Founded in 1778, and named for the then-recent Revolutionary War battleground, photogenic Lexington (pop. 7,136) 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 that parks across 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 1851 until 1861 when he rode off to fight in the Civil War, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson lived at 8 East Washington Street, now a small museum (540/464-7704, daily, $10 adults). He is buried in the small but well-tended cemetery on the south edge of town. General 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 warhorse, General George C. Marshall, is honored in a large eponymous museum (11am-4pm Tues.-Sat., $5 adults) on the VMI campus. The museum traces General Marshall’s role in planning the D-Day invasions in World War II and salutes his Nobel Peace Prize-winning Marshall Plan for the successful reconstruction of postwar Europe.
Spend a summer night in Lexington at the community-run Hull’s Drive-In (2367 N. US-11, 540/463-2621, $7 adults), a much-loved local Ozoner drive-in theater still showing Hollywood hits. Before a movie, grab a burger or some fried chicken at Kenney’s (635 Wadell St., 540/463-5730) off US-11. Or check out the many good bistros and soup-and-sandwich places downtown along Main Street, such as the unusually healthy menu at Blue Sky Bakery (125 W. Nelson St., 540/463-6546).
There are a number of comfortable and captivating places to stay in and around Lexington, like the Llewellyn Lodge (603 S. Main St., 540/463-3235 or 800/882-1145, $120 and up). Comfortable, convenient, welcoming, helpful, and within easy walking distance of the campuses and the historic town center, the Llewellyn is everything a B&B should be.
Held sacred by the local Monacan people and bought from King George in 1774 by Thomas Jefferson, the 215-ft-high (65.5-m) notch of Natural Bridge (540/291-1326, daily, $8 adults) is a remarkable piece of geologic acrobatics. Spanning some 90 ft (27.4 m), the thick stone arch bridges Cedar Creek at the bottom of a steeply walled canyon. To see the Natural Bridge, which is heralded as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World (others on the list include Niagara Falls, Yellowstone, and Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland), you have to buy a ticket from the visitors center at the park.
The Natural Bridge Park Hotel and Conference Center ($99 and up), located across the street from the state park, has 152 rooms including a Veranda Room annex building across the road. The colonial dining room serves breakfast and dinner, with outdoor dining on the veranda and popular weekend buffets.