West of the mountains from the south end of Shenandoah National Park on I-64, tidy Staunton (pop. 23,746; pronounced “STAN-ton”) was founded in 1732 as one of the first towns on the far side of the Blue Ridge. Unlike much of the valley, Staunton was untouched during the Civil War and now preserves its many 18th- and early-19th-century buildings in a townscape so perfect it was rated among the dozen most distinctive destinations in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
One of Staunton’s many sizable historic districts surrounds the boyhood home of favorite son Woodrow Wilson. Son of a Presbyterian minister, Wilson was born in 1856 in a stately Greek Revival townhouse, now established as the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum (20 N. Coalter St., 540/885-0897, daily, $14), with galleries tracing his life as a scholar—he was president of Princeton University—and as U.S. President during World War I.
Staunton is also the home of the unique Frontier Culture Museum (540/332-7850, daily, $12 adults), right off I-81 exit 222 on the southeast side of town. A rural version of Williamsburg, this living history museum consists of four resurrected working farms, incorporating buildings brought over from Germany, England, and Ireland. The fourth farm, dating to antebellum Virginia, shows how various Old World traditions blended in America. The farms are inhabited by interpreters dressed in clean period costumes baking bread, spinning flax, or repairing farm instruments.
Staunton holds a couple of good down-home places to eat, both located on the old US-11 Lee Highway route. For pancakes and waffles, make your way to Kathy’s (705 Greenville Ave., 540/885-4331), where all of Staunton flocks after church on Sundays. Another classic, Wright’s Dairy-Rite (346 Greenville Ave., 540/886-0435) serves great burgers, hot dogs, and onion rings to your car or in a dining room decorated with old menus. Enjoy free Wi-Fi and a free Wurlitzer jukebox.
All the usual motels cluster around Staunton’s junction of US-250 and I-81.