James Madison University’s football team is the toast of Harrisonburg, Virginia, this fall, going undefeated through ten games (but losing to Sunbelt Conference rival Appalachian State in its eleventh), blowing out several opponents, and climbing to an impressive eighteenth in the AP college football poll. Dukes pride is running so strong that JMU leadership made waves by petitioning the NCAA to suspend rules mandating that programs remain ineligible for the postseason for two years after moving up to FBS-level play, which JMU did just last year. Though the NCAA denied that request, ESPN College GameDay lent moral support by bringing its hugely popular live broadcast to JMU’s campus last weekend. Not to be outshone, the JMU men’s basketball team started the season 3–0, including a shocking overtime win against fourth-ranked Michigan State (at Michigan State), landing it in the AP college basketball poll for the first time in program history.
So if you travel to the Shenandoah Valley’s middle to visit Harrisonburg, you’re going to see a conspicuous amount of purple. But even if you don’t find Dukes fever contagious, there’s plenty to love about the mid-size mountain town (population 52,000) that has earned the nickname Friendly City. Exiting I-81 via Port Republic Road affords a nice view of JMU’s stadium (purple seats and all) and lovely quad bordered by buildings made of locally quarried bluestone, the source of Harrisonburg’s other nickname, Rocktown. Here are a few other things to see and do:
A smart lodging strategy is to stay downtown close to Court Square, a central hotspot surrounded by a wide array of eating and shopping options. Hotel Madison, which opened on the JMU campus in 2018 and is often abuzz with university events, offers 230 modern rooms. Cozier accommodations are available at the five-room Joshua Wilton House, an elegantly restored Victorian home also beloved for farm-to-table gourmet dining, or the sunny, ten-room Friendly City Inn Bed & Breakfast.
Start the day with breakfast at Little Grill, a downtown down-home staple since 1940 (give full consideration to an order of “blue monkey pancakes” studded with blueberries and banana), or at tire-store-turned-modern-diner Magpie. Since the Strite’s Donuts trailer parked on North Main Street stays open from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., you don’t have to get up early for warm yeast donuts, but don’t wait till Sunday, when it’s closed. Local burger awards often go to Cuban Burger, where chef Steve Pizarro serves a classic Frita Cubana topped with matchstick fries and created the amazing El Vaquero by adding crispy flank steak and rum-caramelized onions. Just a few doors down, Bella Luna turns out wood-fire pizzas in an airy space converted from a livery barn. Need to check Indonesian off your international cuisine bucket list? You won’t do better than BoBoKo Indonesian Café and its specialty of rendang, slow-cooked beef with coconut milk. For a steakhouse experience in a gracefully rustic space, claim a table at Local Chop & Grill House, which as you might have guessed, sources from many area farms. Save room for dessert: Shenandoah Valley mini-chain Kline’s Dairy Bar started in Harrisonburg in 1943 and still serves up cones and shakes from its throwback downtown spot.
As with many Southern college towns, Harrisonburg is overflowing with crafty folks producing craft beverages. Brothers Craft Brewing moved into a former Coca-Cola bottling plant and basically established the scene a decade ago. If you need to kill some time, Pale Fire Brewing Co.’s location in the rehabbed Ice House complex will pour you a frosty IPA in what feels like a nice living room. More on the microbrewery end of the spectrum, Restless Moons and the Friendly Fermenter are ready to introduce you to some good-weird brews. Shenandoah Valley orchards grow fantastic apples, and Sage Bird Ciderworks turns them into ciders dry to sweet. Need a caffeine fix? Black Sheep Coffee, Coffee Hound, and Merge Coffee will get you right.
Founded in Harrisonburg in 2016, Lineage handcrafts U.S.-sourced waxed cotton canvas and vegetable-tanned leather into the luxury weekender bags, totes, and backpacks sold at its shop inside Agora Downtown Market. Also a homegrown brand, withSimplicity’s Market Street storefront carries a full line of its small-batch, all-natural beauty products. Hugo Kohl is a unique purveyor of vintage-inspired jewelry, with only a glass wall separating a sophisticated boutique from the blowtorches-and-grinders workshop that makes each piece by hand. Get info on local hikes, and any needed gear, at Virginia-based Walkabout Outfitter. And if your pooch is hiking with you, take along a reward from Blue Ridge Dog. Finally, anyone in town on a Saturday morning should make a point to stroll through the lively Harrisonburg Farmers Market, where local vendors offer apples, bread, cheese, mushrooms, wine, and just about everything else.