“You can’t change any of the toppings and still call it a West Virginia Hot Dog,” she warned.
It was the first thing I’d learned about Huntington. I was sitting in my car at the Frostop drive-in, trying to order lunch. I hesitated. The prerequisite toppings weren’t my favorite on a hot dog. The hesitation lingered too long. Finally, I gave the exceedingly patient lady my order.
West Virginia’s second-largest city has things to do that you’d expect in a city – a museum of art, urban parks, a university, and a historic city with ties to a 19th railroad mogul. But more than anything else, Huntington is a foodie destination.
And by the time I left the city on my northbound road trip, I discovered plenty of foodie surprises in the river town.
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Just as the American Revolution started, a permanent settlement called Holderby’s Landing was established at the congruence of the Ohio and Guyandotte Rivers. Virginia became a state in 1788 and included all of present-day Kentucky and West Virginia. Midway through the Civil War in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that West Virginia could be recognized as its own state.
A few years later, Collis P. Huntington established the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway at the James River in Richmond, Virginia. The idea was to connect Virginia to the prosperous Ohio River Valley. By 1873, the railroad through the rugged West Virginia mountains was completed with a terminus in Holderby’s Landing.
Did You Know?
The route of the C&O Railroad passed across the Alleghany Mountains through Clifton Forge. The C&O Railway Heritage Center features several locomotives and train cars to explore. An enormous miniature railroad diorama and museum is inside the historic train depot.
When the city was incorporated in 1871, it was renamed Huntington in honor of the railroad tycoon. Huntington became a central commerce hub as the railroad was extended to Hampton Roads to the east and Cincinnati, Toledo, and Chicago to the west. A boom period lasted until the Great Flood of 1937 destroyed much of the town, turning nearly 60% of the city’s population into homeless refugees.
Throughout the 20th century, Huntington declined like many other railroad towns. But the city found ways to thrive with a diversified economy – today, Huntington is the second-largest city in the state, behind only Charleston.
Getting to Huntington by Car
Huntington isn’t strictly off the beaten path, but it is an out-of-the-way destination in a northwest corner of the state along the Ohio River.
The easiest way to get to Huntington is along Interstate 64. From Charleston, it’s an easy one-hour drive. From Lexington, Kentucky, it’s an equally easy two-hour drive.
But the most scenic and adventurous route into Huntington is along US Highway 23. From Kingsport, Tennessee, it’s a 4-hour drive along the four-lane highway through former coal towns, beautiful mountain ranges, and charming small towns like Norton, Virginia, and Pikeville, Kentucky.
From Columbus, Ohio, it’s an easier three-hour drive on sections of US Highway 23 with interstate speed limits. The route bypasses Chillicothe and passes through Portsmouth before crossing the Ohio River.
Getting to Huntington by Amtrak
An interesting way to visit Huntington would be an adventure on Amtrak. The passenger rail service’s Cardinal Line connects New York City and Chicago with an out-of-the-way southerly route in West Virginia. The Cardinal Line follows the same route as the original C&O Railroad across Virginia’s Alleghany Highlands.
Amtrak’s stop in Huntington is located just five blocks from Pullman Square. Hotels, restaurants, shopping, and attractions are about a twenty-minute walk from the public square.
The Cardinal Line connects to Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC, from New York City. The train typically leaves New York City at 7 a.m. three days per week and arrives in Huntington around 10 p.m. For this route, I suggest a coach seat for the 15-hour ride – but spend most of the time in the observation car.
From Chicago, the Cardinal Line connects to Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The train typically leaves Chicago at 6 p.m. and arrives in Huntington at about 7 a.m. the following day. For this route, I recommend a roomette in the viewliner car.
Get Craft Coffee at Grindstone Coffeeology
Start the day exploring Huntington at Grindstone Coffeeology. Baristas grind beans fresh for every coffee served – the menu includes all the typical staples like drip, espresso, and iced. Their all-day brunch menu includes croissant sandwiches, quiche, and breakfast burritos.
Grab a seat at a comfortable table inside the small coffee shop. Or, head to the rooftop sitting area with tables and chairs beneath shade sails.
Look for New and Used Books at Cicada Books & Coffee
What’s better than a local coffee shop? A local coffee shop inside a used bookstore! When owners Dawn Hylbert and Katie Norman opened Cicada Books & Coffee, they named it after the cicada – an insect known for rebirth.
Used books are stacked on shelves from the floor to the ceiling. But the retail shop has much more – local artwork, house plants, and unique gift ideas. Order a fresh ground coffee at the front, browse the used books, and then snag a table to enjoy the coffee and flip through the books before taking them home.
In 1887, Collis Huntington established the Huntington and Big Sandy Railroad, extending his precious C&O Railroad, and built a two-story passenger terminal. Over the next forty years, the brick structure was expanded several times to include growing freight. But by the early 1900s, the building was abandoned. Aside from a short tenure as the Greyhound Bus Station, the building was unused for decades.
After renovations and restorations, the former passenger and freight depot reopened as Heritage Station. An original steam locomotive and coal car are installed in front of the depot. Inside, restored hardwood floors and antique freight scales greet visitors to the historic building.
The Huntington Visitor Center is located inside the old transportation hub. Visitors can pick up the local tourism guide, browse brochures on things to do, and get tips from the friendly staff. At The Red Caboose, visitors can browse shelves of arts and crafts from local artisans, clothing, souvenirs, and Blenko glassware.
Heritage Farm Museum & Village
Gravels crunched beneath my feet on the path between a dozen log structures and rustic wooden buildings. The village pulsed with activity – a blacksmith hammering in a shop, kids giggling on a ropes course, and a goat grunting from an enclosure. What kind of place had I discovered?
When Mike and Henriella Perry bought an old farmhouse in 1976, they discovered a passion for their Appalachian heritage. After twenty years of collecting, building, and planning, they opened the Heritage Farm Museum & Village, they opened the farm to the public in the spring. By 2006, they had established regular business hours for visitors to explore their creations.
Seven museums cover topics like early frontier life, transportation, and technology. The MakerSpace features local arts and crafts. The Blacksmith Shop is usually staffed by someone busy making something with forged metal and muscle. The Treehouse Trek offers excitement, and Critter Corner is a great place to hang out with the animals.
Ritter Park is Huntington’s most popular place for outdoor recreation. The park is at the base of a short mountain ridge where the city’s grid of straight straights begins curvy climbs. It’s a peaceful escape from city noises and a great place for visitors to stretch their legs.
A 0.6-mile gravel path winds through the park, connecting the various attractions. The Rose Garden features manicured gardens surrounded by brick pavers. Nearly a dozen tennis courts await the arrival of eager players. The amphitheater is surrounded by the shade of towering trees.
And then there is the award-winning playground. What exactly makes it award-winning? In 2012, the American Planning Association named Ritter Park one of the “10 Great Public Spaces” in the country.
Harris Riverfront Park
The only way to get to Harris Riverfront Park is to drive through the towering concrete wall protecting Huntington from the Ohio River. After 19 days of consecutive rain in 1937, the Ohio River broke over the banks and swept through the city. By 1943, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had completed an 11-mile-long floodwall to prevent the natural disaster in the future.
On the other side of the floodwall, the riverfront park is an impressive introduction to Huntington. An amphitheater with grassy levels faces the river. Walking paths meander beneath the shade of trees. At the end of the park, a concrete platform is a frequent destination for fishing on the river.
In the distance, the Robert C. Byrd Bridge crosses the Ohio River, connecting West Virginia and Ohio.
Huntington Museum of Art
Opened in 1952, the Huntington Museum of Art features an impressive collection. But the enormous building and 52 acres on a hilltop are even more impressive.
Explore the ten exhibit spaces, including The Glass Collection, Portrait Gallery, and the history of firearms. Attend an event in the 287-seat auditorium. Take a walk through the only tropical conservatory in West Virginia. Plan to spend about 2-3 hours exploring the 16,000-object museum.
One of the most interesting things to do at the museum is to explore the outdoors. The 52-acre property features two miles of hiking trails and two outdoor sculpture gardens.
Museum of Radio & Technology
The Museum of Radio & Technology is the most fascinating museum in Huntington. In 1991, a group of radio enthusiasts purchased an old school and slowly accumulated a collection of antique radios, military communications equipment, and radio broadcast gear.
Instead of desks, former classrooms are filled with Victrola console radios. Instead of chalkboards, the walls are covered with circuit boards. Instead of books, shelves are filled with radio communications equipment.
Radio gear was stacked from the floor to the ceiling, hallways lined with wooden console radios, and tables covered with every kind of radio technology ever used. It was a fascinating walk through the history of radio communications in a casual setting.
Touma Museum of Medicine
In 2017, Dr. Joseph B. Touma and his wife, Dr. Omayma Touma, donated their collection of medical instruments and artifacts to Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. The university opened a 4,000-square-foot Touma Museum of Medicine in the heart of downtown Huntington, featuring the collection throughout dozens of displays.
Walking through the museum is like stepping into the pages of a medical history textbook. Bygone medical instruments, aged books, and antique tools reveal how far medicine has come in a short time.
The museum is open by appointment only, and it’s the one appointment everyone should make while visiting Huntington.
Pullman Square opened in 2004, capping off decades of downtown revitalization. The two-story, open-air shopping mall features interesting stores like The Inner Geek bookstore, Old North Arcade where you can enjoy beer and food with retro arcade games, and catch a movie at Marquee Cinemas.
The grassy square is the site of annual special events like live music concerts. During the day, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a break from the hustle of exploring the city.
When an enclosed space for retail shops opened in 2017, it was an instant hit with the locals. The Market quickly became the hangout place with great food and live music. It’s one of the things everyone should do with a visit to Huntington – morning or evening.
Butter It Up is the best place in the city for breakfast, serving delicious free-range eggs in their farm-to-table menu. Wildflower Gift Shop offers a variety of home décor and collectible items that will beg to go home with you.
Austin’s Ice Cream started in nearby Ceredo, but when The Market opened, they jumped at the chance to move downtown. All of their ice cream is homemade and features savory flavors. Order one or two scoops in a cone or bowl and find a place to sit before it melts!
We Are Marshall Self-Guided Walking Tour
In 1970, the collegiate sports world and the entire city of Huntington were shocked when a plane crash killed 75 Marshall University football team members, staff, and crew members. When director McG approached the sensitive topic of filming a dramatization of the incident in 2005, he decided to film the movie in Huntington.
The Huntington Visitor Center has copies of a self-guided tour of the filming locations throughout the city. Some scenes were filmed at private businesses and homes, but most were filmed on the Marshall University campus.
Take a walk through the campus – open to the public, but be mindful of where you park – and explore the filming locations at the Memorial Fountain, Buskirk Field, Hodges Hall, and Morrow Library.
Get Dinner at the Quirky Bombshells, Burgers & BBQ
Shortly after Billy Bare, a retired police officer, built an indoor gun range in Huntington, his wife, Christy, built a restaurant next door. When you eat at Bombshell, Burgers & BBQ, check your receipt for a discount to a round at Bare Arms Indoor Range. Opened in 2018, it’s one of the city’s quirkiest places for a great meal.
The restaurant is modeled after classic dinners from the 1940s. The WWII-inspired seating area is reminiscent of classic diners with red and white booths, painted pinup girls hanging on the walls, and rock music – albeit from the 50s – blaring from speakers.
The menu is an array of American foods like wings, pizza, barbecue, and sandwiches, but their burgers are the best. It starts with the All American – a 1/3-pound Angus Beef patty served with your choice of toppings. But the Flamethrower Burger was the winner – topped with pepper jack cheese, jalapenos, and “atomic bomb sauce.” The burger was named after Hershel “Woody” Williams, a Marine who received the Medal of Honor in WWII for his duty as a flamethrower.
Get an Authentic West Virginia Hot Dog
You probably don’t know about the West Virginia Hot Dog if you’re not from West Virginia. The recipe is simple, but ironclad: bun, wiener, chili, slaw, onions, and mustard. No substitutions are allowed. Fortunately, Huntington has two great places to get a satisfactory meal.
In 1932, husband and wife John Louis and Gertrude Mandt bought a tiny orange building on 5th Avenue and opened Huntington’s first drive-in eatery. They had two items on the menu: Stewart’s Root Beer, invented in Ohio just a few years earlier, and popcorn. In following years, the menu grew to include hot dogs with Gertrude’s secret chili sauce – the same sauce made today.
In 2005, John Jr., the fourth generation of the family to run Stewart’s Original Hot Dogs, founded the West Virginia Hot Dog Festival. The festival is held in Huntington the last weekend of July and features carnival rides, live music, and many vendors crafting the iconic hot dog.
In 1926, L.S. Harvey opened the first Frostop Root Beer in Springfield, Ohio. Over the next three decades, the franchise spread across the country. People became familiar with the savory burgers and fresh root beer.
The Huntington location was built in 1959. The iconic mug – first installed at a Frostop in Louisiana in 1954 – has been on the roof of this location since it opened.
The burgers, grilled cheese, sandwiches, and fries are cooked to order. It’s one of the tastiest meals in Huntington. But the West Virginia Hot Dog is the star of their menu. The waitress noted, “You can’t change any of the toppings and still call it a West Virginia Hot Dog.” As it turns out, the hot dog goes great with crunchy onion rings and a fresh root beer.
Get a Downtown Dinner
Huntington is a foodie destination. With a weekend visit, you couldn’t eat at every type of restaurant in the city. You’ll find everything from a steak house to a raw bar. But you can start with dinner at one of these downtown restaurants.
Calamity J Grill & Bar is a “blend of southwest and soul.” Entrées include chicken, pasta, and burritos with a spicy twist. The owners at Huntington Ale House take meat seriously, with burgers so stacked you’ll need a fork and knife to eat them – an entire section of the menu is dedicated to mac & cheese. Jim’s Steak and Spaghetti House has been a local favorite since 1938. The original owner’s daughter runs the restaurant now, where you find big portions of every meal.
21 at the Frederick is a date night. Opened in 2015 at the historic but defunct Frederick Hotel, the tables are covered in white linens, and the detailed architecture will make you feel like it’s the 1930s. You’ll find filet mignon and Colorado lamb chops on the menu and an evolving wine list.
Le Bistro features a farm-to-table menu with fresh local ingredients for Huntington’s most creative culinary experience. Since 2012, Backyard Pizza and Raw Bar has cooked up various gourmet wood-fired pizzas, but you can also order fresh seafood from their raw bar. The Peddler combines craft beer from their ten-barrel system with buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches and thick burgers.
Where to Stay
Hampton Inn is ten minutes from downtown. The hotel features an indoor swimming pool, suites with a sleeper sofa, and the best complimentary breakfast of any hotel chain. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com
DoubleTree by Hilton is one of two downtown hotels within walking distance of restaurants and shopping. The hotel features an outdoor swimming pool beneath a pedestrian bridge connecting the hotel to a parking garage – parking is an additional fee. Book with Booking.com or Expedia.com