Lynchburg isn’t that far away, but a visit there really does feel like travel, given how different it is than Charlottesville. A river town intimately connected with the James, a Southern town that many people associate with conservatism rather than its opposite, a college town whose colleges exist at its fringes rather than its heart, Lynchburg is an intriguing world apart. But until recently, my kids have only known one thing about it: It’s the home of the large children’s museum, Amazement Square.
I wanted to show them another side of the city, so when their aunt and cousins were visiting, we compromised like this: First the Old City Cemetery, then Amazement Square.
Old City Cemetery is a much better place to take kids than its name implies. Its URL, gravegarden.org, gives you a sense of what it’s like: not gloomy, but bloomy. It’s full of lovely landscaping, historical artifacts, and just happens to be the resting place of 20,000 people buried over the past 212 years. A collection of small museums offers the chance to learn about historical mourning customs and Civil War medical care, they offer tours, host concerts, and you can even get married there.
Our group focused on a super awesome swing hung from a giant pecan tree. We’d heard about this swing, and it did not disappoint. The four kids in our group, all between ages 5 and 8, got to practice some serious turn-taking as they waited for the chance to soar skyward.
From this picturesque hillside spot, we spread out a picnic on a cast-iron table nearby. I poked around a little bit at the surrounding plants, historical markers, and architectural fragments—like a large stone column salvaged from a former bank—and came to think that OCC would make a fine destination for a day trip in itself. (Then I took my own turn on the swing.)
On to Amazement Square, a place we’ve visited before, and one which my girls associate with unbridled fun. They especially yearned to initiate their cousins into the delights of AS’s four-story indoor climbing structure—a complex of tunnels, slides, rope ladders, and a zipline, culminating in a roof-level observation tower outfitted with spyglasses.
Opened in 2001 in a Civil War-era commercial building near the James, AS is an absorbing, multifaceted environment. Its exhibits cover topics as diverse as archaeology and architecture, electricity and puppetry. The museum catches kids’ attention with multicolored steps that light up when you walk on them, and an elevator shaft is made of glass to reveal its inner workings.
One of my personal favorites is the exhibit on James River navigation, where you can guide a miniature boat along a model of the river, including canals and locks. As the boat finishes up in downtown Lynchburg, it may get rained on from a mechanical “cloud” pumped full of water by another visitor.
The kids in our group were drawn to a new exhibit on nutrition and exercise, where they played a beanbag-toss game and chose healthy foods from a storm of images floating around on a screen. This exhibit makes use of comic book aesthetics and looping videos—a contrast to some of the museum’s more old-fashioned zones.
Our nephew spent a long time building circuits in the electronics exhibit, and everyone always likes rolling golf balls down a long roller-coaster track that illustrates some Newtonian principle or other.
For a parent, a day at Amazement Square is a bit of a marathon, since there are so many different pockets to explore and kids tend to flit rapidly between them using the climbing structure, in which only the most agile of adults can hope to keep up. In most families, what ends up happening is that parents either give up trying to keep track of exactly where their children have gone, or run up and down the steps catching glimpses of the kids disappearing into tunnels or emerging two floors above them.
When the psychological strain becomes too much to bear, a good place to take a break is next door at the Depot Grille, a restaurant in a former train station where crayons are provided and most orders come with fries.
Both these historic buildings, the riverfront, the railroad tracks, the cobblestone streets, and the enormous stones making up sidewalks and walls—they all conspire to lend a sense of Lynchburg as an old, layered place with many stories to tell. Our cemetery visit began to round out my view of the city, and I’m looking forward to future Lynchburg explorations, with or without kids in tow.
If you go
The entrance to Old City Cemetery is at Fourth and Taylor Streets, and it is open daily, dawn to dusk, free of charge. Most of its museums offer self-guided exterior tours, and the Cemetery Center, which includes the Mourning Museum, is open Monday-Saturday 10am-3pm, Sunday 1-5pm.
Amazement Square, 27 Ninth Street, is open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 1-5pm, and costs $9.75 ages 1-59 (free for babies and $6.50 for seniors).
The Depot Grille, 10 Ninth Street, serves lunch and dinner daily.