Bristol, the “Good Place to Live,” is also a great place to travel in Appalachia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, just an hour and a half away from Asheville, North Carolina.
Have you ever wanted to be in two places at once? Have you ever wanted to immerse yourself in small-town charm, surrounded by nature enough to feel out of the big city, but urban enough to have a concentration of great restaurants and cultural experiences?
You can pretty much have it all in Bristol—a town with a main street that quite literally straddles the Virginia-Tennessee border.
Known for its history as the birthplace of country music, Bristol also boasts a worthy extension of Appalachia’s famed brewery culture, easy access to Appalachian Trail hiking, elevated comfort food, and unique gift shops.
Below, these nine spots make small-town Bristol a trek worth making—a trek I made as a side excursion from Asheville this past spring, but in many ways wound up being the main event.
1. Drive through the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains
Whether you’re coming from happenin’ Asheville, North Carolina, or the Tri Cities Airport connecting Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol, you’ll face scenic views from the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s best to rent a car if you’re traveling to Bristol—the good news is you can stop at a regional and retro-fab Pal’s Sudden Service, a highway fast food chain unique to the area yet voted America’s favorite burger joint. Order a Double Big Pal and a Dr. Enuf, the locally-bottled lemon-lime flavored drink of choice.
2. Check in at The Bristol Hotel
Bristol was due for a boutique hotel catering to the Instagram generation, and they got the perfect fit in The Bristol Hotel. Housed in a refurbished architectural landmark built originally in 1925, the Bristol, Virginia-side hotel speaks to a modern Southern sensibility and features a rooftop bar for enjoying craft cocktails and Blue Ridge Mountain views. Vivian’s Table, the hotel’s downstairs restaurant, serves up seasonal Southern comfort food with elevated twists (think: smoked salmon deviled eggs and brown lager pork chops). The hotel is also conveniently located near all the city’s main attractions, from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum to Main Street dining and shopping.
3. Visit the Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Right next door to The Bristol Hotel and Vivian’s Table is the seminal Birthplace of Country Music Museum, a Smithsonian-backed institution highlighting the city’s role in what we now know as America’s country music industry. Pioneers of the genre including The Carter Family, Ernest V. Stoneman, and more recorded their first tracks in Bristol, and their legacy is preserved through highly interactive exhibits—be sure to test your vocal chops in the museum’s own mini recording studio.
4. Hike around Steele Creek Park
Looking for an ideal lake-front picnic spot? Look no further than the peaceful grounds of Bristol’s Steele Creek Park. Hike to a secluded section (your friends at The Bristol Hotel can help guide you) of the park and pack leftovers from Vivian’s Table or scrounge something together at the local farmer’s market. It’s one of those rare places that can feel totally removed from modern life. If the weather’s warm enough, go for a dip in the lake.
5. Try unique beers at Studio Brew
Maybe you don’t think Banana Bread Beer is your thing, but you should let Studio Brew at least try to change your mind. Get a flight of their famed beers—they range from classics to more outrageous blends—and sip back for a wild ride.
6. Chill out at Bloom Cafe & Listening Room
This hybrid cafe and music venue is the ultimate Bristol hangout. Check their schedule online for performances, or stop in for a coffee with soup and sandwich special. Local art adorns the walls and the staff will make you feel right at home.
7. Shop on Main Street
Whether you’re on the Virginia or Tennessee side of Bristol’s Main Street, you’re sure to find something to stuff your suitcase with on the trek home. From exclusive Mountain Dew flavor fudge at The Southern Churn to an abundance of antique stores, you could spend hours perusing shops along this main drag. Be sure to also check out the LC King Manufacturing Co. around the corner. Founded in 1913, it’s one of the oldest clothing manufacturers still in operation in the U.S. Their storefront has a hip selection of overalls, workman jackets, and more made in their signature durable styles.
8. Chow down at Burger Bar
This retro-chic diner in downtown Bristol serves up a great burger made with local beef—it’s also the last known sighting of country music star Hank Williams before his untimely death. Go for the cultural lore, stay for the chili cheese fries. Adventurous eaters should try their tongues on The Fire God, a notoriously spicy burger with habañero, jalapeño, and ghost peppers.
9. Play drinking games at State Street Brewing
With a slew of original brews in a wide open space, things are bound to get rowdy at State Street Brewing, especially if your crew starts a ping pong tournament or skee ball challenge. Elderbrew across the street is best for laid back, hole-in-the-wall vibes, and O’Mainnin’s Pub nearby is the local after-work watering hole. Hop around these three joints depending on your mood.