Literary destination: Shakespeare, Potter, and more in Staunton, VA
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
I'm overjoyed to be sharing one of the most underrated literary towns in the United States: the small town of Staunton, VA (pronounced STANtin, not STAHnton). It's one of my favorite towns in the country, and I'm honestly getting homesick for it writing this post (can you get homesick for a place you've never lived? Apparently!). So for those on the East Coast, you'll have to go visit on my behalf with the tips below.
Staunton is a little hamlet located approximately 2 hours southwest of Washington, DC and less than 2 hours west of Richmond. I first stumbled upon this charming town by accident. I was driving from southwest Virginia to DC and was searching for a good lunch spot at about the half-way point. A restaurant called The Clocktower had impressive reviews and wasn't too far off my route, so I followed my trusty map and couldn't believe what a hidden treasure I found in downtown Staunton. I have since returned to spend several lovely weekends, each time discovering and enjoying something new.
Allow me to tell you why Staunton, VA is one of the most charming and underrated towns in the US.
Staunton has a thriving historic downtown with delicious restaurants and locally owned specialty shops everywhere you look. There's something to interest just about anyone: foodies, history buffs, shopping experts, artists, music lovers, festival goers, wine and beer connoisseurs, cyclists, outdoor enthusiasts, and theater-lovers.
It's a town about which its residents are passionate. The business owners and residents come together regularly to hold festivals all year round (check out the Shenandoah Fall Foliage Bike Festival and the Harry Potter-themed festival I detail below). It features the birth home of Stonewall Jackson and was also home to President Woodrow Wilson. It's only an hour from the can't-miss Shenandoah National Park and Luray Caverns.
I could go on all day about Staunton, but as my focus is on sites for book lovers, here are some of the literary sites to see in Staunton.
Scroll all the way down to check out my recommendations of where to stay, eat, and shop in Staunton and to pin this post for future reference when you plan your weekend getaway.
Sure, you've heard of Shakespeare's Globe theater in London and maybe even some of its replicas around the world, but did you know that Shakespeare and the Company Men also frequently performed in the monastary-turned-indoor-theater Blackfriar's Playhouse?
The original Blackfriar's Playhouse burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. (666, guess they should've known?), but you can find the only known recreation of that theater in the world here in the middle of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, of all places.
Here, the American Shakespeare Center performs the works of Shakespeare (and some others for variety) year-round. I had the joy of attending a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona a few years ago, a play I hadn't previously read. Oftentimes, that's a big no-no for seeing a Shakepeare play, because the language can be difficult to follow if you're not already well-versed in the play. That is, unless the actors are so effective and lively that you follow along without effort, which is what I very happily experienced here.
The atmosphere is informal, mimicking the times of Shakespeare when all the lights are left on, some audience members sit on the stage, and the actors interact with them to comedic effect throughout the play. All of this made for an engaging and delightful evening at the theater. It's an experience I can't recommend highly enough.
This December, they will be performing A Christmas Carol live with COVID safety protocols in place if you're in the area. They also have Othello and Twelfth Night available to stream online for a rental fee. Or, just add this experience to your bucket list, and come visit when life is a little more normal, and you can see one of Shakespeare's works live. Even for someone who's never read or seen Shakespeare, it would be hard not to thoroughly enjoy it.
Anne Hathaway's Cottage
This is one of the most fun surprises in Staunton. A native of Bath, England who fell in love with Staunton built this replica of Anne Hathaway's Cottage in Stratford-Upon-Avon in 2008 and opened it as a bed and breakfast. If you're not familiar, this is Anne Hathaway as in Shakespeare's mother, not Anne Hathaway as in Catwoman.
In 2016, the building changed ownership and functioned as a tea room for several years.
When I visited it in 2017, I had the pleasure of joining a friend for an afternoon tea service here and was thoroughly charmed. It was full of English antiques, teacups, and teapots galore. I, of course, selected a tea cup to purchase as a keepsake, and I'm glad I did, because in 2019, the new owners closed the tea room so they could retire.
For a time after its closing, regular business hours weren't maintained, but it would open for periodic afternoon tea events. Since the pandemic hit, it hasn't opened as far as I can glean, and their website has been taken down.
What a shame. While the future of Anne Hathaway's Cottage remains unclear, you can still visit the exterior and see the beautiful grounds surrounding it.
As for me, I hope this property gets snatched up by an eager, literary businessperson soon!
Black Swan bookshop
As you ought to know by now, I love a good indie bookshop. Black Swan in Staunton is a really cool one to visit. It's more organized than a lot of indie bookstores that have books stacked all over the floor, but it still manages that inviting, eclectic vibe you want from a bookstore.
What stands out to me about this bookstore is the number of rare, antique books. I could spend a LOT of money here. I HAVE spent a lot of money here, come to that. I once splurged on a Shakespeare collection from 1790 from this shop and haven't regretted it for a minute.
For the audiophile, you can also browse their extensive collection of vinyl records,
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library
Woodrow Wilson was born here, so you can visit his presidential library right here in Staunton. See the famous 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine, and check out the basement to see a cool experiential exhibit on World War I trenches.
If you can't make it to Staunton soon but want to check out this site, they are currently offering free virtual tours during COVID. There are a number of tours available, including one I'm planning to join next week about the enslaved people who worked in the house. Check those virtual tours out here.
And speaking of enslaved people, I appreciate that the library and museum make no pretenses about excusing Wilson's racism. Check out a snippet of their statement below:
"We make no excuses for Woodrow Wilson’s racist beliefs.
Our organization stands against racism, hatred and bigotry in all forms and we are committed to being a resource for honest, transparent and inclusive history... The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum is not a statue or a building named as a memorial to him. It is an educational institution devoted to the study of his life and the times in which he lived.
For this nation to heal, careful study of Wilson- and of all presidents- must continue."
Queen City Mischief and Magic
Now I know there's more than a spare few Harry Potter-inspired festivals around the world, and I haven't attended them all, but I can pretty much guarantee you that this is up there among the best of them.
Every September (except this year, which they've appropriately dubbed The Year That Shall Not Be Named), the entire town of Staunton, VA undergoes a magical makeover for the Queen City Mischief and Magic festival. Virtually every downtown shop participates, taking on a new magical name and decorating their storefronts to make the whole town resemble a real-life Diagon Alley.
Local artisans create and sell hand-crafted wands, Potter-themed teas (I bought a Sleeping Draught herbal tea last year), costumes, candles, and so much more.
Characters wander the streets, so look out for Hagrid, Voldemort, Bellatrix Lestrange, Severus Snape, Dumbledore, Professor Umbridge, and lots of others. And that doesn't even include all the attendees dressed up (my favorite sighting was Snape dressed in Neville's grandmother's clothing, stuffed pheasant hat at and all; Moaning Myrtle was a close second).
And there are so many activities it's impossible to hit them all (but you'll want to!). Catch quidditch games happening in the street, attend a quidditch training clinic, participate in Harry Potter trivia nights, join a potions class (my 5-year-old really loved that one), attend afternoon tea with the Hogwarts Founders (of course I couldn't miss this), run in the Firebolt 5k, have your fortune told, build your own fantastic beast from various stuffed animal parts, and on and on.
Plus, you'll find Potter-inspired drinks and treats all weekend long: I indulged in a cauldron cake, lots of "butter brew" and even a Felix Felicis drink.
Last year, different characters and locations each had cards for attendees to pick up, and, if you managed to collect them all, you left with a full 52-card themed playing deck for home (we came SO CLOSE but didn't complete ours).
So, wands crossed that next year allows for events and festivals to happen safely again.
Mark your calendars, because next year's Queen City Mischief and Magic / Harry Potter festival is set for September 24-26, 2021.
Where to stay
For ambience and location, you can't beat staying in the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel (now Hotel24) built in 1924. Somehow I didn't manage to snag a picture when I stayed here, but check it out; it's beautiful! And it's one of the only places to stay that's walking distance to everything downtown.
There are also a number of cute bed and breakfasts and chain hotels in the area, though you'll need to drive and park downtown to catch most of the action.
Where to eat
For ice cream: Load up on gelato or sorbet at The Split Banana Co.
For pizza: Shenandoah Pizza & Taphouse
For a fancy dinner:
Zynodoa (fancy take on Southern food)
Aioli Restaurant (delicious Mediterranean cuisine)
Yelping Dog Wine for the wine-y and a casual atmosphere
The Depot Grille for a cool vintage atmosphere inside the old train station
The Clocktower Restaurant for drinks & good eats
Byer's Street Bistro for fun drinks with pub food
Where to shop
There are so many fun stores to browse in Staunton that I really recommend spending time wandering through downtown and popping into stores that draw your eye. But here are a few of my favorites:
A darling store for children and the child at heart. We first caught notice of Pufferbellie's by the bubble machine releasing bubbles into the street from the top floor window. It's full of toys and books and even toys the kids can play with there in the store (though likely not during the time of Covid). If you've got little ones or just nieces, nephews, or other kids in your life to shop for, you'll want to check out this cute shop.
Black Swan Bookshop (see description above)
Downtown Staunton seems to have an antique store everywhere you look! Each one is unique, full of their own one-of-a-kind items. You can find a list of antique stores here or just wander downtown and discover them for yourself.
Staunton Olive Oil Company
I've bought so many infused oils and vinegars from the Staunton Olive Oil Company I've even paid to them them shipped to me now that I no longer live close! It's a small, woman-owned company with a fantastic product. I'm not sure how they're operating under Covid, but typically you can go in any time during business hours to sample any of their products, and they'll fill bottles of whatever you order right in front of you! They've got a beautiful bottle design, and just honestly you're going to have a hard time narrowing down what you want to buy.
Downtown Staunton is very walkable once you find a place to park (try the free lot at the Firehouse or on Lewis Street or find paid street parking. There are also a couple of paid parking garages and lots. Find more parking information here).
Once downtown, you can also take the historic trolley to drive by many of the sites. It will take you on a loop of downtown and be back at the visitor's center every 30 minutes. Don't forget to have a quarter ready to pay the 25 cent fare.
And finally, don't forget to check out Shenandoah National Park and the Luray Caverns while you're in the area! They are each about a 1 hour drive from Staunton.
Well, did I sell you? What would you be most excited to see in Staunton, VA?
Pin this now to reference later when you're planning your Staunton getaway.