Cities of all sizes across the state offer something unique—from family fun to arts to nightlife. We asked readers for their favorite places to shop, eat, and even retire. Here are the results.
Best Up-and-Coming Town: Princeton
Five years ago princeton in southern West Virginia wasn’t looking so great. “It was like a lot of places,” says Tim Ealy, Princeton’s mayor. “You know, the downtown was getting a little tired, a little worn.” But then things started to change. It was like Princeton got a good look at itself in the mirror, didn’t like what it saw—and decided to get back on track. “The community is revitalizing downtown now, being very progressive with it,” Tim says. “We’re brightening it up again.”
Driving through downtown, you can’t miss the murals, There’s not one or two, but half a dozen—a man and his violin, a girl and her Hula-Hoop, a scene honoring veterans at Dick Copeland Town Square, where music plays on Wednesdays in the summer. Some of these paintings are created entirely by locals, others are the work of professional artists, like Patch Whisky, a Charleston artist and Princeton native whose mural of colorful creatures is a focal point of town. All of the murals make use of a positive message—Create Joy and Peace, Celebrate Life.
Those murals are the most visible element of a multi-faceted, three-year plan to boost Princeton’s image and the well-being of its citizens. It’s called the Princeton Renaissance Project, and it was born in 2013 from the Blueprint Communities Program, an effort sponsored by the West Virginia Community Development Hub. Blueprint communities receive resources to help them develop and implement community revitalization plans, and Princeton is taking full advantage of this boost.
Since it began in summer 2013, the Princeton Renaissance Project has worked with the community to beautify the town, creating a community garden and facilitating the painting of a lot of those murals. The group also raised enough money to buy the historic but rundown theater downtown and begin the process of gutting and restoring it—work on the building has already begun, and they’ve raised $300,000 toward the $800,000 goal for that campaign. “We’d seen this blight downtown and we knew we needed to get rid of that,” says Greg Puckett, who is leading up the Princeton Renaissance Project. “This is our way of doing that.”
And all of this seems to really be working—downtown is already a more pleasant, welcoming place to be, which has led to more concrete improvements. Four businesses have relocated downtown, and three buildings have been purchased by people who plan to renovate them. “Not all of the problems have vanished—we still have issues,” Greg says. “We’ve taken a negative space and created something positive with it.”
There are other signs of progress, too. A few years ago the city started holding Summer Cruise events, automobile festivals that harken back to the hot rod days of the 1950s and draw waves of people downtown. And a lot of residents see hope in a new downtown Princeton campus for the New River Community and Technical College, which will soon be drawing more than 100 students downtown for class. “I think all these things are going to light a spark downtown,” Tim says. “I think people see the city and the community are committed to the downtown area, and they’re really excited about it.”
Together these small successes are changing the way people think about Princeton. Greg remembers a local Rotary meeting he attended when the Princeton Renaissance Project was first getting started. He asked the assembled group what words came to mind when someone mentioned Mercer Street, the main thoroughfare downtown. Not many of them were positive. “But in the course of an hour of talking about everything we were going to do, the murals, the beautification, the theater, their mindset changed entirely. They were using words like ‘excitement’ and ‘energetic’ instead. By the end of that meeting some great words were coming out to describe Princeton.” Today those words are becoming a reality, and Greg predicts we’ll be using those same words—and some even better ones—to describe Princeton for years to come.
Most Unique Town: Helevetia
Helvetia isn’t just a small town, it’s teeny tiny—at the time of the 2010 census there were just 59 people living in the mountain village. But this remote community in Randolph County has more personality than a place hundreds of times its size.
Helvetia was founded by a group of Swiss immigrants living in Brooklyn. They decided to leave the city in search of some land of their own; it’s said they chose this spot in the mountains because it reminded them of Switzerland. These farmers, herdsmen, and craftspeople created a settlement that soon drew more immigrants from Switzerland—the population peaked in 1874 at 308.
Now Helvetia is known as a bastion of Swiss culture—most of its current residents are descendants of the town’s original settlers and, perhaps because the area is so isolated, Swiss traditions of dance, music, food, and holidays have survived through the generations. That means festivals like Fasnacht—where revelers wear large, often frightening masks and burn an effigy of Old Man Winter to signal the coming of spring just before Lent—is roughly the same today as it was 150 years ago. “We’ve had all these things passed down so it is sort of sweet,” says Heidi Arnett who, with her siblings, runs several of the businesses in town. “We are kind of buried in history.”
Best College Town & Best Town for Nightlife: Morgantown
Morgantown is a rare place. More than 30,000 people call the Monongalia County seat home and more than 20,000 West Virginia University students pour into the city en masse every August, only to trickle out again every May. From its humble beginnings in the late 18th century as the site of Welsh-born settler Zackquill Morgan’s homestead, Morgantown made a name for itself with glass, coal, and oil, and later became known for a vibrant education, health care, and entertainment economy. These days, this small city, sprawled between the Monongahela and Cheat rivers, is one of the fastest growing urban centers in the state.
With an award-winning health care system, excellent schools, a thriving nightlife, and low unemployment, it’s no wonder people have been flocking to this college town in droves for decades. But what really puts Morgantown on the map? Stephen Dilettoso, director of marketing, distribution, and sales at Mountain State Brewing Co. and co-founder of Iron Horse Tavern in town, says a big part of it is the way the nightlife and college community mesh. “There are a lot of new and unique places popping up that you can’t find anywhere else in the general area,” Stephen says. “Ethnic restaurants, nice wine bars, and beer garden concepts all contribute to the nightlife appeal. There’s a certain energy here that comes with any college town.”
Morgantown’s reputation isn’t only for epic entertainment. The city is also consistently ranked as a top city to live and work in by Forbes, The Business Journals, Kiplinger, and CNN Money, to name a few. As a WVU alum turned Morgantown business owner, Stephen, like many residents, found unique opportunities in this little big city and came back after graduation to make his mark. An Elkins native, Stephen left his corporate job in California and now has a hand in two of Morgantown’s most popular and unique nightlife destinations. Founded in Thomas, Mountain State Brewing’s Morgantown restaurant has become synonymous with brick oven pizza, great beer, and peaceful river views, while Iron Horse Tavern on High Street is carving out its niche with West Virginia craft beer on tap, specialty cocktails, and unique pub fare.
Stephen Dilettoso, director of marketing, distribution, and sales at Mountain State Brewing Co.
Nightlife selection is wide and varied in Morgantown. Neighborhood bars like Town Hill Tavern on Willey Street and Mario’s Fishbowl on Richwood Avenue are local favorites; Black Bear Burritos and 123 Pleasant Street are perfect for live music aficionados both downtown and in Evansdale; beer and wine connoisseurs flock to Apothecary Ale House, The Vintage Room, and Morgantown Brewing Company in the heart of the city. But if you prefer the youth and vitality of the bar scene, you won’t be disappointed during karaoke night at The Sports Page Bar & Grill, enjoying one of the many beers on tap at Gibbie’s Pub & Eatery, or spending a night on the roof overlooking downtown at Rocktop Bar and Grill.
Stephen says this influx of upscale and innovative restaurants and bars to Morgantown—there are more than 20 downtown alone—is a reflection of how the city is changing. “When I was in school, the nightlife was a lot less refined. True college bars were the majority, and I think it was a little bit of a crazier scene back then. Today I see places like The Vintage Room and Bartini—places like these weren’t around when I was in school. We went out in sweatpants and ball caps and drank 10-cent beers. There are definitely a lot more restaurant and bar options for a more mature crowd. I think Morgantown’s overall growth as a city is the major contributor to that.”
Stephen’s success just wouldn’t have been possible if Morgantown’s town/gown relations weren’t up to par. Just ask Peggy Myers-Smith, president and CEO of the Greater Morgantown Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I think our community is uniquely hospitable and welcoming, especially to our student population. This is a great college town because families and parents can be confident that their students are living and playing in a safe, low-crime environment. We are also offering more and more opportunities for nightlife, outdoor recreation, and special community events created with thought and attention toward the student population,” she says. “At the same time, Morgantown is not exclusive to college students. People of all ages have fun together at both university and community events. And the university does a great job of welcoming visitors and travelers into the college environment. In fact, the economic impact of visitors coming to university events is huge—whether it’s athletic or artistic.”
Boasting the state’s flagship land-grant university, Morgantown offers students, visitors, and residents the benefits of world-class educational programming, hugely popular athletic events, and top-notch arts and entertainment all within city limits. Every year great acts grace the WVU Creative Arts Center—entertainers like Whoopi Goldberg, Kenny Rogers, and William Shatner—while West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mountain Stage live radio show brings Grammy-winning artists to town and Broadway shows and family-friendly performances provide entertainment for all ages. And the offerings change season to season. Visit during the lazy days of summer for outdoor festivals, shopping, and hanging out on Cheat Lake, or book a fall trip and experience the explosion of Big 12 athletic events, art shows, and live music. “It’s diverse,” Stephen says. “You have a lot of different options in a lot of different neighborhoods. Whether it’s game day or a fun concert in town, something always seems to be buzzing.”
Best Town to Raise a Family In: Bridgeport
Bridgeport is situated at the intersection of Interstate 79 and historic U.S. Route 50—prime real estate for economic growth. And grow Bridgeport has, with the development of the I-79 High-Tech Corridor and the boom in the natural gas industry. But even with all that growth Bridgeport, population more than 8,000, has kept its small-town vibe, taking the best of the things that go along with growth and leaving behind the worst. The crime rate is lower than the state average and lower still than the national average. There are still only two elementary schools, and one middle and high school in town, so there’s no fighting to get your child into Bridgeport’s top-notch school system. And downtown still has the quaint charm of a place where the pace of life is slow with its unique restaurants and shops.
Often, parents with young families in Bridgeport cite the education system there as the primary draw—which isn’t surprising, given the system’s track record. Bridgeport High School is a National Blue Ribbon School and was, in 2013, the highest ranked high school in the state. The football team won the AA state championship in 2013, and the whole town comes out on Friday nights to see the kids play. “There’s a real connection between the schools and the community here, whether it’s the high school, middle school, or elementary school,” says Mark Defazio, Bridgeport High School’s principal. “We have a lot of professional people who live in our community and they value education, and it sort of trickles down so that we have very competitive schools, academically and athletically.”
That engagement is also the driving force behind the town’s slate of family-friendly activities, like a popular weekly farmers’ market—held outdoors through the spring and summer, and indoors once a month for the rest of the year—and the annual Benedum Festival held each July. When the weather is nice, residents flock to the city’s pristine parks, walking trails, ball fields, and new $8 million recreation complex featuring four baseball fields, two playgrounds, a one-mile walking trail, and a large multipurpose field.
Best Town for the Outdoors: Summersville
There’s just something about lakes. Flat blue water, cool breezes, the break of little waves on the shore—people will come for miles just to sit and enjoy a day on the water. And some decide to stay. That’s what drew Steve Keblesh and his wife, Donna, owners of Summersville Lake Retreat, to West Virginia’s largest clear water playground—Summersville Lake in Nicholas County—more than 30 years ago. “I grew up in northern Ohio and came here in the late 1970s. We adopted it,” Steve says. “With a lot of folks it’s just the luck of the draw to be born in such a beautiful place. We came here by choice.”
Named for the nearby town of Summersville, the lake is West Virginia’s largest, with more than 28,000 acres of water and 60 miles of shoreline. A direct result of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to prevent flooding with the creation of the Summersville Dam in 1966, the man-made lake is now the second largest of its kind in the eastern United States. And it’s one of southern West Virginia’s biggest attractions.
The lake’s namesake is a quiet community, established in 1820 and home to less than 4,000 people. But thanks to the lake, the town is now synonymous with all things outdoors, attracting thousands of tourists seeking a vacation of sun, water, and small-town hospitality. As Summersville Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Marianne Taylor puts it, “Summersville is a smorgasbord of outdoor recreation.” From lazy to sweat-inducing, the lake and surrounding landscape provide every imaginable opportunity to get closer to nature. “We have hiking trails that vary from mild to strenuous. With the largest clear water lake in the state next door, you’ll find boating, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, swimming, jet skiing, rock climbing along the sandstone cliffs, and scuba diving,” Marianne says.
“We have some of the best diving in the state,” says Danny Martin, manager at Sarge’s Dive Shop. “The visibility of the lake is 20 to 45 feet depending on rainfall. We get a lot of scuba divers and people who come to get their certification.” As a full-service dive shop at Summersville Lake Marina, Sarge’s offers all the training a budding scuba pro might need—including certification classes, rental gear, and specialized lessons as well as scuba, swimming, and snorkeling charters, kayak and paddleboard rentals, and lake tours. The marina itself offers seasonal and overnight dock slips, boat rentals, fuel, and other vacation necessities.
Marianne Taylor, Executive Director, Summersville Convention and Visitors Bureau
Despite its name, Summersville is really a four-season vacation destination, Marianne says. Angling, in particular, attracts tourists from spring to fall for some of the best smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing in the state as well as trout, walleye, bluegill, crappie, and channel catfish. The cooler days of fall are also a perfect time for class V and VI white water rafting in the Gauley River National Recreation Area—made many times more adventurous as part of the lake is drained after Labor Day.
Mountain bikers love to explore the banks of Summersville Lake on its network of trails or ride through the nearby Monongahela National Forest. Carnifex Ferry Battlefield State Park near Summersville is another way to experience the great outdoors, with a healthy dose of Civil War and local history thrown in. Winter is also a great time for a romantic getaway in one of Summersville Lake Retreat’s cozy cabins. And don’t forget about the golfing, shopping, restaurants, RV camping, tenting, wine tasting, zip-lining, bed-and-breakfasts, and West Virginia’s only working lighthouse. Steve, also the lighthouse’s proud owner, says the project started as something of a joke but quickly grew into another important symbol of how active the community has become in promoting, preserving, and improving the natural and cultural heritage of the area. Construction of the lighthouse—made possible by local high school students—has led to a number of scholarships and has made cultural events like the Summersville Lake Lighthouse Festival possible. “It’s more than just a bulletin board. It’s grown beyond us now. The community has adopted it,” he says.
Whether you come to climb the lighthouse’s 122 steps, raft down the river, peruse unique shops, or discover your own perfect swimming hole, you won’t be disappointed in Summersville. “We don’t have a lot of traffic or the hustle and bustle of a big city,” Marianne says. “But if you’re looking for a place to relax, have an adventure, see a beautiful part of West Virginia, or experience history, this is a great destination.”
Best Town for Food: Huntington
Huntington is home to a large public university, a community of young professionals, a few museums, plenty of outdoor activities—and some really great restaurants. The city, West Virginia’s second largest, has always had a lot of energy, but it’s been especially vibrant in recent years—perhaps in part because of the booming restaurant scene. “The one thing every visitor looks for regardless of the reason they’re coming to the city is food,” says Tyson Compton, president of the Cabell-Huntington Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Dining is about more than just consuming food, it’s about the experience. It’s very important to the vibrancy of a city, and the wider the variety of options, the better.”
Huntington’s food scene is a smorgasbord of options, with everything from fine dining establishments like Savannah’s Restaurant, famous for its crab cakes and nationally recognized wine selection, to Central City Cafe, which boasts a menu full of casual comfort foods like white bean chili and meat loaf. In the last few years there’s been an influx of hip, modern eateries. “More and more people are trying to do new things with food here, and more and more diners are opening up to new flavors,” says Jeremiah Bowen, head chef at Black Sheep Burritos, a local favorite that opened in 2011 and has wowed Huntington diners ever since with its eclectic mix of burritos. “People are saying, ‘Here you go, enjoy this. You might not understand it, but we know you’re going to like it.’”
The tortilla is Black Sheep’s vehicle of choice, but a handful of other Huntington restaurants are also playing with the food fusion trend. Backyard Pizza and Raw Bar is one favorite, with pizzas like The Flying Piggie, covered in barbecue pork, mozzarella, toasted butter pickles, and onion strings, or the Warren Pear pizza, which has pear, a blackberry reduction, roasted sweet garlic, chevre, arugula, toasted walnuts, and truffle oil. There’s also The Peddler, a burger joint with favorites like the Californication—a beef patty, sunny side up egg, smoked gouda, ranch, avocado, and black bean corn pico de gallo—and the Big Texas with a beef patty, brisket, blueberry barbecue sauce, cheddar, onion strings, and candied jalapeños.
It’s not all about these flashy, newfangled restaurants, though. Huntington is also filled with a host of staples that have been serving up delicious local flavor for decades, often to widespread acclaim. Not one but two Huntington restaurants, Hillbilly Hot Dogs and Central City Cafe, have received national recognition on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and in 2010, Hillbilly Hot Dogs was named one of the “tastiest places to chow down” by The Travel Channel. Hillbilly Hot Dogs is most famous for its original location in nearby Lesage, where two graffiti-covered school buses are attached to what looks like a string of lean-to shacks decorated with found art. The downtown Huntington location has just as much quirk and charm, though—patrons can sit inside a bathtub to eat their hot dogs if they want.
“It’s difficult to say what the best restaurant in town is, because it all depends on what your personal taste is,” says Jimmie Carder, the owner of Jim’s Steak & Spaghetti House, which has been serving up its signature spaghetti and beloved pies for 75 years from the main drag downtown. “I think that’s commendable for the city, and we’re always happy for new restaurants to come. It helps the whole town.”
Best Historic Town: Harpers Ferry
Harpers ferry is a tapestry. “We are not just one story or one day or one theme in American history,” says Dennis Frye, chief historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. This is West Virginia’s easternmost community—a town anchored to a little strip of land at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers that has been the site of some of the most influential battles, meetings, movements, and revolutions in American history since its founding in the mid-18th century. “This was a place were ideas were tested, where they were fought over, and where they were experimented with,” Dennis says.
With a population of less than 300 in 2012, you wouldn’t expect it to attract such attention, yet thousands find their way here for the chance to be immersed in antebellum history and breathtaking natural scenery each year. In spite of its Civil War history, many historic buildings are intact. On weekends and during special events, you’ll probably run into more than a few re-enactors—head to toe in period dress—using the old storefronts and cobblestone streets as their backdrop. They might be demonstrating Civil War field artillery in Bolivar Heights Battlefield, reacting to the British invasion in 1812, retracing the footsteps of the civil rights movement, or welcoming President Abraham Lincoln himself. “Being right on the confluence of two major waterways, being stuck between the North and South, being at the junction of three states, and being right at a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains—these things all played a significant role throughout history,” Dennis says.
Visitors can not only experience hundreds of years of history in a single visit, but can also easily explore the flora and fauna of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, which includes land in West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. Hikers frequently make the trek up to Jefferson Rock to see the water gap, where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, or climb to Maryland Heights for a stunning view of the town. Trail enthusiasts will find the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters and visitor center on Washington Street to be a great resource, and the Appalachian Trail itself cuts right through the town. Nature lovers can also find white water rafting, fishing, mountain biking, tubing, canoeing, camping, hiking, zip-lining, and rock climbing in the nearby recreation areas.
But, as even the most casual observer can see, history is Harpers Ferry’s bread and butter. That fact, and a love for his hometown, is why Dennis has remained in Harpers Ferry, and why, as a historian, he’s not only published nine books and more than 100 articles but was also an associate producer and historical consultant for the 2003 Civil War film, Gods and Generals—filmed in part in Harpers Ferry. “This place has been incredibly fertile for research and writing, but I also have incredible passion for this area.”
If you’re a history buff, come to Harpers Ferry to see abolitionist John Brown’s preserved fort; step through time at the John Brown Wax Museum; visit the former Storer College campus, where Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois fueled the civil rights movement; or hike through Bolivar Heights Battlefield, the site of no less than five Civil War battles. “Harpers Ferry represents everything from the industrial revolution to the revolution for freedom and civil rights to the revolution over secession to the manufacturing and transportation revolutions. We have both history and mother nature at its best,” Dennis says. “We also have a very active calendar and lots of family and youth programs. This is the ideal national park visitor experience.”
With outdoor recreation, museums, living history, and cultural events like the Step Into Autumn Festival and Old Tyme Christmas celebration, as well as restaurants, shops, and lodging set in historic buildings just steps away from downtown, Harpers Ferry is more than just a daycation destination. “The events that occurred here changed America. You can’t even scratch the surface in one day,” Dennis says. “The number one thing we hear from people is, ‘I’ll be back.’”
Best Town for the Arts & Best Town to Retire In: Lewisburg
No one can quite pinpoint what it is that makes Lewisburg so special. But it seems everyone agrees this historic Greenbrier County town, so thoroughly drenched in arts and culture, is unique. “If I had the answer really down I could market it, but unfortunately I don’t really know what it is,” says Larry Levine, a staff member at Trillium Performing Arts Collective. He figures it’s some combination of the area’s history and the special care locals have taken to preserve Lewisburg’s downtown. The result is a town that thrives like few other small towns do. Downtown is filled with restaurants, art galleries, boutiques, and cafés. Cultural preservation is of paramount importance. Live music is always playing, a new show is always on stage, a new exhibit is always at one of the galleries. “We’re unique,” says Kara Dense, executive director of the Greenbrier County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have most of the perks you have in a big city, but also a nice smaller town feel.”
The town is home to West Virginia’s only professional live theater, the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, as well as one of only four Carnegie Halls in the world, a longstanding arts cooperative called the Trillium Performing Arts Collective, several gallery spaces, and plenty of artists who live and work locally. Overall the arts community is close-knit, collaborative, and diverse. “We’re talking about everything from wonderful symphonic music to very grassroots dance and movement, a strong literary community, and then a professional theater company producing and building new art every month,” says Nathan Gwartney, director of marketing at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre. “It’s extensive and we’ve got such wonderful people with wonderful taste and open minds—the town is just so full of creative and wonderful people.”
The vibe in Lewisburg is laid-back but lively, which may be why it draws in so many retirees—after all, isn’t that the way most people would like to describe their retirement years? “We find ourselves being a huge draw to people after they retire,” Lisa says. “I think the arts are a big part of that. If you live in a big metropolis there are certain things you come to appreciate like the arts and to be able to retire into a smaller, safe community that has so many things going on—it’s perfect.” Sometimes, Lisa says, people get off the interstate in Lewisburg just looking for a pit stop while traveling and fall in love with town on that first visit. “They discover our area and immediately start looking for a home,” she says.
They’re probably drawn to the area because of more than just the arts, though. The little town of just under 4,000 people boasts more than 50 downtown establishments—from restaurants and cafés to antique shops, clothing stores, and art galleries. Lewisburg is also rich in history—the more than 200-acre Lewisburg Historic District encompasses the city and includes architecture dating back to 1784. History buffs swarm to places like the John Wesley United Methodist Church on Foster Street—its southwest corner was struck by a cannonball in the 1862 Battle of Lewisburg during the Civil War—and the Confederate Cemetery—a cross-shaped mass grave on McElhenney Road that holds 95 unknown Confederate soldiers killed or mortally wounded in that battle. The town also lies nine miles from the world-renowned Greenbrier Resort, with excellent golf amenities and fine dining. And residents are never far from outdoor adventure with destinations like the Greenbrier River Trail and the Greenbrier State Forest close by.
Lewisburg’s retirees tend to have a genial relationship with the community at large, and Lisa says they help the town by infusing it with their energy and expertise—many retirees find themselves volunteering time, money, or both to one of Lewisburg’s arts organizations, as well as supporting them with their patronage. “It ends up benefiting everyone when you have all these retirees in town, because they want to and are able to give back,” she says.
“It’s a wonderful place to retire for so many reasons,” she says. “Sometimes they’ve visited and fallen in love with it here, sometimes people have ties to the community, sometimes they have grown up in West Virginia but moved away looking for something else and want to return. I believe West Virginia just has a certain pull to it, and even if you’re not able to raise your children here you might want to have your grandchildren here with you.”
Best Town for Shopping: Charleston
Charleston, the state’s capital, is both distinctly West Virginian and uniquely urban for the state. Its shopping scene reflects that, with local shops scattered throughout two business districts, plus shopping centers and a mall filled with big, national chain stores. Charleston has it all, from a massive Cabela’s outlet to tiny antique shops, from national department stores to locally owned consignment boutiques. A shopping trip in Charleston is a smorgasbord of options. “It is a nice diversity,” says Gina Puzzuoli, who owns Stray Dog Antiques, a beloved antique store downtown. “We have places you can go for chain stores, where you’re pretty confident about what you’re going to get—but if you want some nice local shops, and we hope you do, we have a community of those as well.”
“We certainly boast some national fashion brands you can’t find anywhere else in the state,” says Lisa McCracken, the marketing director at the mall, the Charleston Town Center. “But it’s more than that, because you can do Charleston Town Center, then you can swing over to Capitol Market, or up to the Bridge Road shops for something local—you really can do it all. And the size of our metropolis really lends itself to hitting them all in one day. We’re all 10 minutes away from one another.”
You might start downtown on Capitol Street, where there’s a smattering of interesting, locally owned stores all within a three-block radius of one another. A handful of them specialize in selling things secondhand, from mid-century antique furniture at The Purple Moon to consignment clothing at Consignment Company and Savvy Chic. Shops like Stray Dog Antiques and Collage Art Shop carry an eclectic mix of antiques, art, and oddities. Then there are the art stores and galleries, with art, pottery, glasswork, and textiles, often made by West Virginia artisans. Taylor Books, at the heart of this little shopping district, has a wide variety of books and magazines and an adjoining gallery space where art is displayed and sold. All of these little places feed off one another, coming together to make for a holistic shopping experience—if you can’t find what you’re looking for in one store, the person behind the register can probably direct you to a shop down the street that has it. “We have a nice little community of shops down here,” Gina says. “We all feel the success of one shop will do nothing but help all of us, which makes it nice for the stores and the customers both.”
It’s the same way across the Kanawha River from downtown, at the South Hills Shops on Bridge Road. “It’s like a mini getaway destination up here,” says Ann Adkins, one of the owners of Geraniums, a women’s clothing boutique. The Bridge Road shops are all high-end specialty stores—they each fill a different niche but come together for an inclusive upscale shopping experience. Stores like Geraniums and Charlie Boutique offer fine women’s clothing, while Kelly’s on Fifth caters to men. Cornucopia and Eggplant are both charmingly whimsical gift shops, Yarid’s carries fine jewelry, and Twice as Nice is a consignment shop for kid’s clothing. “People can shop here all day long,” Ann says. Free parking helps with that, as does the close proximity of the stores—they’re all nestled together on one charming street.
If you’re ready for some more familiar stores, you can drive out to Southridge, where you’ll find that massive Cabela’s Retail Store, plus favorites like HomeGoods, Marshall’s, Pier 1 Imports, and Target. Or hop over to the Charleston Town Center for staples like Macy’s, Coach, Ann Taylor LOFT, and Sephora. You won’t be alone—Lisa says on a normal week, the mall sees tens of thousands of shoppers and often pulls visitors from as many as eight surrounding states. “I’m pleased Charleston remains a shopping destination for our state,” Lisa says. “And it’s also a shopping destination for the entire region.”
Town with the Most Community Pride: Ripley
County seat, charming small town, haven for the arts—Ripley, population less than 4,000, is much more than a bedroom community for places like Charleston and Parkersburg—despite its proximity. The locals know it; that’s why every year they show Ripley off in spectacular fashion during the famous Fourth of July celebration, the oldest in the state; a delicious chocolate festival and parade in early spring; and the popular Mountain State Art & Craft Fair—which alone attracts tens of thousands in summer. “We have a lot of people who commute from here because they want to get away from the city atmosphere when they're at home,” says Ripley Mayor Carolyn Rader. “We're perfectly located between Charleston and Parkersburg—drive just 35 minutes and you can be in either city. But there are also people like me who've lived and worked here forever. We all strive to make everyone feel welcome, no matter how long they’re staying.” By and large, Ripley draws people who want to feel a sense of community from the moment they enter town. Creek clean-ups, high school sports, antique car shows—people in Ripley are active. “We like to bring people together as often as we can, either to shop and support our merchants or just to get together and have coffee.”
The town boasts an array of locally owned shops, family-run lodging, and hidden gems like the 170-year-old historic Vail Furniture store and the 13,500-square-foot smorgasbord of primitive and home décor at Millcreek Trading Company, LLC. Visitors and locals alike can also find fun and flavorful menus, from Italian to Mexican and steaks to seafood—and don't pass up the chance to stop at Crabby Patti's. But if you had to peg Ripley with just one descriptor, pride would be a top contender. From the throngs of fans who turn out at Ripley High School sporting events to the community activists who rally around projects like the effort to bring the historic Alpine Theatre downtown back to life or to open the town’s first convention and visitors bureau, folks in Ripley love their town and happily promote it. “We’re proud of our families, our city, our different heritages,” Rader says. “We complement each other and we help each other. I think the common denominator is that we all work together.”