ROANOKE, Va. — Nestled in a valley in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a lively city where a farmers' market does a busy trade in the middle of downtown, surrounded by cafes, fair-trade stores, boutiques and several museums.
Roanoke is a perfect place for a vacation. Called the Star City of the South, Roanoke started as a settlement called Big Lick — named for the salt marshes that attracted deer. The area was settled in 1740s but not chartered until 1874. Its name was changed to Roanoke in the early 1880s after the river that runs through the town.
When the Virginia and The Norfolk and Western Railway built a line running through the town to connect Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley, the town became a hub for other lines like the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad. Factories opened to build the steam engines that pulled them and Roanoke grew into a bustling town, built on trains and the passengers and goods they brought in.
Visitors can see the history of trains, planes and automobiles at the Virginia Museum of Transportation and a beautifully told story of steam trains at the O. Winston Link Museum
The Virginia Museum of Transportation has a large garage full of all kinds of cars, from Model T's to VW bugs to Ford Mustangs. The airplane area shows aviation from all angles but the biggest part of the museum, literally and figuratively, is the train exhibits. One room is full of toy trains making their rounds on several levels of tracks and is fun to watch. Outdoors are engines of all kinds.
The Class A 1218 was the last steam engine running in the U.S. Its final journeys were chronicled by photographer O. Winston Link. Link's museum shares space with the Roanoke Visitor's Center.
His museum is a pleasant half-mile stroll from the Virginia Transportation Museum on the Rail Walk, an outdoor museum with plenty of railroad signage, displays and whistles to play with, and benches made of train axles to relax and watch trains roll through the city.
Watch a short documentary about the man and the steam engine and how he shot amazing photographs of engines and trains traveling throughout the area. It's a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man who knew the public would miss the mournful wail of a steam train whistle as it traveled its route.
The city got its nickname, “Star City of the South,” in 1949 when downtown merchants built a large lighted star on Mill Mountain at Christmastime. They hoped the star would get shoppers out and generate Christmas sales and were delighted to discover residents wanted the star lit year round. It's the largest standing star in the United States.
If you stand on the deck and face the star, you'll notice a camera mounted on one point. It's hooked up to the Internet and refreshes every 15 seconds. Call or text family or friends and have them go to www.RoanokeVA.gov/starcam and tell them wait until the camera refreshes, and they can share the view of Roanoke spread out below.
Follow the path from the star to the Discovery Center. Learn about the birds and animals living in the area, see what a working beehive looks like, follow hiking trails and stop by the Mill Mountain Zoo.
Right in the middle of town is the Hotel Roanoke. Built in 1882, the hotel is constantly being both restored and updated. The main rooms and exterior are listed on the National Register of Historic Places while the guest rooms are kept up to Doubletree and Hilton Hotel standards.
House specialties are peanut soup and spoonbread. Try both and you'll want to buy the book, “Peanut Soup and Spoonbread: An Informal History of the Hotel Roanoke.”
Stroll through the hotel's public area and take a step into the past. One gallery has murals of gentlemen and ladies in period dress. One hallway honors the current Miss Virginia and Miss Virginia USA.
Art, theater, music
The newest jewel downtown is the Center in the Square. Opening in mid-May after a two-year face-lift, the five-story building houses a rooftop restaurant; butterfly garden; the Science Museum of Western Virginia; the History Museum and Historical Society of Western Virginia; the Harrison Museum of African-American Culture; the Mill Mountain Theatre; Opera Roanoke; Roanoke Ballet Theatre; and Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. It also includes a series of aquariums on the first floor with live coral, jellyfish, sea horses and a fresh water area features aquatic life found in the Roanoke area. A box office offering tickets to these plus other events in town is in the Center in the Square, as well.
Across the tracks from the Roanoke Valley Visitor Information Center is the sleekly metallic Taubman Museum of Art. Light floods each floor, displaying each exhibit to its best advantage. Stop by for a snack or meal at Norah's Cafe on the ground floor or do a bit of research on a piece of art that caught your eye in the Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore Resource Lounge.
Roanoke is an easy city to see by foot or bicycle. It's a beautiful city, which you can see for yourself if you can keep your eyes from straying up to the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding the town.
Travel and accommodations provided by Geiger & Associates and the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau