From Revolution to Evolution
Lexington, Virginia offers history with a healthy dose of modern charm
Words by Rebecca Deurlein
Photos by Ellen Kanzinger, Chris Weisler, Sera Petras, Brent McGuire, Sam Dean
American flags wave in the breeze. Two Percheron horses clip-clop down the street, pulling a wagon of visitors listening to the storied history of this sweet small town. The red brick sidewalks are grooved for extra traction on the rare icy day. They border colonial homes and buildings, some sporting historical landmark signs, such as the Jackson House where Stonewall hung his hat.
Lexington, Virginia, is the epitome of Southern history and charm. A west-central Virginia town of just over 7,000, it is nestled in the Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway is south, and the 15-minute drive to reach it provides its own breathtaking views.
But Lexington gets its fame in two ways that have nothing to do with its beauty: through its legendary history and through its two universities, both of which dominate its footprint. Lexington is named after the Battle of Lexington in Massachusetts. Later, the Confederate troops took a decisive pounding by Union soldiers, ending the Civil War. In succeeding years, Lexington became home to Washington and Lee University (circa 1749) and Virginia Military Institute (1839), both thriving institutions to this day.
Now, roughly two centuries later, Lexington stands proudly on its historical foundation while striding purposefully into the 2020s. The former Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery—that serves as a resting place for General Jackson and his entire family, along with 296 Confederate veterans, two Virginia governors, and the Civil War poet Margaret Junkin Preston—was recently renamed the Oak Grove Cemetery. The city council unanimously voted to change the name in an effort to address racist legacies and injustice. That change hints at the evolution of a city determined to honor its history but to also grow and change with the times.
Visiting Lexington today, strolling the historic town that was chosen as the filming location for the Reconstruction-era movie Sommersby, is indeed a study in contrasts. Flowers overflow from pots outside chic stores, lights dangle from overhead trees, a community space is filled with modern outdoor furniture and sconces, and music pours from a rooftop bar.
This historic haven has somehow emerged as a vacation destination for hipsters, couples, and families not just seeking lessons in history, but insisting on modern comforts, brews and wine, and relaxation to go with all that outdoor beauty.
In the center of town, The Georges opened its inn in 2014 in a historic building that underwent a transformative facelift. Occupying three buildings, including Lawyers Row, where the former jail and attorneys’ offices sat, the inn is elegant and contemporary. It capitalizes on its central location with a full-service restaurant and bar where visitors can enjoy a cocktail and listen to live music.
Throughout the town, quiet streets are lined with antique and consignment stores, art and artisan galleries, and The Bookery, a hodgepodge of tomes stacked floor to ceiling that will send booklovers on a treasure hunt for their favorite authors. Boutique clothing and jewelry, local kitchen shops such as Ladles & Linens Kitchen Shoppe, gift shops, florists—they’re all here and all locally-owned. Perhaps one treat untouched by time—ice cream—can be found in all its creaminess at Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe, a darling stop for refreshment.
For those whose tastes run a little more mature, Lexington has no shortage of wineries, breweries, and cideries. Halcyon Days Cider Co., a log cabin with an outdoor deck and fun-house mirrors and fronted by a statue of a smiling man holding an apple aloft, is hard to miss. Named after a time when the best things in life weren’t rushed but savored, the cidery sources from two local orchards to produce its heavenly repertoire of dry and sweet libations.
Heliotrope Brewery, just down the street from The Georges, will make a porter lover out of anyone. The wide-open space houses ever-changing craft beers and ciders, small-batch ales and lagers, wild beers fermented with yeast foraged right there in Rockbridge County, and food baked in a pizza oven built by co-owner Jenefer Davies, a dance instructor and wife of brewer and co-owner Erik Jones. The large communal tables, which are constructed of upturned painted doors topped with glass, invite conversation and inclusivity.
Dotting the town are eating establishments as varied as Lexington itself. Down-home Southern fried chicken is on the menu at the Southern Inn Restaurant, and the warm donuts at Pure Eats can be described only as pure ecstasy—ask for the peanut butter cup. But upscale dining is also an option, with martinis mixed tableside at Bistro on Main, and a rack of local venison served steaming hot at Haywood’s Piano Bar and Grill.
The food, the brews, the comforts of modernity all meld beautifully with the history and charm of this small Southern town. Lexington may feel like stepping back in time, but the cool, urban vibe bubbling to the surface is a reminder that this is a town on the move.