Take a fresh look at West Virginia’s capital city with our guide to area attractions.
photographed by Nikki Bowman
As the seat of state government and the state’s largest city, Charleston teems with activity from the time the sun rises, glistening over the Kanawha River and reflecting off the mirrored downtown skyline, until long after it sets. The gilded dome of the state capitol is Charleston’s best-known feature, but government is only part of the story here.
Like many West Virginia cities, the capital’s history is rooted in the pioneering spirit. Westward expansion in the late 18th century led to the area’s first permanent settlement known as Fort Lee, founded by Colonel Savannah Clendenin, near what is now the intersection of Brooks Street and Kanawha Boulevard. Charleston, which may have been named for Clendenin’s father, and surrounding Kanawha County soon grew into a major economic hub with the discovery of salt brines, natural gas, and, later, coal.
As the Civil War broke out, Charleston became contested political territory, with the city sharply divided among Union and Confederate loyalties. Although the Confederate army occupied the city after the Battle of Charleston, Union troops returned after just a few weeks and stayed until the end of the war. Once the new state of West Virginia was established, the designated capital traveled back and forth for several years between Wheeling—the state’s first capital—and Charleston. It took a citizen vote to finally put the issue to rest, and Charleston was named state capital in 1877.
More than 140 years later, Charleston is a city pulsing with culture—music, theater, dance, art—that outstrips the size of the town in both quality and quantity. There’s a vitality that might be surprising to visitors, but not locals, especially the myriad of non-natives who have chosen to make this city home.
The epicenter of culture in Charleston is the Clay Center for Arts and Sciences. Opened in 2002, this multi-million dollar facility encompasses the grand Maier Performance Hall, home to the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, the intimate black box-style Walker Theater, and the Avampato Discovery Museum. The museum is open daily, and the Maier Performance Hall stages performances nearly every weekend between the symphony and an eclectic lineup of visiting acts.
But the Clay Center hardly has a corner on culture. The public radio show Mountain Stage makes its home at the Norman L. Fagan State Theater inside the Culture Center at the West Virginia State Capitol Complex, the amphitheater at Haddad Riverfront Park is home to a free concert series, and live music streams from coffee shops, bars, and restaurants nearly every weekend night year-round. For fine art lovers, a swath of galleries and boutiques that make up Renaissance Village downtown throw open their doors to welcome walkers on the third Thursday of each month, March through December, from 5 to 8 p.m. in an event known as Art Walk. This free celebration serves as a great introduction to the thriving downtown arts scene. Of course, art isn’t confined to galleries—a coordinated public art effort illustrates nontraditional canvases around town, including interstate support piers and brick buildings in the East End neighborhood.
Five theater troupes and two dance companies help fill out the city’s social calendar. The Charleston Light Opera Guild, Kanawha Players, Charleston Stage Company, Contemporary Youth Arts Company, and Children’s Theater of Charleston stage everything from full-scale Broadway musicals to original dramatic plays throughout the year. The Charleston Ballet and the River City Youth Ballet Ensemble perform both traditional and modern ballets, including the classic Nutcracker each year. These groups have plenty of venues to choose from, from the cavernous Art Deco Municipal Auditorium down to their own workshop spaces.
The arts aren’t the only form of entertainment in Charleston, though—there’s plenty for sports and outdoor enthusiasts, too, with everything from baseball to lush parks. Golfers can choose from eight public and semi-private courses that cover a variety of terrains and difficulty levels, while baseball lovers can catch a game at Appalachian Power Park. This pedestrian-friendly city also features Kanawha Boulevard, which follows the river from one end of town to the other with two sidewalks, one at street level and one farther down the bank, passing the sandy Magic Island and Haddad Riverfront Park. Walkers can also cross the South Side Bridge to take the historic Carriage Trail into South Hills. The famed Charleston Distance Run held each Labor Day weekend challenges runners with a grueling 15-mile course through downtown and the city’s undulating South Hills neighborhood.
Shopping and dining opportunities abound in the capital, with locally owned and national brands and fine and casual dining options. The East End’s Bluegrass Kitchen offers a vegetarian-friendly seasonal menu made from organic and local foods, and down the street, Tricky Fish re-creates a beach shack vibe with a menu that includes fish tacos and craft beers. Downtown, Pies & Pints has the most coveted tables in town and features creative pizzas and salads. From the Town Center Mall to the upscale Bridge Road Shops, you can find anything you might need on Charleston’s streets, and three major shopping plazas on U.S. 119, or Corridor G as it’s known, offer a full complement of large box stores and national chains—and a brand new Cabela’s outdoors store.
Photographed by Greg Sava
With all that to enjoy, it’s no wonder spring and summer in Charleston include a procession of festivals and special events. As the weather warms up in May, the Vandalia Gathering on the capitol grounds celebrates Appalachian culture, food, and old-time fun. Don’t miss the popular Liar’s Contest, which allows participants to see who can tell the tallest tale. Admission is free and parking is, too, in various places. Summer kicks off with June’s Symphony Sunday, an outdoor concert on the lawn of the University of Charleston with fireworks that announce summer is under way and ends with FestivALL, a renowned arts and entertainment extravaganza. In August, Multifest celebrates ethnic diversity on the capitol grounds and SportsFest brings professional beach volleyball and ski racing to Magic Island. In October, the Rod Run and Doo Wop car show takes over the boulevard just as the leaves begin to
The magic of all these festivals and attractions is that they draw on and encourage a thriving and diverse cultural scene that’s available year-round. The capitol might be the city’s crowning jewel, but there are plenty of other gems to be found here, too. Rediscover Charleston with this guide to some of its highlights, but don’t stop there. This is just a taste of what West Virginia’s largest city has to offer.charlestonwv.com
Appalachian Power Park Home to West Virginia Power, a single-A farm team for the Pittsburgh Pirates, this $23 million facility in downtown Charleston has a seating capacity of 4,500 and provides an experience for the whole family, including games and contests between innings as well as the Power Fun Zone—a collection of inflatables for kids. In addition to the usual hot dogs and nachos, Power Park houses a sit-down restaurant called Paterno’s at the Park (304.205.5428; paternosatthepark.com). Games run from April to September. General admission on game day is $7. 601 Morris Street; 304.344.2287; wvpower.com
The Bridge Road Shops A collection of shops in South Hill called The Bridge Road Shops offers upscale shoppers designer labels and fine dining options with a cozy neighborhood vibe. Two gift shops, Cornucopia (304.342.7148) and Eggplant (304.346.3525; eggplantshop.com), offer unique wonders and favorite labels like Vera Bradley. Several clothing boutiques sell designer brands in owner-curated collections, including Charlie (304.342.8920; charlieboutique.com), Geraniums (304.344.1350; geraniumsclothing.com), and Yarid’s shoes (304.342.7463; yarids.com). Petit Jewelry Designs (304.343.0003; petitjewelrydesigns.com) is a family-owned jeweler that does custom work. The Dressmaker’s Closet (304.720.1949; dressmakerscloset.com) offers custom clothing and tailoring work as well as a collection of handmade gifts and furnishings. The Art Store (304.345.1038; theartstorewv.com) displays and sells work by local artists. Three restaurants draw clientele from all over town—South Hills Market & Café (304.345.2585; southillsmarket.com), Lola’s pizza (304.343.5652; lolaspizzawv.com), and Bridge Road Bistro (304.720.3500; thebridgeroadbistro.com). bridgeroad.org
Capitol Market & Charleston Bread Co. On the edge of downtown, in an old converted train station, sits a permanent farmers’ market that welcomes visitors daily, year-round. The outdoor market offers space for regional farmers to sell fresh produce during the summer months, and an indoor market boasts an independent grocery store, wine and cheese shop, fish monger, butcher, and Italian restaurant. Less than a block away on Capitol Street is Charleston Bread Co. (304.720.3022), where fresh bread and to-die-for cookies sell out daily. 800 Smith Street; 304.344.1905; capitolmarket.net
Avampato Discovery Museum The Clay Center’s Avampato Discovery Museum houses a collection of 19th, 20th, and 21st century American art as well as two floors of hands-on science exhibits featuring more than 12,000 square feet of nonstop fun. The ElectricSky Theater offers awe-inspiring planetarium shows and films on its giant domed screen. 304.561.3570; theclaycenter.org
East End Historic District Not only was this the first area in the city to be designated a national historic district, but the East End was also Charleston’s most fashionable neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, it is one of the area’s most diverse business and residential neighborhoods. Bordered by the Kanawha River and Washington Street, the district features beautiful examples of period architecture, as well as a plethora of bed-and-breakfasts, shops, restaurants, bars, and cafés. charlestoneastend.com
FestivALL This 10-day festival held each year in late June includes a collection of performances and mini-festivals like Wine & All That Jazz and Blues, Brews, & BBQ as well as a street fair featuring art stalls and street performers. festivallcharleston.com
Governor’s Mansion This grand residence is open for tours as the governor’s schedule permits. It’s a must-see for architecture and design enthusiasts with its marble checkerboard foyer floor and tromp de l’oeil drawing room walls. 1900 Kanawha Boulevard East; 304.558.0220; firstlady.wv.gov/tour
Haddad Riverfront Park Visit this amphitheater on the Kanawha River and enjoy seasonal live music and a gorgeous view.
Magic Island At the confluence of the Kanawha and Elk rivers is a public park where locals enjoy walking paths, a playground, sand volleyball courts, prime views, and seasonal events.
July 4th Celebration Independence Day is big, with yearly pyrotechnic displays.
Kanawha State Forest Seven miles from downtown, Kanawha State Forest has more than 9,300 acres of recreation area, including 46 campsites, a pool, shooting range, picnic areas, playgrounds, and 27 miles of hiking and biking trails. 7500 Kanawha State Forest Drive; 304.558.3500; kanawhastateforest.com
Live on the Levee This summer concert series takes its name from the old Levee and boat launch that served as the city’s main waterfront access point until the mid-1990s when Haddad Riverfront Park began to take shape. Local and regional acts perform at the new waterfront amphitheater from May 24 to August 30, 2013. Concerts are every Friday night at 7:30 p.m. liveontheleveecharleston.com
Mountain Stage For 30 years, West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage has been recording live shows at the Culture Center’s Fagan State Theater with occasional road shows around the state. Audience members enjoy short sets by three or four acts such as Bela Fleck, Billy Bragg, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Calexico, and Kathy Mattea. Tickets are $30 in advance and $20 for students. mountainstage.org
Nightlife Charleston’s nightlife scene is as eclectic as its other attractions. In addition to Charleston Brewing Company (702 Quarrier Street; 304.343.2739), the new brewpub on Quarrier Street, music lovers flock to The Empty Glass (304.345.3914; emptyglass.com), one of the state’s most renowned music venues for more than 25 years. At The Boulevard Tavern (304.205.7951; theboulevardtavernwv.com), an energetic mix of live music, a local art gallery, and a fun atmosphere perfect for Monday night football games awaits on Kanawha Boulevard.
West Virginia Symphony Orchestra The West Virginia Symphony Orchestra presents concerts throughout the year in Charleston and around the state. The symphony collaborates with other arts groups in town and around the state, including The Charleston Ballet (thecharlestonballet.com). The Clay Center, One Clay Square; 304.561.3500; wvsymphony.org
Coonskin Park Inside city limits, near the airport, lies the county-owned Coonskin Park. The park features a small public golf course and clubhouse, an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, a small amphitheater, soccer stadium, tennis courts, fishing pond and paddleboats, playgrounds, and picnic areas. The park is open daily until dusk. 2000 Coonskin Drive; 304.341.8000; kcprc.com
Quarrier Street Shops Cutting through the heart of Charleston, this street is bursting with shops and attractions, including the funky Art Emporium (304.345.2787), which offers fine art and gifts from local and regional artists, and Gallery Eleven (304.342.0083), featuring some of the best fine art in the region. West Virginia’s only full-service furrier, House of Luxe (304.346.0577), can also be found here and those with design in mind can find vintage furnishings at The Purple Moon (304.345.0123). If you’re looking to create your own work of art, try taking a class at Uncork & Create (304.552.3331), which provides fun, relaxed instruction by master artists. And you won’t want to miss grabbing a pint and a burger at Charleston Brewing Company, Charleston’s first brewpub (304.343.2739).
Coal River Kayaking The Coal River is a tributary of the Kanawha River that meets in St. Albans, a suburb of Charleston. Ideal for kayaking and canoeing, the river provides more than 100 miles of waterways that include some Class I and II rapids. 181 Pettigrew Lane, Tornado; 304.722.3055; coalrivergroup.com; coalriverkayak.com
State Capitol and Grounds The dome of the state capitol is the crowning jewel in the skyline of this picturesque river city. The 293-foot dome is gilded in 23½-karat gold, and the building was designed by architect Cass Gilbert to mimic the domed federal capitol in Washington, D.C. Take the tour to see the chambers of the House of Delegates and State Senate as well as the grand rotunda and its glitzy chandelier. The capitol building is situated in the center of a riverfront campus that is also home to a number of other government buildings. The lush grounds include three fountains, a memorial to the state’s military veterans, and plenty of pedestrian walkways and lawns open to the public. 1900 Kanawha Boulevard East; 304.558.0220; legis.state.wv.us/Educational/citizens/guide.cfm
Town Center Mall The Town Center Mall opened in 1983 and underwent a complete renovation in 2012. In the heart of downtown, it is one of the largest indoor shopping centers east of the Mississippi. It features three department stores—Macy’s, JCPenney, and Sears—as well as Coach and Sephora. The mall has a play area for kids and a number of restaurants. 3000 Charleston Town Center; 304.345.9526; charlestontowncenter.com
University of Charleston This independent, co-educational, residential university opened its doors in 1888 as Barboursville Seminary in Barboursville and was later known as Morris Harvey College in honor of its devoted supporter. Today, it is a nationally recognized university comprising four locations in the state and offers a to-die-for view of the city from its Charleston campus. ucwv.edu
Village District Charleston’s village district is centered around Capitol Street—so named because the capitol building was once located there, where Davis Park now lies, before it burned in 1921. This commercial area is experiencing a true renaissance with boutiques and galleries popping up from Capitol to Hale streets. Treat yourself to a snack at The Peanut Shoppe (126 Capitol Street; 304.342.9493), which celebrated its 60th year in 2010, or one of the revolving special ice cream flavors at Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream (225 Capitol Street; 304.343.6488; ellensicecream.com). Literati will love Taylor Books (226 Capitol Street; 304.342.1461; taylorbooks.com), a bookstore, coffee shop, café, and art gallery in an edgy industrial setting, and the eco-conscious shopper won’t want to miss Mission Savvy (202 Hale Street; 304.343.4253; missionsavvy.com). Ivor’s Trunk (819 Lee Street E; 304.342.5867) is the place to go for bridal fashion, tuxedos, and general retail therapy, and Stray Dog Antiques (219 Hale Street; 304.346.1534; straydogantiques.com) offers old and often unusual antiques, art, and jewelry. For a fun take on traditional pub fare, try Adelphia Sports Bar & Grille (218 Capitol Street; 304.343.5551; adelphiasportsbar.com) or share a more upscale meal at Vandalia Grille (212 Hale Street; 304.343.4110; vandaliagrille.com).
West Virginia Culture Center and State Museum The Culture Center at the West Virginia State Capitol Complex is home to the State Museum, State Archives and Archives Library, Library Commission and its library, and the Norman L. Fagan State Theater. The museum was completely renovated and offers visitors a glimpse into the state’s political, cultural, and geological history, and a special exhibit in summer 2013 commemorates the state’s 150th birthday. 1900 Kanawha Boulevard East; 304.558.0220; wvculture.org/museum
X Marks the Spot Geocaching is all the rage in Charleston—from Kanawha Avenue to Capitol Market to the Levee. Find hundreds of new caches at geocaching.com.
Yeager Airport Charleston’s airport is a true gateway with connections across the world and nonstop flights to 10 major cities. The airport also houses a flight school. Visitors can pilot their own plane at Northern Wings Flight Training, which offers one-on-one learning with experienced flight instructors aboard a Cessna 172. 304.552.3642; yeagerairport.com
ZMM Architects & Engineers Pops Series Sure to delight and entertain audiences of all kinds, this series of artists and performances sponsored by one of Charleston’s leading architectural design firms brings the sounds of Hollywood and Broadway to Charleston during the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s 75th birthday. The 2013–2014 season will include the annual holiday show in December, a tribute to the Rolling Stones, the music of John Williams, and selections from Broadway hits such as Wicked, Gypsy, Ragtime, and Titanic as well as highlights from operas like George Bizet’s Carmen. wvsymphony.org