48 Hours In Roanoke, Virginia

Above: The iconic star on top of Mill Mountain, located in Roanoke, Virginia (Photo: Thomason Photography/Shutterstock)

There’s just something about Roanoke—it wins you over before you even realize it. All it’ll take is a chat with some of the locals—they have such an enthusiasm for their town that you can’t help but start to see it as they do. Home to some 300,000 people, the city is historically a rail town (although there hasn’t been a passenger train pulling into the city since 1979, but that will change soon—a regional train will launch within the next couple of years). And while it’s small, it’s anything but a sleepy town. The rundown of how to best spend your time here:

Where to stay

Built in 1882, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Hotel Roanoke boasts 331 rooms but is heartwarmingly charming despite its size thanks to its Tudor exterior. It’s located close to the Market Square Walkway (although nothing is ever “far” when you’re in Roanoke). Sweet tooths will love the signature chocolate chip cookie, warm from the oven, that you get when you check in, while American history buffs will get a kick out of staying in the same place Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have crashed.

Where to eat

There are more restaurants per capita in Roanoke than any other area in Virginia, so you certainly won’t have a hard time finding a spot to fill your belly. For breakfast, the go-to spot is The Roanoker, and as for what to order: the biscuits. Light and fluffy, these white-flour biscuits are probably banned from your diet by your nutritionist, but you can cheat one meal, right? So grab a table in this homey, brightly lit  restaurant and join the local regulars who can’t get enough of these addictive carbs.

If meat is more your thing, then dinner has to be at the Blues BBQ & Grill. Smoked over a wood blend, the pork here, available in the usual formats – pulled (available as Memphis-style or Carolina-style) and a few varieties of ribs—is all juicy and tender. Just as much attention is devoted to making their apps and sides as smoking their meat—the fried green tomatoes have a delicious cornmeal crust and a nice kick thanks to a spice blend, and their signature grit cakes are creamy, bite-sized morsels so good you probably won’t be able to stop eating them, but just take your time with your main dish as you enjoy the live music.

What to do

You can’t come to Roanoke and not get up close with the Star, even if just for a quick photo. The iconic Roanoke Star (also known as the Mill Mountain Star) is the world’s largest man-made star and it’s been shining over the city since 1949. At an impressive 100-feet tall and visible pretty much throughout the Valley, it makes for a great landmark to help orient yourself. Fit and ambitious runners might want to consider their visit to the Star as part of their participation in the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon, which takes place in April and with more than 7,400 feet in elevation change, it’s earned the title of America’s Toughest Marathon.

If the weather isn’t so great, pop into the Center in the Square, the city’s non-profit cultural centre downtown. Composed of seven stories, you can easily pass most of a day here exploring the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, the History Museum of Western Virginia and the Science Museum of Western Virginia (where there is plenty to amuse both curious kids and adults alike—from the butterfly garden to exhibits about the human body and the planet earth). On street level you’ll find the Mill Mountain Theatre (check the box office for what’s on stage) and a handful of aquariums, including the impressive 6,000 gallon living coral reef aquarium.

Finally, you’d be remiss to visit this railtown and not include some transportation-related outings. For some fresh air, do the short self-guided David R. And Susan S. Good Railwalk, where you can learn about Roanoke’s railway history along the route that runs safely parallel alongside the tracks, and kids will enjoy the walk’s interactive components, such as playing with the signals and whistles. For something more in-depth, make the trip to the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Even those not into the world on transportation can’t help but be impressed by the two remaining examples of the Norfold & Western Railway trains in the railyard—after all, didn’t we all grow up with some sort of dream of traveling the country on a historic train and the adventures we’d have?

Tags: Travel Guide, Virginia

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