The Greenbrier is a classic American resort nestled in the mountains of West Virginia. While many of its activities are focused on leisurely pursuits, history abounds at the resort. It was the chosen place for relaxation by several Presidents through the years, and it also served as a secret fallout shelter for the US Congress during the Cold War. It’s the best type of vacation place for families – lots of fun activities, good food, and interesting history!
As early as the 1780s, the natural springs around White Sulphur Springs, Virginia attracted visitors to partake in its healing powers (you can still smell the sulphur at the springhouse today!). Cottages were built surrounding the springs, and in the late 1850s, a grand hotel was built to accommodate its popularity. During the Civil War, the hotel found itself in the newly formed state of West Virginia and under threat by both the Union and Confederate forces.
The current hotel building, completed in 1913, officially took the name, The Greenbrier, and it has become one of the premier golf and family resorts in the south. Many political leaders and celebrities have called The Greenbrier a temporary home, including five Presidents who made it the first summer White House.
During World War II, the resort housed displaced German and Japanese diplomats and their families before they were deported to their home country and then served as a hospital for the soldiers. After the war, the government built a secret fallout shelter in its basement to house Congress in the event of a nuclear attack on Washington, DC.
The Greenbrier is a perfect family retreat, no matter the ages of your children. It has a wide variety of accommodations available, including cottages perfect for families. The dozens of cottages each have their own unique and intriguing history. Our cottage, built in 1832 for John Latrobe, the son of the famed architect of the US Capitol, overlooked the playground, which would have been a huge bonus with younger children!
The Greenbrier has activities for the youngest of children, including a fantastic pool, theater, arcade, bowling, and an adventure zone. With our older boys, we did falconry (which my son is still talking about!), RZR driving adventure (be prepared to get muddy!), and spent time at the arcade, bowling alley, and outdoor infinity pool. Our kids are already asking when we can go back!
For history lovers, there are two must-see attractions at The Greenbrier, the bunker and Presidents’ Cottage Museum
The bunker is a living relic of the Cold War era. Reserve your spot in advance for you and your older children (ages 10 and up) to take the 1.5 hour guided tour.
The bunker, operational from 1962-1992, was a secret government project (code name: Project Greek Island) built under the new West Virginia wing of The Greenbrier. It had enough space to accommodate every Member of Congress (535) plus one staffer per member (note it didn’t include space for the member’s family – they were allowed to stay at the hotel above ground). During the 30 years of operation, employees for the shell company housed in the bunker had to make sure the accommodations were ready to receive the members at any time. This meant keeping its food and pharmaceutical items fresh and redecorating as styles changed. Thankfully the bunker was never tested, and the closest it came to being activated was during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
You’ll begin your tour in the Trellis lobby where your guide will tell you about its history. You’ll then be taken to the entrance in the hotel on the first level. This is the only place photos are allowed. If you can’t fit in the tour, you can see this door without going on the tour.
You can see the 18 ton door, which would be sealed in the event of an emergency. This is the smallest of the four entrance doors – the largest is 30 tons!
During normal times, this door would be covered by a false wall to hide its true identity. On the other side of the double doors is the exhibit hall, which was the only part of the bunker open to the public when it was operational. The bunker was hidden in plain sight!
Your tour will wind through the bunker’s rooms, from its dorms to its decontamination showers. My son was fascinated with the old communications equipment on display and the briefing room for the members to assure the public of the continuity of government. As a former staffer for a Member of Congress myself, I found the rooms which would have served as the House and Senate chambers interesting. The rooms look like regular auditoriums but just thinking of what historically significant things would take place there in the event of a nuclear attack gave me chills.
Your guide will describe to you how the bunker was exposed in 1992 by a Washington Post Magazine article. The bunker had become obsolete with the advent of nuclear missiles as Congress no longer had hours to escape Washington, DC. The bunker was decommissioned and is now a living museum of the Cold War era.
Another place of historical significance at The Greenbrier is the Presidents’ Cottage Museum. Located in a long row of cottages, the Presidents’ Cottage stands out with its large American flag waving proudly from its second floor balcony.
The cottage itself was built in 1835, and it has served as Greenbrier’s history museum since 1932. Five Presidents, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, all stayed at the cottage during their presidencies. 28 Presidents have visited The Greenbrier in its history.
The impressive staircase when you first enter is beautiful!
The two downstairs rooms have murals on the walls detailing The Greenbrier’s history, including Robert E. Lee’s time there after the Civil War.
The upstairs rooms include more memorabilia and decor.
Be sure to step onto the balcony for the beautiful view!
The Greenbrier is a family-friendly resort with a long history. It’s the perfect relaxing escape for families of all ages. And when you add in some interesting history, it’s all the better!
- Bunker tour: $40/adult; $20/youth
- Presidents’ Cottage Museum: Free
- Recommended: 10 and up for both
- Tour time:
- Bunker: 1.5 hours
- Presidents’ Cottage Museum: 15-30 minutes
- Gift shop located in the hotel
- Transportation: The Greenbrier is located in White Sulphur Springs, WV, easily accessible from I-64 or via Amtrak. The hotel has a shuttle service to provide easy transportation between activities.
- Dining options: The resort has a wide variety of dining options, from casual poolside fare to dressy gourmet restaurants. We ate at Slammin’ Sammies, Tree Tops Cafe, and Prime 44 West. Our favorite meal was our room service breakfast in our cottage!
- Nearby attractions: There are so many activities at The Greenbrier that you won’t want to leave! The little town of White Sulphur Springs is adorable and has several restaurants and attractions. The nearby town of Lewisburg also has a quaint historic downtown.
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