Its heritage is tied to the railroad. Yet even before Norfolk & Western Railway's steam locomotives rolled into the heart of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, this picturesque little town was a happening place.

A hub along the long and bumpy Great Wagon Road that brought 18th-century settlers from Philadelphia to central North Carolina, Big Lick, as the town originally was known, bustled with three hotels, five tobacco factories, a cigar factory, and five churches. It also boasted a shoemaker, harness-maker, undertaker, four doctors, and two lawyers.

Renamed Roanoke in 1881, the city still bustles.

I discovered Roanoke this spring by way of my Mizunos - running the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Half Marathon, a grueling but exhilarating footrace that had me and 1,700 others climbing thousands of feet up Mill Mountain. Relatively new on the running scene, the race is billed as America's "toughest road marathon" and draws more and more competitors each year. Still, competing is only half the fun.

Situated in a valley surrounded by mountains, Roanoke offers vacationers all kinds of activities. Outdoor types can spend the day hiking or biking its long network of greenway and mountain trails, or traipsing through caves (Dixie Caverns are in nearby Salem). There's also fishing, boating, and horseback riding at Carvins Cove, which borders 14 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and camping and picnicking at Smith Mountain Lake. At the headwaters of the Roanoke River, the four-mile scenic trail at Bottom Creek Gorge features the second-highest waterfall in Virginia. More sedentary folks will have fun exploring its vibrant downtown district, which includes boutique shopping, decent restaurants and nightclubs, a hip coffeehouse, and the oldest continuously operating open-air market in the state.

Thanks to its location just a few miles off the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, one of America's most scenic stretches of road (, Roanoke is touted as the "Capital of the Blue Ridge." But I prefer the nickname "Star City," a nod to the giant star perched on Mill Mountain's summit.

Constructed in 1949, the 881/2-foot, 10,000-pound illuminated star is the first thing you see when you head into town, especially if you arrive, as we did, after dark. Juiced by 17,500 watts of power, its 2,000 feet of neon tubing is so bright that you can see it from an airplane 60 miles above. There's no more iconic place from which to post pictures to Facebook. Unless, of course, you walk a few feet to the overlook just beyond the star's base. Its panoramic views of the city below and the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains in the distance are pretty Instagram-worthy, too.

My idea of the perfect getaway usually involves lots of eating. (More on that later.) But there's plenty to see and do in Roanoke, especially if you're into art. One of the newest, and shiniest, is the Taubman Museum of Art (, housed in a stunning, 80,000-square-foot contemporary building just off the restored Market Square. With a focus on American art history, its 2,000-plus paintings, photographs, and folk and graphic arts displays include some famous names - Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, and Andy Warhol, to name a few - and there's also an entire gallery displaying dozens of Judith Leiber's exquisite crystal-studded handbags. And it's free (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday).

Also new is Center in the Square in the heart of downtown. Nearly two years in the making, the 200,000-square-foot cultural complex gathers four independent attractions under one seven-story roof: Science Museum of Western Virginia, History Museum of Western Virginia, Harrison Museum of African American Culture, and Mill Mountain Theatre, a year-round regional theater. (Prices vary; It also boasts rooftop dining, a butterfly habitat, and, for fish lovers, a 6,000-gallon living coral reef.

Maybe history's more your thing. The country's largest collection of diesel and steam locomotives, plus a Jupiter rocket, is showcased at the Virginia Museum of Transportation (, $8 adults/$6 children ages 3 to 11), where visitors also can climb aboard some classic railcars. In nearby Hardy, you can explore the reconstructed 1850s plantation where America's most prominent African American educator and orator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Booker T. Washington, was born in 1856 and lived until age 9. The Booker T. Washington National Monument takes about an hour to tour, and has garden and farm areas. (Free; open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.;

The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, about 30 miles northeast of Roanoke on Route 221, commemorates the Allied forces that participated in the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. ($8 adults, $5 children 6 to 18, plus $2 for a guided tour; open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;

Like to pick through junk for bargains or antiques? One of the country's premier architectural-salvage operations, Black Dog Salvage, is about five minutes from downtown. You can spend several happy hours there searching for lost treasures (many have been featured on the DIY Network series Salvage Dawgs). The complex also has a 14,000-square-foot marketplace chock-full of home and garden accessories. Oddly enough, it's where you can rent a bike to explore Roanoke and neighboring Salem's 25.6 miles of greenways (prices start at $12 for two hours;

My husband and I? We hit Roanoke's dining scene pretty hard, squeezing in more than a half-dozen meals over the weekend. We started Friday morning with breakfast at Thelma's Chicken & Waffles on Market Street, and by Saturday night, we'd also sampled the peanut soup at the Roanoke Hotel, wood-fired pizza at Corned Beef & Cabbage, fried-green-tomato BLT's at Billy's, and incredible sushi at Formosa Lounge (served in glowing martini glasses). Helping to wash it all down were some top-notch mojitos at Habana Cafe, a Cuban restaurant on Market Square, and local craft brews at Blue 5.

Driving home after vacation is always a total drag, but we had at least two adventures planned after checking out of our hotel. The first was to load up on $1.30 burgers at the landmark red-and-white Texas Tavern on Church Avenue.

The short-order cook sweet-talked us into taking out a bag of Cheesy Westerns - cheeseburgers topped with fried egg, onion, pickles, and the tavern's signature relish. Even though we weren't hungry, we polished them off before we hit our next destination, the Natural Bridge in Rockbridge County.

Thirty years ago, my husband and I visited the 215-foot-high limestone arch on our budget honeymoon. We wanted to see whether the historic landmark, created when a cavern collapsed a very long time ago, still held its charms. I'm happy to report it did.

But the real fun was yet to come.

Heading back to the highway, we happened past a sign for Foamhenge, a full-scale replica of England's ancient Stonehenge. Who could drive past that?

Especially when it was free?

In 2004, as an April Fool's joke, Mark Cline of Enchanted Castle Studios carved this man-made wonder out of Styrofoam rather than stone and placed it on a bluff above Route 11. There it stands to this day, a little worse for wear, covered with teenagers' initials and pocked with holes made by birds and local varmints. Foamhenge even does the original one better, with a life-size sculpture of the wizard Merlin, his face taken from the death mask (I'm not making this up) of the artist's friend Jamie Jordan, who died in 2007.

You'll definitely want to spend a few minutes snapping pictures. Don't touch anything, though. In a handwritten sign on the site, Mr. Cline warns he might be hiding in the bushes watching you.