15 Romantically Quirky Things to do in Lexington VA: VMI and Safaris

WHY GO: Although this Shenandoah Valley town is home to Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and Washington & Lee University, there are things to do in Lexington VA that don’t have anything to do with these colleges.

Yes, VMI dominates Lexington Virginia like a fortress. Right next door, Washington & Lee University, a Liberal Arts College founded by George Washington and presided over by Robert E. Lee after the Civil War, draws students from all over the country and the world.

VMI Lunchtime Lexington VA

But, there is so much USA History in Lexington Virginia, outsiders might not realize that there is also a community component as well. With a horse drawn carriage tour that’s been delighting visitors for decades, Main Street merchants who champion each other, boutique hotels that incorporate the past with modern luxuries, a growing culinary scene that serves an array of tastes (read: upscale and collegiate), and beautifully curated independent shops run by passionate owners, Lexington VA deserves a few days to explore.

Entrance Dinosaur Kingdom II Natural Bridge VA

Thomas Jefferson’s favorite American attraction, Natural Bridge, is nearby. As is the highly recommended Virginia Safari Park. But there’s also a “Civil War Era Dinosaur Experience” so weird and wonderful (from the mind of the man who gave us “Foamhenge”), you just have to see it to believe it. Spend a weekend here and be immersed in the Yin and Yang of this small mid-Virginia town. Just read on…..

Lexington is on our list of 20 Surprisingly Romantic Getaways in VA. Check it out if you wish to explore the state further.

Looking for someplace dreamy outside of Virginia? Check out our 150 Best Romantic Getaways in the Northeast US (Virginia to Maine).

Where is Lexington VA?

Lexington Virginia, in Rockbridge County, sits within the Shenandoah Valley in Central VA. About ten miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway’s entrance at the Buena Vista Overlook in the Blue Ridge Mountains, vistas throughout Lexington are indeed “buena” from almost ever vantage point in town.

Things to Do in Lexington Virginia

Lexington Carriage Tour Woody and Weepy VA

TOUR: Lexington Carriage Tour

There’s no better way to tour a hilly historic town than via fancy carriage pulled by draft horses. And you can do that through a peppy Lexington Carriage Company excursion.

Sure, you’ll see some sights and learn something about the history of Lexington on your 45 minute trip. But you’ll also fall in love with the hard working equines, each with his or her own distinct personality, like the stocky Haflingers, Woody and Weepy.

Lexington Carriage Company Lexington VA

The animated Lexington Carriage Co. owner, Shana Layman, adores her horses, and they love her back. She’s been in this business since 1985 – initially as a driver.  Layman now owns five carriages that provide multiple tours a day, with add-on private events and weddings in season.

Shana Layman Lexington Carriage Company

Arron and Abe pulled my coach – more like a surrey with a fringe on top. The pair are required to wear diapers, or in Layman’s terms, “poop bags,” in accordance with the City law. This explained the lack of horse excrement on Lexington streets. Arron and Abe were show horses from Indiana. According to Layman, they retired at 11 years old and were “bored to death” until she brought them to Virginia and gave them a job.

Lexington Brick

Lexington Bricks Lexington VA

You’ll clip-clop through beautiful neighborhoods of stately homes and sidewalks laid with very uniquely patterned “Lexington Brick,” first used in the 1880’s. These bricks are so distinctive: jewelry, art, photos, and house-wares in their image are sold around town.

Lexington VA Neighborhood Carriage Tour

Named in 1778 after the town in Massachusetts, Lexington VA was settled on a hilltop in the 1730’s by the Scotts-Irish who found the passage South to be less treacherous than that of the Westward expansion.

Lexington’s hills were both a blessing and a curse. The blessing, of course, was the town’s defensible location. The curse was the steepness of its streets. In the mid-1800’s some of the roads were leveled out, but Lexington still remains a hilly place.

Boss Horses

I had my doubts about two horses pulling such a heavy load up these inclines, but Layman assured guests that her steeds were not only capable, but loved doing it. Like Husky’s with Alaskan sleds, draft horses are naturally game. Check website for tour times and costs.  Begins across from the Visitor’s Center.

The Lexington Carriage Tour is one of the best quirky Places to Propose in Virginia

TOUR: Natural Bridge State Park

Surveyed in 1750 by George Washington and “granted to Thomas Jefferson” on July 5, 1774, the Natural Bridge remains a Wonder of the World. The solid grey limestone arch is 215 feet high (55 ft. higher than Niagara Falls), and spans 90 feet. Check website for times open and admission fees.

TOUR: Virginia Safari Park, Natural Bridge

I don’t usually write about such touristy places, but some are just too good to pass up. You can’t miss Virginia Safari Park from I-81, and it’s not cheap to enter. But it is so worth it (and they’re not every paying me to say this!) On 180 acres, you can drive through on the 3 mile loop road as many times as you’d like.

Virginia Safari Park Natural Bridge VA

For this particular “Safari Park” (and against all common sense), leave your car windows open, because you’ll be feeding the bison, elk, lama, deer, ostriches, and other animals that beg and stick their heads right into your car for buckets of feed purchased at the gate.

They slobber. They spray food pellets all over the place. And you’ll never laugh so hard. At least, I didn’t. The animals look healthy and well cared for. If they don’t get enough to eat (which is doubtful on a crowded weekend day), staff makes sure to supplement.

Hilarious walk-through Safari Village

Virginia Safari Park Aviary Natural Bridge VA
Virginia Safari Park Aviary Natural Bridge VA

Then, there’s the walk-through Safari Village, which is also crazy fun. Dozens of colorful nipping parakeets swarm as you eek into a net-enclosed aviary. They’re looking for little lollipop-birdseed sticks, and if you don’t have them, watch out. Those beaks are sharp. You’ll see kangaroos, Bengal Tigers, penguins, and even giraffes. Check Calendar for hours and cost of admission.

Mark Cline Dinosaur Kingdom II Natural Bridge VA

TOUR: Dinosaur Kingdom II (Back From Extinction), Natural Bridge

This strange, but weirdly compelling Dinosaur Kingdom II (Back From Extinction), drawn from the unbound mind of Mark Cline, re-imagines the Civil War as if the Union side had a secret weapon: dinosaurs. Yes, you read that correctly. During your walk though 16 acres of forest, you’ll encounter Yankees in 1864 using various dinosaurs as weapons of mass destruction against the South.

Dinosaur Kingdom II Natural Bridge VA

You might know Cline (related to Patsy’s ex-husband) from his famous recreation of Stonehenge in foam. “FoamHenge” was a media sensation years back. Cline is an artist, a fabricator (of figures, monuments, and stories), and in his very quirky way, a do-gooder and philanthropist. He’s built attractions around the country, and here, his fiberglass creations are both simple and intricate.

Civil War’s Secret Weapon

Dinosaur Kingdom II Natural Bridge VA

Pay your admission fee, and you enter a town that’s obviously been destroyed by…. something. I won’t give away the “special effects,” but suffice it to say that Cline uses the psychology of fear and trepidation well here.

There are optical illusions, surprise monsters, and, an amusing 10 minute video showing the “alternate history” of the Civil War Dinosaur: that “little known story” during the Battle of Natural Bridge, when Union Soldiers found a “remnant of ancient times” down a mine shaft.

Soon, their “secret weapon” turned on them “because dinosaurs didn’t really care what side of the Mason-Dickson line you’re on.”

Stonewall Jackson Vs. T-Rex

As you wend your way about a mile through the forest, you’ll come across a series of non-mechanical, sedentary scenes of T-Rex and other prehistoric creatures mauling the troops (these dinos are not animatronic). Some are even brought to life on your cellphone, where you’ll see the events leading up to that moment. My favorite was Stonewall Jackson battling the Great White Beast with his mechanical arm.

Of course, you exit through the gift shop. There, you can purchase the comic book version of your experience. Check website for dates, hours, and admission fees.

Lexington Ghost Tour

Cline also runs Lexington’s 1.5 hour Lexington Ghost Tour, which features the ghost of General Lee’s horse, Traveller, the most haunted house on the East Coast, messages from the beyond, and more.

Virginia Military Institute Lexington VA

TOUR: Virginia Military Institute (VMI)

What became Virginia Military Institute was originally built as an arsenal to protect the James River Canal. Young men posted there sat mostly idle and bored. So the government established a military training school to give them something to do.

VMI is now a four-year undergraduate college combining a full curriculum within a framework of military discipline that emphasizes honor, integrity, and responsibility.

Virginia Military Institute and Washington & Lee University Side By Side

Virginia Mourning Her Dead VMI Lexington VA

The VMI campus abuts that of Washington & Lee University, and it’s easy to stroll from one to the other: and experience two very different worlds. Walk on original Lexington Brick sidewalks, and stop at the entrance to the VMI Museum/Chapel where you’ll find the statue of Virginia Mourning Her Dead, by the first Jewish VMI graduate, Moses Ezekiel.

VMI Lunchtime Lexington VA

Before heading downstairs to the museum, study the mural above the stage. It depicts the Battle of New Market, when, during the Civil War, 257 VMI cadets ages 15-21, were called up as Confederate reinforcements in the face of the encroaching Union Army.

They marched 85 miles in five days, and fought on an open field so muddy from rain, it sucked the shoes right off their feet. (It was subsequently called “The Field of Lost Shoes”). Ten cadets were killed, many more wounded. At age 19, new Cadet, Moses Ezekiel, fought bravely at New Market and survived.

Civil War from the South’s Perspective

Stonewall Jacksons Coat VMI Museum Lexington VA

The VMI Museum provides visitors with a view of the Civil War from the South’s perspective. It begins with the history of Stonewall Jackson, who taught artillery tactics and physics as Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at VMI. Artifacts include his horse, Little Sorrel, taxidermied for all eternity, and the bullet-ridden raincoat he was wearing when shot in the arm. (His arm had to be amputated and was, strangely, buried elsewhere).

VMI Barracks Lexington VA

There are plenty of traditions at VMI, as text panels, photos, and relics document. New cadets are called “rats,” with fellows calling each other “brother rat.” Students must salute professors and Jackson’s statue when they walk by. And women are still required to wear white dresses (some that look like wedding gowns) for Ring Figure, the annual presentation of the Class Ring Gala, held in November during the Cadet’s second class year.

Prisoner of War Flag VMI Museum Lexington VA

Check out more exhibits on a lower floor. These include a collection of 450 rare firearms, and a memorial of VMI Graduates who have died while serving in action since 9-11.

But what held my attention the longest was a display devoted to James Berger, a Prisoner of War with John McCain at the “Hanoi Hilton.” Berger managed to make patriotic and religious objects out of scraps in his cell: a cross from two splinters of wood, an “American Flag” from a t-shirt and rags, and more. Free, Open daily 9-5.

Lee Chapel Washington and Lee University Lexington VA

TOUR: Washington & Lee University

Though first established as Augusta Academy in 1749 by Scotts-Irish pioneers, the school’s name had been changed to Liberty Academy by 1796 when George Washington endowed enough stock to keep the struggling school afloat.

In gratitude, the board of Liberty Academy renamed the college after its benefactor. And, it remained Washington University until the addition of “Lee,” as in Robert E. Lee, who served as school President from 1865 until his death in 1870.

University Chapel

Robert E Lee Crypt Washigton and Lee U Lexington VA

Be sure to take a tour of Robert E. Lee’s final resting place, the University Chapel, a National Historic Site. The building first housed an assembly hall for students. It now serves as a tomb for the Lee Family and museum for the rest of us.

The chapel has been restored to its unadorned design.  Two large portraits of the University’s namesakes and several plaques have been removed from the chapel and moved downstairs into exhibit halls and to other locations on campus. In one, George Washington is portrayed as a young man – in fact, it’s the earliest image of him.

The Southern Lee is entombed in a vault beneath his carved likeness – made, ironically, of Vermont (Yankee) Marble. This Recumbent Lee statue is now behind a facade.

Downstairs, find the crypt of the Lee family, Robert E.’s recreated office as University President, and a small museum devoted to Lee’s term.

Robert E. Lee’s Term as University President

Lee Chapel Museum Lexington VA

Lee wrote, “I shall devote my life to training young men to do their duty in life.” He was true to his word. A proponent of the sciences and philosophy, Lee left a lasting educational legacy after the Civil War. His final five years on earth is the focus here.

A large orrery – a mechanical model of the solar system used as a classroom tool for W&L’s Astronomy course until 1994 – forms the center of a circular museum gallery.

Before leaving, check out the grave of Traveller, Lee’s beloved horse. Lee brought Traveller with him to campus, and the horse served as Washington & Lee’s unofficial mascot. Traveller is buried right outside the doors of the lower level of the Lee Chapel. Check website for hours, dates, and fees. 

TOUR: Jackson House Museum,Lexington VA

This home was the only one the Civil War General ever owned. Jackson lived here while a Professor at VMI. Subsequently, the Jackson House Museum was sold to the Daughters of the Confederacy for $2000, and served as an 18-bed hospital until 1954, when it was restored as a house museum.

Historians tapped the memories of Jackson’s granddaughter (who passed away at age 101) to furnish the home. To see more of Jackson, pay a visit to the Oak Grove Cemetery where most of him is buried. His arm, wounded in battle, is buried near the site of its amputation – a whole other story in itself. Check website for hours, dates, and admission fees.

Larry Krietemeyer Halcyon Days Cider Co. Natural Bridge VA

TOUR/TASTE: Halcyon Days Cider (on Route 11)

This small batch Halcyon Days Cidery is worth a drive from anywhere. I’ve never seen a more whimsical, creative, innovative spirit production and tasting facility. And I’ve seen many.

Not only do owners Larry Krietemeyer, his brother, Andy, and wife Martha grow their own apples, but they’ve got a 425 ft wide Medieval Labyrinth, based on the one in Chartres Cathedral, in one of their orchards. Visitors are invited to walk its 1.7 mile 11 circuit path along 2,000 “espaliered” (splayed/branch-trained) trees.

Handicrafts and Craft Cider

Halcyon Days Cider Co. Tasting Room Natural Bridge VA

The Krietemeyer’s make small batch Hard Cider (“at the most, 500 bottles”) in an old milk shed that was on the property. The tasting room – once Thelma Downey’s 1850’s North Mountain cabin, where she raised 17 kids – is connected to the milk shed by a breezeway arrayed with tables made from a Red Oak that fell on the land. The lamp overhead was made from, wait for it…outhouse seats.

Halcyon Days Cider Co Labyrinth Natural Bridge VA

The cabin, which resembles the home of the Beverly Hillbillies before they struck it rich, shows evidence of Larry’s former life as an architect.

The woodwork is exquisite and witty, with upbeat quotes all over the place, vibrantly colored shelves and tables, and a sculptural barn door. Halcyon’s most popular ciders – First Light and Rambunctious – are on the sweet side, but oh so good. Check website for hours.

Great Valley Farm Brewery Natural Bridge VA

TASTE: Great Valley Farm Brewery & Winery, Natural Bridge

With a focus on Belgian style beer, Great Valley Farm Brewery & Winery differs from most in that it’s got “lots of land,” according to owner Nathan Bailey. You’ll find crowds drawn by music and food trucks on select Saturdays, and, of course for the fresh Hibiscus Wit, Belgian Stout, Belgian IPA and other brews you can only get right here. Check website for days and hours open.

Earth Fire Spirit Gallery Lexington VA

SHOP: Earth, Fire, and Spirit Pottery on Washington Street

It’s not the same old, same old at Earth, Fire, and Spirit Pottery. I found unique casserole dishes and jewelry in deep purple hues. Prices are reasonable, and there’s a huge range of items. With so many arts and crafts shops, Washington St. is also known as “Gallery Row.” So it behooves the visitor to meander slowly and stop often into these independent stores.

Sugar Maple Trading Co. Lexington VA

SHOP: Sugar Maple Trading Co.

Step in to this cleverly curated Sugar Maple Trading Co. and grab some Swedish Fish to eat now or later. The candy holds a special meaning for owner Cindy Hughes, who, together with her husband, Jeff, sell an array of timely, celebratory gifts. They found that customers love those little gummy fish, and so made them their signature welcome treat.

Yes, there is a maple sugar industry in Virginia – in high country – so this shop is not a rip-off of New England in Central VA. The Hughes design seasonal displays of plants, dishware, soap, candles, and so much more in this unique boutique right across from the Georges Hotel.

TASTE: Rockbridge Vineyard and Brewery, Raphine

Try an award-winning Chardonnay or craft beer at the beautiful, farm-set Rockbridge Vineyard and Brewery.

TOUR/SHOP: Wade’s Mill, Raphine

Opened in 1750, Wade’s Mill is the oldest continuously operating grist mill in the Shenandoah Valley with three floors of historic milling equipment and museum displays. For over 270 years, millers have been stone-grinding premium whole grains sourced locally, and you can purchase them either in person or online.

THEATER: Lime Kiln Theater

At Lime Kiln Theater, see theatrical performances, live musical bands, and kids programs “under the stars” in this amphitheater carved out of an old lime kiln. May-Sept. – check website for schedule.

Restaurants in and around Lexington VA

Haywoods Restaurant Lexington VA

EAT: Haywood’s

I love a place named for a guy who “never met a stranger.” Part of The Georges boutique inn, cobalt-colored water glasses and vibrant paintings punch up a modern dining room. Soft jazz soothes satisfied guests. Upscale and convivial, the Italian Haywood’s turns out lusciously good homemade pasta, like the sumptuous Seasonal Mushroom Ravioli with four cheese sauce, plus burgers, steaks, and other great dishes.

EAT: Bistro on Main

Chic and popular, dishes like Organic French Chicken Breast, and Vodka Penne, are simply prepared, but oh so good.

Natty B Cafe, Natural Bridge VA

EAT/LUNCH: Natty B’s Café at Natural Bridge

This divey looking, unassuming General Store also dishes out some good, rib-sticking food – like Grilled Cheese and Veggie Ruben – along with a Penny Candy station that will trigger Boomer childhood memories.

Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe Lexington VA

ICE CREAM: Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe

Patty and Chris Williams own this Lexington landmark, where everyone in town seems to end up after games, events, or just for an after-dinner treat. Try the unique “Chunky Irish Girl Scout” – Girl Scout Thin Mint with Bailey’s Irish Cream – or Guinness Dark Ale, Ginger, and other creamy blends from the 24 flavors available each day.

EAT: Locals also love

Blue Sky for sandwiches, The Palms for Contemporary American, Taps for burgers and beer.

Where to Stay in Lexington VA

Hampton Inn Col Alto Hotel Lexington VA

STAY: Hampton Inn Lexington Historic Area

Not your average “Hampton by Hilton” hotel, this Hampton Inn Lexington Historic Area is steeped in local history. On eight landscaped acres, you can choose to stay in the original 1827 Manor House (where guests check in, and where the daily complimentary breakfast is served) or in a modern hotel room.

Reception Hampton Inn Col Alto Hotel Lexington VA

The Manor House, which in its day hosted Governors and Statesmen, features ten luxury rooms in period décor, with in-room breakfast, turndown service, and in some cases, a fireplace.

Guest Room Hilton Hampton Inn Lexington VA

Rooms in the newest part of the hotel have been refreshed – and are modern, clean, and comfy, with granite sink bathrooms and plenty of bedside outlets. Breakfast, with hot eggs, bacon, potatoes, and make your own waffles is a communal affair in the Manor House.

The Georges Inn Lexington VA

STAY: The Georges

This in-town boutique hotel is split in two on both sides of Main St. Named after George Washington and George Marshall (architect of the post WWII Marshall Plan), the renovated, plush Georges Inn is a tony addition to downtown Lexington.

Lexington VA Pin


  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

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2 thoughts on “15 Romantically Quirky Things to do in Lexington VA: VMI and Safaris”

  1. Great review of Lexington. One of the most unique college towns in America. History everywhere.
    One comment about the Marshall Museum and Library.
    George C. Marshall deserves a bit more explanation.
    Marshall graduated from VMI in 1901. In 1939, President Roosevelt appointed Marshall as Chief of Staff of all American forces, a position he held until the end of the war. He was America’s first 5 star general. Later, President Truman named him as Secretary of State. In that position, he developed the Marshall Plan , the most successful foreign policy initiative ever.

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