Comstock legend unloads a ton of historical fun.

Family walking across the street in Virginia City.
© Jamie Kingham

By Megg Mueller

While Las Vegas and Reno offer white-glove hospitality and world-class entertainment, it’s our rural destinations that give visitors a glimpse into the heart and soul of our state. Each issue, you’ll find one of our smaller-but-no-less-incredible towns highlighted.

Silver, saloons, mining lore, the Comstock, and Mark Twain: It’s likely some or all of these words come to mind at the mention of Virginia City. The history of this northern Nevada gem is as wild, deep, and important as they come, and it also makes for a seriously fun destination.

Virginia City in 1886.
Virginia City 1886 © University of Nevada, Reno Special Collections

Virginia City was established in 1859 at the base of Mount Davidson, about 25 miles southeast of Reno. At the height of the Comstock Lode bonanza in 1874, the town boasted a population of about 25,000 people. As miners in search of gold and silver poured into the area—including nearby Gold Hill, Silver City, and Dayton—so did the shopkeepers, saloon owners, railroad workers, and more. Bursting at the seams, the town attracted the attention of many who would stake their claim to fame in Nevada, including Mark Twain, John Mackay, and George Hearst.


While the heyday of Virginia City was about over by 1880, it’s estimated that more than $10 billion (in today’s value) was pulled from the surrounding hills in those two booming decades.

The fortunes made by Mackay and Hearst—among others—not only developed northern Nevada, but were also responsible for development in San Francisco, and even aided in funding the New York City subway system. For that reason, the town’s 13 museums are not just about Virginia City or Nevada history, but also U.S. history.

Those museums include:

Piper's Opera House.
Piper’s Opera House
Top: Trains on the track at Virginia & Truckee Railroad.Bottom: Exterior of Comstock Gold Mill.
Top: Virginia & Truckee Railroad © @itsloganmarie
Bottom: Comstock Gold Mill

• Mackay Mansion: an Italianate-style mansion built in 1860 once owned by both Hearst and Mackay that has been immaculately restored, with tours that divulge the history of this millionaire mansion.

• Historic Fourth Ward School & Museum: an 1876 Victorian school with 16 classrooms. It’s the only Second–Empire-style, four-storied, wooden school building still standing in the U.S.

• Piper’s Opera House: built in the 1880s, this building once featured the likes of President Grant, Buffalo Bill, Al Jolson, and Mark Twain. The restored theater today hosts many performances and special events.

Not all museums are in a building, however. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad offers rides on steam and diesel trains along much of the same route as the trains that ran ore in 1870. Themed rides happen throughout the summer, fall, and winter seasons. If authentic is what you’re looking for, consider the Comstock Gold Mill, where you can witness a working stamp mill in action and see how gold was processed.

Main street in Virginia City.

PACK A BAG

The roads leading to the historic mining town from Reno or Dayton are a favorite of motorcyclists; the hairpin twists and turns and panoramic views take on even greater excitement when the sun is on your face.

The drive from Reno climbs almost 2,000 curvaceous feet in elevation, so for any who want to imbibe and take in the charm of the city’s saloons, the drive back down is out of the question. The perfect solution exists, however: stay the night.

Exterior of the Silver Queen Hotel.
Silver Queen Hotel © @prettyfnspooky

There are about 227 rooms, somewhat surprising for a town with a year-round population of 1,200. From incredibly restored B&Bs like the B Street House Inn to rustic and potentially haunted rooms (Silver Queen Hotel, we’re looking at you) above the town’s main street—plus an RV park and modern hotels—there’s no reason to hurry through your visit.

The dining options are also surprising, owing to the size of the town. On the main street boardwalk, you’ll find no shortage of tasty burgers, corn dogs, and the like, but delve a little deeper and you’ll find some incredible cuisine. For 10 years, Café Del Rio has served its “Out West Cuisine” to great reviews, and The Canvas Café serves elegant breakfast and lunch fare. A stop at Grandma’s Fudge Factory for a sweet treat is highly recommended.

Child holding an ice cream cone outside Grandma's Fudge Factory.
© Jamie Kingham
Couple walking under Buckets of Blood Saloon sign.
Buckets of Blood Saloon © @daughtersoftheroad

At its peak, the town is rumored to have had more than 100 saloons. While today’s number is quite lower, there are still ample places to sidle up to a historic bar. Virginia City distills its own brand of gin—Cemetery Gin, to be exact—and local saloons serve craft beers and cocktails along with traditional shots of whiskey. The Gold Hill Saloon is located in the oldest hotel in Nevada (built in 1859). It serves a history lesson along with its drinks, while the Bucket of Blood has been operating since (only) 1876, remaining popular and offering live music most weekends.

Travel Nevada Pro Tip: For fans of ride share options, note that while it's not too hard to get a ride to Virginia City from Reno, it can be tough to get one back to Reno. Check before counting on that as your ride home.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Virginia City delivers an immense blend of history, fun, and adventure. Annual events such as the International Camel and Ostrich Races, World Championship Outhouse Races, and the Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry, plus eight annual parades and numerous saloon crawls all speak to how seriously Virginia City takes its celebrations. While a number of attractions are seasonal, the town’s appeal and charm can be felt 365 days a year.

Travel Nevada Pro Tip: Make sure to walk the Silver Terrace Cemetery. Gorgeously situated, this final resting place is full of elaborate headstones, statues, and intriguing epitaphs.

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