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5 Things I Love About Roanoke

Roanoke City Market- coca cola sign

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.

View from Center in the Square- me and scott

On top of the Center in the Square building… best view in downtown Roanoke!

Roanoke Greenway

The Roanoke Greenway (Photo via Dan Casey/ Blogs.Roanoke.com)

 

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.

Roanoke Neighborhoods

Roanoke’s 40+ neighborhoods (map via roanokeva.gov)

 

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.

Viva la Cupcake

Viva la Cupcake signature cupcake is chocolate heaven

Pops- Exterior

Pop’s has a fun vibe and an amazing array of grilled cheeses and shakes

 

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. 

Roanoke Train

Choo choo! A freight train passes through downtown Roanoke

 

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!)

Inside Center in the Square

The colorful lobby of the Center in the Square building.

Taubman Museum of Art

Shadows create art at the Taubman Museum.

 

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.

River and Rail- Banana Pudding 2

River and Rail’s Banana Pudding with Jalapeno-Coconut Sorbet

Roanoker

Biscuits at the Roanoker

Parkway Brewing

Tasting the craft beers at Parkway Brewing

 

**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.**

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75 Responses to 5 Things I Love About Roanoke

  1. RoanokeGuy January 7, 2014 at 9:12 pm #

    Wow this writer should have given more of a story about Roanoke life. Please remember this article is written with benefit to VA Tourism. This town could easily scare all of it’s medicated / should be medicated people with some unsavory truths about lifestyle, career and opportunity, politics, and perhaps just a neighbor.
    This article gives some highlights but, fails to mention things like finding a place to park dowtown for work or taking part in one of the eateries that are over priced for the local income. In fact, being a , ummm, being a chef is a big thing since there is so many places to eat here. Most places are over priced for what it is. Not to fear, a few mainstream chain dine outs are around.
    There are plenty of people here that try to be more than they are and have no problem telling you the local gossip and drama of the hour or day.
    With all this said, it’s an ok place to raise a family or retire. If you don’t need a place that will locate you to career advancement or a nice vibrant night life, then this is a great place. If you like the outdoors, it’s super. If you need anything more, this isn’t such a great place. There’s not much here. I am writing this after living here all my life and this doesn’t even start to give the proper picture. So, I’m leaving this as the article leaves a lot to be said for Roanoke.
    RoanokeGuy recently posted..5 Things I Love About RoanokeMy Profile

    • RoanokeGuy January 7, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

      OH and I should add, most of us don’t care that most of this stuff is here. The places with an event are what we do mostly when we really need something to do to get away from boredom. The average person in Roanoke doesn’t visit any of the places, exception to eateries, more than a few times a year or lifetime. If you have a particular view on whatever issue you can always find a for or against mindset or argument here. Most people that come from bigger places have a hard time adjusting to the drudgery here. I hear the story all week long about how the came from “pick a big city” and there’s nothing to do here and how much more is from that place they came from. The welfare system has grown tremendously here. Partly to blame is that Northeastern states shipped their welfare and homeless needy to the area. However, if you are a sociologist or simply love to volunteer, there are ample chances here.
      RoanokeGuy recently posted..5 Things I Love About RoanokeMy Profile

  2. Angela January 7, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    I’m so sorry you missed LUCKY! It is my favorite drinks + delicious dinner spot. Heck, it’s my favorite place in all of Roanoke! If I’m out downtown, it starts and often finishes at Lucky.

    I’m originally from Arlington Virginia and moved here almost 4 years ago for work. Lucky is on Kirk Ave, by Kirk Ave Music Hall. They serve retro/creative cocktails (AMAZING!) and french/american gastropub cuisine. The atmosphere, loungy feel and the friendly staff are a terrific combination. The owners are always present and solicit your likes/dislikes as well as getting to know you by name. If you haven’t been I would definitely suggest it on your next trip.
    Recommend it most highly 🙂

    Roanoke’s quality of life is unbeat. It’s a change in pace from the DC area but definitely a quality place to live. Glad you enjoyed your trip and thanks for sharing
    Angela recently posted..5 Things I Love About RoanokeMy Profile

  3. Jeff January 8, 2014 at 1:05 am #

    I’m a bit surprised that all this cheerleading for Roanoke ignores that a significant part of Roanoke is just as run-down as many other cities, places that I think most Roanokers who rave about food-trucks, Down-Town night life and the art museum also don’t ever dare talk about “That other part of Roanoke” like around 10th street, Rorer and Day avenues, Salem Ave outside of downtown. SouthEast, the parts along Hershberger out towards Plantation Road, Wasena, etc. The areas that line Melrose and Orange avenue… And can’t forget Lincoln Terrace (you can paint it and rename it, but it’s still not somewhere I’d choose to live) and along Shenandoah Ave (Past Peters Creek) where I used to work, laying in my bunk at the station, flinching whenever a stray bullet would punch through the wall above my head.

    Yeah, Roanoke is a nice place, all in all, it’s not that much more special than most any other city of similar size in the world.

  4. Mae January 8, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

    Loved this. I grew up in Roanoke and through the years I have seen many changes and for the better. I remember when there was only one mall called Crossroads, and 4 movie theaters.

    I don’t live there anymore but go back to visit family. Thanks for saying nice things about my home town.

  5. Relocated2Roanoke January 8, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

    I “retired” here with my husband and 17-year old daughter, 10 years ago from the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, DC. We liked the mountains, found a beautiful home and thought it would be a good place to live.

    We love to entertain and had a fair number of friends after living the in the DC area for over 25 years. Over the last 10 years we have met only 3 couples that we socialize with. Everyone else we have met either through church, PTA, volunteering, and my work in the city public school system seem, in the words of my daughter “to already have enough friends.” We have invited neighbors over for several meals (my husband is a great cook) and never had them reciprocated. I find that the people in this area to be very close-minded. The race relations are stuck in the 1950’s.

    I have to say that much of your article is accurate from the point of view of a visitor. There are many activities for those wanting to participate in the outdoors. The Blue Ridge Parkway is awesome, the wineries are fantastic, food is ethnically diverse and delicious. The museums are nice, but after one visit you’ve seen all they have. Traveling exhibits are non-existent so there is no reason to go a second time. Theatre is mostly good, though the Mill Mountain Theatre seats are narrow and uncomfortable, one show and we never went back. Thank goodness for Attic Productions which is wonderful local theatre at very reasonable prices and no bad seat in the house. Both civic centers are okay, but showing their age. Acoustics at the Performing Arts Center are mediocre and the few concerts we’ve attended have left us wondering why we wasted our money. The area colleges, universities and community college are wonderful and have great programming for the community. The main city library has seen better days and has parking and accessibility issues, but generally the area library system is very good and the branches are accessible and well-staffed. The new South County library is excellent and state-of-the-art.

    Would I recommend that people to visit? Certainly. Would I recommend people relocate here? Probably not. Clearly I have been spoiled by my other homes.
    Relocated2Roanoke recently posted..5 Things I Love About RoanokeMy Profile

    • Hayley February 1, 2014 at 9:44 am #

      “We love to entertain and had a fair number of friends after living the in the DC area for over 25 years. Over the last 10 years we have met only 3 couples that we socialize with. Everyone else we have met either through church, PTA, volunteering, and my work in the city public school system seem, in the words of my daughter “to already have enough friends.”

      Amen. I moved here from Richmond for a job and have been dismayed at the difficulty my husband and I have had making friends. Granted, we’re nearly 30 and are atheists/secular humanists, and Roanoke was recently named one of the top Bible-minded cities of America, so that’s certainly part of the problem, but not all of it. It seems that people who are from here, stay here, and see no need to branch out. In larger cities, it’s more common for people to come and go, so you make more friends casually. People I work with are nice, but with few exceptions, most have never lived elsewhere. The sights and museums (while few compared to larger cities) are okay, they’re not places I would visit frequently. You see the star once, how many more times do you need to see it, you know? Sad to say, I don’t see us staying here long-term if we continue to have difficulty connecting with people. (And honestly, there’s just very little culture here — you can’t schedule events for Wednesday nights because that’s Bible Study night!)

  6. mike January 9, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

    I spent part of my childhood in the Roanoke area and I go back to visit annually …and one thing I love about Roanoke and it gets better every time I go ..is the food co-op. Nice little restaurant in the back and great local organic produce with a super friendly knowledgeable staff.

    http://roanokenaturalfoods.com/

  7. Martha January 9, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    One thing that has not been mentioned is the celebration of ethnic diversity. The annual festival, Local Colors, is not just a one weekend event. It is a year round calendar of lunch events and festivals that celebrate different cultures from around the world. Roanoke also has an active Sister Cities program. Our city is home to a thriving refugee and immigration population and we have a number of groups who work hard to welcome these folks.

    Check out Local Colors activities at their website: http://localcolors.org/

  8. Chris January 9, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    After having lived in Roanoke for 29 years (my whole life) I could probably come up with more than 5 things. Great article. Thanks for visiting.

  9. Yeni January 16, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    Can someone please tell me a little more about the winter season? Does it snow in December?

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  11. River Park Square 20 movie times May 26, 2014 at 9:00 am #

    Holy crap, thanks so much for posting this! It is gonna help me when I am thinking about going to River Park Square 20 in Spokane! I am from Upstate NY so I am not familiar with Spokane. Next time I see my family will be so much better! Very Extraordinary!

  12. Nancy Page June 28, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    Thanks for the marvelous article about our fair city! You evidently did not get to experience the marvelous musical opportunities to perform and enjoy as a listener in the Roanoke Valley. We have, first of all, an outstanding public radio station WVTF — yes, Virginia Tech Foundation — with, of course, NPR daily!

    Second, we have a very fine symphony orchestra with professional musicians from all down the east coast. Our musical director, David Stuart Wiley, has been here about fifteen years. He and his talented wife seem to think Roanoke is a fine place to raise children; they have two talented ones! A fine Symphony Chorus performs with the Symphony twice a year.

    Third, since we are so close to Roanoke College and Hollins University, we have all the benefits of their student and faculty performances as well as the community concerts they host. We also enjoy the musical talents of Virginia Tech, Radford University, Washington and Lee University, and Liberty University. If you love classical music, ROANOKE, VA is the place to be.

    Like other kinds of music? There is Opera Roanoke, many rock-type and newer age music, lots of bluegrass and country … we even have a huge contingent of steel drum players who age gaining a national reputation for excellence. You haven’t heard anything like our Bahama Mamas steel drum band playing classical music! And their dance music is fun, too!
    All in all, it seems that if you love MUSIC, Roanoke is the ideal place for you!

  13. M. Jason Turner November 24, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    I love articles like this. There are tons of wonderful things in Roanoke that not everyone knows about. I could pick hundreds of things I love about Roanoke or more. If I were to pick 5 off the top of my head it would be 1. Soul Sessions- Poetry slam every other wed night at 16 West Marketplace. 2. B & D Comics Shop 3. Pride in the Park 4.Geek Mob Roanoke(and not just because it’s an event we started) 5. The People !
    We love it so much we started “Roanoke Doesn’t Suck” the website and FB pages for all the cranky naysayers.

  14. enid January 26, 2015 at 2:45 pm #

    Hi, I was wondering how is the situation for atheists in Roanoke? We are a family of one agnostic of Jewish extraction and two atheists, including an atheist child? How likely we are to find friends or ( on the other end of the spectrum) be ostrasized?
    All insights are greatly appreciated.

  15. Jessica April 26, 2015 at 8:53 pm #

    This is such a great article! I’ve lived in Roanoke for ten years and Salem (neighbor town) for the 20 before that. A lot of things are taken for granite in Roanoke by the people who live here-My husband and I are definitely guilty! In my early 20s, I remember hanging out downtown and going from place to place. I never felt scared or nervous. However…just in the past 5 years, things have gotten worse with crime (theft, shootings). A LOT worse. However, not enough for me to move 🙂 One of my FAVORITE things to do in Roanoke is to drive around in the neighborhoods. The old homes are absolutely huge and very ‘victorian’. Almost all of them are duplexes now that a lot of people are able to rent (you’d have to be rich to own and maintain one of these houses on your own!).

    One more thing. Did you go see the Roanoke Star?!?! If not, you have to come back! You’re able to see if from the road and it’s a million times better when you drive up to it. You may have saw it on a ton of post cards downtown 🙂

    It’s super cool that you came here… your blog did us justice!

  16. Jenna September 26, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    This is great to read, all the comments are very interesting. I am moving from Chapel Hill NC to Roanoke soon and love hearing what everyone has to say!

  17. Jim February 16, 2016 at 4:21 pm #

    I know I’m late to the party on this article, and I’m not sure what is still around. The River and Rail’s Banana Pudding with Jalapeno-Coconut Sorbet looks amazing! We are going to be heading the Roanoke Rapids soon, and I hope it is still around!

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