Marion was once one of Virginia’s most underrated and overlooked small towns, but thanks to a boom in local entrepreneurs such as a moonshine distillery, renovations of a National Historic Landmark hotel and theatre, and rise of the local food scene, this Southwest Virginia town now boasts one of the best Main Streets for tourism in the region. With easy access from Interstate 81, the town sits on an intersection of popular mountain roads Highway 16 and Highway 11, each taking you on curvy tours of the mountains beyond. So what can you do with a weekend in this small country town?
1. Check-In at General Francis Marion Hotel | 7 PM
This cozy boutique hotel will give you a place to stay right on Main Street for this little weekend getaway. Built in the 1920’s for the motorists who took the long journey along Lee Highway between Charlottesville, Virginia and Knoxville, Tennessee, this hotel has been renovated and updated for the modern age while maintaining the original Colonial Revival style.
The hotel offers three floors each with twelve luxurious, spacious rooms. You can also take advantage of Main Street views from the outdoor terrace, relax and read a book in the comfortable lounge, or hop next door for food and drinks at a restaurant from the same owners as the hotel.
107 East Main Street Marion, VA | 276-783-4800 | www.gfmhotel.com/#about
2. Dinner at 27 Lions | 8 PM
Two things will jump out at you the moment you walk into this large restaurant: the brick over for cooking pizzas, and the 20’ wall filled with beer taps. A large board displays the current selection of craft beers from across the region, but you’ll also find a tap for Root Beer just in case. The wood fired pizzas are delicious, and at $15 for a 16” pie they’ll give any corporate chain a run for their money on quality vs. price.
There is plenty of seating for this small town, but if you come on a Tuesday night you might have to fight for your space. Tuesdays are popular as trivia nights with discounted foods, and will often be packed wall to wall. The friendly staff is always ready and able to help you get the food you need and the drinks you didn’t know you needed until you saw their selection.
111 E. Main Street, Marion, VA | 276-378-0844 | www.27lions.com/#about
3. Breakfast at Four Seasons | 8AM
Just a couple blocks down Main Street from the hotel is Four Seasons Catering and Bakery. This local business opens their doors at 5:30AM every morning to serve a big Southern breakfast menu. They have a large deck for enjoying a peaceful meal outdoors, setting the stage for the rest of your day.
123 South Chestnut Street, Marion, VA | 276-781-1411 | http://www.fourseasonsswva.com/
4. Hungry Mother State Park | 10AM
One of the more unusual names for a place, Hungry Mother State Park was one of the original six state parks opened in Virginia in 1936 (but this was the park that the governor attended for the grand opening ceremony). If you ask around town the locals will tell you the legend behind the name, but I won’t ruin the mystery now. You’re just going to have to go here and find out for yourself!
If you’re up for some outdoor recreation you could try hiking the Molly’s Knob Trail. It is a rigorous hike from the backside of the lake to the highest point in the park with a nice view of the surrounding mountains. If you want to try something a little easier, rent one of the paddleboats or kayaks and head out on the lake for a few hours. The easiest of all the options is to park at the restaurant and take a leisurely stroll on the Lake Trail Loop, returning to the gazebo on a small island on the lake.
But the park’s most famous attraction is the beach. This large, sandy beach gives the locals a place to swim, sunbathe, and relax during the summer months. A diving board floats on the surface just a hundred feet away, giving kids a chance to perfect their Olympic forms.
2854 Park Blvd., Marion, VA | 276-781-7400 | http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks/hungry-mother#general_information | Admission: $3/vehicle on weekdays, $4/vehicle on weekends
5. Lunch at State Park Restaurant | 1 PM
Regardless of the activity you choose at the state park, you’re bound to be hungry by now. The restaurant inside the park has a good menu selection, and you can’t beat the views of the lake. It’s a peaceful place to grab a quick bite or delve into a bigger meal.
Once you’re done at the restaurant walk next door to visit the gift shop. If you haven’t already visited the gazebo, it is just a five-minute walk from the restaurant.
6. Shopping Downtown | 3PM
Downtown Marion has thrived in the last few years, adding new local businesses every year. The Main Street corridor is short, but features quite a few places to shop (and eat). If you return to the hotel (or park at the north end of the street if you chose someplace else to stay) you can enjoy a three-block shopping spree along the wide sidewalks.
Start with The Mercantile Store, home of Virginia Sweetwater Moonshine and War Horn Whisky. This was the first legal distillery to begin operation in Virginia in decades and has done nothing but grow and win awards since. In the back of the store you can sample some of the ‘shines at the beautiful wood bar, or you can just browse through the large collection of local arts and crafts. One or both of the owners are usually working at the Mercantile, and either will tell you the tale of how they got started with a warm smile on their face. At the very least be sure to leave with a bottle of the moonshine and a mixer for later consumption.
Sisters Café and Gifts is a great place for nick knacks, a large selection of wine, and a little snack. The charming indoor café is a comfortable place to relax for a few minutes. Take more than a few minutes to browse through the wares for sale because you’re sure to find something unique here.
Near the end of the corridor is Past Time Antiques Emporium, a large two-story building with individual booths inside for different people to sell their “trash”. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure has never been truer here: antique furniture, old machinery, Mason jars, unique crafts such as lamps and wall décor, you can find just about anything here. And it changes often as new tenants come and go, and old tenants bring more stuff for the sale. Be sure to visit the second floor for several rooms full of stuff you didn’t know you wanted until you saw it here!
7. Dinner Downtown | 5PM
One thing is for certain in Downtown Marion: you won’t go hungry from a lack of options. From small, hole-in-the-wall bars to large, two-story restaurants, this town has your appetite covered.
Macado’s, a franchise that started out as a restaurant for students in college towns and has grown to dozens of locations since, is the only slightly-bigger-than-locally-owned restaurant downtown. Located inside the old post office building on Main Street, the restaurant has a small bar area but a huge two-story dining area. The menu is large enough to give just about anybody at least one item they would enjoy.
The Wooden Pickle has become a popular local spot. The small, charming business features food a step above bar food that is delicious and filling, while also giving you more than a few options for something to wash it down with.
But the one place I would recommend above all others is the locally-owned Wolfe’s BBQ Restaurant and Catering. Brett and Jill Wolfe grew up in Marion and returned many years after graduating from the local high school with their own take on North Carolina BBQ. The large restaurant has plenty of seating, a friendly staff, and a large menu full of fantastic selections. To top it off they make their own sauces in-house, offer a few local craft beers, and frequently entertain with live music on the window-front stage.
8. Lincoln Theatre – Song of the Mountains | 7PM
The Lincoln Theatre is one of the most beautiful and unique theatres in the country. Featuring a flawlessly blended Art Deco Mayan Revival style, the theatre is a masterpiece to behold even without the entertainment. Located right on Main Street just a block from the General Francis Marion Hotel, this is a great place to end your night.
The theatre is most well known as the host of Song of the Mountains, a PBS television series filmed at the theatre featuring live performances of American Bluegrass and Old Time music. The series performs live once each month, so be sure to plan your getaway to coincide with one of the events (and buy your tickets early).
But even if you can’t plan the trip around one of the Song of the Mountains events, the Lincoln Theatre still offers plenty of other events throughout the month from live musical performances, plays, and occasionally a movie night. Be sure to check out their schedule here to help plan your trip.
117 East Main Street, Marion, VA | 276-783-6093 | http://www.thelincoln.org/ | Admission varies $5-$30
9. The Dip Dog Stand | 10AM
After checking out of the hotel there is really only one stop left to complete your visit to Marion, Virginia: The Dip Dog Stand. Located on Highway 11 a few miles outside town, it is right beside Interstate 81 to make a quick getaway after you grab a late breakfast/early lunch here.
Locals have been torn into two camps over Dip Dogs for years: they either love it or hate it. Both camps have reasons to back up their feelings, but I am solidly in the camp that suggests you don’t leave this town without a dip dog. But make no mistake about it: the dip dog is no more a corndog than the Hokie is a bird (trust me, it’s a Southwest Virginia thing).
What started out as a small, one-room stand on the side of the road has since grown to include an indoor seating area and gift shop. The small parking area is frequently packed with cars as people wait with their number in hand for the call on the loudspeaker to let them know their meal is ready. Everything here is cooked to order, including the big bag of greasy onion rings (there is no other size you can pick).
But don’t let the greasy onion rings scare you off from this iconic local eatery. The burgers are bigger and better than anything McWendy’s King can offer. The large menu can be customized any which way you can imagine, or you can just enjoy the burgers, sandwiches, sundaes, or shakes they have listed on the large board on the wall outside the lobby. Walk inside, place your order through the window with the friendly staff, take your number, then wait in your car until the number is called. It’s the tradition of many locals, including myself.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Marion is my co-hometown (I grew up in nearby Sugar Grove). But this place will always remain special to me for more reasons than just childhood: it has become a fantastic place to visit for the shopping, eating, entertainment, outdoor adventures, and that Appalachian Mountains charm.
If you would like to view more photos from Marion, Virginia, please visit my website at http://photography.southeasterntraveler.com/Virginia/Marion/
If you would like to view more photos from Hungry Mother State Park, please visit my website at http://photography.southeasterntraveler.com/Virginia/Hungry-Mother-State-Park/
The Collins House Inn provides a more homey feel while visiting Marion. Located just up Main Street from the rest of downtown, you would still be within walking distance of food, shopping, and entertainment. They have five guest rooms to choose from inside an eco-friendly renovated home. 204 W. Main Street, Marion, VA | 276-781-0250 | http://www.collinshouseinn.com/ | $140 and up
Driving: Located on Interstate 81 in Southwest Virginia, Marion is an easy drive from just about anywhere. Just thirty miles south of Interstate 77, Marion is within a three hour drive of Charlottesville, Charlotte, Asheville, and Knoxville.
Flying: The nearest airport is Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville, Tennessee. The airport is an hour drive from Marion.
Train: Although Marion’s train station still stands beside the tracks near the center of town, passenger rail service has long been abandoned here. Hopefully it will return some day to provide another way to see this country town.