For aspiring retirees who want space, fresh air and quietude but want it within arm's reach of a major city, Winchester, Va., is calling. Nestled in rolling horse country 65 miles west of Washington, D.C., Winchester is growing but still has a relaxed, unpretentious vibe. The metro area crosses north into West Virginia and harbors about 125,000 residents altogether; 26,000 live in Winchester proper.
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For budget-conscious retirees (and these days, who isn't?) Winchester offers a below-average cost-of-living and access to job training — for example, at Lord Fairfax Community College (enrollment 5,100) in Middletown, about 10 miles south of Winchester. Also, Shenandoah University (enrollment 2,900), in Winchester, welcomes older students at a Center for Lifelong Learning.
Retirees here split time between outdoor activities — golf courses abound, and George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park are mere miles from town — and a historic downtown that boasts a variety of shops, restaurants and galleries. There is also an active equestrian scene, with a club for horsey folks that organizes shows, rides and exhibitions. The Great Allegheny Passage, a bicycle path that runs uninterrupted from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, is just across the Potomac River a few miles north of the city.
Winchester has a nice little arts scene, too. The local symphony performs at the historic George Washington Hotel downtown, among other places. There's professional theater at the Wayside in Middletown, and community productions at the Winchester Little Theatre. Shenandoah University has a large conservatory, with student recitals and other performances.
On the West Virginia side of the area, where a mellower pace prevails, (Ridgeway, W.Va., is 10 miles north of town), the Hampshire County Arts Council links an active community of working artists who keep a lower profile. The substantial cultural assets of D.C.'s northern suburbs are within easy reach, especially if you avoid rush hour.
The area also shows off its history. Attractions include the surveying office George Washington used when he lived here in the 1740s; a Civil War center, numerous battlefields and a war-themed weekend held every fall; and the Patsy Cline Historic House, where the country music star lived with her mother and siblings.
For all its laid-back country charm, Winchester loves to throw grand parties. One high point on the social calendar is the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival in late April, an extravaganza that lasts more than a week and includes parades, concerts, a circus and the coronation of Queen Shenandoah.
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