Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum + Old Town Winchester

Where: 19 W. Cork St., Winchester, VA
When: Tuesday-Sunday, 9 am- 5 pm (closed Mondays). Tickets are $8 for everyone 2 and up.

There’s a magical force surrounding the area we live. My husband and I call it the Northern Virginia Bubble. Northern Virginia is a strange place- while it is historically, geographically, and technically the South, it does not behave like the South. It might be in the South, but it is not of the South. But as we have noticed, going 50 miles in any direction breaks the bubble. If you go 50 miles south or west, you’re in the South. Fifty miles north puts you in the North.

Winchester lies just outside the Northern Virginia Bubble- on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester feels like any other sleepy small Southern town. (A prominent characteristic of breaking through the Northern Virginia Bubble- you’re suddenly back in the land of Waffle Houses and Sonics. And Winchester has BOTH.)

My girls and I escaped the Bubble for a bit to take in the beauty of sweet little Winchester. Our first stop was the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, a hands-on kids museum featuring four floors of displays, activities, and exhibits. We first went  on a rainy day last fall with a newly-mobile baby. This year, with a hell on wheels curious toddler, it was a whole new experience. The great thing about SVDM compared to other kids museums we have been to (Port Discovery in Baltimore, and Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh just this summer), is it’s relatively free of crowds, so the kids have plenty of room to spread out and really explore the play areas rather than getting lost in a crush of children as they do in the bigger museums.

There’s four floors in SVDM. The first floor holds a large triceratops skeleton and a paleontology area to dig for dinosaur bones as well as a refurbished ambulance that kids can “drive.” The back is wide open and various medical apparatus are available for kids to play with and pretend they are paramedics.

If you’re like us, the second floor is where you’ll spend the majority of your time at SVDM. This floor stretches the length of the building and is stuffed with tabletop manipulatives (Legos, wooden blocks, toy food), a water play area that mimics the wetlands of the Potomac Watershed, an area with movable loops and hills that children can combine to make roller coasters down which they can shoot small balls, and an apple sorting area complete with fake trees, apple baskets, a log cabin, and pulleys and conveyor belts to transport the freshly picked apples.

There’s also a man who sits at the desk on this floor who has a delightful way with kids. A collection of large, colorful plastic shapes was on the floor directly in front of his desk; my toddler bent down to play with them but in her excitement, tripped over them when rushing off to a new area. The man at the desk said YOU FELL RIGHT INTO MY TRAP! and I had a good hearty LOL.

The third floor is mostly dedicated to arts and crafts and rooms where birthday parties and summer camps are held, but there is a realistic wigwam built there that models how the Iroquois Indians lived. Also, this is where you’ll find the bathrooms.

My personal favorite part of SVDM is the fourth floor Sky Deck:

The entire roof of SVDM has been carved into an imaginative outdoor play space for kids. There’s small tubs with growing vegetables, a flower garden, paintbrushes and water for “painting” the cement and watching it evaporate, hoola hoops, and a life-sized bowling game.

There’s also incredible views of Downtown Winchester!

Food and drink are not allowed in SVDM, nor is food sold there. BUT! Your paid admission is good all day, which means you can get a stamp on your hand, go find some lunch, and come back for more play later. I urge you to do that because right around the corner from SVDM is the Old Town Winchester pedestrian mall:

Not only is Old Town Winchester adorable, it’s the perfect place to walk with young kids. Busy roads and cars are replaced with wide brick pathways that kids are free to roam safely ahead of you without worry.

There’s even a splash pad!

Knowing this now, I would suggest packing bathing suit and/or a change of clothes and letting the kids play in the splash fountains before getting back in the car. Really get the most bang for your Winchester buck.

My girls and I sat on a shaded patio at Ronca’s and had a pleasant lunch, watching people come and go on the mall. (Three men came and sat down near us after we ordered. They appeared to be local officeworkers out for a lunch break, and they ALL ordered the Monte Cristo, so I’m going to assume the Monte Cristo at Ronca’s is good. Alas, that’s not what I had ordered. (Boring old Italian sub, grumble grumble.)

Right on the mall is the Old Court House Civil War Museum. You know, for the history buffs among us.

Before you leave Winchester you must pop over to Piccadilly St. and catch a glimpse of the magnificent Handley Regional Library, crown jewel of Winchester:

ALERT, ALERT: for those who have been reading, you know I’m fond of pointing out different architectural styles that can be found in the area. We’ve got a new one here- Handley Library is done in the Beaux-Arts style, which was heavily favored in the US from 1880-1920 (Handley Library was opened in 1913). The library was funded by Judge John Handley who left $250,000 in his will for the specific purpose of creating a free library for citizens of Winchester. When it was built, Handley Library cost approximately $233,000 to construct. In today’s dollars, that amount is over $5 million.

Some tips:

-There is a parking lot with metered parking right next to Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, but it can fill quickly due to its proximity to the museum. We parked in the centrally located Braddock Street Autopark, which connects to the pedestrian mall right through the back of the parking garage, and is just a .03 mile walk from the museum itself. It’s also right up the street from Handley Library, so you won’t have to go out of your way to see it. This location could not have been more convenient, or inexpensive- four hours of parking ran me a whopping $2.

-Bring extra clothes and swimsuits for the pedestrian mall splash fountains!

-Stop at Sonic on your way out of town and get a cherry limeade. JUST DO IT.

I’m aware the drive to Winchester can seem a bit daunting, especially if you are coming from points closer-in to DC or Fairfax. However, it’s a pleasant, easy drive and there’s plenty of places to stop along the way, including Nalls Farm Market in Berryville where you can get fresh produce, and Hill High Marketplace which houses Bogati Winery and the Round Hill outpost of Leesburg favorite, Mom’s Apple Pie.  Both of these are right along the highway and require no detours or side roads- nothing more than a turn into the parking lot and a turn back out onto the highway when you’re ready to leave.