Lewisburg, West Virginia is one of those places that pops up on the best small towns lists for its surprisingly high cuteness quotient. Boutiques, antiques, good restaurants, historic architecture—you’ll find it all in downtown Lewisburg. So if you’re on a West Virginia road trip, consider spending a fun couple of days in this town of 4,000. Lewisburg, in the beautiful Greenbrier Valley, is only about an hour away from America’s newest national park—New River Gorge.
A Snapshot View of Lewisburg, West Virginia
Lewisburg is in southern West Virginia, close to the Virginia border, not far “as the crow flies” from Roanoke. As a town, it dates back to 1782. It sits at the junction of the Midland and Seneca trails, which are now modern roadways. Civil War buffs may recognize the town from several battles fought here. Notably, the 1862 Battle of Lewisburg.
The downtown still has a historic feel, with lots of old buildings. In 1902, Andrew Carnegie built Lewisburg’s Carnegie Hall as a part of the Lewisburg Female Institute. The hall still stands, hosting live performances, independent films series, and other artistic programming. Greenbrier Military School, an all-boys institution, was founded in 1812. Now it houses the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. Wander through town and soak up some West Virginia history.
Take a Tour with the Greenbrier Historical Society
I love to get a feel for a place’s history, so I stopped in at the local history museum. The Greenbrier Historical Society is free to the public, but try to give them a donation if you can. Better yet, take the docent-guided tour for $5 per person. I was the only person on my tour and it still cost $5, which was the biggest bargain on my trip. My museum docent was Deb, a Connecticut transplant who’s been in West Virginia for six years. She’s obviously spent a lot of that time boning up on local history. If I’d planned ahead, I would have also booked a $10 walking tour. The society offers tours highlighting Lewisburg history, Black history, and three intriguing local cemeteries.
Interesting Things in the North House Museum
Inside the historical society museum, you’ll find info about the North family and other former occupants of the house. Photos and artifacts also depict the lives of enslaved and freed Black people in this part of West Virginia. I found the preserved store window displays made by local artist Doris Caldwell in the 1950s most intriguing.
The dioramas, built for her husband’s store, used paint, papier mache, and found objects to depict historical scenes featuring recognizable Lewisburg citizens. One diorama showed an overloaded dining table crashing down on people in fancy dress. Deb pointed out that the chandelier included painted toothpaste caps repurposed as candleholders. She said it was a status symbol to be portrayed in Caldwell’s scenes. People rushed to see every new window display. Caldwell also crafted a life-size nativity scene that still makes Christmastime appearances at the Old Stone Presbyterian Church.
Exploring Downtown Lewisburg, West Virginia
Downtown Lewisburg is a joy to stroll. Friendly boutiques, antique shops, and restaurants are concentrated within a walkable area. The period furniture and oriental rugs in the 10,000 square foot Robert’s Antiques were fun to browse but too big to fit in my carry-on. But at Harmony Ridge Gallery, I found some lovely earrings that hardly weighed down my luggage at all. Plus, the big metal sasquatch sculptures made this Oregonian feel at home.
I stopped for lunch and coffee at Wild Bean/Thunderbird Tacos. These joint businesses are the best bets for vegetarians/vegans/health nuts, but also serve meat. I got a house-made black bean burger and a soy cappuccino.
The huge coffee house space is a relaxing place to sit after a morning of shopping and museum-going.
While not everybody wants to join me, I love visiting old cemeteries. I found three good ones in Lewisburg. The city cemetery behind the Old Stone Church has the best tombstones. Local red sandstone markers dating back to the mid-1800s are especially pretty and unusual, though many are now crumbling.
Across the street, the Dick Pointer Cemetery is named for an enslaved man. Pointer saved sixty settlers during a Shawnee attack on nearby Fort Donnally in 1778. His eponymous cemetery contains the graves of enslaved and free African Americans.
Walk a short way up a street behind these cemeteries to see the cross-shaped mass grave of 95 unidentified Confederate soldiers. After the 1862 Battle of Lewisburg, the Union commanders ordered the Confederate bodies thrown into a trench near the Old Stone Church. Later, people reinterred the unknown soldiers in this more dignified hilltop setting.
Visit The Greenbrier
About ten miles from Lewisburg, in White Sulphur Springs, The Greenbrier bills itself as “America’s Resort.” This upscale hotel is indeed tied into the country’s history. Even if you’re priced out of staying here, it’s worth wandering around the grounds and checking out the décor.
Designer Dorothy Draper created the Greenbrier’s signature mix of bold colors and often clashing prints starting in the 40s. The look continues to this day. Visitors love to have a drink in the bar and photograph each other beneath a chandelier featured in the movie Gone with the Wind. You can buy Draper-inspired textiles in the hotel’s shopping arcade.
Americans first came to White Sulphur Springs to partake of healing waters around 1778. By the 1830s, movers and shakers from the Southern states hung out here. And, later, US presidents. Both Union and Confederate soldiers occupied the grounds during the Civil War. When the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway completed construction in 1873, the hotel’s fortunes soared. The railway bought the hotel in 1910.
For seven months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Greenbrier served as a posh prison for hundreds of Japanese, German, and Italian diplomats and their families waiting to be exchanged for US diplomats overseas. Then the US Army bought the Greenbrier and turned it into the 2,000-bed Ashford General Hospital to treat and rehabilitate soldiers. German and Italian POWs also lived on the resort grounds.
After World War II, the railway reacquired the Greenbrier and hired Draper to update the property from hospital to resort.
Take the Greenbrier Bunker Tour
The most sensational part of The Greenbrier’s history is the secret it kept from 1962 to 1992. Beneath the resort, behind an 18-ton blast door, sits a hidden bunker built to withstand a nuclear attack. A train would whisk members of Congress 250 miles from Washington DC to The Greenbrier in West Virginia, where they’d run the country from underground.
Visitors can tour the bunker to get the story of how hotel staff hid a bunker in plain sight, camouflaged by extremely busy wallpaper. The 12-man Forsythe Associates maintained the bunker, stocking it with fresh food and daily newspapers. Their cover story? They were the resort’s phone repairmen. The bunker held 18 dorms, was surrounded by concrete, and covered by more than 40 feet of dirt. According to our guide Ernestine, “We are mountain people. We know how to keep our secrets. We know how to hide our moonshine stills.”
Lost World Caverns
Three miles from Lewisburg, in the rural countryside, you can see amazing stalactites and stalagmites in Lost World Caverns. The self-guided tour takes you into a cave with easy, paved paths. If you like small spaces and don’t mind exploring dark caves—sometimes on all fours—consider the 4-hour wild cave tour that takes you off the beaten path.
Farmers discovered the cave when they wondered why it took so long for the dead animals they threw in a hole in the ground to hit the bottom. So in 1942, explorers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University descended through the long vertical drop. They found a mile of passages 245 feet below the surface. And a lot of dead livestock. The carcasses have long been cleaned up, leaving extremely cool rock formations with names like Bridal Veil, Ice Cream Wall, War Club, and Snowy Chandelier.
Getting to Lewisburg, West Virginia
Lewisburg is in eastern West Virginia, on the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not the kind of town you would fly into for a quick stay, but a place you might find on a road trip through Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee. US Interstate 64 runs through the northern edge of Lewisburg, while Highway 219 runs north and south through town. Lewisburg sits about two hours northwest of Roanoke and two hours west of Charlottesville, Virginia. Be sure to read more on Wander about what you can do during your visit to West Virginia or get suggestions on more great road trips.
I live in West Virginia I have really enjoy looking through this West Virgina sight. I was born here in Bluefield West Virginia. I love my home here in Bluefield West Virgina. I am 75 and would never want to leave my Beautiful forest and moutains home. I am Dixie Mae Pearcy
It is definitely a beautiful part of the country!