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Bedford, Virginia
Photograph by O. Louis Mazzatenta

Bedford, Virginia: Beyond the Memorial

by Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

It’s only fitting that the National D-Day Memorial—dedicated June 6, 2001, on the 57th anniversary of the Normandy invasion—should be located in the small town of Bedford in southwestern Virginia. With a population of less than 4,000 in 1940, it lost 19 men on that fateful day. When the deaths were calculated, Bedford had suffered more D-Day fatalities per capita than any other community in America. Though the memorial draws most visitors to Bedford, the town and surrounding area also offer much to see and do.

A Bit on Bedford

Calling itself “The Best Little Town in the World,” Bedford—set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Lynchburg and Roanoke—retains much of the visual character of 1839 when the community was established under the name of Liberty. In 1912 residents renamed it Bedford. The spirit of Bedford’s early days as a center for the production and distribution of corn, synthetic rubber products, textiles, tobacco, and wool is evoked today by some 240 buildings that still stand in the historic Centertown district. In 1984 Bedford was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A year later it was named one of Virginia’s first five Main Street towns.

Today, with a population of more than 7,000, Bedford is officially a city with progressive schools, a growing hospital center, and an Internet presence that lures homebuyers from as far away as Scotland. But Bedford’s small-town personality—it is graced with awning-shaded storefronts, white picket fences, and cool fragrant gardens—shines through in events as routine as a trip to the year-round farmer’s market and as anticipated as the annual go-cart Races.

What to See and Do

  • National D-Day Memorial—Spreading over 88 acres (36 hectares) atop Bedford’s highest hill, the National D-Day Memorial commemorates the “valor, fidelity, and sacrifice of the Allied Forces” who landed on the beaches of Normandy, France. The outdoor monument consists of a high granite arch symbolizing victory and engraved with the word “Overlord,” the code name for the Normandy invasion. Beneath it, sculptures executed in bronze depict lifelike figures of soldiers—both fallen and fighting—making their way across the beach as well as a shallow grave marked with a soldier’s rifle, helmet, and dog tags. Granite, water, and iron come together in a re-creation of the beaches, complete with actual sand from the invasion site. An amphitheater and an education center are under construction.

Hours of Operation: Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

  • Avenel Plantation—The focal point of a 200-acre (81-hectare) plantation, this circa 1838 mansion served as the center for the area’s social, cultural, and political events and hosted such notable guests as Gen. Robert E. Lee and Edgar Allen Poe.

Hours of Operation: Docent-guided tours are by appointment only while the mansion is under restoration. Phone: +1 540 586 1814.

  • Bedford City/County Museum—Housed in an 1898 Masonic temple—Bedford’s only example of Romanesque revival architecture—the museum’s exhibits trace the area’s history from early Native American culture into the middle of the 20th century.

Hours of Operation: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed holidays.

  • Peaks of Otter—Three prominent peaks, known individually as Sharp Top, Flat Top, and Harkening Hill, form a beautiful backdrop to Bedford. The peaks have attracted people to the area since the town’s early days. Hiking trails, wildflower walks, lake fishing, camping, and picnic facilities still draw outdoor enthusiasts. While exploring the Peaks of Otter, visitors can hike to the restored Johnson Farm and experience southern mountain life during the 19th century.

Hours of Operation: Open year-round.

  • Poplar Forest—Visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s retreat, just 20 minutes east of Bedford—can tour the octagonal house and the beautiful plantation gardens as well as observe restoration and archaeological excavation in progress.

    Hours of Operation: Open daily April through November from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving Day

Where to Stay
Lodging in and around Bedford ranges from affordable motels such as Budget Inn to mountain lodges and historic bed and breakfasts.

Where to Eat
Choices run from:

  • Country buffet at Goode’s Country Kitchen (Bedford)
    +1 540 586 5278
  • Dining with a view at Peaks of Otter Restaurant (Blue Ridge Parkway)
    +1 540 586 1081
  • International cuisine at Terrace House Restaurant (Bedford)
    +1 540 586 9942

Getting There
Bedford is located between Lynchburg and Roanoke, east of Virginia Hwy. 81 and at the crossroads of routes 43, 122, and 221/460.

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