I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
December 7, 2018
There’s nothing like visiting a town when it’s all dressed up for Christmas. We’ve been scheduling a Christmas weekend getaway each year for some time now and these trips have ended up being some of my all-time favorites — and it’s no surprise when I think about it… As fun as my own hometown’s holiday traditions are, they can get a little stale over time. Experiencing another city’s holiday festivities, on the other hand, makes me feel like a little kid again. From the food and decorations to the parades and other special events, it’s all new! Magical! Wondrous! And nowhere is this more evident at Christmastime than Winston-Salem.
My friend Gabby and I joined several other bloggers for a holiday girls trip in Winston-Salem and y’all, I completely fell in love with this city. I had a fantastic time experiencing it with friends new and old and I can’t wait to take my family back to see even more- I feel like we just scratched the surface of this arts and history-filled town! If you’re looking for a fun, festive itinerary for a Christmas weekend in Winston-Salem, follow this guide and you can’t go wrong.
If you’re flying, Winston-Salem is a quick 30-minute flight from Charlotte and an hour and 15 minute flight from Atlanta. If you’re driving, it’s an hour and 20 minutes from Charlotte, 5 hours from Atlanta, and 6.5 hours from Nashville. Regardless of how you get to Winston-Salem, you’ll want access to a car once you arrive. There’s lots to do and see within walking distance of downtown hotels, but there are also some must-see attractions that will require driving.
We opted to stay at the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel and honestly, it’s hard to imagine a better choice for accommodations. Located in downtown Winston-Salem’s ca. 1929 R.J. Reynolds building, the newly-renovated hotel keeps the art deco feeling intact (the structure was the inspiration for the Empire State Building, after all), and has all the modern amenities and personalized attention I’ve come to expect from Kimpton hotels. I loved the little things about this hotel: The well-attended nightly cocktail hour in the lobby includes complimentary beer and wine. A jazz quartet played Christmas favorites in the lobby over the weekend. The hotel is very pet friendly and includes pet treats at check-in.
The hotel’s recreation room includes bowling lanes, a basketball court, a well-stocked fitness center, and a spiral slide for the truly adventurous. The beds were comfortable, the Atelier Bloem shampoo, conditioner, and lotion in the rooms smelled heavenly, and each room includes a refrigerator and a Keurig coffee maker. Really, what more could you want? A bartender in the elevator?
Surprise! They’ve got that, too.
After a long day of travel, Gabby and I were glad our first Winston-Salem dinner was taking place inside the hotel’s French-themed cafe, The Katharine. Named for R.J. Reynolds’ wife (more about her later), the menu features French favorites with a Southern twist.
I rarely see a menu that has so many things I want to try — From Mussels Indochine to flatiron steak in sherry-shallot sauce to hand-cut truffle frites, everything coming out of the kitchen looked tantalizing.
I ended up having steak tartare and paparadelle pasta with braised lamb ragout and while both were tasty, top honors went to the fried Brussels sprouts — If you like Brussels sprouts, you HAVE to try The Katharine’s version. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted better!
After that dinner, I thought I’d never need to eat again — However, in the name of research, I soldiered on the next morning with my group to Mary’s Gourmet Diner. This art-filled downtown breakfast/lunch spot is a local favorite, and when you taste the food here, you’ll understand why.
The ingredients here are fresh and locally sourced and the result is a menu that’s light years beyond average. Her ‘Gritz’ bowls (made with grits from Old Mill of Guilford) are highly regarded and nothing like what you’re used to when it comes to grits. The Mendoza bowl, for example, is topped with spinach, two (local) poached eggs, house made white sauce, and shaved Italian cheese. It is to die for! And the breakfast croissant, which has local bacon, arugula, shaved Italian cheese, roasted tomato, red onion, pesto mayo, and balsamic reduction. Yes, it tasted as good as it looks! One way to try both dishes is to order the grits as a side to your croissant and ask for a topping of white sauce and cheese. Boom! It’s two dishes in one!
Kids will love the delectable french toast, and you have to order at least one of Mary’s famous biscuits. As a lifelong Southerner, I know biscuits and Mary’s biscuits definitely hold their own in a very crowded field of competition!
After breakfast, I renewed my vow to never eat again, loosened my belt a notch, and merrily went on my way. We had places to go! Things to do! People to see!
And we started with a quintessential Winston-Salem experience: the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. Built in the early 1900s as a country home for the R.J. Reynolds family just outside downtown Winston-Salem, this 60-room mansion is believed to be the world’s largest bungalow. R.J’s wife, Katharine, oversaw the planning and design of this retreat, established so that the family could enjoy rest, relaxation, and fresh country air.
The house is exquisite and I can’t think of a better time to visit than Christmas, when it’s decorated to the hilt for the holidays. As a history buff, I loved learning intimate details of the lives of one of America’s wealthiest families at the turn of the century. Katharine’s obsession with cleanliness, for example, is evident in the house’s design. Her own periodically poor health coupled with the nation’s fears of tuberculosis, flu, and other illnesses led her to install 15 bathrooms in the home, build sleeping porches outside each bedroom, and paint many of the rooms white, which was believed to be more sanitary.
It was also surprising to learn that R.J. Reynolds only spent six months here once the home was complete — He was in the last stages of a battle with cancer and his study served as his sickroom until he died.
Surprisingly, this house contains a Downton Abbey-worthy plot twist. When the Reynolds’ youngest son, Smith, was just 20 years old, he returned to the estate to live with his new wife, Broadway torch singer Libby Holman. After a party one night, Smith was shot and killed in his bedroom. A grand jury indicted Holman and Smith’s friend, Ab Walker, but charges were later dropped, in part at the family’s request. We’ll never know how Smith died, but the casings from the bullet that killed him are in the Reynolda House archives. The bullet itself was never found.
There are so many more interesting stories I could tell you about this house, but why don’t you just go see it for yourself? And if history leaves you cold, not to worry — The house also contains what might be the finest collection of American art in the southeast.
In fact, the art collection is what really sets Reynolda House apart from other historic home tours — Art enthusiasts will love this place every bit as much as lovers of history. You’ll find works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Grant Wood, Stuart Davis, and Jacob Lawrence hanging throughout the home, as well as changing exhibitions in a 3,000 square-foot-gallery that was added in 2005. Definitely opt for a guided tour of Reynolda or use the Reynolda Revealed app when you walk through the house so that you get the backgound on some of the paintings. The stories behind them are fascinating.
One of my favorites is Reynolda House’s infamous ‘ghost baby’ painting. Look closely at the background and you’ll see the eerie image of a baby’s face beside Sally Foster. Artist Gilbert Stuart painted her with her son back in 1809 but the poor boy was later painted over for reasons unknown. I guess it’s the 1800s equivalent of using scissors to cut a person out of a photograph.
It’s worth noting that the historic Graylyn Estate is right across the street from Reynolda. Here, RJ Reynolds’ Chairman of the Board (and son of the founder of Wachovia Bank) Bowman Gray built a palatial home back in 1927. Today, it’s a luxurious hotel with 85 rooms located in buildings throughout the 55-acre grounds. Staying here is now on my romantic weekend getaway bucket list, particularly since antique-fitted rooms are available for the same price as the modernized ones… and because Graylyn Estate has butlers to meet the needs of its guests. Yes. BUTLERS. I am so there.
Another fun fact about the Graylyn house: The wood paneling in the library comes straight from the walls of Louis XIV’s study. The Grays bought it on a trip to Paris and had it imported back to Winston-Salem. *swoon*
Our group next went to visit another historic home in nearby Kernersville — Körner’s Folly. I was initially concerned I’d have historic house fatigue after spending all morning at Reynolda House. I shouldn’t have worried. Körner’s Folly is an entirely different experience, and it was actually heightened by seeing Reynolda House first and getting to compare the two.
Built by Jule Gilmer Körner back in 1880, the 22-room house was so large compared to its neighbors that many in the town proclaimed it would be Körner’s greatest folly — Clearly, the man had a sense of humor because that’s exactly what he named the home, even memorializing it in tile outside the front door.
Körner was an interior and furniture designer and painter — He designed the home to be a sort of living catalog of his work and for that reason, he was constantly renovating and remodeling to add the latest features, like pivoting windows and trap doors. As a result, the house is filled with crazy twists and turns; it feels a bit like exploring a well-decorated carnival funhouse. No two doorways or windows in the home are alike, there are 15 different fireplaces, and ceiling heights range from 5 ½ feet (for a suite of playrooms for his children) to 25 feet.
The top floor of the home contains a lovely little theater, built for Mrs. Körner’s children’s community theater. Children were always welcomed and appreciated at Körner’s Folly and it definitely shows in the house’s design!
Körner’s Folly has to be one of the most unusual historic homes in the world. This alone makes it worth visiting, as well as the fact that it’s only partially restored at this point. I really loved looking at the home’s original murals in all their faded glory, peering behind peeling wallpaper to see what was underneath, and imagining the home during its glory days. You feel a bit like an explorer when you tour Körner’s Folly, discovering an 1880s time capsule largely untouched by the passage of time.
I also loved the juxtaposition of visiting Reynolda House and Körner’s Folly on the same day. It really made the styles and values of each family stand out — Katharine Reynold’s obsession with cleanliness and orderliness proved to be a sharp contrast to the whimsy and sense of humor of the Körner family.
After a full day of touring, we were ready for some sustenance. In keeping with the historic theme, we headed to The Tavern at Old Salem.
Old Salem has to be my favorite Winston-Salem experience — It really sets this city apart from the rest. Old Salem was settled by the Moravians, a group of Europeans seeking religious freedom, back in 1766. The heart of the town stands preserved today, much like Williamsburg, and functions as a living history museum. It is absolutely charming, and having a meal at Tavern is a must.
You’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time as you dine on Moravian specialties served by waiters in traditional Moravian attire. The food is savory and delicious and particularly good on a cold winter’s night — The Moravian Chicken Pie is a house specialty that’s definitely worth trying. And don’t leave without trying a bowl of German Beer Cheese Soup — It’s spectacular.
After dinner, we donned aprons, grabbed lanterns, and headed out onto the cobblestoned sidewalks for a candlelight baking tour in Old Salem. Led by a Moravian guide, we made our way through the village and baked Love Feast buns, rolled out Moravian gingerbread cookies, hand-glazed traditional chocolate cups, and enjoyed the fruits of our labor in the Single Brothers Workshop kitchen.
The Moravian history is fascinating and there’s lots going on in Old Salem, so you really shouldn’t miss it when you’re in Winston-Salem. In fact, Gabby and I were so intrigued, we returned to Old Salem for a few hours before we left Winston-Salem so that we could see it by daylight.
Having received strict instructions from multiple Winston-Salem natives, we stopped first at Winkler Bakery, the oldest continually operating bakery in America. Specialties here include Moravian sugar cake, rosemary bread and Moravian cookies, known as “the world’s thinnest cookie.”
The traditional beehive oven is still fired up here each day for old time’s sake. A cafe upstairs allows visitors to enjoy their purchases with a cup of coffee.
Walking through Old Salem and visiting the excellent gift shop and bakery are free, but on our next visit to Winston-Salem, I plan to buy tickets so that we can go inside Old Salem’s 25 interpreted buildings and learn about Moravian traditions from its many costumed interpreters.
After so many decadent meals, it was time to pay the piper and run (okay, walk) off all the food we’d been eating for the last two days. We got up bright and early Saturday morning in order to participate in the Winston-Salem YMCA’s annual Mistletoe Run, which raises money to combat childhood obesity.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I am no runner. I find it to be too… hurty. But I am an avid walker and hiker, and I loved that the Mistletoe’s 5K had plenty of walkers participating just like me. It’s a festive, family-friendly event that winds through Winston-Salem’s Buena Vista neighborhood, and if you happen to be in town while it’s happening, consider signing up and enjoying this local tradition.
With the run complete, Gabby and I decided to explore downtown Winston-Salem. We’d heard all kinds of good things about the shops and restaurants on Trade Street and were eager to see everything for ourselves.
Gabby and I are both book lovers, so we made a beeline for Winston-Salem’s popular independent bookstore, Bookmarks. I loved browsing the stacks here and reviewing the many staff recommendations, which led me to add a few new books to my Christmas wish list.
I was also pleased to see a spacious children’s area that encourages kids to come inside and stay a while. I think I will, thanks!
We next hit Trade Street, which is a mecca of art, galleries, street murals, and eclectic locally-owned businesses. This is definitely THE place to do your Christmas shopping in Winston-Salem!
Gabby had never been to a Mast General Store *gasp*, so I was excited to show her Winston-Salem’s Trade Street location, which is the largest Mast in the state.
The best way to describe Mast General Store is to say that there is seriously something for everyone in this gigantic emporium. Toys, clothing, home accessories, kitchenware, local foods, and of course, CANDY — It’s all here and it’s all wonderful. Mast is never not my happy place, and that’s all there is to it.
I think my favorite store downtown, though, was Fourth & Trade. This cozy downtown shop featured a well-curated mix of new and old and I wanted every single thing I laid eyes on.
Shopping complete, we returned to the hotel to change and head to dinner at Canteen Market & Bistro, a new downtown hot spot that was packed with people. Part gourmet market, part restaurant, Canteen has food for everyone and every budget, whether you’re dining in or taking a meal home with you.
We had a tasting menu of different items and I loved everything I tried, including the wine by the glass, which is all on draft at Canteen. It was a long, luxurious dinner that gave us plenty of time to recount our experiences and get to know each other better.
At dinner’s end, I once again pledged to never eat another bite of food as long as I live and we returned to the hotel for some much-needed rest.
Sunday was departure day, but before we headed to the airport, we stopped for a leisurely brunch at one of Winston-Salem’s most popular restaurants — Mozelle’s. Located in Winston-Salem’s historic West End neighborhood, this Southern bistro was my favorite restaurant of the weekend, and that’s saying something!
The ‘Go Back to Bed’ Sandwich was made amazing by the crisp-tender chicken that was fried to perfection. The Southern Spring Rolls, filled with pulled pork, shiitake mushrooms, and collards, are going to haunt my dreams until I can go back and order them again. The Edamame Hummus was drop dead delicious. And I’m eager to taste the tomato pie the next time I visit — It gets raves from locals.
All too soon, our visit to Winston-Salem had come to an end. I can enthusiastically recommend it for a Christmas weekend getaway and I’m eager to see it during other seasons as well. We’ll definitely be back!
Thanks to Visit Winston-Salem for hosting our getaway. All opinions are my own.