One Day, Two Ways: Exploring Charleston, West Virginia

Sunrise reflects in the Kanawha River slowly flowing by picturesque Charleston West Virginia downtown

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Whether you’re a culture maven seeking out the best museums and galleries or an outdoor enthusiast craving adventure, Charleston, West Virginia, is sure to please. From the marbled dome of the State Capitol building to the roaring rivers of New River Gorge, there are multiple ways to spend a day in West Virginia’s capital.

Looking for the best things to do in Charleston? Here are two ways to spend the day in this gorgeous mountain region.

City Slicker: Charleston Around Town

A sunset view of Charleston, West Virginia.

Morning

Kick off the day with breakfast at Dwight’s, a family-owned diner serving no-fuss breakfast favorites like pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Feeling adventurous? Try the Tex-Mex chicken omelet stuffed with fajita chicken, onions and peppers. Alternatively, you can swing by Tudor’s Biscuit World for all things biscuits, from biscuits smothered in sausage gravy to sandwiches piled high with bacon, ham and eggs.

West Virginia State Capitol on the Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia, USA.

Your first stop is a guided tour of the West Virginia State Capitol. Marvel at the spectacular architecture, including marble walls, crystal chandeliers, and the nearly 300-foot gold dome that’s become synonymous with the Charleston skyline. Explore the Lower Rotunda and browse small exhibits featuring government artifacts like flags and uniforms, official busts, statues, and portraits of important West Virginian political figures like John D. Rockefeller. You might even get a peek inside the Senate chambers. Outside, explore the Capitol Complex, which features a multitude of memorials honoring fallen soldiers, significant wars, and gold star families.

History comes to life at the West Virginia State Museum, also located in the Capitol Complex. Here, you’ll delve into the state’s complex history, from its notable ties to textiles to the lives of early settlers and the Indigenous population. Take a self-guided tour along the Show Path, which includes displays of pivotal events and buildings from the past. Explore the Coal Forest and the recreation of Harpers Ferry. See the Miner’s House and an old-fashioned soda shop. There are also 26 Discovery Rooms featuring artifacts, stories, music, and film clips, along with interactive touchscreens that provide access to photographs and old documents about the mine wars, frontier life, and the region’s industrialization.

Afternoon

Grab a bite at local hot spot Katherine’s Cafe for some mouthwatering pub grub. Chow down on loaded chili dogs, ooey gooey Philly cheesesteaks or a plate of smoked baby back ribs.

Continue the day at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences. First, stop by the Juliet Art Museum, which hosts traveling exhibits and permanent collections featuring over 1,000 works of art from West Virginian and Appalachian artists. From paintings and drawings to photography and prints, you’ll find many unique pieces showcasing West Virginia landscapes, portraits and watercolors. Next, visit the Avampato Discovery Museum, home to three floors of interactive exhibits perfect for kids! Make a splash at the Waterworks exhibit, where you’ll control dams and rivers and learn about water’s kinetic energy. Experience the power of sound in Music Studio, which features a multi-station futuristic music machine. Before you leave, stop by the Caperton Planetarium and Theater, where you can observe constellations or check out a showing of the film America’s Musical Journey on the massive dome screen!

Capitol Market in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo Credit: BROOKE_b19.

End the afternoon with a stroll through Capitol Market. This colorful, bustling marketplace is packed with vendors selling fresh produce, artisanal wares, and specialty goods. Imported wines and cheeses, handmade pottery and soap, and freshly brewed coffee are just a few of the enticing goods you’ll find at this indoor-outdoor bazaar.

Evening

Enjoy dinner at Bridge Road Bistro, which takes an elevated approach to familiar favorites like burgers, steak, and seafood. Saddle up to the bar with a charcuterie board and a glass of wine, or reserve a table and feast on dishes like lamb chops, blackened swordfish, or a chile-rubbed ribeye. They also feature a seasonal vegan dish each day for plant-based folks.

End the day on a high note with live music and drinks at The Empty Glass. This legendary local dive hosts talented musicians like Tyler Childers and The Whiskey Daredevils. Grab a pint and a seat by the cool, mosaic-tiled stage for a night of good music and brews.

Nature Lover: Charleston for the Outdoor Enthusiast

Morning

Fuel up for your outdoor adventures by grabbing breakfast at Swiftwater Cafe (known for their Swift Scramble–a deconstructed omelet served with toast). Or enjoy a bite on the go at Mea Cuppa, a Charleston staple brewing espresso drinks, tea, and fresh-baked pastries.

A snowy trail in the Kanawha State Forest near Charleston, West Virginia. Photo Credit: David Bennett.

After breakfast, a serene morning hike in the Kanawha State Forest is on the agenda. Just a seven-mile drive from Charleston, the forest is home to 60 miles of hiking and biking trails. One of the more popular trails is the 3.2-mile Mossy Rock, Snipe and Alligator Rock Loop. Here, you’ll trek along a forested road, see a babbling brook and pass by an abandoned mine from the 1800s. The Alligator Rock portion of the hike can be challenging due to higher elevations, but it is doable. Rather bike than hike? The Ballard Trail offers gorgeous views of the forest and mountains from a rocky overhang, or pedal uphill through forests and wildflowers (in the spring) on the Wildcat Ridge Trail. Beyond the trails, the forest attracts birdwatchers throughout the year. Keep an eye out for hawks, golden eagles and owls. You may even catch a glimpse of the Northern cardinal, West Virginia’s state bird.

Rather stick around town but enjoy the outdoors? No problem. There are plenty of activities to soak up the mountain air at Coonskin Park, just minutes from downtown Charleston. Practice your swing on the golf course, play a game of pickleball or disc golf, or cast a line for trout at the fishing pond (permit required).

Afternoon

For lunch, grab a burger and take in the views of Charleston’s rolling hills and green spaces at Eagles Nest Restaurant & Lounge. Try the Sante Fe Burger smothered in jalapenos, salsa and pepper jack cheese. There’s also a lunch buffet if you want a taste of everything.

Get ready for an adrenaline-fueled afternoon of whitewater adventures at the New River Gorge. Here, you can select from a variety of rafting excursions on both the New River and the Gauley River with Adventures on the Gorge! The Lower New River is perfect for first-timers and home to 25 rapids, exhilarating drops, and ancient boulders. Seeking a challenge? Book the Upper Gauley River experience, where your skills will be tested with 24 miles of Class III-V rapid. You’ll maneuver around boulders, brave challenging drops, and experience some of the best whitewater rapids in the region. If you have time, check out the majestic Kanawha Falls that run the river’s length.

Whitewater rafting in the New River Gorge. Photo Credit: Thomas Upton.

Not ready to tame the rapids? Spend the afternoon kayaking the Coal River Water Trail, just 20 minutes west of Charleston. Located in the heart of West Virginia’s historic coal mining region, you can kick back with a relaxing day paddling one of three rivers as you kayak past parks, landmarks, and spectacular forests. Don’t worry about bringing your kayak; rentals are available in season.

Evening

Begin your evening with a sunset stroll along the Kanawha River in Haddad Riverfront Park. Look for signs along the path that dish out historical fun facts about the region. For example, Daniel Boone once resided in Charleston, and the town’s first gas well almost exploded – yikes! If you’re visiting during the summer, check out the free concert series at the park’s amphitheater.

Wrap up the day with dinner with a view at The Lookout Bar & Grill. Dine outside and take in stunning panoramic views of the mountains while enjoying an expertly seared steak, fresh crab cakes or lamb chops. After dinner, mosey over to Wandering Wind Meadery for a glass of honeyed wine on the patio. If you visit on a Sunday, you can enjoy live music performances and tastings.

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