The inviting little town of Onancock, Virginia was founded as Port Scarborough in 1680. With a population of about 1,500, Onancock is one of the largest towns on Virginia’s remote Eastern Shore. Onancock’s history lies in it’s past as a port town. The town’s harbor was once a regular stop for steamboats that carried passengers and goods to and from the large ports of Baltimore Maryland and Norfolk Virginia.
The town of Onancock is wrapped to the north and south by branches of Onancock Creek. The creek wanders past many old and beautiful waterfront homes for about 4 miles to the Chesapeake Bay. The town has a small downtown area with a nice variety of shops, galleries, and restaurants. One of the nicest attractions of this town is the abundance of large Victorian era homes on tree-lined streets. Onancock’s a walkable town and although there’s very little traffic, it’s best to park your car around the center of town and explore on foot.
There’s a large town-owned parking lot in the middle of the downtown area. It’s behind the block of buildings that includes the Roseland movie theater, Corner Bakery, and North Street Playhouse. To get to the lot, drive down Market Street (the main road coming into town) and turn left onto Ames Street (across from the Post Office). There should be a parking sign at the intersection. You’ll see the entrance to the big parking lot on your left. Walk back out to Market Street and you’ll be in the heart of downtown Onancock.
You can see most of what Onancock has to offer by starting in the middle of town at the intersection of Market and North Streets and walking a loop down Market Street towards the water and then back up the parallel King Street to North Street.
At the intersection of Market and North, you’ll find several of the town’s shops and restaurants. The Corner Bakery has been around for years and is a local favorite. If you’re there early in the morning, you can get donuts while they’re still hot. Just down the street, The BANK Coffee House occupies and old bank building. Roseland movie theater is just down the block and just to the west of the bakery is the North Street Playhouse
Each Saturday, starting in May and continuing through October, the Onancock Market is held across the street from the post office, at the corner of Market and Ames. The market is be open from 8:00am to noon and will feature local produce, seafood, and arts and crafts.
Bizzotto’s Gallery-Caffe, across the street from the Playhouse, features freshly-prepared food and a gallery of hand-tooled leather items by owner Miguel Bizzotto. As you head west down Market Street toward the wharf, you pass other shops, including a nice little yarn shop and several real estate offices where you can window shop for a property in town or on the creek. You’ll also pass the town’s pretty little gazebo park.
Go all the way down to the end of Market Street and you’ll find Hopkins and Brothers Store, one of the oldest general stores on the East Coast, sitting on the waterfront next to the town harbor. The store now houses a restaurant, Mallards at the Wharf, where you can enjoy a view of the creek with your meal. Just inside the restaurant’s front door, you’ll find a little Onancock Welcome Center set up. Be sure to stop by for information about the town. On the weekends you’re likely to find a helpful town resident there manning the welcome center desk and ready to offer information and advice on how to make the most of your visit to town.
An old steamboat ticket office is located next to Hopkins and Brothers and houses a kayak outfitter’s shop. Onancock once offered daily steamboat passage to Baltimore. Now you can rent a kayak or take a tour or class from Southeast Expeditions and paddle around the creek. Southeast Expeditions has bicycles available for rent also.
Next door to Hopkins and Brothers Store is the Onancock Town Wharf. The wharf is small, but busy – a popular weekend stay for transient boaters and also the place where many residents of town and the surrounding areas launch their boats. On a nice weekend, the parking around the wharf gets crowded with boat trailers.
You’ll usually find a small gathering of locals hanging out around the wharf, watching the boats come and go, and generally shooting the breeze. There’s a bench next to the harbormaster’s house that’s been labeled the “liar’s bench” – it’s a favorite spot for some of the town’s old-timers to gather.
You can take a trip out to Tangier Island on the Joyce Marie II, a 36′ long traditional craft that makes daily trips to the Island, leaving from the town wharf. Tangier’s an interesting place to visit and the trip out Onancock Creek and across the Bay to the island is nice. Visit the ferry’s website for more information.
From the wharf, circle around the bend towards the gravel piles and T&W block (much of the stone used on the Shore arrives via barge here in Onancock) and head back east on King Street. You’ll pass some nice old houses and the back side of the town park. Just past the park on King, you’ll come to another little section of shops, including Jack Richardson Gallery. Richardson is an accomplish artist who has settled in the Onancock area and owns this studio-gallery.
Walk a little further up King Street and you’ll get to North Street, which leads right back to the center of town. Janet’s Cafe at Onancock General Store is located at the corner of Kings and North Streets. Janet’s serves a selection of tasty sandwiches and salads at lunchtime and it’s a popular spot for breakfast too. The tables here can get crowded at lunch time during the week, but you can always get take out and carry it back down to the gazebo park.
There are more shops and restaurants on North Street, between King and Market. North Street Market is a gourmet food market and kitchen shop. If you enjoy food and cooking, this is a fun place to explore. It’s an unexpected discovery to find in a small rural town. The Blarney Stone Pub is an Irish pub with an outdoor dining area and a schedule of live music. The menu includes traditional dishes such as bangers and mash as well as Chesapeake-inspired crab items. They also have very reasonable lunch specials. The Red Queen Gallery, on the corner of North and Market, has lots of very nice quality art for sale, much of it by local artists.
Walk east on Market Street just a few more blocks and you’ll come to Ker Place on your left, and if you take a right onto College Avenue, you’ll find the old Onancock High School building with it’s collection of galleries and artist studios. About four more blocks east on Market Street, just after Onancock Building Supply, you’ll get to Herbal Instincts natural foods store, the Inn and Garden Cafe, and Scoops Ice Cream. If you’ve made it this far east on Market Street, you can take a left onto one of the short blocks north to Kerr Street and stroll through this residential neighborhood as you make your way back to North Street and center of downtown.
Visitors to town should be sure to see the Ker Place House Museum. You’ll see Ker Place on your right as you enter town. The mansion sits back off the road, It’s surrounded by a white fence and there’s a sign at front. Ker Place, a large federal style mansion built in 1799, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is the home of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society. Museum tours are available. In addition to the restored mansion itself, the Ker Place museum offers a collection of watermen’s tools, local historic photos, and natural history pieces. The museum store has a nice selection of local books, art, and gift items. Before leaving the grounds of Ker Place, be sure to look under the shed located off to the side of the house to see the remains of an authentic Eastern Shore log canoe that was salvaged from a nearby marsh.
Onancock is the home of North Street Playhouse. North Street is an accomplished regional theater that offers live theater productions throughout the year. The theater is actually located on Market Street, near the intersection with North Street (they started out on North Street – thus the name).
On weekends, Roseland, the town’s old-fashioned movie theater, features recent release movies. It’s a great place to see movies on a nice, large screen. In addition to the weekend movie, Roseland hosts a series of international films throughout the year. These are popular with locals and can draw a pretty big crowd.
Over on College Avenue, efforts are under way to convert the old town school building into a cultural center. There are a number of galleries and artist studies located there now. Stop by the school on weekend or during the town’s Second Friday events, when you’re most likely to find things open and busy.
If you plan on staying in Onancock for a few days, the town has a small boutique hotel and several bed & breakfasts.