What do you get when you combine a historic array of buildings, a close-knit community, and a thriving arts and crafts scene, all set against a dramatic backdrop of rugged beauty? You get Abingdon, Virginia, the small town with a massive amount of options to keep you busy. Enough options, in fact, to make it the perfect spot for a charming weekend getaway.
A Brief Look at Abingdon
Abingdon’s history begins nearly 20 years before the city was officially founded. In 1860, legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone named the area where the city presently stands Wolf Hills after his dogs were attacked by wolves during a hunting expedition. This incident is celebrated via 27 wolf sculptures, which are installed throughout the town. These sculptures also hint at a rich history that manifests here through various buildings and points of interest.
It’s said that when Abingdon Virginia was established in 1778, it took its moniker after the ancestral British home of Martha Washington. Whether or not that’s true, the name of the nation’s first-ever First Lady is still a part of the town thanks to the city’s Martha Washington Inn. This hotel is not without its own unique sense of intrigue – the building was home to the all-female Martha Washington College from 1860 to 1932.
The town is a tiny one – the latest census lists its population as fewer than 8,200 residents. Despite its small stature, it’s gained a strong reputation for being a great regional destination for arts, crafts, and the outdoors. Part of this latter component is due to its location. Surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, Abingdon provides easy access to a host of rivers, lakes, and hiking trails, including the Appalachian Trail.
The main draw in Abingdon is arguably its Main Street district, a historic 20-block hunk of real estate that’s been the heart and soul of the town since 1799. The area is relentlessly charming simply from a visual aesthetic. An overhead view of the eponymous thoroughfare that bisects the district is as pure as a Norman Rockwell painting.
There is far more to the district than classic Americana, though. Within its borders is a treasure trove of boutique shops, independent local restaurants, art galleries, and historic structures that have stood tall here for over two centuries.
Long-standing structures abound in Abingdon, making the town an excellent place for history buffs and architectural aficionados to visit. Some of these building have decades’ worth of intriguing structures just waiting for people to explore. For instance, the city’s exquisite Martha Washington Hotel was once used as a makeshift Civil War battle treatment facility.
Other key buildings include the Washington County Courthouse, a government structure adorned with century-old Tiffany glass. Just outside of Abingdon stands White’s Mill, a 150-year old flour and grist mill that is one of the few water-powered mills still standing in southwest Virginia.
Naturally, the combination of history and building age makes Abingdon an ideal spot for people that are into the creepy side of travel. The town’s Sinking Spring Cemetery hosts tours along with tombstones dating back to 1776. The town also hosts a spirit tour that breaks down local history and ghost lore.
Outdoor Abingdon Activity
Some of the most fascinating things to do in Abingdon Virginia involve things that were here long before the town was founded. The city’s location within the Blue Ridge Mountain affords outdoor enthusiasts plenty of options to enjoy nature.
The town’s biggest artery for outdoor activity is the unusually named Virginia Creeper Trail. Originating in the city just south of the Abingdon Historic District and ending around the Virginia-North Carolina border, the 34.3-mile trail is a former rail line whose name derives from the old steam engines that pushed up the mountain grades with iron ore and lumber in tow.
The trail is a huge hit for bicyclists, hikers, and joggers, thanks to its gentle slopes and easy access points. Because the trail weaves its way past Laurel Creek, it’s also become a popular destination for trout fishing. The generous width of the trail also makes it ideal for horse riding.
A trip to Abingdon also grants prime access to other exhilarating outdoor activities. Lucky hikers have been known to spot wild ponies along the legendary Appalachian Trail, which weaves near the town. Nearby Grayson Highlands State Park and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area afford visitors with some of the most breathtaking views of the region. South Holston Lake is also a peaceful fishing spot made even more serene due to its bucolic mountainous surroundings.
Some of the outdoor excursions you can take at or near Abingdon also contain some serious historic cachet. For instance, the 9-acre Abingdon Muster Grounds forms the trailhead for the Overmountain Victory Trail, a 330-mile National Historic Trail that traces the route Colonial troops took to battle the British in a key Revolutionary War campaign.
The Artistic Side of Abingdon
Arts and culture play an enormous role in shaping the soul of modern-day Abingdon. The Main Street Historic District is home to numerous art galleries featuring works ranging from international pieces to creations from local and regional artists.
The town’s most showstopping contribution to the fine arts is the Barter Theatre. Established in 1933, this intimate performing arts spot has welcomed a wide array of legends to its stage, including Gregory Peck, Ernest Borgnine, Hume Cronyn, and more.
Abingdon also is the home base for the unique arts and crafts-focused visitors center Heartwood. The facility is a unique gathering spot comprised of studio, music stage, and café space that feature a rotation of artisans and musicians celebrating local artistic and artisanal flavor.
Additionally, Abingdon plays host to several festivals throughout the year. These fun, family-friendly soirees range from seasonal sculpture exhibits to various music performances throughout the year.
Abingdon is well-equipped to be a prime spot on a music-themed extended road trip, too. The reason for this is because the city is a key hub along a highway called The Crooked Road. Measuring 333 miles, this road weaves its way past nine major traditional regional music venues and over 60 various venues and festivals. Music aficionados can tool down this road and obtain a deeper understanding of the connection that exists between the region and its music.
Dining in Abingdon
Many of the restaurants in Abingdon, Virginia reflect a rustic, communal approach that may be deemed “farm-to-table” in larger metropolises. Here, however, they simply refer to the process as “Rooted in Appalachia.” This is quite literal – the term is tied to a culinary program designed to highlight venues that serve local products. You’ll want to look for restaurants with a “Rooted in Appalachia” logo in their windows if you want to enjoy this experience.
Classic, unfussy American fare dominate the menus in Abingdon. Of course, since the town is in the South, you can expect to indulge in some regional specialties, from pimento cheese to blackened catfish. There are also a few places that sprinkle various global influences here and there on their menus.
Where to Stay in Abingdon
Abingdon, Virginia hotels are primarily a mixture of budget chains, small independent venues, and charming bed & breakfast options. If you want an upscale experience, you can book one of the 63 rooms at the Martha Washington Hotel and Spa and pamper yourself with a message or a facial.
If you’re looking for a more rustic experience, there are a few cottages dotted along the Virginia Creeper Trail that can be rented. These venues are ideal for those that are looking to drill down into the numerous outdoor activities that surround Abingdon and its encompassing area.
Things to Know Before You Go
Like the rest of the southwestern Virginia region, the weather for Abingdon Virginia is split into four distinct seasons framed by warm summers and cold winters. The peak time to visit the city is during the spring or the fall, where the temperatures are mild and the humidity is by and large kept in check.
Despite its small size, Abingdon isn’t exactly a little-known secret. The city’s been receiving accolades in recent years for being an essential Southern small town to visit. While this exposure isn’t going to turn the city into an explosive metropolis, it does mean that you may need to plan your excursion here a little bit sooner than you may think to get the room you want. This is especially the case if you have plans to stay at a cottage along the Virginia Creeper Trail or in the Martha Washington Inn & Spa.
Abingdon’s size, history, and communal charm make it an idea Southern small town to visit, and its surrounding wealth of rugged outdoor activity makes it an even more attractive destination. If you’re looking for a getaway that focuses on the simple pleasures of rustic downhome charm, you won’t have to look any farther than this small sliver of southwestern Virginia.