This past November, I hit the road for an Old School Virginia Road Trip. My first stop was Roanoke, a city about 3 1/2 hours away from D.C. that I had heard about, but never visited before.
With my limited knowledge, Roanoke was faceless with ambiguous features. But after my day and a half of exploring this Blue Ridge mountain town— feeling the energy of downtown, experiencing the character of the neighborhoods, seeing the beauty of the outdoors, sampling the locally-made craft beer (and finding it to be really good)— the features quickly and vividly filled in. I was left with a portrait of a place that’s both friendly and accessible with just enough flair to make it distinctly unique.
I really loved my visit, and wanted to share some of the things that I discovered about Roanoke that surprised and delighted me.
5 THINGS I LOVE ABOUT ROANOKE:
1- The Easy Access to the Outdoors
Geographically, Roanoke’s located in a valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. When you’re standing in downtown Roanoke, small mountains can be seen, showing the promise of outdoor activities that are all around you.
With 26 miles of urban greenway trails, countless public parks and easy access to nearby hiking spots like McAfee Knob (one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail), Roanoke is a city that values fitness, mobility and the beauty of the outdoors. Others are beginning to catch on to Roanoke’s commitment to encouraging the love of the outdoors: In 2013, Roanoke was awarded the distinction of “Best Trail Town” by Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine.
2. The Neighborhoods
Roanoke’s 43 square miles are home to just around 100,000 people, making it Virginia’s 10th largest city. As a visitor staying the night, I recommend staying in the heart of downtown where everything you need— from museums, to restaurants, to shops and other nightlife— is just a short walk away.
However, “downtown” accounts for just a teeny part of Roanoke. Would you believe that there are over 40 neighborhoods spread across those 43 square miles? That just blew me away… especially after I got out and experienced some of them myself.
I couldn’t get enough of charming Grandin Village in the Raleigh Court neighborhood, with retro-fabulous eateries like Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar and Viva La Cupcake, and the historic Grandin Theatre. I also loved hip South Roanoke, historic Old Southwest and the amazing views from Mill Mountain.
3. The Old Meets New Train History
In 1850, the small town of Big Lick, Virginia was added to the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, which connected the cities of Lynchburg and Bristol, Tennessee. Within a few decades, the town became a major junction of the much larger Norfolk and Western Railroad line and saw its population bloom. Dubbed “the Magic City” for its rapid growth and increased economic development, Big Lick was renamed “Roanoke”— named after the river than ran near the town.
The train’s presence revolutionized Roanoke, employing thousands. The city center expanded all around the rail tracks, and hotels like the historic Hotel Roanoke were built for the many businessmen and travelers who now had access to the city.
While freight trains still go through downtown today, Roanoke’s passenger rail service was halted in 1979. However, that’s about to change because Amtrak is extending its train service to downtown Roanoke once again! In a few short years east-coasters will once again be able to take the train on a weekend jaunt down to this historic railroad city.
4. The Culture
For a city in the middle of the mountains, I was so surprised to discover that Roanoke has a huge offering of cultural activities and museums. Roanoke’s rich rail history (as well as exhibits about Virginia’s air, road and space achievements) is on full display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. And the architecturally impressive Taubman Museum of Art celebrates Virginian and Appalachian fine art in an ultra-modern setting.
But, perhaps the crowning glory is the 6-story Center in the Square building, located in the heart of downtown right next to the bustling Roanoke City Market. Highlighting the city’s commitment to culture, in May 2013 the Center in the Square re-opened after a $30 million renovation and became home to a hub of cultural offerings including 4 museums like the fun Science Museum of Western Virginia (with an incredible butterfly habitat), and performing arts groups like the Roanoke Ballet Theater, the Roanoke Symphony, and the Roanoke Opera. (Yes, OPERA!)
5. The Hopping Food Scene
From food trucks to farm-to-table, craft beer to natural food co-ops, Roanoke’s food scene is really taking off. Popular food trucks like Bruno’s Gastro Truck and the ‘Noke Truck are dishing up creative food on the go and are often seen out and about around town and at the craft brewery, Parkway Brewing.
The Roanoke Valley’s home to many farmers and the “eat local” trend is in full force. Countless restaurants (like Local Roots and Alexander’s) offer locally-sourced and inspired cuisine showcasing the region’s best. In particular, I loved my meal at the River and Rail restaurant. It was a hip, South Roanoke neighborhood spot with an open kitchen and lots of modern spins on Southern comfort food.
The secret about Roanoke’s foodie scene is out: The Food Network included the River and Rail’s banana pudding with jalapeño coconut sorbet in its feature “50 States, 50 Ice Cream Treats” and Southern Living has recognized the biscuits at the Roanoker to be some of the best in America.
The bottom line? Come to Roanoke hungry… you won’t be disappointed.
**DISCLAIMER: Many of my meals, accommodations and activities for this trip were provided by Virginia Tourism. I worked closely with them to customize an itinerary that best fit my travel perspective, but these reflections and opinions are completely my own.**