Explore Harrisonburg, The Friendly City in the Shenandoah Valley
Thomas Harrison, the son of English immigrants, deeded two and a half acres of land to the public trust in 1779, and thus, Harrisonburg was born. Expansions and further annexation would expand the city through 1982, fully forming the Harrisonburg of today. Known for its collegial atmosphere, they call this town in the valley “The Friendly City.” After a weekend spent exploring, you’re sure to know why.
Day 1: Get active then wind down with dinner and a show
Fuel up for the day at Black Sheep Coffee
Start your Harrisonburg journey with a beverage and a bite at Black Sheep Coffee. If you’re in a coffee mood, then you’re in luck because Black Sheep is pour-over coffee heaven. They source their beans from roasters all over the country to build a robust selection of flavor profiles that are sure to satisfy any palate. With a wide variety of teas, sodas, and specialty waters, non-coffee drinkers also have a variety of beverages to choose from. Don’t skip the food—from fresh baked goods to a rotating breakfast and lunch menu, you’ll enjoy your goods in a warm and cozy atmosphere.
Spend some time in the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center
Born into slavery, Lucy F. Simms is a local legend. After graduating from Hampton University, she returned to Harrisonburg and taught over 1,800 students, spanning three generations and 52 years. The Effinger Street School where she spent her career is now known as the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center. While there, visit the permanent exhibition celebrating this pioneering educator and learn more about the Lucy F. Simms School—built soon after her death—that served African American students from 1938 to 1965.
Get active and shoot a little b-ball at Ralph Sampson Park
After you’ve toured the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center, lace up your sneakers and enter this city park that occupies the location of the former Hilltop Plantation. Ralph Sampson Park is so named for Harrisonburg native son Ralph Sampson Jr., a four-time NBA All Star, Rookie of the Year, and an All-Star Game MVP! With two picnic shelters, two tennis courts, playgrounds, sports fields, horseshoe pits, a walking trail, and of course, three basketball courts, this 31-acre park has an activity for everyone.
Visit the Charlotte Harris Historical Marker
The city’s Court Square has a painful history—this was once the site of slave auctions and where enslaved people were dealt inhumane punishments. If you head toward the courthouse, you will see a marker honoring the memory of Charlotte Harris, the only Black woman lynched in Virginia. Harris had been accused of inciting a Black man to burn the barn of a white farmer—a crime for which he was later acquitted.
Time for Burgers and Brews at Jack Brown’s
These ain’t your ordinary burgers. At Jack Brown’s, you’re not going to find toppings like “tomato” and “lettuce, ” so don’t even ask. Not here. Here you’re much more likely to find toppings like “peanut butter” and “mac and cheese.” Billing itself as a bar that happens to have a very good burger, Jack Brown’s is chockful with craft beers from around the world and a laidback atmosphere.
Take in a show at the Court Square Theater
It’s showtime at the Court Square Theater, Harrisonburg’s downtown community theater. Whether you’re looking to see a film or take in live theater or a dance or music performance, they have it all. The theater was originally named The Rockingham Theater in homage to the car company that once stood in the location. In 2000, a group of citizens and art boosters came together at the theatre to form the non-profit organization, The Arts Council of the Valley. Today, The Arts Council manages the theater as its performing arts branch and creates partnerships with civic organizations, schools, businesses, and artists.
Spend the night (and enjoy breakfast!) at the Friendly City Inn
If you really want a taste of the local culture, this B & B, which gleans its name from Harrisonburg’s reputation as “The Friendly City,” is sure to please. Located in a restored mansion, this inn boasts guest rooms from suites to singles with a variety of bed configurations. The antique style blends seamlessly with the modern amenities and with a gourmet breakfast served every morning, it might be tempting to just stay in your hotel.
Day 2: Go in-depth on the region’s history
Get to know the area. Stop by the Hardesty-Higgins House Visitor Center first.
Pick up some maps and area information at the Hardesty-Higgins House Visitor Center on Main Street. This building was the 1849 home of Harrisonburg’s first mayor, Isaac Hardesty. Union General Philip H. Sheridan’s army occupied the town in 1864 while Fanny, a young, enslaved woman living in the house cooked soldier’s rations in exchange for a share for herself. After the occupation of was over, Fanny and her parents left with Sheridan’s army and headed for freedom.
Get your art fix at The 150 Franklin Street Gallery
This gallery is the first multicultural fine arts gallery in Harrisonburg. Inside you’ll find exhibits from local painters and photographers alongside works by nationally known artists. The Furious Flower Quilt, on permeant display, is a piece honoring African American poets. The quilt is filled with symbology depicting some of the most iconic writers in American literature.
The Furious Flower Poetry Center is the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry and it’s right in Harrisonburg at James Madison University. Inspired by a line from the Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” the Furious Flower Poetry Conference drew poets and scholars from around the world to explore Black Literature when it first convened in 1994. You don’t have to be a JMU student to access the center—locals and visiting scholars alike are welcomed.
Are you feeling peckish? Get a little something from Heritage Bakery & Café
Head back to the Hardesty-Higgins Visitor Center for a little slice of deliciousness. Owned by a mother-daughter team, Heritage Bakery & Café is filled with delectable bites. You can grab a sandwich like their spinach, egg, and Havarti croissant or you can head straight to where the main action is and treat yourself to one of their rotating selection of pastries and baked goods.
Charge your phone and take the self-guided Roots Run Deep Tour
This app-driven tour will take you on a journey to discover the historic stories of Harrisonburg’s African American families. At each stop on the 24-site tour, you’ll tap into the unique history of each of these sites and learn how each of these families built a life for themselves and contributed to the fabric of the city. You’ll begin your tour in the historic neighborhood Jail Hill, where freeborn families put down roots in the early 1800’s. Though many of the significant homes, churches and buildings were lost to time, about half of these sites are still standing today.
End your night at Clementine
Clementine Café is located downtown, in what is known as the culinary district. And make no mistake—Clementine is offering culinary delights. Executive chef Matt Clancey delivers a menu that hits all of the right notes: do you want a Korean bi bim bop? Or is shrimp and grits more your style? If you’re after more than just a meal, head downstairs to see what’s going on in Ruby’s Lounge. They serve the full Clementine menu until 9pm before it transforms into a late-night venue. The lounge and upstairs restaurant often play host to live music, karaoke, and a weekly dance party.
Day 3: Explore what freedom means
Enjoy brunch at The Little Grill Collective
You can really feel good about your food when you dine at The Little Grill Collective. Not only is the food highly rated, the atmosphere and staff are too. Those good feelings could be a result of the staff’s investment in the restaurant—The Little Grill Collective has been a worker-owned cooperative since 2003. This restaurant serves comfort fare that can please any palate, with multiple options for vegetarians, vegans, and carnivores, alike.
Get in touch with a legacy at the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center
In this small building (2065 Reservoir St), the remains of the Mabel Memorial Schoolhouse, exhibits and films capture the life and escapades of Harriet Tubman, famous for her work on the Underground Railroad which helped take slaves to freedom before the Civil War. Tours are offered by appointment.
Visit Crossroads, Brethern Mennonite Heritage Center
Harrisonburg has been home to a community of Mennonites, described as theological cousins to the Amish, since the middle of the 18th century. As Virginia was part of the Confederacy, this made for a problem within the Brethren, a group who refer to themselves as a “peace church”, and Mennonite communities that populated Harrisonburg—they were vehemently opposed to slavery.
The Crossroads, Brethern Mennonite Heritage Center explores this complicated history with a cobbler’s shop, antebellum houses and a one-room schoolhouse that visitors can explore. Guests here will be privy to a narrative of the Civil War that is rarely told in the U.S., much less Virginia: a narrative from the pacifist point of view.