16. Lexington, VA
Lexington, just down-valley from Staunton—a 2012 Smithsonian culture town—gets a nod this year for a lot of good reasons, not least among them that it nestles between the beautiful Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. The Blue Ridge Parkway, authorized as a public works project by FDR in 1933, winds alongside for leaf-peeping in the fall or rapturous springtime encounters with blooming rhododendron and laurel. Either way the ridge still looks like “ranges of blue clouds rising one above another”—a description coined by an 18th-century member of the vaunted Byrd family of Virginia—a suitable backdrop for winsome Lexington with is brick sidewalks, handsomely restored historic churches and homes, Lawyers Row and Courthouse Square. There are plenty of arts and crafts galleries, dramatics under the stars at the Theater at Lime Kiln (set amid the ruins of a 19th-century quarry), bluegrass fiddlers at Clark’s Ole Time Music Center and concerts of all kinds on the stage of the Lenfest Center. But architecture and historic preservation are Lexington’s pride and joy, gloriously displayed on the campus of Washington and Lee University. Founded in 1749, the school was endowed by George Washington and presided over from 1865 to 1870 by Robert E. Lee, whose remains lie in a crypt beneath the perfectly proportioned Victorian Lee Chapel. The Stonewall Jackson House remembers the Confederate general who taught physics and artillery tactics at the nearby Virginia Military Institute. Known as the “West Point of the South,” the campus is a distinguished Gothic Revival complex with museums dedicated to the school’s history and to celebrated graduate George C. Marshall, who masterminded the post-World War II rebuilding of Europe as secretary of state under President Truman. Take a tour, led by a cadet, and if you happen to be there on a parade day, you’ll never forget it.
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