Affectionately known as the “friendly city,” the city of Harrisonburg is home to two universities, James Madison and Eastern Mennonite.
My wife Heather and I both came to Harrisonburg in the mid-1980s to attend college, and we’ve called the Virginia mountain town our home ever since.
When we’re not traveling, we love exploring the immensely walkable Downtown Harrisonburg, which is just two blocks from our home. This is where you’ll find the best Harrisonburg restaurants, independent shops, and museums.
We often start our mornings with a walk to one of our two favorite breakfast spots, the Magpie Diner or Heritage Bakery & Café. We love to meet friends at the Pale Fire brewery, one of five Harrisonburg breweries, for a late afternoon pint.
Read on for our in-depth guide to the best things to do in Harrisonburg VA, including all our favorite restaurants, wineries, hiking trails, caverns with Civil War history, and more!
1. Check out the Hardesty-Higgins House Visitor Center
212 South Main Street, Harrisonburg VA • 540.432-8935 • Official Website
Located in the Hardesty-Higgins House, the Harrisonburg Visitor Center welcomes you to experience “where history and hospitality meet.”
Constructed in 1853, the house is a beautiful example of early Virginia architecture. It was once the home to the first mayor of Harrisonburg VA, Isaac Hardesty.
Inside you’ll find the Valley Turnpike Museum, the Rocktown Gift Shoppe, and Heather’s beloved Heritage Bakery and Café. It’s just steps away from our favorite downtown Harrisonburg shops, such as Ten Thousand Villages and the Shops at Agora.
The Visitor Center also has one of five Civil War Orientation Centers in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Historic District. If you’re a Civil War buff, there’s a video with lots of information on the unique history of the area.
Open daily from 9AM to 5PM, it’s a great place to pick brochures for various Harrisonburg VA attractions and activities.
2. Delight in the Best Restaurants in Harrisonburg
With more than 50 different places to eat in Harrisonburg VA, the 40-block downtown area is home to Virginia’s first culinary district– a tribute to the area’s dedication to farm-to-table fare.
Downtown Harrisonburg also won the “Great American Main Street” Award.
Many of the best Downtown Harrisonburg restaurants offer outdoor dining in courtyards, patios, or decks. We love Jimmy Madison’s, which has homestyle Appalachian fare and a stunning view of Court Square from the roof-top deck.
Other local favorites include Local Chop & Grill House, Bella Luna Wood-Fired Pizza (which is located in the historic livery building), and Clementine Cafe, which features live music on Thursday nights and the best Shrimp & Grits we’ve had.
Magpie Diner has a fabulous weekend brunch and a delightful in-house bakery. And Jack Brown’s original Harrisonburg location– a recent “Best Beer and Burger Joint in Virginia” winner–is a must-stop if you love burgers!
In short, the very best restaurants in Harrisonburg VA showcase the area’s rich agricultural heritage in historic downtown buildings, offering a memorable dining experience for visitors.
3. Discover the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts
147 Warsaw Avenue, Harrisonburg VA • 540.568.7000 • Official Website
Home to James Madison University’s School of Theater & Dance, the Forbes Center also provides performance space and venues for the School of Music.
Since opening in 2010, the center has been providing myriad artistic events in Harrisonburg.
The architecture of the Forbes Center is just as impressive as the performances from internationally recognized professional artists, renowned faculty members, and emerging young students.
Soaring floor-to-ceiling glass windows invite you in as you make your way to one of the center’s 5 unique venues. This is our favorite place for Christmas shows that rival offerings found in larger cities Washington D.C. or Richmond.
The diversity of events range from opera and theater to folk music, modern dance performances, and children’s musicals.
Check out the current Masterpiece Season, and purchase tickets for upcoming shows at the box office or online.
4. Enjoy a Show at the Court Square Theater
41-F Court Square, Harrisonburg VA • 540-433-9189 • Official Website
When we’re looking for fun things to do in Harrisonburg, catching a movie or a live show is always on our list.
Located in the in the former Rockingham Motor Company building, the Court Square Theater is one of our personal favorite Harrisonburg attractions.
Part of Harrisonburg’s Historic Court Square, the theater was a key component of the downtown revitalization project that began in 1998.
Today the Court Square Theater offers theatrical productions, stand-up comedy, live music, and movies.
Hosted by Trent Wagler (of Harrisonburg-based band The Steel Wheels), their Living Room Concert Series offers intimate performances and live interviews with various singer/songwriters.
The theater also shares space with one of Harrisonburg’s best restaurants, the Capitol Ale House, so it’s the perfect venue for a romantic date night. Capital Ale boasts 30 Virginia craft beers and ciders on tap.
5. Explore the Passages & History of Melrose Caverns
6639 North Valley Pike, Harrisonburg VA • 540-434-3500 • Official Website
For a deep dive into Civil War history, visit Melrose Caverns (7 miles north of the city of Harrisonburg), which were discovered in 1818.
These Virginia caverns seem untouched by time and the elements. So you’ll see the caves as soldiers likely saw them 150+ years ago, when they stored their munitions 40 feet below the ground.
Both Union and Confederate soldiers lived, ate, and slept here, carving their names and drawings into passageways that can be explored on 45- to 60-minute guided cave tours today.
Bring a light jacket (the caverns are a constant 55º F) and a camera to capture the dramatic rock formations while your guide relays the history of Melrose Caverns. Note that the cavern is not well-suited to strollers or wheelchairs.
This popular Harrisonburg attraction is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10AM to 5PM, and Sunday from 11AM. to 5PM. You can purchase tickets online or at the door, and private tours, group tours, and after-hours cavern tours are available.
6. Find Fresh Produce at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market
228 South Liberty Street, Harrisonburg VA • 540-476-3377 • Official Website
What began in the 1950s with one farmer selling organic produce in the parking lot of the Harrisonburg Police Station has now grown into a year-round market sourcing locally grown produce, foods, and arts & crafts.
The Harrisonburg Farmers Market is now located in the beautiful Turner Pavilion in Downtown Harrisonburg, where it is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8AM to 1PM.
Vendors include local organic and sustainable farmers offering fruits and veggies, meats, eggs, cheeses, honey, and flower bouquets. You’ll also find baked goods, plants, and even gourmet treats for your pets.
On most Saturdays you’ll find us walking to the market for a morning treat, a loaf of fresh baked bread, and a bouquet of Mary Jo’s flowers. Depending on what’s in season, we usually find more treasures than we can carry home.
The monthly Sunset Market is new this summer, open on select Thursdays from 5PM to 8PM. This fun Harrisonburg event features the usual vendors plus children’s art activities, live music, and an excellent array of food trucks.
7. Stroll the Edith J Carrier Arboretum
780 University Blvd, Harrisonburg VA • 540-568-3194 • Official Website
If a long hike doesn’t fit your itinerary, the Edith J Carrier Arboretum offers a 125-acre hardwood forest with 2 miles of mostly shaded walking paths.
Located on James Madison University’s East Campus, the arboretum is filled with landscaped gardens, native wildflowers, and towering trees.
This 4-season woodland haven is perfect for visitors looking for nature-focused things to do in Harrisonburg VA. Visitor parking is available in the JMU R-5 lot on University Blvd, and is wheelchair accessible.
Local families love taking the kids to feed ducks from the charming wooden bridge that spans the tranquil Plecker Pond. We always make time to enjoy the Monarch Waystation pollinator garden, which is filled with majestic Monarch butterflies.
This urban botanical preserve also offers seasonal plant sales, bird watching, workshops and lectures.
8. Take a Hike in Shenandoah National Park
22591 Spotswood Trail, Elkton VA • 540-999-3500 • Official Website
The city of Harrisonburg is a 45-minute drive from Shenandoah National Park, whose hiking, camping, fishing, and wildlife viewing opportunities attract more than one million visitors each year.
Established in 1935, the national park encompasses 300 square miles of beautiful Blue Ridge Mountain scenery, with Skyline Drive and its many overlooks running right through the heart of it.
Shenandoah National Park offers 9 wonderful waterfalls and 500 miles of scenic hiking trails, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia.
One of our favorite Shenandoah hiking trails is the Bearfence Mountain Trail, a 1.2-mile trek that starts at Skyline Drive MP 56.4, intersects the AT, and has an overlook with an amazing 360º view of the Shenandoah Valley.
Note than no pets are allowed on this trail, and there is a moderately difficult rock scramble involved. Do not attempt the hike during wet or icy weather conditions.
9. Tour the White Oak Lavender Farm & the Purple WOLF Vineyard
2644 Cross Keys Road, Harrisonburg VA • 540-564-6345 • Official Website
You’ll find a veritable feast for your senses at White Oak Lavender Farm & Purple WOLF Vineyard, with stunning lavender fields and grape arbors and aromatic lavender-scented body and bath products.
We also love their tasty wines, teas, honeys, and jams, as well as the ever-popular lavender ice cream.
Located less than 8 miles from Downtown Harrisonburg, the farm has been open to the public since 2008. They offer experiences ranging from wine tastings, tours, and lectures to a discovery area with farm animals and a gift shop.
Their wine tastings feature a sample of each of the Purple WOLF wines for $14, but our favorite was “Pardon My Purple.” This lavender-infused red wine is perfect for sipping and savoring spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
When planning your visit, remember that peak season for lavender blooms is late June through early August. But there is never a bad time for a tour of this Harrisonburg winery and family-friendly farm.
10. Thrills at Massanutten Resort & Water Park
1822 Resort Drive, Massanutten VA • 540-289-9441 • Official Website
Located 14 miles east of Harrisonburg VA, Massanutten Mountain is a landmark in the Shenandoah Valley, and it’s home to one of the most beloved mountain resorts in Virginia.
Widely considered one of Virginia’s best ski resorts, Massanutten Resort offers 4-season fun with skiing, hiking, mountain biking, scenic chairlift rides, an indoor/outdoor water park, snow tubing, and more
The Massanutten Water Park offers year-round fun, including an indoor section filled with rides, tubing on a lazy river, and endless water sports. In the heat of summer, the outdoor water park opens for even more thrills and splashes.
Massantten Resort has 2,700 time-share units and hotel rooms, as well as rental and owner-occupied homes. There are two challenging golf courses, a full-service day spa, and a summer jam music festival.
Although we’re not skiers, we often visit in winter to watch the skiers and drink an Irish coffee in the cozy lodge. If you’re looking for outdoor fun near Harrisonburg VA, this resort will bring you back again and again.