February 1, 2019
Tennessee has developed a reputation for its charming and fun small towns. Bristol, straddling both sides of the Tennessee-Virginia state line, is a great example. Perhaps best known for the legendary NASCAR short track Bristol Motor Speedway, Bristol has come into its own by embracing its rich vein of musical heritage, localized entrepreneurial and artistic talents, a collective eye for revitalization and an undeniably beautiful natural setting.
From seriously good, scratch-made dining and the massive angler’s paradise South Holston Lake to the Smithsonian-affiliate Birthplace of Country Music Museum and a burgeoning brewery scene to complement Tri-Cities’ already hoppy reputation, you’ll want to plan a weekend in Bristol, Tennessee.
Lay your head: Fairfield Inn & Suites (3285 West State Street, Bristol)
The Fairfield Inn & Suites offers easy access to Bristol's many attractions at an affordable rate. The lobby greets you with bright, modern designs that are reflected in each room. Enjoy complimentary Wi-Fi, satellite TV and a walk-in shower in some rooms, a heated indoor pool, hot complimentary breakfast and warm beds to flop into after a full day of exploring Bristol.
Photo Op: Iconic Bristol Sign (State St.)
If you’re rolling into downtown on State Street, especially at night, you can’t miss Bristol’s most iconic landmark and photo-op. It spans the width of State Street and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having been placed here in 1921.
Get happy at the Angry Italian (16 6th St., Bristol, TN)
A few blocks away is Bristol’s Chicago-style pizza mecca. Just look through the window on a Friday night. This place is packed out with locals - a telltale sign to grab a seat. Everything at the Angry Italian, from the dough to the salads, is hand prepared in-house, which appears to be a theme throughout Bristol’s downtown eateries.
Get your motor runnin’ at the Bristol Motor Speedway Ice Rink (151 Speedway Blvd., Bristol, TN)
Now, an ice rink may not be the sort of oval track that comes to mind when you think Bristol. Perhaps a slightly larger, steeper and louder venue comes to mind. Yet in the winter months, the folks behind one of NASCAR’s most popular tracks set up a tented ice rink right out front of the speedway. The speeds may be slowed down, and the racers may be on a pair of blades instead of four tires, but you can be assured the fun is just as big.
Raise a pint at Holston River Brewing Company (2623 Volunteer Pkwy, Bristol, TN)
Less than two miles down Volunteer Parkway from the speedway is a brewery and music venue with a motto that pays homage to the river that gave them their name: “Good Water. Great Beer!” They're talking about the Holston River, of course, because this is the Holston River Brewing Company. Local tip: they keep the dance floor open with real Southern rock and country sounds on a regular basis.
Get there early and stay late at Blackbird Bakery (56 Piedmont Ave., Bristol, VA)
Locals swear by this spot and you will, too. And what’s crazy is they’re open 24 hours a day, every day but Sunday. They open the doors at 6 a.m. on Monday and don’t close till midnight on Saturday. Housed in an old Masonic Temple just two blocks from the Tennessee line, this cozy spot (they even have a fireplace, y’all) has everything from Bavarian crème donuts and jalapeño bacon Kolaches to pecan pie tarts and chocolate dream cake. They also brew local coffee and sell local churned ice creams - so hot or cold, this is your spot. Blackbird Bakery is a real-deal, two-state favorite for folks in the Tri-Cities area.
Toe tappin’ at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum (520 Birthplace of Country Music Way, Bristol, VA)
Just down the block from the bakery is Bristol’s newest iconic spot: the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. As a Smithsonian-affiliate, its specs are impressive. It’s a 24,000 square-foot, two-story shrine to some of the pioneers of American country music. In 1927, an enterprising recording engineer and talent scout, Ralph Peer, traveled south with some revolutionary field recording technology and set up shop in a Bristol, Tennessee warehouse. What he recorded became recognized as the “Big Bang” of country music. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Bring Bristol home with you at L. C. King Manufacturing Co. (24 7th St., Bristol, TN)
Music is a time-honored tradition in Bristol, woven into the very fabric of the town’s identity; and so, too is fabric itself. L. C. King Manufacturing Company has been under the same roof since 1913. Fabrics are hand cut by a single craftsman with just a few others doing the garment assembly. And they’re using old fashioned equipment and know-how from another era where craftsmanship was king. L. C. King brings a bygone era to the modern scene in a way that seems timeless and yet trendy. They ought to know. They’ve been doing it this way for over 100 years.
Photo Op: Bristol Sessions Mural (State St.)
This massive mural depicting many of the folks made famous by the Bristol Sessions is located on the Tennessee side of State Street. Walk west a few blocks. Like the iconic Bristol sign, you can’t miss it.
An array of deliciousness at 620 State (620 State St., Bristol, TN)
Worked up an appetite yet? Check into this classic yet elevated American and Southern fare spot and choose between Carolina reaper hot chicken sandwiches or avocado topped salmon on a bed of rice, sushi and stir-fry. Housed in a massive, yet somehow cozy and very warm space, 620 State turns Southern fare on its head.
Stretch your legs at Steele Creek Park and Nature Center (4 Little Lane, Bristol, TN)
Owing to the natural splendor surrounding Bristol, drive out of the downtown district for a little R&R. Steele Creek Park, the third largest municipal park in the Volunteer State, has more than 25 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails cutting through approximately 2,300 acres, surrounding the picturesque Steele Creek Lake. On site is a nature center - go in and say hello to Big Snappy, the snapping turtle - a golf course, splash pad, paddleboats and more trails than you can hike in a single visit.
Tried and true pasta at Machiavelli’s (8 5th St., Bristol, TN)
Machiavelli’s, located downtown and just one block from the Angry Italian, is way too good to pass over. Like just about every other restaurant in downtown Bristol, most of the menu’s offerings are handmade. They’ve got a stage tucked into one corner where crooners and songwriters are known to play just about every American classic except Wagon Wheel (see if you can spot the sign). While you listen, order the Italian Nachos. One glance at the description and you’ll understand why.
Nightcap taps at Elderbrew (24 6th St., Bristol, TN)
If you didn’t get lured into Elderbrew after eating at the Angry Italian (they’re next-door neighbors) then backtrack one block and pull up a barstool. Inside, the bartender is spinning real-deal vinyl records, which on its own gives the whole place a chic vibe. And the rotating tap list, which includes selections beyond what they brew themselves, makes Elderbrew a staple in the already voluminous lineup of breweries that have come up in the Tri-Cities area over the past several years.
Brunching at Bloom Cafe and Listening Room (606 State St., Bristol, TN)
Cafe by day, listening room by night. This casual and cozy spot is decked out with low couches and coffee tables; and there are board games and books and a stage with an open-mic night for poets, singers and troubadours to take the mic. This eccentric place feels a little bit like a retro dining room, decked out with old typewriters, local art (the space has a full art gallery). Breakfast, lunch and brunch is served. You can spend quite a while here just sipping coffee, eating and maybe even playing some Scrabble.
Get subterranean at Bristol Caverns (1157 Bristol Caverns Hwy, Bristol, TN)
On your way out of town, catch a few of the well-known natural wonders like Bristol Caverns. An underground river formed this cave hundreds of millions of years ago. Luckily, some enterprising locals decided to make the splendor of the caverns accessible by installing paved and lit walkways and stairs, so a visit to Bristol Caverns is no hardcore spelunking experience. You’ll enjoy these vast caverns and the endless shapes found in the stalactites, stalagmites and other formations.
Weir Dam and South Holston Dam (376 Holston View Dam Rd., Bristol, TN, with the South Holston Dam just another mile or so beyond)
Finally, a peaceful moment to reflect on the weekend and take in Bristol’s natural beauty can be found here. South Holston Dam, the largest of the two dams, was constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1940s as a means to prevent flooding and electrify the area through the hydroelectric dam itself. The resulting lake, South Holston Lake, is surrounded almost entirely by the immense and scenic Cherokee National Forest. World-class fishing is found in these waters - including bluegill, walleye, catfish and more - but you don’t need a rod and reel to appreciate a lake this beautiful. Just pick a spot, take a breath, and live in the moment. That’s really what Bristol’s all about.