“Almost heaven,” crooned John Denver when he sang of West Virginia. The self-proclaimed Country Boy hailed the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River and country roads.

But visitors to Charleston learn pretty quickly that Denver missed one of the Mountain State’s prime attractions: its capital. Charleston — located approximately 200 miles southeast of Cincinnati — boasts one of the nation’s most beautiful capitol buildings alongside art galleries, performing arts and great shopping.

 
CAPITAL ATTRACTIONS

The white limestone and golden dome of Charleston’s Capitol shine brilliantly on a clear day, when the sun’s rays reflect off its exterior. It’s a building that received no small financial investment during its Depression-era creation, and with little wonder. The only citizens to have won their independence by proclamation of the president — Lincoln granted West Virginia sovereignty in 1863 — West Virginians couldn’t immediately agree on the site for their new capital, sending it bouncing between Wheeling and other towns for almost 15 years before finally sending it to Charleston.

It would be another 55 years before Charleston’s Capitol building would be completed. Perhaps that explains its grandeur, supporting the tallest capitol dome in the country — higher even than that of the U.S. Capitol — and covered in 23k gold leaf. The capitol is open to the public daily, offering visitors a chance to see the building’s 4,000-pound chandelier of more than 10,000 Czechoslovakian crystals.

 
ARTS AND CULTURE

Charleston’s Capitol and its surrounding museums, gardens and monuments dominate the east end of downtown, an area also known for its historic residences and B&Bs. (The Brass Pineapple on Virginia Street is a good bet.) Directly downtown stands the Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences, the most ambitious cultural institution in West Virginia. Home to the Clark Performance Place and the Avampato Discovery Museum, the Clay Center joins theater, art and science museums and a planetarium in one location. This is the place to catch performances of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, the Charleston Light Opera Guild and Broadway in Charleston. It’s also the place to see permanent and temporary visual arts displays and hands-on science exhibits.

Charleston’s downtown features some of the city’s most interesting shopping, from independent boutiques to internationally recognized department stores. Capitol Market, located within a 19th-century railroad building, marks the place to begin. Open daily year-round, the indoor and outdoor market offers local produce, cheese, honey and flowers.

Mall shoppers gravitate toward the Charleston Town Center Mall, one of the nation’s largest downtown shopping centers.

Just blocks away, the beloved, independent Taylor Books is famous for its creaky, century-old wooden floors and mismatched easy chairs — the come-sit-a-spell kind of comfort that suits bookstores so well. The shop sells its 20,000 book titles alongside hard-to-find magazines and newspapers, an art gallery and studio, and a café serving coffee drinks, light lunches and wine by the glass. On weekends, Taylor features free, live local music.

Across the street, Ellen’s Homemade Ice Cream provides the perfect afternoon break. At least a dozen regular flavors fill Ellen’s glass display cases daily, as well as seasonal favorites like pumpkin pie in autumn and peppermint candy in winter.

DOWNTOWN DINING

Charleston’s best dining lies within an easy walk of its downtown attractions. The Blossom Deli, a local landmark, occupies a 1950s-era soda fountain and diner, its original Art Deco styling still intact. These days the restaurant is known for contemporary, made-to-order sandwiches. In the evening, jazz and dimmed lighting convert the Blossom into an elegant restaurant known for pasta dishes and fresh seafood.

Located on the eastern end of the Capitol Market, Soho’s draws diners with an interior space of exposed beams and bare brick walls. Soho’s dinner menu is decidedly Italian, offering wood-fired pizzas, seafood-filled ravioli and garlic shrimp in pancetta.

After dinner, make time for a final Charleston stop: a drive along Loudon Heights Road just west of the South Side Bridge. Here, on a ridge overlooking the Kanawha River and downtown Charleston, the capital city lights up the valley and contrasts with the surrounding mountains. It’s a view of Charleston visitors don’t soon forget. In fact, you might say it’s almost heaven.

RIVER EXCURSION

If a visit to Charleston just begs for a sojourn into the surrounding Allegheny Mountains — and it surely will — consider a daytrip along the Midland Trail National Scenic Byway, state Route 60, which traverses West Virginia from Huntington on the Ohio border to White Sulphur Springs near Virginia.

Route 60 cuts an asphalt swath through the Alleghenies, carrying speeding travelers into a landscape of misty mountain mornings, rippling brooks, and a slower way of life. The route also paves the way to Hico, a center for West Virginia whitewater rafting. Several outfitters lie within close proximity of Hico and its larger neighbor, Fayetteville. But rafts aren’t necessary to appreciate the beauty of West Virginia’s rivers. Follow Route 19 toward Fayetteville to view the New River Gorge Bridge, the second highest in the nation (Royal Gorge bridge in Colorado is the highest), soaring almost 900 feet over the New River below.

Remain on the Midland Trail all the way to White Sulphur Springs to overnight at the 19th-century Greenbrier, one of the nation’s few remaining historic wood-frame hotels and one of West Virginia’s most memorable luxury lodging experiences.

AUTUMN FOLIAGE

West Virginia’s finest autumn foliage bursts into view along I-77, from Charleston to Beckley. Just a few miles outside of Charleston, the interstate begins its serpentine journey through the Allegheny mountains, with vistas of brilliantly colored mountains, shear escarpments and, here and there, a sparkling mountain river below.

Once in Beckley, visitors rest up at Tamarack, West Virginia’s premiere arts and cultural center. The starburst-shaped building’s perimeter features crafting stations, each showcasing local talent eager to answer questions and demonstrate traditional weaving, wood-working, glass-blowing and spinning. Gift shops within the building sell authentic crafts and local music recordings as well as jams, jellies and wines produced throughout West Virginia. Tamarack’s Food Court, “A Taste of West Virginia,” is managed by the culinary staff of The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs and features regional specialties.

All in all, a delicious way to wrap up an excursion to this storied state.

For more information about the city, contact the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 733-5469, www.charlestonwv.com.
For information about attractions throughout the state, contact West Virginia Tourism, 800-CALL WVA or
www.wvtourism.com.