Aerial photo by Joshua Lee Bryant
Straddling the Virginia-Tennessee border, Bristol delivers plenty of weekend fun, whichever side of the street you’re on.
by Michael J. Solender
Small-town hospitality is so big and welcoming in the foothills community of Bristol, two states lay claim to the storied burg perched smack along the Virginia-Tennessee border. Historic State Street slices right between the two states, and in case anyone doubts the harmonious nature of the side-by-side communities, there’s a brightly lit, billboard-sized sign with a pair of arrows proclaiming Bristol as a “good place to live.”
Like twin sons of different mothers, the forever-paired Bristol combines to offer visitors a surprising variety of dining, entertainment and adventure. Getting there is a breeze, an easy three-hour drive northwest from Charlotte. Here’s a sampler of what to put on the itinerary.
Clockwise from left: Lost State Distilling, Birthplace of Country Music Museum, South Holston Lake & Dam
Bottom right photograph by Johnson City Aerial Photography
Bristol’s rich musical heritage is enshrined and celebrated at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum,an affiliate of Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institute. Opened in 2014, the 24,000-square-foot museum is a window into country music’s legacy rooted in this region. Visitors learn about the hillbilly, gospel and mountain music of the early 20th century and about the Bristol Sessions — one week in 1927 when legendary locals like Earnest Stoneman, Jimmie Rogers and Mother Maybelle Carter recorded their music here. These storied recordings catapulted the regional sound into mainstream America and became the foundation from which the country music genre would explode. The museum showcases the backstories, music, instruments and ephemera of early legends and traces their influence on later greats like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Trace Adkins through recordings, videos and interactive exhibits.
The historic Paramount Bristol is a glimmering 1931 theater anchoring State Street and the city’s grande dame performing-arts center. The first commercial building in the region to have “refrigerated air,” the art-deco theater hosts touring Broadway shows, local theatrical productions, films and concerts. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the venue boasts an original Mighty Wurlitzer organ and has hosted the likes of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Spivak, and Harry James, along with Grand Ole Opry stars Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Marty Stuart, Ronnie Milsap and Charles Esten. Scheduled to perform this fall: The Wallflowers, Lindsey Buckingham, the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Blackberry Smoke.
Lost State Distilling is a tiny family-owned craft distillery that blends small-batch spirits including Tennessee whiskey, rum and gin. Owner/distiller Nick Bianchi leads tours and tastings, sharing insight on the slightly magical alchemy where grain, botanicals and water become spirited elixirs. Try Shelby’s Reserve Whiskey, a high wheat bourbon with a mellow, smooth taste.
The Southern Churn is a vintage novelty candy, ice cream and fudge shop that’s just what’s needed for a midday treat. A Bristol staple, Southern Churn slays sweet-tooth cravings with hand-scooped classic cones, sundaes and shakes. Southern goodness is enveloped in the homemade fudge, with specialties like red velvet whoopie pie, orange crème and chocolate caramel peanut. Grab a seat by the window and people-watch as Bristol bustles outside.
Bristol Motor Speedway is the NASCAR short track with the big reputation. Beyond race day, the track hosts tours, year-round camping, festivals and even an ice rink from mid-November through mid-January.
Just a 15-minute drive from downtown Bristol, South Holston Lake & Dam delivers big fun for hikers, fly-fishing enthusiasts and boaters. Connect with local outfitters to get on the water, or venture out for a hike on Osceola Island (a well-marked 1.6-mile loop) or the Spillway Trail (3.5 miles out and back) for a day of outdoor fun and fresh mountain air.
Opened in 2018, The Bristol Hotel provides access to many of the town’s entertainment and dining options just steps from historic State Street. Sixty-five comfy rooms shine in this lovingly reclaimed architectural gem. Built as a hotel in 1925 by Hardin Reynolds, the nephew of tobacco mogul R.J. Reynolds, the property later was converted to professional offices and was known as the Executive Building.
There’s a retro feel here, with nods to the building’s history in design elements such as the Revival-style Roman arched entryway, textured stucco exterior, oversized street-facing display windows and original polished concrete floor in the lobby bar. A large art installation in the lobby was inspired by Bristol’s bustling leather industry in the early 1900s.
Contemporary cool is the vibe greeting guests at the Bristol, named among the top 10 U.S. city hotels in a 2020 Travel + Leisure poll. The pet-friendly hotel offers plentiful off-street parking and a thoughtful and accommodating staff.
At the Bristol Hotel, head upstairs to Lumac Rooftop Bar for a cocktail, barrel-aged whiskey or local beer. Guests here enjoy live music and dramatic 360-degree views of the Appalachian Mountains at Bristol’s first — and finest — rooftop bar. Savory bites like fried green tomato caprese, smoked wings and spicy pimento cheese are on the menu. A quick elevator ride downstairs takes visitors to Vivian’s Table — a Southern bistro with an unfussy vibe and a menu with something for everyone. Grilled street corn with queso fresco is a great sharable starter and nice lead into the chimichurri sirloin or bacon-wrapped Appalachian stuffed chicken oozing with spinach and Parmesan. Save room for house-made banana bread pudding, rich and creamy with a brown-butter caramel sauce.
Blues, brews and ’cue is the order of the day at Delta Blues, a State Street eatery where brisket, pulled pork, smoked chicken and smoked sausage star alongside a stellar supporting lineup of sides including fried okra, collards and Southern fried corn. Visit on Cajun Tuesdays and get the popcorn crawfish, fried alligator, catfish or shrimp platter or po’boy. Eat inside or on the back porch — the blues are always playing on the jukebox.
Blackbird Bakery is a breakfast institution in these parts, with good reason. Blackbird’s pastries, doughnuts, specialty coffee cakes and treats are legendary. Grab a cappuccino or espresso and start the day in style. Two doors down, the Blended Pedaler offers a healthy selection of smoothies, superfood acai bowls and fresh juices, along with hourly e-Bike rentals for self-guided tours around town. Bloom on State Street is a glorious brunch cafe with daily quiche, waffles, biscuits and gravy, and endless mugs of coffee. On weekends, Bloom is also open for dinner, serving classic Southern fare with modern preparations, from pork belly lettuce wraps to sweet potato ricotta gnocchi.
The Original Burger Barin downtown Bristol is widely known as the last place Hank Williams Sr. was seen alive before succumbing in the car ride on his way from Knoxville to perform a gig in Canton, Ohio, in 1953. This classic diner has served up tasty burgers, chili-cheese fries and more since 1942.
Appalachian flavors are on the menu at Bistro on 6th.Owner and Executive Chef Marc McDaniel offers his own take on classics like baked white cheddar mac ’n cheese, chicken and waffles, and fish and chips, along with Champagne pork and horseradish-encrusted salmon. SP
Aerial photo by Joshua Lee Bryant