Bristol State of Mind
With one foot in Tennessee and the other in Virginia you’re not just in Bristol, you are in a special STATE of mind. Here the music of the mountains made history; outlaws trying to outrun authorities eventually took the chase into the last great colosseum; and nature’s wide paintbrush created a backdrop of majestic mountains and sparkling waters. Bristol may be small on the map but it’s BIG when it comes to things to do.
There aren’t many places where the main street in a town straddles the state line, but in the heart of Bristol, one side of the street proudly displays the seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia while the stars of Tennessee’s grand divisions shine on the other. And in case you get confused about where you are, an historic sign at the end of State Street points you in the right direction and reminds you that whether it’s Bristol, Virginia or Bristol, Tennessee, it’s a good place to live (and visit)!
Once a thriving railroad town, Bristol, like many other cities saw shopping centers and malls drain the life out of downtown. Today, the heartbeat of both Bristols runs right down State Street. The bright colors and flashing lights of the restored Paramount Theater along State Street helped light the way to the Bristol boom of today. Downtown is filled with restaurants, unique shops, boutiques and a musical vibe built on the backbone of the city’s roots in music. (My favorites: Macado’s a spirited sandwich and burger joint with enough musical memorabilia you almost think you’re at the Hard Rock. And a few blocks away, the Blackbird Bakery, a 24-hour bakery and coffee house with a seemingly endless array of sweet treats and charm including a brownie tower topped with strawberries and chocolate.)
Birthplace of Country Music
In 1927, the music world experienced a Big Bang when the Victor Talking Machine Company sent Ralph Peer to Bristol to record some of the region’s musicians. Those sessions gave birth to the modern day Country Music industry. Decades later, Bristol celebrates its place as the Birthplace of Country Music with everything from a grand mural along State Street to historical markers and the centerpiece of it all, the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
Just a few blocks off State Street, this Smithsonian affiliated museum is a must see attraction, even if Country Music isn’t your thing. Hi-tech interactive exhibits help tell the story not only of the Bristol Sessions, but how these recordings help set into motion the music industry we know today. Along the way, much of Bristol’s history comes to life along with plenty of opportunities to hear live music throughout the year.
The World’s Last Great Colosseum
Back in the hills outside of Bristol there were likely a few moonshiners who found themselves trying to outrun the law. Eventually those chases led to the sport of stock car racing, the one thing most people think of when they think of Bristol. Several times each year, tens of thousands of people flock to the Bristol Motor Speedway where the deafening roar of the engines rev up fans at the World’s Fastest Half Mile and fuel a week-long celebration in the city of everything motorsports.
Now, I will confess, I was never a NASCAR fan and even when I won tickets to the Bristol race years ago, I sold them. However, I finally decided to go to one of the shorter races and I was blown away with just how much fun the whole experience was. I especially like the Colossus TV, the largest of its kind in the world.
Racing runs through Bristol’s veins and throughout the year. Bristol Motor Speedway is at the center of it all. While you can catch a race, you can also take tours of the race track and during the holidays you can drive on the track while it’s all lit up with Christmas themed lights.
Mountains, a lake and a cave “oh my!”
From the historic Solar Hill neighborhood, you get a glimpse of the outdoor playground that awaits you just a few miles outside the city limits. The high peaks of the lower end of the Blue Ridge Mountains create a nearly perfect backdrop to the classic “skyline” of Bristol. At the base of those mountains is South Holston Lake which covers more than 7500 acres. Sixty-percent of the lake’s shoreline is surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest making its natural setting a big draw for anglers and people just looking for some peaceful water recreation. For a great camping experience head to Little Oak in the Cherokee National Forest. For a picnic, visit one of the many parks and recreation areas in the area, or to get a view that will take your breath away, drive up to the top of South Holston Dam, one of the highest earthen dams in the world.
Another of Bristol’s magnificent wonders can be found 100 feet below the ground. Opened to the public in the 1940’s, Bristol Caverns still draws in tourists year-round. Stalactites, stalagmites and a formation known as the Bridal Veil help create an underground wonderland filled with surprises.
Planning your Bristol Vacation
Spending a long weekend in Bristol is a great idea any time of the year, but if you are planning on being there on a race weekend, be sure and book well in advance. While there are plenty of chain hotels along the Interstate, there is only one hotel downtown, The Bristol Hotel, a boutique hotel that opened in 2018.
If you are into RV camping, you will find several campgrounds near Bristol Motor Speedway, Observation Knob Park on South Holston Lake and at Sugar Hollow Park on the Virginia side of town. Of course, the campground at Little Oak inside the Cherokee National Forest is a great place to camp, but it is about a 30 minute drive from downtown.
Check out even more of what Bristol has to over at discoverbristol.org .
Other places you might want to check out near Bristol:
Abingdon - A charming and historic town that is home to the State Theater of Virginia, The Barter and the magnificent Martha Washington Inn.
Virginia Creeper Trail - This national trail that was once an old rail line is extremely popular now for cyclists, horseback riders and hikers alike.
Virginia State Parks in SW Virginia - From one of the deepest canyons in the eastern U.S. to a beach on a mountain lake, state parks in the region provide plenty of opportunities for relaxation and recreation.
Marion - Located about 45 minutes from Bristol, this charming town is home to the historic Lincoln Theater and Hungry Mother State Park.