12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Charleston, West Virginia
Charleston sits at the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers, in the western part of West Virginia, not far from the Ohio and Kentucky borders. Its population of only a little more than 50,000 gives it a small-town feel, but its outstanding and eclectic arts and performance scene is one that cities many times its size would envy.
The area was settled by pioneers, who moved west after the Revolution, and the first permanent settlement here was Fort Lee, built in 1788. Daniel Boone was an early resident and a member of the Kanawha County Assembly. Three major interstate highways - I-64, I-77, and I-79 - all converge in Charleston. Discover the best places to visit and things to do during your stay with our list of the top attractions in Charleston.
See also: Where to Stay in Charleston
1. State Capitol
West Virginia's most recognizable building, the Charleston State Capitol, rises majestically above the banks of the Kanawha River, with a dome five feet higher than that of the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. The 300-foot dome is entirely covered with 23.5-karat gold leaf applied in tiny sheets less than four inches square.
The building's architect, Cass Gilbert, relied on themes from classical antiquity for this limestone building, as he did for several of his other well-known works, such as the U.S. Treasury Building and the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington. Of note inside the Capitol is the massive chandelier suspended from the top of the dome. Address: 1900 Kanawha Blvd East, Charleston, West Virginia
2. West Virginia State Museum
Follow the history of West Virginia from prehistoric times by following a trail through this museum from the dark Coal Forest with displays of coal and fossils to a film of today's West Virginia landscapes.
On the way, you'll see archaeological finds (including one of the state's most famous hoaxes, the Braxton County Rune Stone); visit an original settler's cabin; take a realistic trip through a simulated coal mine; and get an introduction to West Virginia's history, culture, traditions, and art. Short films and audio commentary enrich the experience.
Address: 1900 Kanawha Blvd East, Charleston, West Virginia
3. Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences
Home to the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, the 240,000-square-foot Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences combines performing arts, visual arts, and sciences in one location. Concerts and performances here include a variety of musical genres, in addition to classical, such as gospel, swing, jazz, Motown, rock and roll, and southern rock. The Broadway in Charleston series also presents its productions here.
Despite the variety offered here, this is only one of several performance venues in Charleston. The Charleston Light Opera Guild produces off-Broadway shows, and Live on the Levee is a concert series featuring local and national acts performing a variety of music, from African and country to pop, every Friday evening from May to September at Haddad Riverfront Park.
Productions by the Charleston Ballet include traditional classical favorites, contemporary, and folk styles. Add performances by the River City Youth Ballet Ensemble, and there are plenty of choices for things to do at night in Charleston.
Address: One Clay Square, Charleston, West Virginia
Official site: www.theclaycenter.org
4. Capitol Street and Capitol Market
Capitol Street | Richie Diesterheft / photo modified
Along Capitol Street, visitors can stroll through old-time Charleston, with its well-maintained historical buildings. Cafés, galleries, bookstores, and boutique shops sit along the tree-lined brick sidewalks, where restaurants offer everything from pizza and Asian food to house-made ice cream.
Monthly, March through December, the street hosts ArtWalk events that celebrate the city's artistic talent with free, self-guided walking tours of shops and galleries featuring paintings, sculptures, photography, and music.
Near the end of Capitol Street, in a renovated 19th-century freight station, is West Virginia's only indoor/outdoor farmers market, Capitol Market, with a year-round mix of fresh produce, plants, flowers, seafood, and locally made products. Between the market, galleries, and boutiques, this is the city's favorite neighborhood for leisurely shopping.
5. West Virginia Veterans Memorial
This impressive and poignant oval monument features four monoliths, each representing one of the four 20th-century military conflicts. A reflecting pool surrounds the monument, whose interior walls are faced with polished black granite etched with the names of fallen West Virginia veterans.
Sculptures of four figures representing the four major service branches and each of the conflicts are the work of the memorial's designer, P. Joseph Mullins. The statues represent a World War I doughboy, World War II sailor, a Korean aviator, and a Vietnam Marine, each in full gear.
Address: Greenbrier Street, Charleston, West Virginia
6. East End Historic District
The neighborhood around the Clay Center and State Capitol is more commonly referred to as "East End" and is one of the city's oldest and most diverse commercial districts, where modern urban styles blend with Charleston's history. The area has recently seen a regeneration enlivened by an eclectic mix of public art ranging from graffiti-style works to historic statues.
The State Capitol dominates this riverside district, and on its grounds is the East End's oldest building, the 1815 Holly Grove Mansion. In this district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, you'll find examples of at least a dozen different architectural styles spanning the city's history, from Georgian and Greek Revival to Prairie and Bungalow.
Address: Capitol Street, Charleston, West Virginia
Official site: http://charlestoneastend.com
7. Governor's Mansion
Although its construction was only completed in 1925, this Georgian Revival-style home, designed by Charleston architect Walter Martens, is a symbol of West Virginia's distinguished past.
Filled with priceless antiques, silver, porcelains, and crystal chandeliers, the mansion is open for tours by reservation. Included in the tour are the ballroom; library; and dining room, with a 14-foot long mahogany banquet table that extends to seat 24 at formal dinners. The house is the official residence of the Governor of West Virginia.
Address: 1716 Kanawha Blvd., Charleston, West Virginia
8. Kanawha State Forest
Hike, bike, cross-country ski, or pitch a tent at Kanawha State Forest, seven miles south of Charleston. The scenic 9,300-acre forest is especially popular with nature lovers for its birdlife, which includes 19 species of wood warblers that nest in its woodlands. The park is a popular place for picnics and has a children's playground.
This makes it a good place for families, and the park is also popular with walkers and hikers for its well-kept trails. Most are shorter than two miles and rated easy and moderate, the easiest being the Davis Creek Trail. For more of a challenge, try the Rocky Ridge Trail, which is especially beautiful in the fall for its ridge-top views.
Address: 7500 Kanawha State Forest Drive, Charleston, West Virginia
Official site: http://www.kanawhastateforest.com/
9. Avampato Discovery Museum
Two floors of family fun await visitors at the Avampato Discovery Museum in the Clay Center for Arts and Sciences. Attention-grabbing, interactive science exhibits bring life to the earth sciences, engineering, energy, magnetism, and health.
Designed as an old-style roadside tourist attraction, Milton Gardner's Earth City explores earth science, while Health Royale features innovative experiences in health and wellness. Kidspace is designed for the abilities and interests of children under age five, and STEAMworks explores technology, engineering, and math.
The museum also houses nearly 800 works of 19th-, 20th-, and 21st-century American art, as well as European counterparts.
Address: One Clay Square, Charleston, West Virginia
Official site: www.avampatoart.com
10. Craik-Patton House
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this fine example of Greek Revival architecture was built in 1834 in central Charleston and later moved to its present location beside Daniel Boone Park.
Most of the house is original, and it is furnished with fine examples of early 19th-century pieces, including Queen Anne tables, Windsor chairs, Chinese export and English porcelain, French wall paper, and period art. In addition to the house, you can tour the formal boxwood garden and a reconstructed log cabin that offers a vivid contrast in the lives of different classes in the early 1800s.
Address: 2809 Kanawha Blvd E, Charleston, West Virginia
Official site: www.craikpattonhouse.org
11. Heritage Towers Museum & Culture Center
Following the saga of African American life from the kingdoms of West Africa to Appalachian coal mines, exhibits here explore some little-known chapters in West Virginia's rich history. Working with other museums and schools, the center celebrates the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans in West Virginia and elsewhere and promotes cultural diversity.
The museum grew from an early traveling exhibition on the wreck of the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship found buried under the ocean for 300 years off the coast Florida. The ship represents the infamous Triangle Trade, and the trans-Atlantic slave route, and serves as a vehicle for exploring the history of African Americans in West Virginia.
Address: 612 Virginia Street E, Charleston, West Virginia
Official site: http://www.heritagetowers.us
12. Ruffner Cabin and Daniel Boone Park
When the old Joel Ruffner home on Kanawha Blvd. was torn down in the 1960s, hidden within it was found the walls of the original log cabin around which the later house had grown. Carefully reconstructed in Daniel Boone Park, this cabin, built some time before 1803, is believed to be the oldest extant house in the county.
Built by Joseph Ruffner, who bought much of the land on which Charleston stands today, was the first of a long line of Ruffners who were instrumental in the city's early history. You'll find some Ruffner furniture on display in the Craik-Patton House.
Daniel Boone Park, which commemorates the early Charleston resident and assemblyman, has picnic tables, a fishing pier, and boat docking.
Address: U.S. Route 60, Charleston, West Virginia
Where to Stay in Charleston for Sightseeing
Many of Charleston's top tourist attractions are in the downtown area, and this is where most people want to be based. At the northwest end of the city center, where many of the mid-range hotels are found, are the Civic Center and Town Center shopping mall. At the far southeast end are the State Capitol and the West Virginia State Museum. Below are some highly rated hotels in good locations:
- Luxury Hotels: Charleston has a distinct lack of true luxury hotels but there are some full-service, business-style hotels in the city. The Marriott Town Center is well positioned in downtown, near the Civic Center and Charleston Town Center, and features an indoor heated pool and fitness center. Nearby, but closer to the Kanawha River, is the Four Points by Sheraton, offering well-appointed rooms and similar amenities. The higher floors offer great views over the city.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Hampton Inn Charleston - Downtown is just a few minutes outside the downtown area but is close to restaurants and shopping and offers a free shuttle to downtown and the airport. The hotel features a pool and fitness center, and comes with a complimentary breakfast. The Embassy Suites by Hilton is an all-suite hotel set in a great location downtown and also has an indoor pool and free breakfast.
- Budget Hotels: Budget hotels in the city center are limited, but the Capitol Hotel is one option in the heart of downtown offering basic but clean rooms. For the best selection of budget and value hotels, it is a good idea to head outside the city center. The Sleep Inn, with large rooms and a free breakfast, is 10 minutes outside of downtown. With a similar commute time, the Days Inn Charleston East comes with a pool and complimentary breakfast.
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Where to Go in West Virginia: Nature lovers may want to escape to places like New River Gorge National Recreation Area or Blackwater Falls State Park. Try white water rafting or explore a cave. For more ideas, see our guide to the best outdoor adventures in West Virginia. If you are looking for a more relaxed weekend getaway, West Virginia has some great options, and you can enjoy your vacation at one of the state's many resorts.