By Renee Sklarew
Like so many great American cities, Roanoke is waiting to be discovered, or perhaps, re-discovered. You’ve heard about Southern Virginia’s abundance of colorful scenery and recreational activities—caving, biking, fishing—but chances are, Roanoke wasn’t on your radar. We’re here to tell you, it should be.
Surrounded by peaks of blue, Roanoke is sparkling like its famous Star; beckoning visitors to enjoy its intriguing blend of sophistication, culture and Southern hospitality. Never heard of the Roanoke Star? Straddling atop Mill Mountain stands the world’s largest illuminated, freestanding, man-made star, constructed in 1949 out of an 88 foot-tall neon tube. A symbol of Roanoke’s past and present, the Star is visible up to 60 miles. From its base, there’s a spectacular view of Roanoke below and the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding the town.
When the steam railroad was in its heyday, Roanoke was a busy metropolitan hub, drawing visitors from long distances to shop in its fine stores. The town was nicknamed “Star of the South,” and the Roanoke Star was the symbol of the Roanoke’s blossoming industrial and civic progress. As new forms of transportation replaced the steam engine, however, Roanoke lost economic steam too. Today, Roanoke is experiencing a renaissance; inspired by investment in its dynamic downtown, and newest showpiece, Center in the Square.
Center in the Square is a five-story wonder filled with three state-of-the-art museums, aquariums, a professional theatre company, planetarium and panoramic rooftop garden (with some of the best views in town). The restoration of the historic building (circa 1912) involved building a multi-level green roof, and installing solar panels that supply much of the building’s energy needs. Floor-to-ceiling windows attract natural light into the interactive science, history and African-American heritage museums. While dining on the rooftop, guests can watch the fluttering residents of the Butterfly Habitat through an enclosed dome. Roanoke’s new Center in the Square is helping transform a town renowned for its past, to an exciting cultural destination of the future.
But there’s more.
Roanoke’s Taubman Art Museum, a confection of modern design, soars above most of the historic downtown buildings. Inside its undulating glass, zinc and stainless steel façade, visitors are treated to a variety of mediums and styles, from the ancient to experimental. The Taubman’s dramatic architecture is an example of the contrasts you’ll encounter in Roanoke: like a glassed-in pedestrian walkway spanning antiquated railroad tracks; the Historic Farmer’s Market bordering chic boutiques (see LaDeDa, chocolatepaper); and a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. standing by a bench delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech through an unconventional audio system.
Nearby, at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, a once-booming railyard now houses a collection of antique automobiles, buses, planes and locomotives. The museum demonstrates the rapid development of transportation in America—featuring Roanoke’s role as the Crossroads of the South.
Contrasts between old and new achieve a curious synchronicity here. The Roanoker Restaurant, which opened before World War II, cooks beloved Southern comfort foods, like fried chicken and biscuits. In contrast, the popular eatery, Blue 5, spins those classic dishes, serving them with local craft beers and ciders, while hosting live performances by soul, country and rock musicians.
Another notable contrast is found in the Grandin Road neighborhood; a historic district populated with avant-garde shops, an indy movie theatre and progressive food emporiums. Some highlights include Local Roots, specializing in locally-sourced, organic, sustainable dishes, and Black Dog Salvage, a high-end showroom teeming with repurposed, vintage-building materials—the operation is featured on HGTV DIY Network’s Salvage Dawgs.
Before heading home, run, bike or drive up Mill Mountain for the sweeping views of Virginia’s Blue Ridge. At the top, you’ll find the child-friendly Discovery Center, Wildflower Garden and diminutive Mill Mountain Zoo, and take a closer look at Roanoke’s Star of the South—still welcoming visitors after 64 years.
Spread out in comfort and style at this new suite hotel; large bathrooms, two flat-screen TV’s and superb beds. 301 Reserve Ave., Roanoke, VA; 540-400-6226; cambriasuitesroanoke.combr
Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center-a Doubletree by Hilton
Elegant, historic hotel in heart of downtown, walk to most sites. 110 Shenandoah Ave., Roanoke, VA; 540-985-5900; doubletree3.hilton.com
The Inn on Campbell
This elegant downtown inn is on the Select Registry. Spacious suites and gourmet breakfast included. 118 Campbell Ave., SW, Roanoke, VA; 540-400-0183; innoncampbell.com