel opened by Richmonders and parents of VMI alums. They brought a first-class boutique feel to small town Lexington. The rooms are meticulously curated and, though small, feel luxurious. Rooms are often priced in the “luxury” category, and if you’re looking for a more budget option the folks at the Abigail Inn will take great care of you in one of their traditional bed-and-breakfast rooms. The Abigail Inn is an old fraternity house turned bed and breakfast, and the innkeepers are a charming older couple who will make you feel both at home with their offerings and perhaps just a little uncomfortable with their direct questions at the breakfast table.
For those willing to stay outside of downtown, The Inn at Forest Oaks is tops. Owners Cliff and Chris lovingly, painstakingly renovated an estate built originally in 1806 into an eight-bedroom inn. The duo was originally deadset on buying and renovating a home in the Catskills to fulfill their innkeeping dreams, but when they saw Forest Oaks they trusted their instincts and let fate take the wheel. With time, sweat and blood they restored the parts that were falling down, eliminated the hazardous parts (did you know an early fire suppression tactic featured putting highly dangerous chemicals into small glass bottles which would explode under high heat thus releasing the harmful chemicals onto the flames, hopefully extinguishing them?), and adding modern necessities where necessary. Each room features its own bathroom, many of which include fabulous clawfoot tubs where you can soak while watching cows and horses graze in the morning.
For dinner, any of the downtown Lexington restaurants will treat you well. If you’re at Forest Oaks and want to stay closer to home, try Foot of the Mountain Café. It isn’t fancy, but you’ll get two homecooked tasty meals and two cold beers for under $20. Plus you’ll feel like a part of the Natural Bridge community.
Wherever you wake up on Saturday, start your day by staying in bed. A college town should inspire everyone to sleep in a little bit, whether or not you attended school there. After a lie-in, wake up with a run or walk. If you drive downtown, pick up a coffee at Lexington Coffee and take a stroll along Woods Creek Trail, or venture uptown and wander around the cemetery where Stonewall Jackson is buried (except for his arm, which was amputated and buried near Chancellorsville, Va., after Jackson was shot in the arm by friendly fire the night after he led a devastating assault on Union forces).
Those interested in Stonewall Jackson history should visit his home, open to tours. Hopefully you visit in the springtime when his kitchen garden is ablaze with flowers. Set aside some extra time to reflect after on the stories you heard there – they present Jackson as a benevolent master and a man of contradictions. On campus you might have heard similar stories about Lee. Take everything you read into consideration, and then read some more from independent sources before you form an opinion. The lovely people who curate and work at these two museums certainly have a vested interest in softening these men’s edges.
Eat a late lunch at The Bistro on Main. I recommend the taco salad bowl with steak, but their daily quiches are always top notch and their soups are usually fabulous – even if it’s a flavor combination you don’t normally expect. I worked as a hostess there throughout college and got to see how owners Jackie and Judy put their hearts into making the Bistro a destination dining experience. You’ll usually find Mortye serving bar – he’ll take care of you with a shockingly good cosmo martini. You haven’t had one since 2001, you say? Even better. You won’t remember what they should taste like.
If you’re up for another educational experience, walk up to Virginia Military Institute and tour its different museums (my dad recommends the Marshall Museum). Their collection of military and historic artifacts is impresive. VMI is sometimes called the “West Point of the South,” but unlike West Point it is not a federal institution with compulsory service in a specific branch. Students at VMI do not have to join the military after graduation, although most do accept the military scholarship and serve. Many cadets have gone on to become the stuff of legends: George Marshall, George Patton, even Mel Brooks trained there during WWII.
If museum-going isn’t in the cards, afternoon shopping might be. Pappagallo for an eclectic mix of women’s wear – and the perfect chair in the window for men dragged along (if you’re lucky, the eclectic grey haired shopkeepers will offer you a beer and share a story of adventures of clothes buying abroad). Pumpkinseeds for perfectly curated whimsical gifts, jewelry, stationery and trendy seasonal clothes. Alvin Dennis for an old school men’s shop, with extremely preppy-meets-outdoorsy offerings for women. There’s a hearty mix of galleries and silver shops mixed in as well. For outdoor gear, Walkabout Outfitters has everything you could want (and lots you didn’t know wanted).
In the evening, your options are many. If it’s summertime, catch a concert at the Lime Kiln Theater. It’s a local venue tucked into the woods whose seating bowl is an old lime quarry and kiln. Catching a show there is truly magical: 4,000 or so people lounging on blankets, sharing local wine and beer, passing around the bug spray. Here’s where I discovered that all bluegrass music sounds better with cicadas accompanying the band, and even the best lighting kit is enhanced by fireflies.
After Lime Kiln’s season wraps, the Lenfest Center at Washington and Lee has a concert, play or musical nearly every weekend. Whether it’s a traveling choir visiting campus or a performance by one of the school’s best musicians, take in a show at the university’s expansive performing arts center.
For dinner, you have two must-try places still: The Red Hen and Southern Inn. The Red Hen gained notoriety when the proprietor asked Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to leave. But to those in the know, the restaurant was already famous for its esquisitely curated, rotating menu of local, in season produce, meats and cheeses. It’s a small space so do call ahead for reservations. The Southern Inn is a local standby with a relatively recent much needed facelift and scrub-down after a wicked fire caused by lightning. The fried chicken is a go-to, but just because you’re in a place with “Southern” in the name doesn’t mean you should ignore the pasta. The penne alla vodka hits just the right note between tangy and creamy, and a hearty portion with fresh parmesan will complement a classic old-school, heavy dressing caesar salad. That is, if you still have room for a main course after starting with a bread bowl full of creamy spinach artichoke dip. The dip won’t win any culinary awards, but it’s won the hearts of decades of hungry college kids looking to line their stomachs before a fraternity formal. Skip dessert – or go for round two – with a nightcap at The Georges’ piano bar, Haywood’s.
Sunday morning comes too fast in Lexington, especially if you’ve managed to adopt the perfectly leisurely pace of a slightly Southern college town. Spend the morning doing all the things you didn’t get to. If you’re driving back towards the D.C. area, save time to take the route around Charlottesville and stop at a vineyard or Albemarle Ciderworks.
Whether you’re on I-81 or US-29, crank up the volume and play your college playlist – hopefully Alanis made the list.
Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.