Roanoke, Va., the commercial and cultural center for southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia, is one of those cities large enough to have the entertainment and dining options you expect in a city and small enough to be easy to get into, explore and get out of when it's time to head home. It's a breeze to get to from Knoxville by taking Interstate 40 East and 81 North into Virginia and then 581 South into the city. Despite being all interstate, it is nonetheless a rather scenic drive.
Roanoke is beautifully situated in a valley between the Allegheny Mountains rising on the west and the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east. The huge Jefferson National Forest is close by. The Roanoke River runs through the south side of the city and Mill Mountain, isolated from the area's surrounding ridges, is just the other side of the river. A little further out on the south side is the Blue Ridge Parkway.
It is a nicely walkable city with a compact downtown centered around the Market District. The Historic Roanoke City Market is the oldest continually running open air market in Virginia, and area vendors offer locally grown foods and other products there 363 days a year. One block over is the City Market Building, a 1922 structure set to have its Grand Reopening on Labor Day after extensive renovations. Renowned artist Cheryl Foster has created colored tile mosaics at the building's four main entrances, each depicting an element of Roanoke history and culture.
Be sure to get one of the Downtown Roanoke Walking Tour maps created by the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation. It'll significantly enhance your appreciation for the history and architecture of the city.
Roanoke is known as "Star City of the South" because of the 88.5-foot-high, 10,000-pound metal red, white and blue neon star more than 1,000 feet up on Mill Mountain overlooking the city. It's been there since 1949. At night it's quite a splendid sight, and during the day, you can drive up to it for a closer look and also enjoy a bird's eye view of the city and surrounding area.
Also located atop Mill Mountain is Mill Mountain Zoo, a small but fully accredited and engaging zoo. There are 35 species at this mountaintop menagerie including spectacularly colored birds, red pandas, red wolves, otters, a snow leopard and many more.
The railroad has been a vital part of Roanoke's geographic, economic and cultural landscape for more than a century, and the city is the historic home of the headquarters for the famed Norfolk & Western Railway. The Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke's historic Norfolk & Western Railway Freight Station is a treat for anyone caught up in the romance of the railway. The museum and its outdoor pavilion have mammoth iron and steel trains of yesteryear, including the largest collection of diesel locomotives in the South, along with lots of railroad memorabilia and artifacts.
An easy walk from the transportation museum is the O. Winston Link Museum, another railroad-themed display. Link was a photographer profoundly passionate about steam locomotives who devoted countless hours to capturing the last days of the Norfolk & Western railway on film. The museum offers not only his dramatic photos but also a short documentary film, audio recordings and more.
Roanoke's delicious menu of restaurants range from simple diners to mid-range eateries to fine dining establishments. For breakfast, it's hard to beat The Roanoker Restaurant, a renowned eatery well worth the few minutes drive from downtown. Another fine choice is Thelma's Chicken & Waffles. This family-run business dishes up one lip-smacking Southern breakfast.
Two charming diners have been around just short of forever. Each offers inexpensive, tasty sustenance served up in authentic retro chic. The Roanoke Weiner Stand at Center in the Square has grilled hotdogs for about a buck and a half and other items. A few blocks down on Church Avenue is the Texas Tavern, a tiny old-school diner that serves up $1.25 hamburgers and Coney Island hotdogs and chili at its small counter.
For something a little more upscale but still casual, try Fork in the City or sister restaurant Fork in the Alley. Here you'll find soups, salads, gourmet burgers, interesting sandwiches and brick oven wood-fired pizza. It's garnered best hamburgers, best pizza and best Southwest Roanoke restaurant awards, among other categories, in city-wide competitions.
Roanoke also has several excellent choices for upscale dining. Blue 5 Restaurant has won just about every "Best of Roanoke" category The Roanoker magazine could come up with including Best Downtown Restaurant. Also sure to please pampered palates is The Regency Room at Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center, a fine restaurant with the added bonus of being located inside a grand hotel that's been designated a National Historic Landmark.