Photo: Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau
Under the gaze of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, morning in Roanoke begins with the hustle and bustle of the Historic Roanoke City Market. Juicy peaches, ripe tomatoes and colorful fingerling potatoes are among the staples of the several stalls that line the street of this picturesque town in the summertime. The oldest continuously operating open-air market in the state, it launched in 1882 when Roanoke, originally known as Big Lick, was a booming rail hub for the Norfolk & Western Railway. Nowadays, the city is rediscovering the liveliness it experienced in the 20thcentury as a busy town as its downtown buildings, restaurants and shops undergo renovations while new businesses, residents and tourists flock to the area.
Often overlooked and overshadowed by more popular travel hotspots in the region - including Washington, D.C. and Charlotte, N.C. - Roanoke is a unique travel destination in its own right. From the town's vibrant downtown district, to the museums highlighting its storied history, to the area's long network of greenway and mountain trails, Roanoke offers an endless amount of opportunities for exploration, entertainment and adventure and plenty of reasons why travelers should pay a visit to this welcoming town on the rise.
For a glimpse into the city's rich rail heritage, start at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Located in the former downtown railroad freight station, the museum illustrates the city's roots and pays homage to the industry and Frederick J. Kimball, the railroad tycoon who brought it to the area, with its engaging displays of diesel, electric and steam locomotives.
A short walk away, the historic Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center was built by Kimball in 1882 to accommodate the many travelers who visited the area during that time. A beautiful Tudor-style hotel, the property also offers visitors a roadmap through Roanoke's past with its photographs and items from the hotel's early days. Though it's known for its long history, the hotel's 331 guestrooms and suites, dining venues and 63,000 square feet of meeting and event space all offer modern amenities. Even if you don't stay overnight, be sure to dine in the hotel's sophisticated Regency Room; the peanut soup and spoon bread is a classic.
From this historic property, you can take a short stroll across the Railwalk, a new pedestrian walkway with signage and displays detailing the history of the railroad. It drops you off into the heart of downtown a block from the new Center in the Square building, reopened in May 2013. Part of the city's revitalization program, the property houses four independent and unique cultural attractions illustrating more about the town's history: the Science Museum of Western Virginia, History Museum of Western Virginia, Harrison Museum of African American Culture and Mill Mountain Theatre.
After getting your fill of history and the arts, satiate your taste buds with delicious Southern-style food at any of the area's eateries. Located at the heart of the city's Historic Market District, the 188-year-old City Market Building serves guests a variety of cuisines in a relaxed, newly renovated space. A few blocks away, the Texas Tavern is another popular city landmark with a long history. In family hands since 1930, this no-frills, old-school diner is known for its chili and "Cheesy Westerns" (a cheeseburger topped with a fried egg, onion, pickles and the diner's signature relish). The Roanoker Restaurant is another favorite among locals, dishing up classic comfort food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for more than 65 years. Here customers are treated to both warm Southern hospitality and warm biscuits.
For adventure seekers and nature lovers, there is no shortage of outdoor activities and woodsy beauty in Virginia's Blue Ridge. Southwest Virginia offers more than 600 miles of trails in the Roanoke Valley of varying degrees of difficulty. The hike to McAfee Knob, one of the most photographed sites along the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail, is well worth the strenuous 8-mile trek to the top, rewarding hikers with views of lush rolling hills and beautiful blue vistas.
You can also enjoy the area's mountain beauty from the comfort of your car while cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile, two-lane scenic drive along the crests of the southern Appalachian Mountains that meanders from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Motorists can hop on at one of the many access points the Roanoke Valley offers.
With so many unique attractions on its tourist trail and annual events including the Chili Cook-Off and the Strawberry Festival in May, the Roanoke Valley's fascinating history is matched by an equally attractive present.