Charleston is the capital and cultural hub of wild, wonderful West Virginia. Located in the western central part of the state, Charleston is easily accessible within three to four hours from big cities such as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Columbus, Ohio; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Lexington, Kentucky. Visitors tend to drive and enjoy four seasons of lovely scenery. You can also fly into Yeager Airport or take a discounted Allegiant Air flight into Huntington, West Virginia, rent a car, and drive the hour to reach Charleston.
Charleston is a great place to visit, with everything from incredible museums to local shops, especially for a weekend or road trip. Here are the best things to do in beautiful Charleston, West Virginia.
When the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia was being built, thanks to a generous donation from the Schoenbaum (Shoney’s restaurant) family, Charlestonians were thrilled and scared at the same time for its success. Twenty years later, the emotion we mostly feel is pride for our beloved event center, art museum, Avampato Discovery Museum (kid’s museum), and lots more. The Clay Center has become the heart of Charleston, sharing world-class performers, Broadway productions, local dance recitals, and charitable functions, and that is just scratching the surface.
All under one roof, this multiple-use facility has a separate space for an art museum, the ElectricSky Theater (also a planetarium), children’s museum, and performing arts venue that doubles as home to the West Virginia Symphony.
West Virginia State Museum
The West Virginia State Museum, still referred to as The Cultural Center by locals, is an excellent Charleston attraction where you can learn about the history and progress of The Mountain State. It is enjoyable for all ages, and admission is free. Displays run the gamut from products made in West Virginia (Blenko glass and Fiesta dinnerware, part of the Homer Laughlin China Company) to famous celebrities who hail from West Virginia (Mary Lou Retton, Chuck Yeager, Don Knotts, and Jennifer Garner). The West Virginia State Museum has expertly designed exhibits sharing the state’s coal mining and war histories and Appalachian cultures.
Since I am a local, the mock Capitol Street, paying tribute to the days gone by, with a department store and all its old-timey goods, is my favorite. The West Virginia State Museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Fun Fact: Did you know that Jerry West, the Los Angeles Lakers basketball player whose silhouette is featured on the NBA logo, is from Charleston? Chelyan, to be exact.
A beloved neighborhood in Charleston is South Hills, which partially overlooks downtown Charleston and the Kanawha River. The Bridge Road Shops feature high-end boutiques such as Geraniums, Eggplant (a personal favorite for 20 years), Petit Jewelry Designs, and Yarid’s Shoes. Pick up a mouth-watering sweet treat from Sarah’s Bakery or a tasty bite from Bridge Road Bistro while you are there.
An old train station found its rebirth with the conception of Charleston’s Capitol Market. This year-round offering attracts visitors and locals to shop for West Virginia made products, excellent cheeses and wines, and sushi. It also offers a coffee and butcher shop. You will find fresh produce inside and outside at the market stalls (weather permitting) and a fantastic selection of seasonal merchandise, including live Christmas trees, fodder shock, and hay bales for Halloween.
Eat a tasty meal from Soho’s, Sushi Garden, or Johnnie’s Fresh Meat Market, mainstays at the Capitol Market, or enjoy a delicious coffee, tea, or espresso drink at Mea Cuppa Coffee. This really is a must-see attraction when visiting beautiful Charleston, West Virginia.
The pride of Charleston is and will forever be Mountain Stage, in my eyes. In 1983, West Virginia Public Broadcasting launched Mountain Stage, a live performance radio show that quickly shot to national distribution within a couple of years.
Thirty-plus years later, Mountain Stage, filmed at the Culture Center Theater with host Larry Groce, records 26 programs annually and is heard on over 100 radio stations. The two-hour concerts are fabulous and have an intimate scale and feel. I’ve seen artists such as Natalie Merchant, Indigo Girls, Zap Mama, Alison Krauss, and Jonatha Brooke perform over the years, and the excitement and first-class production of these shows never fade.
Fun Fact: My husband and I were on our honeymoon 29 years ago in Boston. While standing in a Tower Records near MIT’s campus, we overheard some college kids listening to The Best of Mountain Stage on the sample headphones (new at the time) and talking about how cool it would be to live in West Virginia and see the show live. I still smile thinking back to that moment.
West Virginia State Capitol
The West Virginia State Capitol is the most beautiful of all the states. Perhaps I am biased since I lived there most of my life, but even first-time visitors have told me they concur. Its 293-foot gilded dome shimmering in the sun and moonlight is a beautiful sight. You can also tour the state capitol, a free attraction offering a fantastic look at the impressive architecture and decor. Guided tours are available, but make sure to check close to your date to verify the days and times.
Architect Cass Gilbert built and designed the beautiful West Virginia State Capitol, a taupe-colored Indiana limestone building fashioned in Italian Renaissance style. The grounds are pristine and bursting with seasonal flowers. My favorites statues and monuments on the capitol grounds are the coal miner monument, the women veterans memorial, and Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight statue.
Fun Fact: There are mythological figures in the carved heads above the entrances to the West Virginia State Capitol building. For example, you will find Poseidon, Demeter, and Hestia on the west entrance to the main building.
Charleston is known for some great local restaurants. When I visit there, I always have my wish list of old favorites or new places that have recently sprung up that I want to visit. The restaurants I recommend in downtown Charleston are Sitar of India (the best Indian food anywhere), Pies and Pints (delicious pork nachos and gourmet pizzas), and Bricks and Barrels (charcuterie boards and lamb chops).
In South Hills, my old stomping grounds, first and foremost is 1010 Bridge, a new restaurant pumping out picture-perfect plates and eclectic recipes that are very well received by the locals. The delicious Mexican food from Cozumel at Ashton Place can’t be beaten, and Hibachi, the Japanese steakhouse at Trace Fork, always delivers a solid meal. Try the grilled tofu … it tastes like cheese puffs!
Historic Capitol Street
Historic and scenic Capitol Street along with neighboring Hale and Lee Streets make up downtown Charleston’s centerpiece. Here, you’ll find excellent local eateries, boutiques, art galleries, antique stores, and the public library on tree-lined streets. You can’t come to Charleston and miss this important address.
If you are craving a quick bite, Graziano’s Pizza sells by the slice and has been feeding Charlestonians for 50 years or more, or have your favorite sushi roll from Ichiban Pan-Asian Cuisine. Enjoy a tasty ice cream from Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream (try the coconut and thank me later), a cake pop from Rock City Cake Company, browse the book and magazine selection at Taylor Books, and have a savory or sweet snack from The Peanut Shoppe.
For your shopping needs, Art Emporium, Art Store, and Purple Moon are great for browsing artworks, while Stray Dog Antiques has a killer selection of antiques. I love the eclectic selection of souvenirs and knick-knacks at Oddbird Gifts.
Capitol Street has many Charleston-based bars and a nice selection of places for a beer or glass of wine. Black Sheep Burrito and Brews and Pies and Pints have awesome craft beer, while The Block Restaurant and Wine Cellar has amazing wine selections. Sip a craft cocktail from Bar 101.
West Virginia Power
The West Virginia Power is a Class-A affiliate minor-league baseball team in the South Atlantic League that plays at Appalachian Power Park in downtown Charleston. They are a farm team for the Seattle Mariners. I may be biased, but this is one of the most gorgeous minor league baseball stadiums in the country.
With 4,500 seats, you’ll find fun things to do for the whole family, including concessions, games, contests, and kid activities at nearly every game. Catch The West Virginia Power for the 2021 season.
Editor’s Note: Another hub for minor league baseball, if you’re in the mood, is Durham, North Carolina, home to the Durham Bulls.
Kanawha State Forest
A few minutes outside of Charleston brings you to Kanawha State Forest, a perfect address with 25 miles for hiking, biking, walking, or just getting outdoors. Pack a picnic or pick up to-go food and enjoy eating amidst the massive tree canopies. The drive to get there is pretty thrilling if you live somewhere that doesn’t have curvy roads as West Virginia does.
More Fun Facts: Charleston is located at the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha (pronounced “Ka-NAH-wah”) rivers. It is an excellent spot to get out on the water for kayaking, boating, and fishing. And at one time, Kanawha Salines (now Malden), five minutes past the state capitol, was the top salt producer in the world.