This past weekend, I went to Harrisonburg, Virginia for an impromptu overnight trip.
How did I end up there, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.
A typical weekend conversation between my boyfriend and I goes something like this:
Me: “What do you want to do today?”
Him: “I don’t know. We can go somewhere if you want. Is there somewhere we haven’t been?”
Me: ‘Hmm. Gimme me a minute.”
Then, I pull up a map of the surrounding area and search for a destination that:
- Is located within a reasonable drive from where we live;
- Has some interesting things to do and see; and
- We haven’t visited before together.
This time, the winner was (drumroll, please)…Harrisonburg, Virginia!
Best known for James Madison University (or “JMU” as its often referred to), Harrisonburg offers much more: a rich history, a thriving downtown area with unique shopping and dining options, and friendly people.
I’ve been to Harrisonburg a few times before when my niece was a student. However, during those trips, I only saw the campus and the local mall where we’d walk around a little, then grab a quick bite to eat.This time, I wanted to see what lay beyond JMU and the mall. After finding and booking an affordable hotel room, we packed our overnight bags and hit the road.
On the way, we took a slight detour to Cobbler Mountain Vineyard for a wine and cider tasting, then resumed our trip.
Total driving time from Tysons Corner to Harrisonburg (not including the stop): 2 hours.
According to Wikipedia,
“Harrisonburg, previously known as ‘Rocktown’, was named for Thomas Harrison, a son of English settlers. In 1737, Harrison settled in the Shenandoah Valley, eventually laying claim to over 12,000 acres situated at the intersection of the Spotswood Trail and the main Native American road through the valley.
In 1779, Harrison deeded 2.5 acres of his land to the ‘public good’ for the construction of a courthouse. In 1780, Harrison deeded an additional 50 acres. This is the area now known as ‘Historic Downtown Harrisonburg.’
In 1849, trustees chartered a mayor-council form of government, although Harrisonburg was not officially incorporated as an independent city until 1916.”
There are historic buildings all over, such as the Rockingham County Courthouse. If you’re a history buff, check out one (or more) of the places listed on the National Register of Historic Sites:
- Anthony Hockman House (built in 1871)
- Harrisonburg Downtown Historic District
- Joshua Wilton House (now a Restaurant & Inn) (built in 1890)
- Lucy F. Simms School
- Old Town Historic District
- Rockingham County Courthouse (built in 1896-97)
- Thomas Harrison House (built in 1750)
- Whitesel Brothers (built in 1939)
When I visit a new place, I’m not interested in going to the malls or shopping centers (unless there’s something specific I need during my trip); I can do that at home. I’d rather see and experience what makes each place unique. Usually, this means going to the historic downtown area where I can learn more about the formation and development of the city. This area also tends to have more charm and character than the more commercial parts of town.
Downtown Harrisonburg was revitalized in the early 2000’s and has become a destination for foodies. It boasts more than 30 unique and locally-owned restaurants and eateries, ranging from mainstream to ethnic, fine dining to casual, locally-sourced to international ingredients and beyond.
Parking was easy to find since there are various options: metered street parking and several parking garages. (click on the link above for a map of the downtown area).
Here are some places I visited and recommend:
Although I’m not religious, I love and appreciate architecture, especially churches. First Presbyterian Church is pretty from the outside; however, the inside is surprisingly stunning.
When I first walked into the sanctuary, I saw the altar with the huge organ pipes above it and a stained glass window at the top. As I walked further inside, my eyes were drawn upward to the ceiling, with numerous wood beams on the ceiling, all meeting at the apex. To the right was an even larger stained glass window; a third one was up on the balcony level.
As I was looking around the church and taking pictures, a man who worked there noticed me attempting to capture the beauty of the one above the altar. He said, “If you think it’s pretty now, you should see it at about 9 0’clock in the morning. The sun comes in and fills the sanctuary with golden light. It’s amazing. I try to come in every morning just to see that.” Since I visited the church at lunchtime, I missed it but will definitely try to time my visit accordingly the next time I’m in Harrisonburg.
Being cat lovers (and owners), the name caught our eye so we stopped in to check it out. What a great place! There were kittens and cats running around, playing, eating, or climbing one of the cat trees or steps built onto the wall. We talked to one of the volunteers to learn more about the place.
Cat’s Cradle was founded in 1998 by a woman determined to provide no-kill alternatives for stray cats. She worked with a few generous local veterinarians to provide reduced price sterilization and vaccines to anyone who had found a stray cat and was willing to keep it. Soon, the organization began fostering some cats and kittens and finding homes for them.
Run strictly on donations, there are many ways to offer your support. Be sure to stop in to play with (or better yet, adopt) one of the cats.
This unique store features unique handmade gifts, jewelry, art, and other items representing the artisans diverse culture. Ten Thousand Villages mission is “to create opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products and stories to our markets through long-term fair trading relationships.”
Each unique item in the store features a tag containing the name of the country in which the item was made. It is really fun to browse the store’s offerings. You’re sure to find something tor yourself or to give as a gift. And the best part: each purchase helps support an artisan in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. I bought a pair of earrings and they are simply gorgeous!
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This restaurant/bar has a rustic decor, creating a warm and inviting atmosphere – the kind that makes you want to hang out for a while. Jimmy’s offers a huge variety of whiskeys to choose from as well as other alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and food. Although we didn’t have lunch there, the food we saw being served looked delicious and the portions were generous. They also offer gluten-free menu options which can be hard to find. Stop by and have a drink and/or an appetizer.
If you like art but would rather support someone closer to home, then you’ll love Oasis Fine Art & Craft. This store features a variety of items hand-crafted by artists in the Shenandoah Valley. Offerings include pottery, jewelry, fiber art, wood, metal, glass, wearable art, paintings, and photography. The store is run by friendly, enthusiastic volunteers.
One of several restaurants recommended by locals, Cuban Burger definitely lived up to the hype. The restaurant has two sections: the bar area and the dining area. Although the decor and atmosphere left much to be desired, the food did not disappoint. We asked a regular customer what he suggested we offer and he told us to get the El Vaquero. We took his advice and ordered that as well as a traditional Cuban Sandwich and split them both. One word: YUM! If you want something besides typical bar food, check out Cuban Burger. Your taste buds will thank you!
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Other places I recommend in Harrisonburg:
- Hardesty-Higgins House Visitors Center – This historic building serves as the visitor’s center. It also features a small museum, gift shop and cafe. The staff is courteous and more than willing to provide information and recommendations to help make your visit as nice as possible.
- Texas Roadhouse (near the JMU campus, not downtown) – Offers great steak and other dishes. Its comparable to (or better than) Outback Steakhouse.
Places recommended by Harrisonburg locals:
The places below were recommended by locals. Check ’em out!
- Bella Luna Woodfired Cafe – Recommended for great wood-fired pizza, hand-made pasta, and delicious salads.
- Clementine Cafe – Offers a funky bi-level lounge and an eclectic American menu accompanied by live music, art & trivia. Sounds like fun!
- Finnigan’s Cove – Recommended for fresh seafood. They also offer salads, steaks, sandwiches, wraps, and homemade soups.
- Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint – Recommended for award-winning burgers, great sweet potato fries, and an extensive beer menu.
- Virginia Quilt Museum
Hope this information helps you plan your first (or next) visit to Harrisonburg. If there’s something you recommend doing or seeing, please share below in the Comments below.
Wishing you awesome travels!
A Traveling Broad
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