My sisters and I like to joke that my mom invented cottage core. We grew up in a cottage by the sea, growing our own berries and vegetables in our yard, making jam and bread, crafting and hand-making what we could, living barefoot, and wearing old fashioned dresses with our long hair. As an adult now, I’ve carried over a lot of those practices (I am thrilled to see this version of slow-living hitting the mainstream consciousness) and like to think of myself as an authority on this type of life. With that in mind, understand that Virginia has always floored me. I’ve lived here a few times on and off growing up- from living on the outskirts of D.C. to on a retired hippie farm in the mountains of Charlottesville. Since growing up though, I’ve come back and have been living here for three years consecutively this time. It’s become more and more clear to me that Virginia is a real life cottage-core paradise- especially in May. This is when the entire state is exploding in blossoms, green rolling hills, and old stone cottages. This also happens to be the month when my partner and I started dating, so this month feels especially beautiful for us, as we fell in love playing in rivers and chasing the blue mountains.
Few have ventured through much of Virginia, since people typically only visit D.C. nearby, Richmond, and Virginia Beach, so it feels very undiscovered. Before Instagram makes it blow up, make it a priority to come see this real life fairytale state. If you need some pointers or recommendations for the best places to go to get your cottage-core fix, read on for a north to south tour!
The Village of Waterford
That’s right- this is a real life village. This historic little town is filled with stone houses, gardens, farm land, and cottages. Travel to it on a windy road through the famous Virginia vineyard hills and woodlands, stopping to pick up berries from local growers as you see them. While in town walk around, explore the old streets, frolic in the fields, and stop by the corner store in the middle of town to grab a vegan pastry. This place is unreal. If you need a place to stay for the night, head over to Lovettsville (yes, it’s as cute as it sounds). The Briar Patch Bed and Breakfast Inn is idyllic, with wooden swings in meadows, pink and purple tulips everywhere, a wrap around porch, and surrounding green hills.
This historic town is so well preserved, having been one of the towns where the Declaration of Independence was first read. The cobblestone and brick streets are so fun to walk. I loved exploring this town the many times I’ve been able to live there. For your cottage-core desires however, head a little outside of the main area to Balls Bluff. This civil war battlefield sits along a ridiculously beautiful river. When my partner and I first started dating we spent that entire May playing in the river, sitting in the floating trees, and splashing around the little waterfalls pouring through the forest there. Bring a picnic and spend a day playing in this forested wonderland. When you’re getting hungry, head back into Leesburg and eat at The Wine Kitchen. They serve locally sourced food, and their menu is stunning. Enjoy scrumptious dishes like carrot rhubarb soup, local greens salad, lemon sorbet, and cauliflower steak with fennel puree. My partner and I love eating outside on the cobblestone when we go there, and getting a bottle of local Virginia wine. If you want to get an after-meal tea, go to Shoes Cup and Cork! This used to be an old shoe repair shop, and they honor that by keeping centuries old shoes hanging from the ceilings! The most lovely thing though is their secret garden in the back. Ask the waitress if you can get a table back there, and they’ll lead you through a brick alley way that eventually opens up into a garden courtyard, with large trees dancing in the wind above it all. It’s the perfect spot in such a lovely town.
I was lucky enough to live in this town as well, and I cannot express enough how beautiful it is. Drive through green hills and past at least a dozen vineyards and you’ll make it to this little blooming town (it’s literally filled with flowers). Walk through the little downtown, explore the little stone library, walk along the forested O&D trail, drive to Round Hill and see the ultimate cottage-core market, and make your way to an actual pick your own flowers farm! Fields of Flowers sits in Purcellville’s green hills, and it’s literally exactly what it sounds like- you get to bring a basket and pick local flowers! Wear your best sundress because this is the stuff of cottagey dreams. When you’re tired out from the sun and playing in the flower fields, head over to Magnolia’s at the Mill for dinner!
Having worked there in the past, I can fully attest to how fresh their local ingredients are. Everything is vibrant, the highest quality, and so mindfully picked out by the chef. This old-mill-turned-eatery is set on the edge of the forest, with beautiful outdoor seating to enjoy the sounds of nature. Not everything is vegan, but they have colorful salads made from local vegetables (a great way to get a literal taste of the region) and artisan vegan burgers. The chef is also very kind, and has often made vegan meals for guests who want something original, so don’t be shy to ask if they’ll make you something else veganized on the menu! If you’re wanting to get some famous Virginia wine, look no further than Hillsborough Vineyard. It’s close by, and I have yet to find a prettier vineyard. Weave through hills and rivers until you come across this centuries old vineyard tucked in between them. Drink under the vines and take in the classically Virginian views of the countryside.
Drive through the vineyard region of northern Virginia and make your way to this aptly named town. My partner grew up here, so we visit often and it still amazes me. The fields, horses, creeks, and views of the mountains are ridiculously beautiful. Pick wildflowers, take a hike (Bears Den has incredible sunrise views if you’re up for it), and visit the many produce stands. Stop by Mackintosh Farm and pick your own berries! You will never find bigger ones, so bring a big basket. Keep your eye out for Virginia’s class sunflowers blooming all over the farm, and plenty of native butterflies fluttering past. The berries are perfect for a picnic in this scenic region, so once you finish up there, head to Oak Hart Farm and grab some more goodies. My partner went to school with the people who run it, and not only is it family run, it is stunning! Stop in their little market and bulk goods station, and fill up your basket with local treats! After, drive over to Nalls Farm Market for some locally made salsa, more produce, and other local snacks that you want to go with what you’ve picked up. Grab a blanket, pick a piece of land, and enjoy your local food with the best views in the area. It looks like something out of a story book, so take your time to drink it all in. When you want something to sip on after your day of exploring, head in to The Tea Cart and have yourself an authentic tea party! Seriously this town is the lives and breathes cottage-core without even trying!
Shenandoah National Park
One of the dreamiest national parks in the nation, this paradise is a wildflower lover’s dream. Drive along Skyline Drive and enjoy panoramic views of the blue mountains (yes- the Blue Ridge Mountains are literally blue), forests, and quartz mountains. Bring a flannel for your dress, because it tends to get chillier up in the mountains. Go foraging for berries, look for black bears (carefully), and stargaze. It’s ridiculously beautiful. Stay in the Shenandoah Valley Inn– a beautiful bed and breakfast with fireplaces, large gardens, farm to table food, pastoral views and local art. Grab food at the Woodstock Cafe in downtown Woodstock! They have veggie sandwiches, big (and easily veganized) salads, and local ingredients! If you want more options, Brookside Restaurant is a little homey spot that serves everything from vegan chili, to endless salad bar options, to local vegetables. Edinburg Mill is another old mill turned eatery, and it’s beautiful and remote. They serve blackened tofu, many salads, and roasted local veggies among a few other things for vegans!
If you want a taste of the wine of the region, head to CrossKeys Vineyard. This is a fancier experience, but still boasts wide open views of the countryside, colorful wines, and romance. After, take a short drive (or long country stroll) to White Oak Lavender Farm. It’s a beautiful, purple, whimsical lavender farm. My partner introduced me to it, and now I love going there to smell all of the flowers! They also sell lavender jam, lavender sugar, lavender oils, and lavender wine if you want to pick up souvenirs from your cottage trip!
Before you head too much further south, make sure to stop by Crabtree Falls– the highest waterfall this side of the Mississippi river. It’s a steep hike towards the top, so bring plenty of fruit and snacks, and take breaks, Play in little waterfalls all the way up, until you reach the top. Enjoy sweeping views of the mountains, and splash around in the swimming holes at the top of it to cool off. The drive there as well takes you through windy pastures and forests, so the entire experience is incredibly beautiful.
I was lucky enough to live here as a kid on a retired hippie farm called “Farm Colony”. Nestled between the mountains in the forests, we picked berries, had bonfires, and lived barefoot. It was great. This place has had some really awful events take place in town in recent years, but it’s actually a haven for artists, writers, and anyone practicing slow living. If you’re into cottage-core, this is the place to be. In the morning drive up one of the mountains there to Carter Mountain Orchard.
This place is our favorite for fresh fruit, views, and frolicking in peach and apple orchards. Bring a picnic basket and fill it up with the goodies made there! They have amazing wines made fresh from their orchard, accidentally vegan and freshly baked fruit pies, apple butter, bread, fresh produce, salsas, and even some vegan options from their grill. Sit in the orchard overlooking the waves of blue mountains surrounding the area. For dessert, go pick some peaches and run through their trees. It’s such a magical experience.
If you want to frolic some more, bring a sunhat and head over to Highland Rustic Trails! This will take you over wooded hillsides and through pastures, through gardens and fields. This walk will make you feel like you’re living in the movie “Pride and Prejudice”. This area is also very famous for wine, so make sure to visit at least a few wineries! The Knight’s Gambit is a solar-powered, family run one in the hillsides, and their views of the woods and running horses make it so magical. If you want an even more fairy-tale feeling place, do yourself a favor and go to Pippin Hill Farm! This looks like it’s straight out of a storybook. The emerald green gardens, cottage-turned-barn, and flowers everywhere won’t be something you’ll ever forget. For the most beautiful flower gardens you’ll ever visit, go to Monticello. Enjoy the panoramic views there, the butterflies, and the colorful blankets of blooms. For food, go to an actual cottage to enjoy farm-to-table food! The Market at Grelen serves amazing dishes like heaping bowls of salad, red pepper hummus, veggie wraps, farmers market tofu sandwiches, and famous Virginia peanuts. There are so many cottage-core places to stay, including The Clifton. This historic boutique hotel was founded in the 1700’s, and is situated in gardens amidst the mountain views. Meriwether Springs is another beautiful place to stay, as it’s a white, Pinterest-worthy vineyard and bed and breakfast! If you want something closer to town, stay at the bed and breakfast, South Street Inn for ornate rooms, old fashioned architecture, and a big porch! If you want to stay further out, look no further than Orchard House Bed and Breakfast! Enjoy a gazebo, a cottage inn, rolling fields, and the coziest rooms around.
Finally, the ultimate cottage-core destination in the ultimate cottage-core state! This mountain town is in the southwest of the state and I am lucky enough to live here with my partner. We’ve been here for three years now, and this forested, river-laced, wildlife-filled place still manages to leave us breathless.
It’s also known for its endless amount of festivals, amazing music, adorable downtown, huge farmers market, hundreds of hikes around it, and one of the best colleges in the nation- Roanoke College (the school at which I am finally earning my degree, and it’s worth noting that the campus is so stunning that many choose to go here specifically for that reason, with their campus being a Tree Campus and being surrounded by mountains- definitely worth a visit while you’re here).
Bring a blanket, basket, and wine from your travels with you because this is the ultimate picnic destination! Stop in the local used bookstore covered in maps for some poetry to read, and grab some flowers, bread, chips, and the best salsa at the farmers market. There’s also a natural food store on that block that carries delicious vegan snacks and local kombucha, or you can walk a bit to the Dilly Dally Market– a cute little green cottage of a market that carries local salsas, wine, sweets, and other local goods!
Walk along the Roanoke River and find your perfect picnic spot! Expect wildflower meadows, grassy river banks, and forests, so the options are endless. Stop when it feels right and enjoy your delicious food (try to stop near sunset, because the views are quite amazing). Green Hill Park is a great spot for those wide open spaces, as well as good swimming areas along the river where it isn’t too swift. When you’re in Salem, be sure to swim in the river at least once- if you can, get up early and go before the regulars come. That’s when the ducks are out, and there is nothing more beautiful than watching the sun rise in the water. Float on your back, make friends with the turtles, pick honeysuckle, and listen to the brightly colored birds sing.
When you want a coffee or tea, the two best places are local favorites! For coffee, sandwiches, huge salads, and local lectures, go to Mill Mountain! It’s every student’s favorite place, and they have a huge selection of coffee beans. It’s also one of the few places open late in this small town, so this is a great spot to know about. For tea, go to Champloo Desserts for amazing iced tea and boba! Enjoy walks to the duck pond in town, historic homes, and rolling hills above the neighborhoods.
If you want an indoor activity, explore Roanoke College’s Fintel Library– it’s huge and absolutely beautiful (their coffee shop inside has vegan pumpkin syrup, and it’s so good with their raspberry syrup and coconut milk in an iced coffee).
Walk to the school garden and enjoy their lavender and other Virginian flowers, rosemary, and butterflies! If you want to do some hiking, there are so many options to enjoy the forested mountains. The most beloved is McAfee Knob– which at the end opens up to a “Lion King”-esque rock over the valleys, farmland, and smaller mountains. The best time to do it is as sunrise, when the mountains are bathed in pink. Just be sure to watch out for black bears! Salem is home to a lot of them, thanks to its plethora of wild places and berry bushes (another fun thing to do while here is to forage for those berries- there are a lot on the hike). More beautiful hikes include Dragon’s Tooth, Peaks of Otter, Cascades and Stiles Falls (those last two feature mind blowing waterfalls with great swimming holes).
This is also the land of flower fields, wineries, and farmland, so make sure to visit a few farms while you’re in the area. Sinkland Farms is beautiful and has the most amazing views and the cutest little store filled with homemade jams and jellies. Layman Family Farms is a great place all times of year, but expect flowers and fruit trees blooming when you go (the drive is stunning too).
The closest city of Roanoke has a stunning wildflower garden on the top of the mountain, so be sure to explore the gardens and watch for monarch butterflies! From there, it’s so fun to drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway– a famous drive known for picturesque views, wildlife, and unbeatable landscapes. Pull off at one of the view points to gather wildflowers, paint the scenery, or just enjoy the cottage core vibes.
For farm-to-table food, go to Local Roots or Blue Apron. Local Roots is woman owned and everything is so fresh. It’s the best food I’ve ever had in the United States, but make sure to call ahead and let them know you’re vegan so they can make you something fresh! While you’re there, walk across the street to the co-op for more picnic supplies and local goods (their produce is always epic). Next door to the eatery itself is a bakery that sells our favorite rosemary french bread so be sure to pick some up! Blue Apron is in downtown Salem and they accommodate vegans with award-winning local food (their cauliflower steak is amazing and so are their sorbets). Enjoy the natural light, flowery cocktails, and the strung lights of the town outside. For wine, there are so many options here, but Amrhein is beautiful thanks to the little road you drive to get there through the forest, their sangria, and the flowery meadow the winery is sitting on. Virginia Mountain Vineyards is a little further away but has dreamy views and rolling hills all around. For a drive through pastures and woods, stop at Beliveau Winery! They are our favorite, as they hosted grape stomps when COVID wasn’t a thing yet, have incredible views, and are nestled in between two mountains. As far as places to stay go, you need to stay at the historic The Inn at Burwell Place in Salem! This inn is cozy, old fashioned, and perfect for the cottage-core enthusiast. Before you leave this stunning area, make sure to take a walk under the blossoms at night at least once. It is the ultimate cottage-core experience.
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn