Once in a blue moon, we discover a place with all the elements we could want on a trip — a place that balances beauty with creativity and human kindness. With all those attributes and more Harrisonburg, Virginia, is a great mountain getaway.
Under the blue moon last month, shops and eateries in Harrisonburg were preparing for the return of James Madison University students and visitors. Most downtown merchants pledged to require patrons to wear masks and cleanse hands before entering.
With the walkability of a small town, Harrisonburg is gem of a city nestled in the storied Shenandoah Valley. Cooperation among a culture of makers is infectious here. Visit and you will learn surprising things about adaptation and creativity.
Harrisonburg restaurants, with 250 citywide and 38 in a 40-block downtown district, are offering outdoor dining on sidewalks, rooftops and cafés and carry-out and delivery options. The city boasts a variety of international cuisine, from Cuban to Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Thai and Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Italian, Greek, Afghan and Caribbean. New American offerings start at surrounding farms that provide fresh produce, meat, fish, poultry and cheeses. Quality products at farmers’ markets are so stunning you’ll want them to grace your Thanksgiving table.
Save room for dessert from some of the best bakeries and creameries around. Enjoy Mexican pastries, or French-inspired baked goods, freshly ground coffee and frozen treats. Traditional ice cream stands like Klines are longtime favorite spots. Nearby White Oak Lavender Farm & The Purple Wolf Vineyard sells a heavenly lavender-blueberry ice cream along with lavender plants and themed lavender items. Dairy products are so celebrated in Harrisonburg that a bungalow called The Grilled Cheese House is dedicated wholly to different takes on that great American sandwich favorite.
Route 11, America’s first toll road, runs through this beautiful college town. The Harrisonburg Visitor Center is housed in a pre-Civil War brick building once owned by the town’s first mayor. It contains interesting exhibits about the creation of this first American turnpike. Look closely and you’ll see hammers used by people who once sat on burlap bags all day pounding rocks to build the early road. Tourism manager Jennifer Bell and her staff are happy to help you navigate. Just outside this handsome brick building, a garden muse is beautifully maintained with shrubs and café tables for guests to enjoy repasts and treats from the Heritage Bakery.
The Virginia Quilt Museum, located in the only antebellum house on Main Street, is now in its 25th year. Led by a board and former National Park Service interpreter, Susan Farmer, who excels at the art of storytelling, the museum exhibits the work of artists from across America in addition to amazing historical quilts. Two current exhibits conceived before the pandemic are timely. “Backyard Escape” was created when artists were asked to express what brings them peace in their backyards. Another, called “Eye Contact,” is a stunning exhibit of small, horizontal quilts of eyes. Farmer and her assistant, Beeper Callman, reflect on the coincidence that we now see only people’s eyes above their masks and that people are rediscovering beauty in their own backyards. Ms. Farmer also mounted an exhibit that focuses on the centennial of women’s suffrage in America.
Agora Downtown Market houses several independent shops under one roof. Lineage sells handsome waxed canvas bags created by a local artisan and a vendor called Bring Your Own sells non-disposable containers to encourage patrons to reduce the use of disposable plastics. The shop celebrates the active lifestyle prevalent in these mountains. Also, downtown, shopkeepers share their passion for cycling and fly fishing — two sports Harrisonburg and the region are well-known for. Hill climbing is feverish here, but mountain bikers looking for a leg up can also take their bikes on a gondola to the top of a hill at nearby four-season Massanutten Resort.
Beer and wine lovers will find nearly 10 local wineries and breweries in Harrisonburg. Pale Fire Brewing Company is located in the rehabilitated industrial Ice House complex, which also features what may be the most unique attraction in the city — the Museum of American Jewelry Design and Manufacturing. The museum has curtailed tours temporarily, but if you want to see exquisite jewelry being made by hand, visit the elegant boutique named after artisan founder, Hugo Kohl.
For a little peace in the valley take time to rediscover your dreams on a walk in the labyrinth of JMU’s arboretum.