Roanoke sits in a large valley cradled by the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. The Appalachian Trail passes close by to the north, the Blue Ridge Parkway to the south. The long, wide valley made a perfect spot for a rail line in the 19th century, and Roanoke grew as the railroad industry did. The city embraces its railroad heritage with many rail-themed attractions, but Roanoke also has a new sheen to it with a vibrant downtown filled with cultural and culinary treasures. The area has plenty to offer sightseers, outdoor enthusiasts and wine lovers who don't mind the extra drive time through North Carolina, or maybe a bunny-hop flight over it.
A downtown walking tour
Begin at the Roanoke Visitor Information Center -- housed in the old passenger rail station -- to pick up a map of the downtown area, then take the pedestrian bridge over the tracks to the Historic Roanoke City Market. This open-air farmers' market has been in operation since 1882. It occurs daily underneath the blue- and white-striped awnings covering the sidewalks of Market Street and Market Square. The anchor of downtown is the circa-1922 red brick City Market Building, an iconic structure in the city currently undergoing a major renovation and slated to reopen in July with a variety of local food options.
Center in the Square across the street contains a history and science museum with an IMAX theater, a popular stop for families with young children. Kids may also want to visit the nearby Taubman Museum of Art once they see the museum's dramatically shaped modernist exterior, a Frank O. Gehry-inspired building of bent steel edifices and soaring glass walls. The collection inside ranges from classic early American to post-modern and visionary folk art.
After leaving the Taubman head straight to the Virginia Museum of Transportation via the Roanoke Rail Walk with its interactive displays that let you sound a train horn and control signal lights and a rail crossing arm. At the transportation museum, spend time underneath the rail shed outside gazing at the old steam engines. These behemoths were the titans of the rails before diesel and an up-close experience with them will certainly enhance a visit to the O. Winston Link Museum, located in the same building where you started the walking tour.
O. Winston Link was a photographer obsessed with steam-engine locomotives and well-known for his elaborately lit night shots of trains in the mid-20th century. The museum showcases his work and offers fascinating insight into the planning behind the photos. Before touring the galleries, watch the short film in the theater downstairs to get the full appreciation of Link's accomplishments and legacy.
One of the first things you'll notice on your way into Roanoke is the giant star atop Mill Mountain near downtown, especially at night when it's lit up by blue neon lights. Erected in 1949, the 100-foot high star has become the symbol of the city -- you'll see references to it all over town. The observation platform beneath the star is the best place to get a view of the city from on high. A short walk away from the star is Mill Mountain Zoo. Saddling the ridge of the mountain, the zoo also has great views of the surrounding area to accentuate its collection of animals, which includes a number of endangered species, such as the red panda and the snow leopard.
Botetourt Wine Trail
Plan a day to explore Botetourt County (www.visitbotetourt.com), a bucolic area of the Blue Ridge northeast of Roanoke at the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley. There are three family-owned wineries in the county -- Virginia Mountain Vineyards, Blue Ridge Vineyard and Fincastle Vineyard & Winery -- each different from the other in style and character and all offering wines of surprising variety, from sweet to dry, deep red to crisp white. The wine trail winds through mountainous back roads, small towns and along the James River. Stop for lunch at the Buchanan Grill on Main Street in Buchanan, an old-school drugstore diner with a friendly staff, loyal longtime customers and a jukebox that still plays old 45s.
If you go
Roanoke is a seven-hour drive from Atlanta. Delta offers non-stop service between Hartsfield-Jackson and Roanoke Regional Airport.
Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center. The Grand Dame of Roanoke hotels, built in 1882, the rooms are thoroughly modernized but the place retains its Victorian-era panache. Be sure to order peanut soup and spoonbread when dining in The Regency Room, and don't miss the cozy wooden environs of The Pine Room Pub. Rates start at $134. 110 Shenandoah Ave., Roanoke. 540-985-5900, www.hotelroanoke.com.
Fincastle Vineyard Bed and Breakfast. Small inn in a 1926 farmhouse located on the same 80-acre property as the Fincastle Winery. A full country breakfast is served each morning. Rates start at $120. 203 Maple Ridge Lane, Fincastle. 540-591-9000, www.fincastlebb.com.
The Texas Tavern. Short-order burger and hot dog joint in downtown Roanoke that only seats 10 people at a time at a swivel stool counter. Despite the name, they don't serve beer or Texas-style food. And don't ask for fries, ketchup or iced tea because they don't have it. Do ask for relish on your burger and a side of chili. Under $5. 114 W. Church Ave., Roanoke. 540-342-4825, www.texastavern-inc.com.
Thelma's Chicken and Waffles. Southern-style soul food restaurant next to the City Market where they go heavy on the gravy and make you feel like family. It's crowded for a reason, so be prepared to wait, especially if you order the fried chicken. Also recommended: meat loaf with sweet tomato gravy. Entrees with two sides start at $7 to $8. 315 Market St., Roanoke. 540-343-8888, www.thelmaschickenandwaffles.biz.
Roanoke Valley Visitor Information Center. 101 Shenandoah Ave., Roanoke. 800-635-5535, www.visitroanokeva.com.