Virginia City, Nevada is an Old West mining town that’s famous for 1859’s Comstock Lode silver ore discovery. With storied sights, rich culture, and wild events that celebrate its deep roots, Virginia City is a step back in time any day of the week. After all these years, Virginia City remains one of Nevada’s most popular and historic destinations.
Party Like It’s 1859
Imagine this: spread out before you are Victorian-era buildings with quaint names like the Bucket of Blood Saloon and the Red Dog Saloon; beneath the heels of your cowboy boots are wooden planks for a sidewalk that creak as you move toward town, and everywhere you turn, you see mining relics from the glory days of the Comstock Lode. Well, that’s just another day in Virginia City, Nevada, isn’t it? To paraphrase William Faulkner, Virginia City is one of those rare places where the past isn’t dead — hell, it isn’t even past.
So, Where is Virginia City, Nevada?
We could take the cheeky route and say Virginia City resides in the imaginations of would-be cowboys and Old West fanatics everywhere, but you came here for straight answers and we aim to serve. Virginia City sits about 40 minutes southeast of—and almost a couple thousand feet of elevation up the Geiger Grade from—Reno, and about 25 minutes northeast of Nevada’s capital, Carson City. Built on a mountainside in the Virginia Range, the town’s stunning “hundred-mile view” eastward can be taken in from many restaurants, saloons, and hotel rooms. But before there even was Reno, Carson City, or even the State of Nevada itself, there was a silver strike up in them thar hills—one of the biggest in history.
Virginia City History & Culture
The year was 1859 and the town was flooded with miners, suppliers, businessmen, deep-pocketed investors, and other fortune seekers who had followed news of what could be (and was) the greatest discovery of silver ore in American history. These prospectors converged on the Virginia Range from San Francisco, all over the American West, and the world. Practically overnight, the quiet settlement of Virginia City became a boomtown — the sort of which is still talked about today.
The success of the mind-bogglingly large “Comstock Lode” shaped the town into a bustling, rough-and-tumble mining center that overflowed with unimaginable wealth and prosperity, rocketing Nevada Territory into statehood and earning Nevada our famous nickname: the Silver State.
The mining camp quickly grew into a full-on city, with 25,000 residents at its peak. Over the course of decades, miners unearthed hundreds of millions of dollars—billions in today’s money. Much of that went to Washington D.C. to bankroll the Union Army. The funds also helped construct the then-young San Francisco, which was the West Coast’s major financial center. In fact, the names on many of San Francisco’s streets are those of men who got their start (or made their names) right here in Virginia City.
‘Lodes’ of Fun Things to Do in Virginia City
Today, Virginia City is home to about 1,000 residents and some of the most beautifully preserved homes, churches, saloons, cemeteries, and other historic structures in the West—a claim to fame that earned the entire town a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. History buffs fill days museum-hopping, bargain hunters delight at amazing antique and curio shops, and revelers go all out in authentic saloons, especially after a day of wild weekend events. You don’t have to look far to spot locals in period dress, adding to the charm of the town.
Historical tours are plentiful—on foot, rail or trolley, self-guided or expert-led, around town or in a mine, or even in a haunted building in what some experts claim is the most paranormally active town in the U.S. But no visit to Virginia City is complete without a ride on the ol’ Virginia & Truckee (V&T) Railroad, the most famous of all American short line railroads.
Today, you can hop aboard the ornate, century-old, open- and closed-passenger cars for a truly scenic ride up to neighboring Gold Hill and back, chugging through 17 historic mine sites along the way.
Museum Madness on the Comstock
In a town where the National Park Service has designated the entire place a National Historic Landmark, you’d expect to find a museum or two. You’d be right, to the tune of around 17 such institutions.
Did you know Mark Twain was “born” here? That famous one-time Nevadan caused plenty of in-print mischief with Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise, and gave what many consider his first live show at Piper’s Opera House, which also welcomed Buffalo Bill, Al Jolson, and countless other famous performers. Take a tour of this legendary venue or seat yourself in the audience for the concerts, performances, and special events it continues to host.
One of our favorite places to get schooled is the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum & Archives, which houses some of the best exhibits on Virginia City history. Kids of all ages love the State Fireman’s Museum for its original gear and vintage vehicles, as well as the artifact-packed The Way It Was Museum (watch out for the too-well-preserved rattlesnake!). Meanwhile, history and contemporary art collide across seven rotating galleries at the old-hospital-turned-gallery known as St. Mary’s Art Center. And if the kids are acting up, scare ‘em straight (and learn ‘em a thing or two) at the photo-rich Courthouse Slammer & County Museum.
Virginia City Mine Tours
Virginia City’s underground legacy can still be glimpsed today in the mines that made it all happen. In just 25 minutes, the Ponderosa Mine Tour shows you its complete underground mine workings—tunnels, crosscuts, winzes, and shafts, in addition to over 300 pieces of antique mining equipment. Up the road at the Chollar Mine, where miners carted out some $17 million in gold and silver, a 30-minute guided tour takes visitors on a 400-foot level walk down an old mine tunnel to check out original square-set timbering, silver ore, and more.
Back up on the surface, if you’re still digging it, check out the Comstock Gold Mill and get a “lode” of how gold was processed from ore to recovery. After all these years, all that wooden and metal machinery is still fully operational. And trust us, you won’t soon forget the soundtrack to this place—or the characters who run it.
Make sure to cruise a few minutes down the hill to the storied Gold Hill Hotel & Saloon—the oldest hotel in Nevada. Hit up the still-serving Sagebrush Saloon, learn about one of the deadliest mining accidents in U.S. history, or stay the night and see if resident ghost Rosie pays you a visit.
Or crank it up with a visit to the Washoe Club & Haunted Museum, a towering brick building in the heart of bustling Historic C Street that is believed to be one of the most haunted locations in the West. A legitimately creepy crypt and museum dedicated to the mystery of the building lends some serious spooky cred to the property’s ghostly claims.
Ghost Tours & Good Ol’ “Haunts”
For the spookiest perspective, hop on one of a couple different Virginia City ghost tours. The “Bats in the Belfry” guided ghost tour focuses on the paranormal, investigating multiple old homes and businesses along with a narrative that will chill you to the bone. This walking tour will take you through the Silver Queen Hotel, Mackay Mansion, and other historic haunts while the local guide tells tales of the locations.
Travel Nevada Pro Tip
Virginia City Events
Time it right and you may find yourself whooping it up at dozens of raucous, street-closing, crowd-drawing weekend Virginia City events.
Root for curious competitors in September’s International Camel & Ostrich Races—a six-decades-old tradition born of a prank and rivalry between the Territorial Enterprise and the San Francisco Chronicle—or October’s World Championship Outhouse Races in Virginia City (don’t miss the period-attired, all-women Flapper Crappers). Taste your way around town at Chili on the Comstock (May) and the Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry (March). And cheer on one of ten all-out holiday parades—especially Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Hauntober, and Christmas on the Comstock.
The days of riders galloping through the middle of town on horseback may be history, but how about on motorcycles? In April, the Virginia City Grand Prix gives spectators an about-as-close-as-it-gets view of one of the West’s largest and most competitive motocross races, with dirt bikers rippin’ mountains trails, old mining roads and, best of all, right down Historic C Street. And each September, Reno’s annual celebration of choppers, hogs, and badass bikes goes up the grade to VC during the Street Vibrations Fall Rally, with show-and-shines, group cruises, and special events.
With so much going on here, just pick a weekend on the calendar and show up ready to have a historic time.
Virginia City Restaurants & Bars
Back in the bonanza days, Virginia City restaurants and saloons numbered in the hundreds. Today’s portion is a tad smaller, but still plenty full of fantastic flavors. For one, there aren’t many towns where you can legitimately go on a “saloon crawl,” but Virginia City’s Historic C Street makes it easy, with thirteen of them within sipping distance of each other.
Many Virginia City saloons still rock their authentic Old West auras (and aesthetics), starting with the (in)famous Bucket of Blood Saloon. Built in 1875, regulars regularly don Victorian garb and dance to the house band, David John & the Comstock Cowboys, in a period-perfect room adorned with original art and historical ephemera. Original chandeliers light up the 1862-constructed Washoe Club, the oldest (and possibly most haunted) saloon in Virginia City and the preferred hideaway for a troop of miners-turned-magnates who dubbed themselves the “Millionaires Club.”
Sidle into the Silver Queen to pay homage to the saloon’s eponymous and unmissable matron saint, whose dress still dazzles with 3,261 silver dollars—a nod to how many feet down the Combination Mine Shaft goes—and 28 twenty-buck gold pieces. No matter where you imbibe, keep your eyes peeled for cocktails made with the town’s own spirit, Cemetery Gin.
If all that saloon-crawling earns you an appetite, hit up the Virginia City Jerky Co. & Smokehouse for hickory-smoked ribs, tri-tip dips, house-made chili-mac, and more. Grab a slice of pizza and rock ‘n’ roll history at the Red Dog Saloon, where live bands follow in the foot-taps of Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and other music legends.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with delectable fudges, brittles, and chocolates at Red’s Old Fashioned Candies, or watch candy makers churn fudge the old-fashioned way right before your eyes at Grandma’s Fudge Factory. For AM urges, cruise to The Canvas Café and help yourself to a breakfast benedict, a homemade pastry, or a piece of locally made art off the wall. And for all things caffeinated, roll into The Roasting House for espresso, gluten-free goodies, and, as the name implies, house-roasted coffee.
Virginia City Hotels
Virginia City has a way of pushing your fun-filled day well into the night. Luckily, plenty of Virginia City hotels and properties make it easy to sleep over just a short walk or drive from all the action. The town boasts hundreds of rooms spread across fanciful old inns, modern-comfort motels and hotels, and charming bed & breakfasts. Check into quaint, comfy rooms at the Sugarloaf Mountain Motel, or go all out on amenities at the Silverland Inn & Suites—pool, hot tub, and on-site bar (this is VC, after all) included.
Or get a historic night’s sleep in one of Virginia City’s oldest original buildings, like the wonderfully preserved Silver Queen Hotel, where delightfully old-school rooms boast clawfoot bathtubs and sweeping mountain vistas. The elegantly restored, 1876-built, three-story Cobb Mansion B&B lets you bed down in fanciful Victorian style, complete with period furnishings and antique opulence galore. Catch more Zs than Mark Twain probably ever did when he was living at the Tahoe House Hotel (blame that on the Delta Saloon) in gorgeous rooms that date back to 1859.
Just a few minutes down the hill is the Gold Hill Hotel & Saloon, the oldest hotel in all of Nevada. It boasts an as-authentic-as-it-gets saloon plus fantastic fare—serving everything from Angus steaks to chicken marsala—at its on-site Crown Point Restaurant.
Places to Stay in Virginia City
Whether you’re boardwalking, saloon-crawling, Outhouse Racing, or taking in Virginia City’s history (while making a bit of your own), tag your photos with #TravelNevada and you may just see them here.