By Joe Lowe
Manassas may have one foot in the past, but time doesn’t stand still in its historic downtown. Over the last few years, the city’s Victorian-era center has flourished thanks to the arrival of new businesses and restaurants, a crowded event calendar and an impressive museum system.
Manassas’ storied past dates beyond the Civil War to a time when the town consisted of four structures, known collectively as Tudor Hall. Notwithstanding its size, the town’s enviable location at the intersection of two regional train lines held enormous strategic value, causing Union and Confederate armies to famously clash twice nearby. In the decades that followed, the junction proved a valuable economic asset as well and helped usher in a period of sustained growth during which much of Manssasas’s celebrated downtown was built.
Efforts to rejuvenate this historic center have paid off handsomely. As renovation projects have brought old buildings back to life, the Manassas downtown area has won the Great American Main Street Award and recognition as a Virginia Main Street Town.
“This is an exciting time for us,” said Debbie Haight, executive director of Historic Manassas, Inc. “The decades of hard work spent revitalizing the Manassas historic downtown are paying off spectacularly. And our downtown—once boarded-up and ignored—is now a vibrant arts and cultural district that is constantly growing and diversifying.”
With so much progress in recent years, it’s likely that Historic Downtown Manassas will surprise first-time and repeat visitors alike. Here are six reasons you won’t regret—and probably won’t forget—a trip down Manassas’s thriving memory lane.
1. History in the Air
Manassas’s remarkable history lives on in vivid style thanks to the city’s excellent museum system. The system is composed of eight distinct units, which range from its modern 7,000-squarefoot headquarters to the Liberia Plantation, a restored nineteenth-century farm house, where Abraham Lincoln conferred with Union General Irvin McDowell in 1862.
The museum will be buzzing with exciting in- and outdoor activities in 2016. Spring-time bike tours offer riders a chance soak up the greening landscape while exploring Manassas’ Civil War encampments, local parks, and historic crossroads. Meanwhile, visitors to the Liberia Plantation can take Hard Hat Tours to get a behind-the-scenes look at Manassas’ oldest house, including its rarely opened attic and basement, as well as recently discovered Civil War graffiti.
Admission to the museum, which is open daily from 10:00 a. m. to 5:00 p. m. except on Mondays between Labor and Memorial Days, is free. For details and updates, check the museum’s website at manassasmuseum.org.
2. Activities for All
Historic Downtown Manassas may be old, but that doesn’t stop the city from having fun, and its event calendar is packed with a head-spinning range of activities. For history buffs, there’s the Civil War weekend and parade; for shoppers, the Hop Around Downtown Easter celebration; for wine lovers, the Wine and Jazz Festival; for train aficionados, the Heritage Railway Festival; for music enthusiasts, the Summer Sounds Concert Series. And that is just a sampling of what’s available. “Manassas holds the largest Fourth of July fireworks display in Northern Virginia, gallery walks, historic tours and much more,” said Kristina Smith, events coordinator for Historic Manassas, Inc. Check out the city’s online event calendar at visitmanassas.org/events for the full list of activities, festivals and parades.
3. Produce for the Picking
“For those who enjoy farm-fresh food, our city’s award-winning Farmers Market visitmanassas.org/listings/farmers-market offers up an impressive selection of local organic veggies and fruit three times a week during summer months,” said Erin Beckman, visitor center manager for Historic Manassas Inc. After picking up a quart of juicy strawberries or a pound of carrots, consider sticking around to check out some of the market’s other activities. Staff from the Manassas Museum is usually on hand to give historic demonstrations or lead family-orientated activities, and Master Gardener Volunteers are often there as well to provide budding gardeners with useful tips and tricks. Kid-accompanied moms and dads will be happy to learn that children-friendly activities are also available.
From April to November, the Farmers Market is held Tuesdays and Thursdays in Manassas’ Harris Pavilion and Saturdays in Parking Lot B behind the Pavilion. Thursday and Saturday hours are 7:30 a. m. to 1:00 p. m.; on Tuesday the market is held from 5:00 to 8:00 p. m.
4. A Feast for Foodies
“Manassas’ food scene keeps expanding as new restaurants fill empty buildings downtown,” said Haight. New arrivals include Mariachis, a taqueria; The Bone, a barbeque pit; Zandra’s, a tapas bar; and CJ Finz Raw Bar & Grille. Despite the buzz generated by these new restaurants, local fixtures like Carmello’s, Katerina’s Greek Cuisine, Mackey’s American Pub, Malone’s, The Philadelphia Tavern, City Tavern, Deli Depot, El Cactus, and Okra’s Louisiana Bistro, Monza, Old Towne Sports Pub, Foster’s Grille, George Richa’s Old Town Caterer & Deli and Siam Classic Thai Restaurant are thriving and continue to serve up resident favorites.
For those who want to wet their whistles, the options in Historic Downtown Manassas have never been better. The city’s historic center is home to two local beer-makers, Heritage Brewing and Bad Wolf Brewing Company, both of which opened in the last two years. If you’re in the mood for something a little stronger, try KO Distilling Manassas’s first spirit-producing distillery since Prohibition. KO offers guided tours of its distillery, which produces gin, white whiskey, bourbon and rye whiskey.
6. Street Canvas
History won’t be the only thing filling the streets of historic Manassas this summer. The city’s second annual Banner Art Project will be on display with local artwork hanging from nearly 70 lamp posts throughout downtown. And street posts aren’t the only places to look for art. Talented local artists have used their creative skills to decorate fire hydrants, benches, doorways and alleyways as part of the Artful Manassas Initiative visitmanassas. org/artful-manassas. If you’re ready for more art, step inside The Center for the Arts of Greater Manassas center-for-the-arts.org to check out current exhibitions.
Joe Lowe (email@example.com) lives with his wife and daughter in Gainesville. After working for many years with the National Park and Forest Services, he is now employed with an environmental non-profit in Washington, D.C.