Get a taste of Appalachia with 24 hours in Charleston, West Virginia

While it’s difficult to tackle most state capitals in a 24-hour window, West Virginia’s is approachable enough to charm during even for the briefest of stays. In an ideal world, Charleston — which has a population of about 47,000 — makes a perfect basecamp for several days of Appalachian mountaineering. But when you only have 24 hours in the Mountain State’s capital, here’s how to pack in the sights and sounds while still enjoying West Virginia’s relaxed pace. 

An aerial view of the airfield and airport in Charleston, West Virginia surrounded by gentle rolling hills just barely starting to show the first colors of autumn
Charleston's airport is named for Brigadier General Chuck Yeager, a West Virginia native who piloted the first ever supersonic flight. © 6381380 via Getty Images

9 a.m.

You will likely arrive in Charleston by plane or train. Yeager Airport (CRW) is a compact, relaxed transportation hub located less than 5 miles from the heart of downtown Charleston. From the airport you can take an Uber downtown (about $13) or rent a car for the day (starting at about $35).

The Charleston Amtrak station is just across the Kanawha River from the city center. The early 20th-century building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is on the New-York-to-Chicago Cardinal line. It's a quick car ride over the bridge to downtown, or a modest thirty minute stroll. 

No matter which transportation mode you choose, head straight from the station or airport to Charleston’s Capitol Market.

A view of the Charleston, West Virginia Skyline from across the Kanawha River. On the right side of the frame is the South Side Bridge, extending from the Amtrak station to the city center. The skyline is mostly made up of low, multi-story brick and masonry early skyscrapers in beige or neutral tones. The river is a deep greyish blue. The sky is bright and full of fluffy white clouds.
The South Side Bridge extends from the Charleston Amtrak station into the historic city center © Davel5957 via Getty Images

9:30 a.m. 

Capitol Market is an indoor-outdoor collection of local eateries, food stalls and shops that breathed new life back into a turn-of-the-century train depot.  It’s a central point to start the day: Grab a coffee and breakfast at the Mea Cuppa counter, then meander through local businesses such as the Purple Onion, Holl’s Swiss Chocolates, and WV Marketplace

10 a.m.

Once you’ve had your fill of browsing groceries and West Virginia collectibles, walk a few blocks over to Taylor Books. This local business has become a gathering place and landmark unto itself. The bookshelves lining the cafe and art gallery house a heady mix of national bestsellers and local lore. It’s a beautiful reminder that independent businesses thrive even in West Virginia’s urban center.

The gold dome of the West Virginia State Capitol building and surrounding campus under a blanket of snow.
The West Virginia State Capitol Building was completed in 1932, and dedicated on the sixty-ninth anniversary of West Virginian statehood © Thorney Lieberman via Getty Images

10:20 a.m.

Sufficiently caffeinated, leave the downtown center and aim for the Kanawha River. Follow Kanawha Boulevard south for 2 miles to the State Capitol building, a gleaming gold-leafed dome larger than even the United States Capitol building. Approaching it from the river, with the lush green Allegheny mountains rising around you, it’s easy to envision the grandeur architect Cass Gilbert wanted to showcase in this small-but-mighty city.

11 a.m.

Wander the State Capitol complex for a few minutes before heading to the West Virginia State Museum. This ambitious museum traces the West Virginia’s history from antiquity to the 21st century. While it’s possible to spend hours in the museum’s 26 discovery rooms, you can see the main exhibit pathway in about 45 minutes. 

12:20 p.m.

By now, your riverside stroll and walk through millennia of history might have your stomach rumbling. Whether you’re in the mood for a light lunch or a homegrown feast, Bluegrass Kitchen delivers. This 1920s-style deli serves up comfort food sourced from Appalachian farms. The menu is vegetarian-friendly, though the kitchen still dishes out omnivore favorites such as grass-fed brisket and smoke-cured West Virginia bacon.

A row of people stand in a long tunnel of plastic sheeting and flexible semi-circular ribs next to a long trough of water from an underground salt lake. The images is in color, but is mostly made up of grey tones as the light filters through the plastic and the water reflects the surrounding structure
Co-owner Nancy Bruns gives a tour of the salt harvesting process at J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works Charleston West Virginia © Leandra Beabout / Lonely Planet

1:30 p.m.

Now that your belly is full, grab a ride six miles down to the road to J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works. This seventh-generation family salt farm is built over an ancient underground saltwater lake. Siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne harvest salt by pumping the water to the surface, separating salt from the brine through sun evaporation, then sifting out impurities by hand. After a free tour of the property, taste the natural sea salt and buy your own jar of salt or salted caramel to take home. It’s the perfect hand-luggage-sized souvenir that can only be found in West Virginia.

3 p.m.

Your afternoon will depend on the weather and your interests. Are you feeling the urge to shop, get your creative juices flowing, or take a walk through the West Virginia woods? 

For a hyper-local shopping experience, head to Elk City on Charleston’s west side. Spot recent mural art in the neighborhood while you stop between Elk City Records, Base Camp Printing Co., and Kin Ship Goods. If designer boutiques are more your speed, stop by the Bridge Road Shops in the South Hills area.

A colorful mural showing abstract faces adorns the side of a historic brick building, partially obscured by trees. A man and a woman stand and admire the mural while a jogger runs by. A trashcan and park bench are in the foreground
The Elk City Historic District in Charleston, West Virginia is full of quirky shops, record stores, and colorful murals © The Washington Post via Getty Images

If you are pining for more mountain air, spend a couple hours tromping through the Kanawha State Forest. This 9,300-acre haven is rife with leafy hiking and biking trails – including the Spotted Salamander Trail, a wheel-chair accessible interpretive trail near a historic barn.

In the mood for creative vibes? Stop by the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences. The massive interactive museum and performing arts center is a hit with families. For less than $15, you’ll get access to everything from hands-on science and art exhibits to an art gallery and planetarium.

A white plate rimmed with an ornate gold design is filled with colorful vegetables in a farm to-table dish at Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia
Farm to table cuisine rooted in Appalachian culinary traditions can be found throughout Charleston, West Virginia, from this dish at Bluegrass Kitchen to fusion menus at The Market © The Washington Post via Getty Images

6 p.m.

At The Market, bite into chef Steve Samples’ classic Appalachian recipes—with a modern twist. Like other dining establishments following the farm-to-table trend, The Market’s menu shifts with the seasons. Despite that, the menu is expansive, including everything from pork belly tacos to classic Southern combinations like chicken and waffles. The cocktail and wine menus are robust at any time of year.

Evening

Charleston’s hidden talent is its entertainment scene, from bluegrass on West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage to eclectic films in an underground micro-theater. Live radio broadcasts or concerts usually start around 7PM on the Mountain Stage. To jumpstart your night with live music from local bands, hightail it to the Clay Center for the Sound Checks concert series. Or if you're in the mood to catch an indie flick in a tiny 29-seat theater, descend to Floralee Hark Cohen Cinema in the basement of Taylor Books. 

A view of downtown Charleston from a distance, shot from up the Kanawha River when the hollsides surrounding the highway and town are covered in bright autumn leaves
Charleston, West Virginia has relatively mid weather year-round, so there's no bad season to visit © Thorney Lieberman

10:30 p.m.

Daylight has faded, so it's time to for one more hurrah before ending your time in Charleston. Grab a drink at Bridge Road Bistro, known locally for its signature cocktails and regional wine list. The atmosphere is laidback, especially in the lounge, so no need to arrive dressed to the nines. Unwinding in Charleston is a no-frills affair.

Midnight

If you’re in the mood for one last tipple before bed, stop into Bar 101. Then hit the hay in one of downtown’s array of standard accommodations, from easy-on-the-wallet Quality Inn & Suites to the Marriott anchored near Town Center shopping mall.

Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter. Check out adventure tours for every traveller from our trusted partners.

Places from this story

Related content