WHY GO: There are romantic things to do in Culpeper VA, just over an hour from Washington DC, that you can’t do anywhere else. One biggie is the privilege of standing within inches of the oldest and most historic films and audio recordings in the country, preserved deep inside a mountain.
Another is not having to drive around to multiple properties to taste wine, beer, and spirits right from the source. (And that source being so achingly beautiful it’s a top choice for weddings in Virginia).
But, there’s so much more.
Poet Walt Whitman described Culpeper VA as “one of the most pleasant towns in Virginia.” So why have most of us never heard of it? Especially since the town of Culpeper is incredibly easy to get to?
Take one of the six Amtrak Northeast Regional, Cardinal, or Crescent trains per day (From NY, DC or Chicago) and, boom, you’re right within steps of an extremely charming downtown and attractions. In fact –the Museum of Culpeper History (read below), happens to be housed right in the train station.
There are numerous independent shops, restaurants, and pubs on East Davis Street downtown, plus some surprising farms, distilleries, and attractions in nearby Culpeper County. One, is the aforementioned nuclear-bomb proof bunker that houses some of the most delicate and nearly destroyed movies and audio recordings in US History.
Need some more inspiration for weekend getaways? Check out our Most Romantic Getaways in Virginia.
Where is Culpeper VA
Nestled in the Piedmont River Valley between the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, Culpeper sits about an hour and a half Southwest of Washington DC, and an hour and a half Northwest of Richmond.
Things to do in Culpeper VA
TOUR/MOVIE: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation
If you’re concerned that the complete American Song Book, the entire archives of Firesign Theater and House of Blues Radio programs, recordings of all House and Senate Proceedings, silent movies, and old video games might be lost to history, rest assured that these, and a gazillion other audio-visual recordings, are being kept safe in underground bunkers in the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper VA.
In 1968, The Federal Reserve Bank (of Richmond) built a bomb-proof bunker into a hillside in Culpepper VA, in which to store billions of dollars in coins and currency vital to the country in the event of a nuclear holocaust.
Decommissioned years later, this hardened bunker facility came to the attention of the Library of Congress and collector, David Packard (son of the founder of Hewlett-Packard), who together were seeking a safe place to store historic image and sound recordings.
In 2007, Packard made the single largest private gift to the Library of Congress, turning over approximately $160M worth of audio-visual recordings from his Packard Humanities Institute to this Federal site at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The campus itself is owned by the Architect of the Capital.
A Treasure Trove of Films and Audio Recordings Safe Underground
The Library’s Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) provides underground storage for this entire collection on 90 miles of shelving along underground corridors larger than football fields, together with extensive modern facilities for the acquisition, cataloging and preservation of all audio-visual formats. New recordings come from the US Copyright Office in “mint condition” as first published. Each is reviewed, processed, copied, and then moved to storage.
The Center keeps 140,000 reels of Nitrate Film in separate fire-proof vaults. Used up to 1951, this type of film was highly flammable. Past fires decimated entire collections of silent and early sound movies. It’s estimated that only 25% of movies made between 1912 and 1929 survived in any form. Thankfully, the NAVCC has managed to obtain a trove of original reels from Disney, Columbia Pictures, and more.
In addition to a vast collection of movies, the NAVCC harbors all the labs and machines used to repair, copy, and transfer its audio-visual collection onto digital. On my tour, I chanced upon staff member, Dorothy, who was digitizing an audio recording of the 1961 Jerusalem trial of Nazi Adolf Eichmann. I’m grateful that these proceedings will be preserved and available to all who wish to hear them.
The NAVCC acts as an actual lending library for the roughly 200 movie theaters nationwide that have registered with the Center. They can borrow movies for just the cost of shipping.
And, although the Center is not generally open for public tours, the public IS invited to attend movies in its pristine 205-seat theater, complete with 1929 Wurlitzer Organ, for free. (Just, no food allowed). Check screen times on the website.
VISIT: Museum of Culpeper History
I’m of the opinion that every small town history museum has at least one surprising thing to recommend it. The Museum of Culpeper History has several, starting with evidence that dinosaurs once roamed Virginia. Several dino footprints, carved out of the local quarry, are on display.
There’s a rare 1606 Virginia map, drawn by Captain John Smith after his exploration of the area. You’ll find images of the Culpeper Minutemen’s “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, and Civil War photos showcasing dapper young soldiers who, in another lifetime, could have been Abercrombie & Fitch models.
George Washington and poet Walt Whitman each had strong ties to this town. Washington was a mere 17 years old when he launched his career as a land surveyor in Culpeper. And Whitman served as nurse here for two months during the Civil War. An interactive topographical map of four Culpeper Civil War battlefields depicts each location – with a short write-up – of each fight and skirmish.
There’s something for everyone with family roots here. Locals often discover photos of grandparents and friends within intimate exhibits of Culpeper’s industry, sports, and military history.
But, as an outsider, my favorite artifact is a photo of the wonderfully quirky “Operation Skyglow” – a communal mutton stew dinner in November 1953, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first florescent streetlights south of the Mason-Dixon line. The outdoor 1,254-foot banquet table, set up on downtown Davis Street, earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
DO: Shop and explore Historic Downtown Culpeper
Want to shop local and support this small-town economy? That’s part of the fun in these little ‘burgs. My favorite shops in Culpeper include Le Monkey House for quirky, irreverent gifts. And the women-owned and supported Green Roost, where I picked up some not-seen-everywhere baby presents. Need a cool gift for your guy? Botanical Dwelling has the goods. Got a sweet tooth? Head to Frenchmen’s Corner for your chocolate and candy fix.
VISIT: Bees & Trees Farm
Teresa Gregson, beekeeper and owner of the 43-acre Bees & Trees Farm focuses on three things: honey, pollen, and Christmas Trees. She and her husband used to grow the trees on their vast property – but now they get them from Southwest Virginia. Each Frazier Tree is bundled and ready to prop atop your car.
Teresa’s on-site gift shop specializes in items that often do double-duty, like local bee pollen known to reduce or eliminate seasonal allergies; soy candles that act as ionizers to purify the air; and “True Honey Tea,” tea-bags pre-packaged with dehydrated honey crystals. If you visit in the fall, Gregson will welcome you with a cup of hot cider sweetened with maple syrup – her Mom’s recipe.
For something special – book the private onsite Garden View Suite. The lovely, romantic queen suite offers direct access to the patio, hot tub, outdoor fireplace, and saltwater pool right outside its French Doors. There’s nothing more romantic than sitting in the hot-tub on a clear night and gazing at a canopy of dark-sky stars with your honey.
DO/RIDE: Andora Farm
Owners Tom and Pat Seay, originally horseback outfitters in the Blue Ridge Mountains, coined the phrase, “Why Go West?” when people can enjoy the rural lifestyle, cattle drives, and team penning right here in Culpeper, Virginia.
Whether you’re an experienced cattle driver, new to horseback riding, or just want to learn a little Virginia history, Andora Farm has something for everyone with special events through the spring, summer, and into the fall that are open to the public.
TOUR/TASTE Old House Vineyards
This beautiful farm winery – Old House Vineyards – opened over 25 years ago, and now also produces Virginia craft beer and spirits on over 75 acres. Guests can enjoy award-winning wines made from the grapes grown on these lush vineyards – formerly overgrown alfalfa fields.
Some of the things that you’ll see/experience when you visit Old House Vineyards – even if you don’t sip a drop of wine, beer, or booze:
an old Irish pub complete with the Jeep from the TV series, “Band of Brothers;”
a massive Beer Hall/Restaurant featuring chefs who trained at Cordon Bleu in Paris;
a D-Day themed distillery tasting room decorated with US Military artifacts and a ceiling mural depicting a sexy female paratrooper whose dimensions, ahem, are based on the Bacardi Girl;
a floating dock connecting vineyards to a wedding island;
a love bridge laden with personalized padlocks where you can muse on the hearts joined here;
an 1800’s antique farmhouse, freshened up as a warren of intimate rooms where friends and couples can gather to eat and drink.
TASTE: Belmont Farm Distillery
Chuck Miller makes his spirits in a 1930’s copper still. Still. Chuck and his wife, Jeannette, purchased the 200-acre Belmont Farm in 1975, and opened the craft distillery in 1989 – one of the first in VA to do so.
The Millers raised five kids, and corn. Lots of corn. They needed to do something with all those ears (and presumably the kids), so Chuck turned to the ole-time Virginia tradition of making moonshine.
Featured on Discovery Channel’s “Moonshiners,” this distillery creates some of the most widely sold hooch – and other Virginia Whiskeys – in the U.S. My favorite is the dessert-like Butterscotch Moonshine that tastes ambrosial when drizzled over vanilla ice-cream.
TASTE: More Breweries
Beer Hound Brewery
Where all brews are named after dogs. Cool even before you take one sip.
Find this popular beer hall within a few steps of the Train Station. Serves bites and sandwiches in a cool tavern-like space.
Death Ridge Farm Brewery
This family friendly brewery runs events, live music concerts, and features a dog run.
Old Trade Brewery
Known for its large outdoor playground for kids, this brewery also keeps parents happy with its fresh hoppy offerings.
TASTE: Handmade Chocolate at Cocoa Manna
Karen Mosebrook calls herself a “bean to bar chocolate maker.” Unlike most chocolatiers – she doesn’t use ready-made chocolate bars to make her deeply rich product. She starts with the bean.
For her shop, Cocoa Manna, Mosebrook sources her beans exclusively from small farms around the world. The exacting labor required to make chocolate from raw cacao beans is, for Mosebrook, a labor of love. She roasts them, breaks them into nibs (for the chocolate) and shells (for tea), grinding them before pouring the resulting liquid into molds.
The resulting product is unlike most chocolates you’ve ever eaten before. Come into her shop in what once was a gas station, and you can taste versions of this cacao from different countries – or decadently rich Brewing Chocolate, which Mosebrook prefers over coffee. Come in for a sip – and you’ll leave with the recipe. You may just switch from your joe afterwards.
TOUR: Historic Salubria Manor
From the time it was built, most of the owners of Salubria Manor fell into financial straits, which renders the history of this 18th-century Georgian-style manor house, built by the Reverend John Thompson, so intriguing.
Thompson, rector of the Little Fork Church from 1740 to 1772, married the wealthy widow of Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood in 1742. When Thompson died in 1772, he left a detailed inventory of his holdings, which included 24 named enslaved workers, and a preponderance of furniture.
James Hansbrough, who purchased the property in the early 1800s, named it Salubria, Latin for “healthful”, probably to make it more enticing to buyers. After renovating the dank interior, Hansbrough fell into debt, and his son wanted nothing to do with it. In 1852, Robert Grayson bought the home, added Greco-Roman molding around the fireplaces, and fancy flourishes throughout – overspending to the point of destitution as well.
Robert’s doctor brother, John, took over, installing his office here, and moving in with his wife. (Son, Cary Grayson, became the town doctor and eventually, President Woodrow Wilson’s physician). John’s wife, whom Cary called the “evil stepmother,” left Salubria to her niece, “Nanny Fry,” who was technically not a Grayson, but lived in the home until 1939.
In 1952, a hundred years after the first Grayson purchased Salubria, one of his descendants and her husband, George Harrison (no, not that one), attempted to stabilize the home (Harrison died a few years later).
The house is unique in that the interior has not been renovated – but left as is, “with plenty of character – frozen in time.” A simple layout, the building comes alive when guides start expounding on the particulars.
The bones of the structure hold the stories of its owners – and some mysteries. There’s a stone mosaic design on the ground right outside the front door, just begging for an explanation. “No one knows if it’s just ornamentation, or has some deeper meaning,” says a representative of the non-profit Germanna Foundation, which now manages the property. Perhaps that’s for future visitors to determine.
DO: Hands on activity at Wild Lines Studios
Wild Lines Studios is a local four-artist collective, art gallery and studio. Artist-Teacher, Kat Tines offers hands on workshops and classes throughout the year – so, if on offer, sign up for a painting, hat decorating, or cookie decorating workshop.
It’s a fun way to gather with others and unplug from your screens, as I discovered as my featureless renderings coalesced into something resembling an abstract mountain scene. Check website for events, and sign up online.
TOUR: Walking Ghost Tour in Downtown Culpeper
Volunteer-run Culpeper Paranormal offers Walking Ghosts Tours about 4-6 times a year as a fundraiser for the local Historical Preservation Society. So, if you’re in town at those times, sign up early. They sell out within a “couple of hours.” Founded by Kim Lillard, the Paranormal group is also a family affair: helmed by Mom, Jane Ramirez, her daughter Amy, and Amy’s husband Paul Warmack.
Starting at the Culpeper Visitor’s Center (in the train station), guests watch a 15 minute film and then walk downtown streets stopping at historic buildings. Each has a story – or a ghostly recording – which guides will play occasionally to up the chills factor. Using EVP devices as standard operating procedure, the group has captured what they believe are voices from the far beyond.
Culpeper is replete with figures from American history. Purportedly, Patrick Henry rode by the former jail where an imprisoned preaching minister inspired his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. The town has also been called “Custer’s horse’s last stand,” as General George Custer was stationed here during the Civil War. His horse was reported to have expired right outside the Masonic Lodge.
You’ll hear these tales and so much more as you make your way around the downtown area of Culpeper. Even if you don’t witness any apparitions bouncing around, or the EVP doesn’t pick up any discernible voices on your tour, you’ll have picked up some entertaining local and American history overall.
Best Restaurants in Culpeper VA
EAT/BREAKFAST: Charlie & Lista’s
The tiny shipping-container sized Charlie and Lista’s diner shares a parking lot with an auto repair shop. Passing by, you’d hardly register it’s there. And yet, this suspended-in-time breakfast spot became a local hangout when it opened over 26 years ago and has remained so ever since.
There’s a couple in their 90’s who’ve been eating breakfast here since C&L opened. More Culpeper folks have made breakfasting here part of their daily routine. Celebrities and “CBS and NBC” people have discovered it.
So, what makes C&L so special? Charlie and Lista Kambanellos, themselves in their mid-80’s, attribute the accumulation of years of experience, and hosting people with “homemade” scratch food, and “welcome home” atmosphere, to their diner’s longevity. They both asked if I could quote them in this post: “We want to thank everyone who comes here – especially those who’ve been coming for many years. We love you!”
EAT: Grass Rootes
You can’t go wrong with Grass Rootes owner, Andrew Ferlazzo’s, favorite dishes. Order Brussels sprouts with white truffle oil, and mushroom ravioli or any other delectable dish in the oldest building in Culpeper – actually surveyed by George Washington in 1759.
With this kind of history – and the fact that Civil War deserters and runaway slaves were jailed in the basement – it’s no surprise that the folks at Culpeper Paranormal have detected some unsettled spirits here. Have a great meal and then walk downstairs to see/feel for yourself.
EAT/DINNER: Piedmont Steakhouse
Located in the 1890’s storehouse for Central Hardware across the street, Piedmont Steakhouse, a women-owned restaurant, turns out toothsome steaks, delectable Lyonnaise Potatoes, and some of the best “Lollipop Lamb Chops” I’ve ever had. A local favorite fine-dining restaurant, the versatile chef keeps ‘em coming in.
COFFEE: Raven’s Nest Coffee House
Raven’s Nest Coffee House specializes in local coffee and a wide variety of beverages in a historic and hip community-centered cafe. Their brew menu includes Cappuccinos, Lattes, Americanos, Italianos, wonderful Espresso & more. At night – the vibe changes from caffeine to spirits, with beer, wine, and cocktails on tap.
EAT: Pinto Thai
Order Pinto Thai‘s “Lunch Special” if you want to taste the very best in Thai food. As a NYC-area foodie, I’ve dined in plenty city restaurants. This one rivals the best. Plus – your dishes arrive to the table via robot. What a hoot.
EAT: Grill 309
Grill 309 opened in early 2016 and quickly became a favorite of the community. Bring your dog and sit on the pet friendly patio outside. Menu items amount to “elevated fair food,” so sure, go ahead and order that Fried PB&J or Donut Burger. On Sundays, patrons swarm there for one of the best brunches in town.
EAT: Flavor on Main
Flavor on Main serves up some of the best hand-made pastas in the State within a historical, Art-Deco themed main street space. It’s also one of the few places in town that offers prohibition-era craft cocktails: a speakeasy in plain sight.
Where to Stay in Culpeper VA
STAY: Botanical Oasis
Eric & Tabitha, Founders of Let’s Go and Stay have created some extraordinarily romantic homes away from home in downtown Culpeper. Botanical Oasis – behind their hip-garden-gift shop, Botanical Dwellings – provides a two-bedroom-two-floor ultra-cool Airbnb for a relative song. There’s a well-designed living room, artsy dining room, and full kitchen with a bathroom on each floor. Plus, you can step outside and have downtown Culpeper at your feet.
Make it a romantic getaway and use just one bedroom, or grab another couple and share. Eric and Tabitha have renovated several other properties to twee perfection, providing a singular alternative to franchise (read: boring) hotels in the area. Choose one either downtown or a short drive awa
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