Best Driving Vacations: Peace in the Piedmont

Plentiful, delicious dining, a vibrant cultural scene and outdoor fun are set against the backdrop of beautiful, mountainous landscapes in Winston-Salem.

Laura Arenschield
View from within Old Salem Museums & Gardens as it faces downtown Winston-Salem

Winston-Salem, NC | 378 miles away | 6-hour drive

In the foothills of the North Carolina mountains, just before you hit wine country and a mere four hours from the beach, is Winston-Salem, a city of art and food and easy access to the natural wonders of the region’s terrain. “Winston just has something magical about it,” says Cary Clifford, founding co-owner of Camino Bakery, a downtown staple. “It has a small-town feel, but it’s urbane in so many ways, too. It can be hard to explain.”

Says Nikki Miller-Ka, a food writer who has been covering the region for years: “There’s a creativity here that anyone can tap into. Whoever you are, wherever you are in your life, whatever you want to be, you can realize that in Winston-Salem. It’s a special place.”

I couldn’t agree more. I lived in Winston-Salem before moving to Columbus, and I love the city unapologetically. I’ve spent the last eight years proselytizing for its peacefulness, its beautiful mountain terrain nearby, its exceptional cuisine and especially its people.

Downtown

Downtown Winston-Salem, just over six hours from Central Ohio, is the kind of place other downtowns wish they could be. Every spring when the weather turns warm, people fill the streets (until 2020 that is—thanks COVID). They eat and drink outdoors, take part in dozens of festivals, catch a movie at the independent theater and relish being outside, together, in a place with good food, engaging people and beautiful weather.

For me, Camino is the heart of downtown—a place where people gather, not just for coffee but for conversation. It opened in 2011 but had been percolating (pun very much intended) since 2008, when Clifford started selling her baked goods at another downtown institution, Krankies Coffee, which is a coffee shop but also an art gallery and an incredible restaurant. Since then, Camino has been a driving force behind bringing live music to the street outside the bakery and hosting shows for local photographers and other artists.

But there’s more to downtown than just food (even though the food is excellent). Catch a film at Aperture Cinema or book a private browsing session at Bookmarks, a literary arts nonprofit that operates a fantastic bookstore on Fourth Street and also holds a literary festival each year. Stop in at Foothills Brewing two doors down for a pint. North Carolina is the beer capital of the East Coast for a reason, and though Asheville always gets the spotlight, Winston-Salem holds its own. There are eight microbreweries within a 1.5-mile radius of downtown.

On spring and summer weekends you’re likely to find a street festival, with themes ranging from cycling to wine to music. Take a class (or pick up a new piece of art) at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art, an all-ages, nonprofit instructional center.

Downtown dining on Fourth Street

Where to eat and drink

Visit Camino, of course, where my go-to order always includes a cookie (vegan options available) and a cup of tea. And Krankies—I do not eat much meat, but when I’m in town, I almost always grab one of the chicken biscuits for breakfast. Foothills has the best burger in town, according to Miller-Ka. Small Batch Beer Co. offers pub food and microbrews. Spring House is more upscale, with a sweet Southern atmosphere and a focus on locally grown produce and locally raised meat.

The Arts District

Winston-Salem is a city of artists, and the Arts District, along Trade Street downtown, is among the city’s jewels. Here you’ll find the Piedmont Craftsmen Gallery (featuring work by craftswomen, too), a venue run by the Piedmont Craftsmen nonprofit, which exists to promote fine handicraft in the arts. Seek out work by Coppertide, my favorite Winston-Salem artist. She was accepted to the 2020 Columbus Arts Festival before it was canceled.

A demonstration at the Piedmont Craftsmen Fair
The Ramkat

A number of other galleries call the area home, too. Earthbound Arts offers handmade teas, soaps and pottery, all with a deep respect for nature. Body and Soul is a bookstore, boutique and gallery rolled into one. Black-owned and a staple of the Arts District for the last 20 years, it features art imported from Africa, books primarily by Black and local authors, and shea-based skin care products. The northern end of the district has the best music venue in town, The Ramkat, where, if the pandemic wanes in 2021, you can catch acts like Buddy Guy and Chatham County Line.

Where to eat and drink

Do not miss Sweet Potatoes—full legal name: Sweet Potatoes (Well Shut My Mouth). This award-winning restaurant has been around since 2003 and serves up Southern staples like chicken and waffles, fried green tomatoes and fried chicken. Mojito Latin Soul Food offers excellent tamales, tacos and arepas, but the best items, according to Miller-Ka, are the ham croquettes. “This is probably the hottest restaurant in town right now,” she says. “And those croquettes are phenomenal.”

Or duck into Mission Pizza Napoletana, the first Neapolitan pizzeria in North Carolina. Chef and owner Peyton Smith takes the craft of making pizza so seriously that before the pandemic you couldn’t get it in a box to go because it would compromise the quality. Single Brothers is a delightful spot for creative cocktails. If wine is more your speed, visit 6th and Vine, where glasses are half off every Thursday; every Sunday, bottles are. Both have patios for enjoying the Carolina sunshine.

Old Salem and Brookstown

Hundreds of years ago, Winston-Salem was two different areas, colonized and founded by two separate groups of people. Winston was named for a Revolutionary War hero; Salem was built by Moravian settlers. (The word “Salem” comes from the Hebrew word “shalom,” meaning “peace.”) The Moravian tradition is still strong in Winston-Salem, where at Christmastime, Christian churches host “love feasts” with peaceful music, simple candles and sweet bread. If you make it to the city for Easter, there is a lovely sunrise service at God’s Acre, in the Salem Moravian Graveyard, that begins with musicians walking throughout the city playing horns and singing—truly something to witness.

The city honors its history in a number of ways, but the most obvious and easily accessible is in Old Salem, just a few miles from downtown. This historic district includes blocks of preserved or reimagined historic homes, workshops and a school, all as the Moravians who settled that area would have set them up in the mid-1700s. The pandemic has closed much of the village—during normal times, there are demonstrations, a restaurant and a bakery—but the village itself is still open for a stroll. On Saturdays, visit the Cobblestone Farmers Market, an all-local, producer-only affair with a focus on sustainable farming.

The village is not far from Brookstown, an area just south of downtown that offers great restaurants and places to stay. If Old Salem is the focus of your trip, consider making Brookstown your base.

Where to eat and drink

Willow’s Bistro offers creative farm-to-table food. Meridian Restaurant has upscale dining with northern Mediterranean flavors. Visit Di Lisio’s Italian Restaurant for pastas and bruschetta made by a chef from Naples, Italy. Camino has a location in Brookstown for a pastry-and-coffee pick-me-up. Stop in at nearby Acadia Foods for delicious breakfasts (try the mushroom pâté!) or sandwiches and salads for lunch.

Hoots Beer Co.

West End

This is one of my favorite parts of the city, with my favorite Winston-Salem restaurant. The houses are architecturally interesting; it’s worth it to wander around and admire them. Visit Underdog Records for some new vinyl. The district stretches farther than you might think, down Northwest Boulevard past Hanes Park, a great place for a run or just to relax with a book. There are some great breweries—Hoots Beer Co.Joymongers Barrel Hall—and the city’s first distillery, Sutler’s Spirit Co., is also in this area.

Where to eat

In a city of delicious food, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I would always choose Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro. (It’s one of my all-time favorite restaurants in the world, truly.) With ample sidewalk seating, heaters at every table and individual fleece blankets, you can cozy up with a slice of out-of-this-world tomato pie or a bowl of shrimp and grits and a glass of wine. Bernardin’s Restaurant is fine dining with a well-appointed patio. It’s a place where you’re likely to find exotic meats (kangaroo, for example, or North Carolina emu) on the menu.

The Great Outdoors

One of the best things about Winston-Salem, other than the food and the people, is its proximity to scenic natural recreation. Never has that felt more important than during the pandemic. A.J. Jackson, northern Piedmont representative for the Carolina Climbers’ Coalition, tells me he thinks of the region as a hidden secret. “I have friends who have moved here specifically because they could climb after work,” he says. “You could have a job and then easy access to climbing and bouldering, or hiking, or mountain biking. It’s great.”

In town, take a walk or bike ride along Salem Lake, a city park with a 7-mile trail that loops all the way around. If fishing is your thing, you can drop a line there without a license. There are excellent hikes nearby at Pilot Mountain State Park in Pinnacle, a 20-minute drive from Winston-Salem. My favorite is the Corridor Trail, a 6.6-mile hiking and bridle trail that starts about halfway up the mountain. Stop off at Three Bears Gulley for a beautiful view of the city skyline. Pilot Mountain is also a haven for rock climbers hoping to transition from the gym to the crag, with a dozen sport climbs that all can be handled with a 60-foot rope.

Hanging Rock State Park in Danbury is about 45 minutes away and has more than 20 miles of hiking trails, 8.4 miles of mountain biking trails and access to the Dan River for kayaking. There’s also great climbing. Moore’s Wall, a large quartzite cliff, is a terrific spot for traditional climbers (you’ll want some experience “trad” climbing outside before you tackle this one). Cook’s Wall, a longer hike but likely to be less crowded, is popular for both trad and sport climbs. Hanging Rock requires a permit to climb; the Carolina Climbers’ Coalition has tons of information on all the best spots in the area.

Raffaldini Vineyards
Divine Llama

There are also excellent wineries in Yadkin Valley, typically within an hour’s drive of Winston-Salem. Some of my family’s favorites: Divine Llama in East Bend, where you can actually visit with llamas; Raffaldini Vineyards in Ronda, a serene, Italian-style winery; and RayLen Vineyards and Winery in Mocksville. Check the vineyards’ websites for food truck schedules, or treat yourself to a meal at Kitchen Roselli in East Bend (dining room closed during COVID; takeout available).

While you sip your wine, take a deep breath and relax. Life isn’t necessarily slower in this part of North Carolina, but under a sky-blue sky, with incredible food to fill your belly and mountains and forests to soothe your mind, it sure does feel peaceful. 

Side Trip: Greensboro

Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point make up the Triad of North Carolina, often pitched to corporate leaders as a regional hub, but the three cities have significantly different personalities. Still, Greensboro is worth a visit, if for no other reason than to spend time at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The museum is built around the Woolworth counter where four Black students refused to give up their seats in 1960 despite the deep and violent racism directed at them, which started the nonviolent protests of the civil rights movement. It is a thought-provoking, often sobering place that feels especially important given the necessary and overdue conversations about race in 2020.

On her next trip to Winston-Salem, Laura Arenschield is going to climb Pilot Mountain, sip tea at Camino, eat tomato pie and hug all her friends.