I love finding new places to fall in love with. Abingdon, Virginia, was one of those places for me. Take an historic inn, amazing theater, a scenic bike trail and fabulous restaurants and you’ve got everything you need for a fantastic trip.
This small town of less than 10,000 packs a lot of fun into its historic streets. Our entertaining bike shuttle driver, Williard, told us it’s been called a mini Asheville. “It’s small, but it’s artsy so that keeps it interesting,” he said.
Here are our top 5 things to do in Abingdon, Virginia, one of my favorite stops on our Virginia road trip.
Please see the related stories from other stops on our Virginia road trip.
Stay in a (haunted?) historic inn
Just like with people, I love a hotel with a story and a past. The Martha Washington Inn & Spa delivers on both fronts.
Built in 1832 as a private residence for General Francis Preston, his wife and nine children for $15,000, the home was sold in 1858 to become a college for young women. Wealthy families sent their daughters here for 70 years, with the college also serving as a hospital for soldiers from both sides during the Civil War.
I loved perusing all the historic photos on the walls – caricatures of the actors who performed at the Barter Theatre, posters from productions there, historic photos of the college and pages from the yearbook. My favorites of those were the clubs, including the Chafing Dish Club, which apparently was quite popular.
The college closed in 1932, suffering from low enrollment and the economy during the depression, and reopened as a hotel in 1935.
During the following decades it was used to house actors working at the Barter Theatre across the street until it was purchased in 1984 and underwent a major renovation.
There have been ghost sightings. If you’re concerned about meeting an uninvited guest, avoid room 217. A ghost named Beth has been said to show up and play the violin, mourning for a wounded Union soldier she cared for and fell in love with who died. Guests have reported ghostly visions of horses running across the front lawn and other ghosts in the basement.
The Martha, as it’s known, has 63 rooms and suites, each unique and some only accessible by stairs. Guests enjoy a complimentary breakfast in Sister’s American Grill and a glass of port in the lobby at night. Guests also receive a $25 dining credit for the restaurant. More on that below.
I don’t drink port – there’s an embarrassing story behind that I won’t be going into – but we did enjoy breakfast with selections of yogurt, cereal, oatmeal and hard-boiled eggs.
The antique-filled public rooms are worth taking a stroll through, or relax by the fireplace in the book-filled library.
There’s a full-service spa, indoor pool, outdoor hot tub, fitness center, tennis and pickleball courts, 18-hole mini golf course and a children’s play area with a trampoline. We took a walk back there one evening and I couldn’t resist jumping on the trampoline a bit, although I showed enough restraint to not try to repeat some of the tricks we did growing up.
We stayed in a gorgeous suite with a small private balcony overlooking West Main Street. It had a large separate sitting area with a table and four chairs, mini fridge and plenty of seating.
This type of inn is my favorite type of place to stay – it’s got history, unique antique-filled rooms and modern amenities. Plus, it’s walking distance to the theater, restaurants and the bike shop.
Bike one of the most beautiful bike trails in the country
“This may be the most beautiful trail we’ve ever been on,” Chris said as we were navigating our bicycles along a tree-lined path bordering a river. I agreed with him. And we’ve been on a lot of bike trails across the country.
What made the Virginia Creeper Trail unique is the spectacular scenery for the entire 34.3-mile trail, through farmland, over bubbling creeks and bordering Laurel Creek or the South Fork Holston River almost the entire way. And just about all of it was shaded by towering trees, fortunately for us as the sun was beating down that hot August day.
The trail started as a Native American footpath, once used by Daniel Boone. The Virginia-Carolina Railroad operated here from the early 20th century until 1977. Part of the fun of the trail is crossing over more than 100 bridges and trestles.
We took off from the Virginia Creeper Trail Bike Shop, an easy walk from The Martha and a short distance from the head of the trail. It’s easy to hop on a bike there and head out on the trail, go up to 17 miles, then turn back around. At around the 17-mile mark is when the trail starts to ascend to Whitetop Station, for a total elevation change of around 1,536 feet.
We opted to take the hour-long shuttle ride up to the top, then make our way back down the trail. If you decide you’ve had enough after the first half you can pick up the shuttle in the town of Damascus.
It was a glorious day and I loved every minute of our ride. Put me on a bike far away from traffic with gorgeous mountain scenery and I’m in heaven. Of course, it’s a lot easier to look around and take in the sights when you’re basically cruising downhill for half of the trip.
Because we were there during the week, we didn’t encounter many other people but the trail can get crowded on weekends.
We cruised down the first half of the trail and stopped for lunch in Damascus, where there are several restaurants popular with cyclists. We opted for the Wicked Chicken, where we sat outside on the patio and enjoyed a salad, sandwich and Mediterranean potato skins.
Due to a possible time constraint, we thought about hopping on the shuttle there, but decided we were up for biking the rest of the way back. I was glad we did although there were a couple of somewhat challenging parts and we missed the turn for Abingdon Vineyards where I’d wanted to stop.
My legs were tired after the ride, so we quickly changed into swimsuits and jumped in the amazing outdoor hot tub at the Martha Washington Inn.
Attend a Broadway quality show. Or five.
Gregory Peck got his start at the Barter Theatre as a props guy, driving a truck around the area looking for items they could use in the theater’s productions. He appeared in five plays there in 1940 before going on to start his Broadway career. Which of course led to his iconic role as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962.
Other stars began here as well as it was one of the first regional theaters and is the longest running professional Equity theater in the country. These include Ernest Borgnine, Patricia Neal, Hume Cronyn, Kevin Spacey and Frances Fisher.
The building that houses the Barter Theatre dates back to 1875 and had been used as a fire station and town hall. It opened as the Barter Theatre in 1933, named for the form of payment for a show – 40 cents or the equivalent amount of produce.
As the theater’s website proclaims, “The concept of trading ‘ham for Hamlet’ caught on quickly. At the end of the first season, the Barter Company cleared $4.35 in cash, two barrels of jelly, and a collective weight gain of over 300 pounds.”
The early staff was media savvy. They let reviewers from the New York Times stay for free at the Martha Washington Inn if they would review the plays, which helped the theater gain national recognition.
A second building, Barter’s Smith Theatre, was built as a Methodist Church in 1829, was once used as a gym by Martha Washington College and renovated as a theater in 1961.
Unfortunately, we were unable to attend a show as the theater was shut for the pandemic. However, Artistic Director Katy Brown was kind enough to give us a tour and share some history.
“You can come to Abingdon for a weekend and see five shows between our two stages,” she said. “We typically have around 145,000 people a year visiting from out of town to go to the theater. It’s a big part of the fabric of the area.”
The theater, a major economic draw for the town, had not shut down since World War II. It has a budget of $8 million and 130 employees. Shuttered during the pandemic, they got creative, found outdoor space, put up a stage and produced plays at the new Moonlite Drivein.
“We kept our actors in a bubble for six months to keep everyone healthy and got grants to cover our costs. We became small and scrappy again,” she said.
The upside was they attracted a new audience of locals who had never been to the theater before. Fortunately, the Barter Theatre is open, entertaining audiences once again.
Dine in historic places, delicious cafes
We once traveled to Highlands, North Carolina, for a weekend with two other couples. Activities for one of our days revolved around the acquisition of freshly baked blueberry pies at a local shop. We had to get there early before they ran out.
These are my people. Food is an integral part of travel for me, and for my husband too, fortunately. On the ride back from St. Simon’s one time we had a lengthy discussion about the amazingly awesome baked potato we had had at a dinner the night before.
We added another dish to our Wall of Fame menu items with the fish tacos at Luke’s Cafe. I’ve pretty much written off fish tacos as they are so hit-or-miss. If they are good, there’s nothing better. But if they’re bad? Such a disappointment.
Our server assured us we’d be happy. And oh yeah. We definitely were as they were the best fish tacos ever. The lightly fried shells were part of their deliciousness.
“I’d drive back up here just for those tacos,” Chris said. And he meant it. We also enjoyed mahi mahi topped with crab meat and shrimp.
The owner and chef, Lucas Patterson, came over and talked with us awhile, sharing his story with us. He went to culinary school at 18, but then began touring as a musician with his band Star City Meltdown.
Tired of that lifestyle, he returned to his hometown and opened Luke’s Diner. Knowing my husband, we’ll be returning at some point if only for those fish tacos.
Our other memorable meal was at Sister’s American Grill in the Martha Washington Inn. Although the restaurant was very cozy looking, we opted to dine on the large spacious front porch, ceiling painted haint blue in the southern tradition. We miss eating on the front porch of our former home, a Craftsman bungalow built in 1918.
We started with gazpacho and fried green tomatoes, which were really good. For dinner we had salmon and fish and chips, finishing off with crème brûlée. During our meal a gentle rain started falling making the porch feel even cozier – it was a perfect meal. And we only had to climb the stairs to retire for the evening.
Another fun lunch was at 128 Pecan, a quirky little restaurant that serves salads, quesadillas, burgers and sandwiches for lunch and dinner.
Dine where the stagecoach travelers and guests like President Andrew Jackson and French King Louis Philippe did at the Tavern Restaurant, opened in 1779. Raise a glass in the oldest bar in Virginia.
Enjoy the visual arts scene
Housed in a former high school, the William King Museum of Art is at the top of the hill with a fantastic view of the town. The museum is named for William King, who came to United States in 1784, became wealthy producing salt, and left money for land to build a male academy. I enjoyed strolling through the museum, which features fine art and works by local artists.
You’ll find more artists at work at the Arts Depot, a train station downtown that was converted to artists’ studios and galleries. We took a stroll through and chatted with a few artists.
Southwest Virginia Cultural Center and Marketplace is definitely worth a stop for its large selection of regional crafts. Enjoy live regional music every Thursday night. You can grab a bite to eat at the SWVA Cafe & Mountain Brew Bar. (Both are currently on hiatus. Check the website for updates.)