Founded in 1778, and named for the then-recent Revolutionary War battleground, photogenic Lexington (pop. 6,959) is home to an estimable pair of Virginia institutions, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and Washington and Lee University, which meld into one another at the center of town. Numerous old brick buildings, including a typically southern lawyer’s row around Courthouse Square, still stand around the town, which you can tour on foot or in one of the horse-drawn carriages (about $10/hr) that leave from the downtown visitors center.
Animated by an unusually crew-cut version of typical college-town energy, Lexington is redolent with, and intensely proud of, its military heritage. Generals, in fact, have become the town’s stock-in-trade: From 1859 until his death in 1863, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson lived at 8 E. Washington Street, now a small museum (daily; $6; 540/463-2552); he is buried in the small but well-tended cemetery a short distance west of downtown. Gen. Robert E. Lee spent his post–Civil War years teaching at Washington and Lee, which was named after him (and his wife’s ancestor George). Lee is entombed in a crypt below the chapel, under a famous statue of his recumbent self, with his trusty horse, Traveller, buried just outside. Another influential old war-horse, Gen. George C. Marshall, is honored in a large eponymous museum (daily; $3) on the VMI campus; the museum traces General Marshall’s role in World War II and salutes his Nobel Prize–winning “Marshall Plan” for postwar reconstruction.
If you’ve tired of fried food and meat, Lexington offers respite from the usual road fare: the Blue Heron Cafe (540/463-2800) serves healthy and delicious soups and sandwiches at 4 E. Washington Street, in the center of town. For truly fine “New American” dining—anything from Chesapeake Bay crab to creations like a pecan-crusted pork loin with ginger sauce—try the smoke-free Wilson-Walker House (closed Mon.; 540/463-3020), 30 N. Main Street.
There are a number of comfortable and captivating places to stay in and around Lexington, such as the Alexander Winthrow House ($120–160; 540/463-2044) at 3 W. Washington Street, or the Llewellyn Lodge ($100–120; 540/463-3235 or 800/882-1145) at 603 S. Main Street, both friendly B&Bs within easy walking distance of the campuses and the historic town center.
For walking-tour maps, general information, or further listings, contact the Lexington visitors center (540/463-3777), located at 106 E. Washington Street.