Jonesborough, the oldest city in Tennessee, is dubbed the “Storytelling Capital of the World.” The historic and quaint town of roughly 6,000 is alive and full of fun with locally-owned shops, eateries, a well-known distillery, and unique lodging. Still, the main attraction is the one-of-a-kind International Storytelling Center.
Jonesborough is nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of the Tri-Cities (Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol) region. To get there, you would want to either drive to or fly into Kingsport, only minutes away. There is a strong sense of community in Jonesborough and local events take place year round.
Fun Fact: Jonesborough was established 17 years before Tennessee ever became a state.
I loved every square inch of it, and here is why.
A Unique Starring Attraction
The International Storytelling Center is a beautiful building that houses teller-in-residence performers/storytellers May through November and has a small museum and lovely gift shop. Observing three main principles — performance, preservation, and practice (also known as applied storytelling) — it crafts and shapes a phenomenon that has been ongoing since the beginning of time. If you are new to the term “storytelling,” let me just say that it is a popular medium, hobby, sport, activity, folk art, and opportunity.
Thirty years after the storytelling center opened, the International Storytelling Center campus was formed. It was the first facility devoted exclusively to the storytelling tradition.
In 1973, Jonesborough hosted the first National Storytelling Festival to 60 listeners, which “ignited a Renaissance” and made way for providing a voice, often accurate account or a fish tale, so to speak, for a world that was hungry for “the told tale.”
The International Storytelling Center houses all things storytelling in Jonesborough, including an artist in residence, the annual Storytelling Festival each October, and a rentable theater and venue. It is a lovely place to visit, and I can only imagine how much fun the storytelling events are. The town and plenty of visitors embrace the unique offerings, and during the pandemic, you can also participate in online options and workshops.
Fun Fact: The National Storytelling Festival is in its 49th year and takes place October 1–2, 2021. Virtual guests can enjoy the content 14 days following the final show.
It’s always fun to shop and stroll, browse or buy, and the shops through downtown Jonesborough have some great offerings. It’s a very walkable area, and parking is plentiful. The Lollipop Shop is one of the most popular, with retro candy, toys, and popular present-day candies. How long has it been since you had an old-timey soda and penny candy that isn’t quite a penny anymore?
At Pink Whale Boutique, look for women’s clothing and accessories. It also has plus-size fashions. Antiques are prominent in the area, with several places to admire the selections. My favorite store in all of Jonesborough was Gabriel’s Christmas, a wonderful place to shop for your seasonal items, trees, collectible and everyday ornaments, and even sponsors painting classes.
Crafty Peddler, with a huge Mail Pouch mural on the side of the building, is chock full of gifts, pottery, jewelry, home decor, and crafts. I could spend hours in this shop! And last, but not least, is Mill Spring Makers Market, with more than 40 artisans represented in the space. The items are a perfect juxtaposition of vintage and modern with everything in between.
Main Street Cafe is a charming little restaurant that offers street-side patio dining and a full indoor dining room. I love the salad options, all with homemade dressings. The menu also features burgers, quiche, and chicken salad. Another place that won’t disappoint is Texas, Burritos, and More, with Tex-Mex style favorites and warm, welcoming hospitality. Try the Grande Nachos (beans, beef, queso, tomato, and onions), big enough to share and darn tasty. The chicken fajitas are delicious, too.
Off the beaten path and a hop, skip, and jump from downtown is the Olde Towne Pancake House, serving affordable breakfast dishes with, you guessed it, pancakes being the star. Breakfast is served all day… my kind of place.
You can’t come to this particular part of Tennessee and not experience Pal’s Sudden Service, a local quick-serve chain drive-thru. The menu consists of billowy buttered biscuits, or sandwiches for breakfast and burgers, hot dogs, and French fries for lunch or dinner.
Though I didn’t have a chance to visit, Barrel House & Tavern is a popular spot for food and drinks and live music almost daily.
Look no further than Sweet E’s Bakery for luscious temptations, including cakes, pies, brownies, blondies, and cheesecake. Bonus points for you if you send me a picture of the chocolate cream pie I missed.
Whether you are craving beer, coffee, or spirits, you can find them in historic Jonesborough. For an excellent cup of freshly-roasted coffee, try The Corner Cup. It also has some exotic specialties called “frappalopes,” which are refreshing and somewhat dessert-like. I had the Cherry Bomb, with coffee and cherry syrup, blended with chocolate chips.
Tennessee Hills Distillery is the place to get your “shine on” — that’s a popular phrase in this part of Eastern Tennessee. Nestled in the historic Salt House building, which was a place for salt storage during the Civil War, products range from whiskey and corn liquor to gin and pineapple upside-down cake rum.
You’ll find delicious craft beer at Depot Street Brewing, the longest-operating brewery in the Tri-Cities. Three words — Maple Bacon Porter. Curbside pick-up is available. Currently, Depot Street Brewing is closed Sunday through Tuesday.
Educational And Entertaining Tours
How does a ghost town in Tennessee’s oldest town sound? And not only oldest, but also a Civil War area? You can check out the spirits around town with a lantern-led professionally certified ghost hunters tour from Appalachian Ghostwalks’. Prices are $17 per person.
Another excellent way to learn about the town of Jonesborough, and the way I did, is through a historic downtown walking tour offered by the Heritage Alliance. You’ll have a charming costumed guide that is not only knowledgeable and entertaining but also quite a good storyteller, only fitting for Jonesborough. Tickets run $5 and start at the Chester Inn State Historic Site and Museum. You can also choose between Old Jonesborough Cemetery and Jonesborough Mythbusting tours.
Fun Fact: The Chester Inn (circa 1797), formerly a place to stay for travelers, hosted three previous presidents: Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James K. Polk.
Pro Tip: Take a guided tour from a Jonesbourgh expert and learn the fun facts about this exciting town, such as what the 18th-century autonomous state of Franklin was and about The Emancipator, the first periodical devoted solely to the abolishment of slavery, printed right here in East Tennessee.
The Historic Eureka Inn is a nine-room turn-of-the-century inn that looks to me like it belongs in a romantic Disney movie. Innkeepers Katelyn and Blake are highly spoken of throughout Jonesborough and love hosting guests, plus serve a lovely full Southern breakfast.
Jonesborough also has several elegant bed and breakfasts and a Country Inn & Suites. Hawley House and Butterfly Cottage and Blair–Moore House are two bed and breakfasts that look well-deserving of a stay.
Jonesborough Calendar Of Events
For a town this size, you won’t believe the number of events all year long. Heritage fairs, Music on the Square, book signings, yoga, theater productions, Brews & Tunes (music, beer, food), musicals, and live radio plays are just the tip of the iceberg. All of these are in addition to the National Storytelling Festival.
Once you visit this charming, historic small town, you’re going to try and come back — again and again.