With a new generation committed to renewing their city, West Virginia’s capital is making a statement.
It used to be that only outdoor enthusiasts—climbers, rafters, or people who display more mental fortitude than I when confronted with great heights or drops—ever talked to me about vacationing in my home state of West Virginia. The only state wholly in Appalachia, full of rugged mountains, powerful rapids, and a mere 1.8 million people, West Virginia is not known for its cities. But when I was a kid, that’s exactly what Charleston was: the city. Our capital, located about two and a half hours southwest of Morgantown (where I grew up), was bigger and more exciting than anything else at home.
My reasons for traveling here have changed, and so has Charleston itself. West Virginia’s largest city, with 49,138 residents, it is still the political heart of the state, with a professional class populated by politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists. But it has also become an urban destination in its own right, cool and cultural, with a diverse roster of attractions and a geographical situation—where the Elk and Kanawha rivers converge—that’s stunning, even by high Mountain State standards. Charleston is also convenient: A short flight from Southern hubs like Charlotte and Atlanta, it’s becoming a popular spot for far-flung friends to meet for a short vacation.
Like so many other small American cities, Charleston is now experiencing a rebirth. It’s largely at the hands of some young, creative entrepreneurs who are breathing new life into old buildings and doubling down on their roots with new businesses that could only exist here—though they come in the familiar shapes of bookstores and gift shops.
Where to Eat & Drink
Housed in a restored 19th-century freight station, this mainstay includes an outdoor market filled with local goods and an indoor array of vendors and shops. capitolmarket.net
Black Sheep Burrito & Brews
At this new-school burrito-and-beer joint (the house brewery is called Bad Shepherd Beer Company), the beer list changes weekly—sometimes even daily. Don’t miss the trout tacos or the popular bulgogi burrito. Locals also swear by the weekend brunch. blacksheepwv.com
Swiftwater Cafe and General Store
Since 2003, this storefront cafe has been drawing the downtown office crowd with hearty breakfasts, locally roasted coffee, and award-winning West Virginia dogs (hot dogs topped with chili, coleslaw, mustard, and onion). Hit the general store down the street for a pepperoni roll—a West Virginia delicacy that began as a lunch for miners—and browse a hodgepodge of inventory, like local books and quirky antiques. swiftwatercafe.com
Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream
Still hopping with after-school kids and sweet-toothed adults after 20 years in business, Ellen’s is a fantastic Capitol Street staple. ellensicecream.com
Starlings Coffee & Provisions
Located in the trendy East End area, Starlings is about as low-key as it gets: The front room has concrete floors; mid-century flea market furniture; and plenty of Aretha, Prince, and the Bee Gees. Order delicious breakfast treats at the back counter to go with your coffee. One tip: Arrive early. starlingswv.com
This cool coffee shop aims to “make Charleston proud and Seattle jealous.” It succeeds—brilliantly. moxxeecoffee.com
Noah’s Eclectic Bistro
Down a nondescript side street, you will find some of the best food in town. Charleston native Noah Miller is the chef-owner of this reservation-only spot with 11 tables, a winning wine list, and an ever-changing farm-to-table menu. noahseclectic.com
An East End staple since 2005, Bluegrass Kitchen is a local-food pioneer and cornerstone of Charleston’s revitalization. (Owners Keeley and Jonathan Steele have two other neighborhood eateries, Starlings Coffee & Provisions and Tricky Fish.) Bluegrass serves up fresh, unpretentious comfort food like trout and grits, and it has a beer menu that’s long on local craft brews. bluegrasswv.com
South Hills Market and Café
Chef Richard Arbaugh, who has twice cooked his spin on Appalachian cuisine at the James Beard Foundation, wows patrons with both simple apps—such as Spangler Farm Popcorn with truffle oil and local J.Q. Dickinson salt—and elaborate entrées. The wine list also earned the 2014 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. If your group can’t snag a table, carryout is available until 9 p.m. southhillsmarket.com
The Block Restaurant and Wine Cellar
This vino-obsessed destination makes the most of its corner location (at the intersection of Capitol and Quarrier streets), with spacious sidewalk seating and open-air access to the bar inside. Owner Desislav Baklarov grew up in a winemaking family in Bulgaria, and The Block features more than 500 sips from around the world. theblockwv.com
Where to Shop
In 1995, owner Ann Saville turned a historic building on Capitol Street into an independent bookstore and cafe, and since then, it’s been a second home to many Charleston residents. The adjacent Taylor Books/Annex Gallery has work by local artists. Downstairs, the 29-seat Underground Cinema, operated by the West Virginia International Film Festival, shows art house picks. taylorbooks.com
Kin Ship Goods
Here’s the place to grab those “West By God” T-shirts and “Almost Heaven” sweatshirts you’re probably seeing all over town. Ever since owners Hillary Harrison and Dan Davis moved to Charleston in 2014, natives and visitors have clamored for all things Kin Ship. It’s located in the up-and-coming Elk City neighborhood. kinshipgoods.com
Bully Trap Barber Shop
Owners Michael Young and Michael Fizer set out to re-create the traditional barbershop when they opened in 2015—and they nailed it. Check the shop’s Facebook page for announcements of live musical performances and food trucks. facebook.com/bullytrapbarbershop
In 2016, this gift shop opened on Capitol Street, and it expanded this summer. Oddbird is popular for a quirky mix of art objects, home decor, and locally made finds—from garden art to dish towels. oddbirdgifts.com
Base Camp Printing Company
Find the ideal souvenir in this shop. Owner and West Virginia native Emily Sokolosky presses designs by hand. basecampprintingco.com
Elk City Records
This rustically modern store is the passion project of Phil Melick, a semiretired lawyer who started collecting records at age 14. It’s packed with rock, pop, jazz, classical, folk, and country vinyl. Customers can also catch in-store performances by talented musicians like jazz guitarist Steve Himes. elkcityrecords.com
Where to Stay
Four Points by Sheraton
Right across from Haddad Riverfront Park, the modern rooms have stunning river views. starwoodhotels.com
Charleston Marriott Town Center
Be close to everything at this convenient and comfortable downtown hotel. marriott.com
WATCH: 10 Things Every Visitor Should Do in West Virginia
And Don’t Miss
Tour J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in neighboring Malden, West Virginia. Their artisan salt is coveted by chefs. Then get outside and enjoy Haddad Riverfront Park or the 9,300-acre Kanawha State Forest, with trails that vary in degrees of difficulty.