Interstate 81 is known to many for commuting but this corridor has a number of stops you won’t find anywhere else. With a wide range of experiences from historical icons to cultural gems and of course, outdoor adventure, this stretch of highway has something for everyone. From Bristol in the south to Winchester in the north, these unique places to visit in Virginia are not to be missed when road tripping the I-81!
RELATED: If you’re looking for all the details for an adventure along the I-81 including where to eat, stay and play, don’t miss my full guide to this incredible Virginia road trip!
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15 Unique Places to Visit in Virginia
Whether you’re looking for adventures the whole family will enjoy, things to do in Virginia for couples or just curious about some of the hidden gems in Virginia, check out these unique places to visit along the I-81!
Destinations Are in Order From North to South
Old Town Winchester
Did you know that Winchester is home to one of just two pedestrian malls within the entire state of Virginia? Heat to the heart of the city where you’ll find Old Town Winchester. Home to 35 restaurants, 60 retail stores, the Handley Library, Mt Hebron Cemetery and the George Washington Hotel, there is plenty to see and do. Take some time to explore while learning more about the area’s history and culture with one of these guided walking tours.
Old Town Winchester is also no stranger to special events and festivals. Ring in the new year with First Night Winchester. Experience the talent of local artisans with the First Fridays Celebration of the Arts throughout the year or the Wine & Fine Art Festival in May. Though if you’re going to visit for any event, it has to be the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival. With carnival games, marching bands, parades and more, it’s bound to be a “bloomin’ good time”!
The town of Luray may be small with less than 5000 people living in the area, but it draws over 400,000 visitors each year thanks to the natural beauty of the Luray Caverns. I mean, who wouldn’t want to explore the largest series of caverns in the eastern United States? Let’s be honest, this is definitely one of THE places to visit in Northern Virginia!
Hop on a tour and make your way 16 stories below the surface to see a stunning series of caverns with crystallized limestone formations called calcite. You’ll be fascinated by the sights you’ll see as some of the formations are based on the shapes they mimic. From shaggy dogs to ghosts, let your imagination run wild to see what characters you may spy along the way!
However, nothing will prepare you for how cool the “stalacpipe organ” is. Constructed in 1956, rubber-tipped plungers connect with 37 different stalactites to produce a sound when the keyboard is pressed. This masterpiece is so big that the Guinness World Book of Records crowned it the largest natural instrument in the world! Now that’s definitely a sight worth seeing.
RELATED: There are more things to do in town than just visit the caverns! You’ll see what I mean in my guide to Luray, VA.
Virginia Quilt Museum in Harrisonburg
Whether or not you’re the artsy type, the Virginia Quilt Museum is a fascinating establishment. Located in Harrisonburg in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, it was founded in 1995 with the mission of enhancing and preserving the art of quilting in the state.
FUN FACT: The Virginia Quilt Museum is housed inside the Warren-Sipe House. Built in 1856, it has served many purposes from family home to Civil War Hospital, a temporary courthouse and more! You can read more about the building’s history here.
Visitors will see the wide range of designs in their collection. This Virginia Museum has over 300 quilts dating from the modern area all the way back to Civil War times. Enjoy the contrast between the quilts of the 1860s to those made in today’s day and age as you explore the exhibits located across its three floors. Some artists have taken the craft to the next level with unique designs including 3D components!
Explore Shenandoah National Park
It’s no secret that Shenandoah National Park is one of Virginia’s most beautiful parks. Spanning over 800 kilometres², there is no shortage of adventures to be had here.
Whether you’re an avid hiker or looking for easily accessible vistas, the park has it all. A few highlights include: Dark Hollow Falls (2.25 kilometre/1.2 mile hike to one of the tallest waterfalls in the park), Bearfence Mountain (~1.75 kilometre/1.1 mile hike to incredible 360° views) and Hawksbill Mountain (the tallest peak in Shenandoah National Park with several hiking trails leading to it) to name a few. Of course, you can also check out a section of the famous Appalachian Trail as it makes its way through Shenandoah National Park.
However if you’re short on time, you can enjoy some of the park’s sights with the Skyline Drive. Be warned though, it’ll have you planning a return trip as this is just a small taste of what Shenandoah National Park has to offer! I mean, it is one of the most scenic drives in Virginia after all.
Stay Overnight at Staunton’s The Blackburn Inn
Staunton is a charming city in Virginia with a wide range of worldly architectural styles, incredible restaurants, beautiful parks with gorgeous lookouts and much more. With so much to offer, it’s natural that there would be some fantastic accommodation options. However, one stands out amongst the rest – but for a unique reason.
The Blackburn Inn is an absolutely gorgeous hotel with a stunning elegance you’ll immediately notice. It’s welcoming yet magnificent, a wonderful balance that’s hard to strike. It was renovated by Thomas R Blackburn (hence the name), one of Thomas Jefferson’s protégés back in 1830. Many of the original architectural features he created have been restored to their former glory. Don’t forget to head to the front desk and ask to climb the spiral staircase so you can enjoy the sights from the Blackburn Inn’s rooftop dome and veranda!
What really makes it unique is that The Blackburn Inn has an atypical history as it was the original site of the old Western State Psychiatric Hospital. Also known as the Western State Lunatic Asylum in its early days, it was a hospital for the mentally ill where the facility’s superintendent Dr Stribling was said to focus on the emotional well-being of patients, a practice he called “moral treatment”. However, there are also stories of evil eugenics experiments that were said to have taken place inside these walls. While there haven’t been formal investigations done, there are rumours that the property could be haunted.
Natural Bridge State Park
While it’s been a state park for less than a decade, Natural Bridge State Park is a must-visit whenever you’re in Roanoke, Lexington or any of the towns in the surrounding area.
Cedar Creek carved out the park’s namesake, a ~66 metre (215 foot) tall limestone arch, thousands of years ago to create the geological beauty you see today. You’ll be blown away by the sheer power of nature as you admire it from below. Natural Bridge State Park offers approximately 10 kilometres (6 miles) of trails that will show you more of this beautiful area. Be sure to follow the Cedar Creek Trail all the way to the end so you can take a peek at the beautiful Lace Falls. You might not be able to get up close and personal with this ~15 metre (50 foot) multi-tiered waterfall but she’s still a sight to see!
Considering this is a sacred site for the Monacan People of the area and even Thomas Jefferson called it “the most sublime of Nature’s works”, I’d say that speaks to why you need to visit one of the most unique tourist attractions in Virginia!
Take a Drive Along the Blue Ridge Parkway
We’re continuing with our detour from Interstate 81 as you can’t miss enjoying a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This scenic highway may start in North Carolina but the northern half runs through Virginia. With over 20 lookouts lining this hour-long stretch, it’s a perfect way to spend a morning or afternoon enjoying the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
While I won’t spill the beans on them all because you really need to check them out for yourself, I will share a few of my favourites. The vistas you’ll enjoy from the Saddle Overlook, Pine Spur, Devils Backbone and Cahas Mountain are breathtaking and worth stopping for. There are however additional spots like the Smart View Overlook which have a recreation area where you can stretch your legs, enjoy a short hike and check out the old settler’s cabin.
Friday Night Jamboree at The Floyd Country Store
Make sure to plan your Virginia road trip itinerary around spending a Friday night in Floyd because the Friday Night Jamboree is a must experience when visiting the state!
For almost 40 years, folks of all ages have travelled to Floyd for the incredible talent that graces the stage come 6:30 pm. You’ll want to come early if you’re looking to grab yourself a seat, though chances are you won’t take long before you’re standing and even dancing along! In the warmer months, the Friday Night Jamboree spills into the streets creating an atmosphere unlike any other. Ever tried flat-footing? How about square dancing? If those sound foreign to you, don’t worry as a seasoned pro will happily show you the ropes!
This is one of the great things to do in Virginia for families as they follow “Granny’s Rules”. That means no smoking, no alcohol and no inappropriate language allowed. So pack your dancing shoes and make sure you stretch as you prepare yourself to dance the night away! Oh, and don’t forget to bring some change with you. You’ll understand why once you go.
Wytheville’s Big Walker Lookout
The town of Wytheville is full of amazing attractions, fantastic restaurants and lovely people. It is also where you’ll find the Big Walker Lookout. Set atop Big Walker Mountain at ~1038 metres (3405 feet), visitors can climb the ~30 metre (100 foot) tall lookout tower where you’ll be treated to incredible vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In fact, you can even see five states on a clear day! Feast your eyes on the patchwork beauty and brilliant views of Jefferson National Forest as you enjoy the sights of West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
Another reason the Big Walker Lookout is special is that it’s Virginia’s oldest privately-owned scenic attraction. It’s been in the Kime Family for three generations and counting. The Big Walker Lookout has been an integral part of the community as well as the area’s tourism industry for 75 years and that doesn’t go unnoticed. So much so that October 16th has officially been designated as Big Walker Lookout Day by the Town of Wytheville! Enjoy the sights and then pop on into the BW Country Store for some of the best ice cream in the area. It’ll make the views just a little bit sweeter!
RELATED: Wytheville’s slogan is “there’s only one.” See what makes this town unique with my complete guide to exploring Wytheville!
Explore Burke’s Garden
Referred to as “God’s Thumbprint”, Burke’s Garden is a unique geological formation that takes the title of Virginia’s highest valley as well as the state’s largest rural historic district. This isolated hidden valley is situated at an average elevation of ~945 metres (3100 feet) and is surrounded entirely by Garden Mountain. While there are many theories about the crater’s origins from the valley once being a lake to a meteor strike, it is said that the valley was once a ~1981 metre (6500 foot tall) mountain composed largely of limestone but with a cap of sandstone that, as it eroded, collapsed into itself.
To add to the quirk of Burke’s Garden, there are no stoplights to be found, no newspaper delivery in town, no working post office, no cable television… not even cell phone service. This is about as rural as it gets, folks! And if you’re wondering about the name, it was first surveyed back in 1748 when a man by James Burke left his potato peels after cooking a meal. When he returned one year later, potatoes were growing right where he left them – hence the name, Burke’s Garden.
Tackle the Back of the Dragon in a Polaris Slingshot
Okay this is a slight detour off of the I-81 but the Back of the Dragon is one of the fun things to do in Virginia that’s worth detouring for!
The Back of the Dragon refers to an extraordinary 51.5 kilometre (32 mile) long drive along Route 16 that captivates motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts from all over the world. Prepare to slink into your seat as you handle sharp serpentines all while enjoying magnificent views of the Appalachian Mountains.
If that wasn’t enough, you can take your ride to the next level by renting a Polaris Slingshot for the trek. These open-air, 3-wheeled roasters are slick and you’ll be bursting with excitement just by looking at them! You can rent them by the hour from the Back of the Dragon tourist centre in the town of Tazewell. With 438 curves and ~1067 metres (3500 feet) of elevation, it will certainly be a ride you’ll never forget.
The Tavern in Abingdon
Just up the I-81 from Bristol you’ll find the beautiful town of Abingdon. Enjoy a stroll through the historic downtown core and stop in to visit The Tavern. Built in 1779 just one year after the town was founded, it’s Abingdon’s oldest building. It has been a tavern and overnight inn for stagecoach travellers since it was established and has served a number of big names like the King of France, Louis Philippe and President Andrew Jackson! However, The Tavern has worn a number of hats including being an antique shop, bank, bakery, barber shop, cabinet shop, general store, post office and more.
As if this alone doesn’t make it worth paying a visit, The Tavern is the oldest bar in Virginia and 8th oldest in the entire United States! If you don’t make it in for some of their flavourful German fare, at least pop by for a cocktail or a beer at this historic establishment.
RELATED: Looking for more great things to do in Abingdon? Take a look at my article here!
Stand in Two States at Once
At the base of Virginia, you’ll find the city of Bristol where the heart of town is divided… into two states. Yes, there’s Bristol, Virginia AND Bristol, Tennessee! Aptly named State Street, you will see plaques lining the middle of the road outlining the border and it makes for a fun photo opportunity. However, it is one of the major roads so be sure to look both ways before stopping to snap a photo!
FUN FACT: This is just one of six places you can be in multiple places at once in the United States!
Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Since you’re in Bristol, it would be a sin not to stop in at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. Visitors will follow the journey of country music as you traverse the exhibits. It begins with the 1927 Bristol Sessions and what is said to be the catalyst of the genre with the famous records by Jimmie Rodgers (aka the “Father of Country Music”) as well as the Carter Family. Spend some time learning about how these recordings sparked the mainstream commercialization of country music and how they continue to influence the genre to this very day.
An affiliate of the Smithsonian, this is easily one of the most interactive museums you’ll ever visit! Listen to various clips of iconic songs, make your own remix of the Bristol recordings using touch-screen controls and even try singing a country song in the recording booth! Whether or not you’re a country fan, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum is a unique Virginia destination you don’t want to miss.
The Plethora of Virginia LOVEworks
Only in Virginia will you find these adorable public artworks as they’re scattered throughout the state! What started with the humble beginnings of plain white letters that the Virginia Tourism Corporation used as a play on their official slogan “Virginia is for Lovers” has transformed into a public art phenomenon. With over 300 pieces and counting, these LOVEworks reflect the destinations where they’re found. They make for fantastic photo opportunities as you explore the state and may even teach you a little bit about each city and town you find them in!
With over 30 LOVEworks along or in close proximity to the I-81, adding a lovely scavenger hunt to find as many as possible will only make you adore the state more. I was only able to catch 11 of these beauties on my trip and I can’t wait for my next visit to Virginia so I can cross some off my list!
Which Of These Unique Virginia Attractions is Your Favourite?
As you can see, there are so many cool places in Virginia – and this is just along one stretch of highway! We haven’t even taken into account some of the other incredible things to do in Virginia that are found around the rest of the state. If you’re looking to hear about other Virginia destinations like Manassas National Battlefield Park, Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, Arlington National Cemetery, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and more… you’ll have to wait for a future post once I return to this incredible state!
Looking for More Interesting Places in Virginia to Visit?
The Ultimate Guide to One Epic Virginia Road Trip Along Interstate 81
Don’t Miss These Top 10+ Virginia Views Along the I-81 Corridor!
Fuel Up At These Top Virginia Restaurants Along Interstate 81
Everything You Need to See, Do & Eat in the Quirky Town of Wytheville
History, Caverns & Parks – Oh My! Check Out My Stellar Guide to Luray VA
This post is brought to you in partnership with Virginia Tourism. While I was compensated for my time, all of the content and opinions here are honest and speak to my personal experience!