Packed Suitcase | 5 Things I Love About Roanoke
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5 Things I Love About Roanoke

5 Things I Love About Roanoke

Roanoke City Market- coca cola sign

This past November, I hit the road for an Old School Virginia Road Trip. My first stop was Roanoke, a city about 3 1/2 hours away from D.C. that I had heard about, but never visited before.

With my limited knowledge, Roanoke was faceless with ambiguous features. But after my day and a half of exploring this Blue Ridge mountain town— feeling the energy of downtown, experiencing the character of the neighborhoods, seeing the beauty of the outdoors, sampling the locally-made craft beer (and finding it to be really good)— the features quickly and vividly filled in. I was left with a portrait of a place that’s both friendly and accessible with just enough flair to make it distinctly unique.

I really loved my visit, and wanted to share some of the things that I discovered about Roanoke that surprised and delighted me.

5 THINGS I LOVE ABOUT ROANOKE:

1- The Easy Access to the Outdoors
Geographically, Roanoke’s located in a valley between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains. When you’re standing in downtown Roanoke, small mountains can be seen, showing the promise of outdoor activities that are all around you.

With 26 miles of urban greenway trails, countless public parks and easy access to nearby hiking spots like McAfee Knob (one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail), Roanoke is a city that values fitness, mobility and the beauty of the outdoors. Others are beginning to catch on to Roanoke’s commitment to encouraging the love of the outdoors: In 2013, Roanoke was awarded the distinction of “Best Trail Town” by Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine.

View from Center in the Square- me and scott

On top of the Center in the Square building… best view in downtown Roanoke!

Roanoke Greenway

The Roanoke Greenway (Photo via Dan Casey/ Blogs.Roanoke.com)

 

2. The Neighborhoods
Roanoke’s 43 square miles are home to just around 100,000 people, making it Virginia’s 10th largest city. As a visitor staying the night, I recommend staying in the heart of downtown where everything you need— from museums, to restaurants, to shops and other nightlife—  is just a short walk away.

However, “downtown” accounts for just a teeny part of Roanoke. Would you believe that there are over 40 neighborhoods spread across those 43 square miles? That just blew me away… especially after I got out and experienced some of them myself.

Roanoke Neighborhoods

Roanoke’s 40+ neighborhoods (map via roanokeva.gov)

 

couldn’t get enough of charming Grandin Village in the Raleigh Court neighborhood, with retro-fabulous eateries like Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar and Viva La Cupcake, and the historic Grandin Theatre. I also loved hip South Roanoke, historic Old Southwest and the amazing views from Mill Mountain.

Viva la Cupcake

Viva la Cupcake signature cupcake is chocolate heaven

Pops- Exterior

Pop’s has a fun vibe and an amazing array of grilled cheeses and shakes

 

3. The Old Meets New Train History
In 1850, the small town of Big Lick, Virginia was added to the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad, which connected the cities of Lynchburg and Bristol, Tennessee. Within a few decades, the town became a major junction of the much larger Norfolk and Western Railroad line and saw its population bloom. Dubbed “the Magic City” for its rapid growth and increased economic development, Big Lick was renamed “Roanoke”— named after the river than ran near the town.  

The train’s presence revolutionized Roanoke, employing thousands. The city center expanded all around the rail tracks, and hotels like the historic Hotel Roanoke were built for the many businessmen and travelers who now had access to the city. 

While freight trains still go through downtown today, Roanoke’s passenger rail service was halted in 1979. However, that’s about to change because Amtrak is extending its train service to downtown Roanoke once again! In a few short years east-coasters will once again be able to take the train on a weekend jaunt down to this historic railroad city. 

Roanoke Train

Choo choo! A freight train passes through downtown Roanoke

 

4. The Culture
For a city in the middle of the mountains, I was so surprised to discover that Roanoke has a huge offering of cultural activities and museums. Roanoke’s rich rail history (as well as exhibits about Virginia’s air, road and space achievements) is on full display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. And the architecturally impressive Taubman Museum of Art celebrates Virginian and Appalachian fine art in an ultra-modern setting.

But, perhaps the crowning glory is the 6-story Center in the Square building, located in the heart of downtown right next to the bustling Roanoke City Market. Highlighting the city’s commitment to culture, in May 2013 the Center in the Square re-opened after a $30 million renovation and became home to a hub of cultural offerings including 4 museums like the fun Science Museum of Western Virginia (with an incredible butterfly habitat), and performing arts groups like the Roanoke Ballet Theater, the Roanoke Symphony, and the Roanoke Opera. (Yes, OPERA!)

Inside Center in the Square

The colorful lobby of the Center in the Square building.

Taubman Museum of Art

Shadows create art at the Taubman Museum.

 

5. The Hopping Food Scene
From food trucks to farm-to-table, craft beer to natural food co-ops, Roanoke’s food scene is really taking off. Popular food trucks like Bruno’s Gastro Truck and the Noke Truck are dishing up creative food on the go and are often seen out and about around town and at the craft brewery, Parkway Brewing.

The Roanoke Valley’s home to many farmers and the “eat local” trend is in full force. Countless restaurants (like Local Roots and Alexander’s) offer locally-sourced and inspired cuisine showcasing the region’s best. In particular, I loved my meal at the River and Rail restaurant. It was a hip, South Roanoke neighborhood spot with an open kitchen and lots of modern spins on Southern comfort food.

The secret about Roanoke’s foodie scene is out: The Food Network included the River and Rail’s banana pudding with jalapeño coconut sorbet in its feature “50 States, 50 Ice Cream Treats” and Southern Living has recognized the biscuits at the Roanoker to be some of the best in America.

The bottom line? Come to Roanoke hungry… you won’t be disappointed.

River and Rail- Banana Pudding 2

River and Rail’s Banana Pudding with Jalapeno-Coconut Sorbet

Roanoker

Biscuits at the Roanoker

Parkway Brewing

Tasting the craft beers at Parkway Brewing

 

**DISCLAIMER: Many of my meals, accommodations and activities for this trip were provided by Virginia Tourism. I worked closely with them to customize an itinerary that best fit my travel perspective, but these reflections and opinions are completely my own.**

77 Comments
  • Erin Szczerba
    Posted at 12:40h, 06 January Reply

    Wow! So happy to read this. I’m interviewing for a job that could either be based in Harrisonburg or Roanoke on Wednesday and I’ll admit to being a tad nervous about leaving Awesome Austin for a less culturally-rich area. But this article has my heart beating fast, excited to explore the area. Thanks!
    Erin

    • Christina Ricchiuti
      Posted at 12:57h, 06 January Reply

      Erin- I’m glad that my post has you feeling a little less wary for a cross-country move! But I’ve gotta say that this entire area has a TON of awesome things to explore. I think you’ll be surprised all that there is to do. And, funny enough, I posted about Harrisonburg earlier this year– here’s some info to get you excited about that possibility, too! http://www.packedsuitcase.com/2013/10/harrisonburg-more-than-a-college-town.html

      • Yeni
        Posted at 18:12h, 18 January Reply

        Can someone please tell me a little more about the winter season? Does it snow in December?
        Reply

        • Christina Ricchiuti
          Posted at 08:23h, 22 January Reply

          Hi Yeni,
          I have not been to Roanoke in December, but from what I understand, its weather is very similar to what we get here in DC. So, sometimes it may snow, but that’s rare. Hope this helps.

        • CH
          Posted at 07:51h, 04 February Reply

          Yeni
          As a former Roanoker who grew up in the area, it can snow mid to late December.We have several ski resorts in car ride away that can be accommodating for winter sports like skiing and snow tubing.

        • Kari
          Posted at 23:59h, 20 January Reply

          As a person who has spent more or less my whole life there, it rarely snows more that an inch or two at a time if at all because the mountains generally block the snow in the area.

      • Wendy Gilmer
        Posted at 12:47h, 14 September Reply

        This is a wonderful article. I’m so glad you visited Roanoke and discovered its riches, and I do hope you’ll come back, maybe even visit some of the smaller towns. Like all of Southwest Virginia, Roanoke is full of delightful discoveries to make. Maybe now that you’ve been there, you won’t approach unknown areas with such a benighted attitude as “For a city in the middle of the mountains, I was so surprised to discover that Roanoke has a huge offering of cultural activities and museums.” Geography does not determine cultural value, which I was surprised to see a travel writer did not already know.

    • Tim
      Posted at 13:44h, 06 January Reply

      Hi Erin- If your travels lead you to Roanoke for the job and you land it, consider finding a place to live in Historic Old Southwest- We’re within walking distance to downtown with all the restaurants and shops. Our neighborhood was awarded with the Best Neighborhood in the United States in 2010 from NUSA (Neighborhoods USA) for all of our wonderful social and community outreach that we do every year. Lot’s of neighbors to get to know and network and socialize. Check out our neighborhood organization’s website when time allows- http://www.oldsouthwest.org Good Luck to you!

    • Jill
      Posted at 18:10h, 06 January Reply

      Hi Erin – Although it’s not covered here, Roanoke has a vibrant live music scene. Perhaps not as vibrant as Austin’s, but still noteworthy. We have the Down by Downtown festival, our own version of SXSW. And great venues such as the Jefferson Center and Kirk Avenue Music Hall. Roanoke also has a variety of festivals throughout spring, summer and fall. I haven’t been to Harrisonburg since college – it is dominated by James Madison University. When I moved to Roanoke from the DC area in 2011, I felt instantly welcomed and met a lot of really good people. You should really visit Roanoke and check it out! Good luck with your job search!

      • Christina Ricchiuti
        Posted at 21:19h, 06 January Reply

        A perfect example of the friendliness and hospitality of the Roanoke community. 🙂

    • Rod Goins
      Posted at 21:51h, 06 January Reply

      Hi Erin,

      I have not lived in Roanoke since 1990, but still get back often visiting family and friends. There are a number of cultural opportunities in the ‘noke, I also wanted to point out that right next door is the New River Valley, the home of both Radford University and Virginia Tech. Tech recently opened a new $100M Performing Arts Center, about 35 miles from downtown Roanoke. Those Universities, along with Roanoke College and Hollins University in the Roanoke Valley, provide additional cultural opportunities as well. There are also the Roanoke Civic Center and the Salem Civic Center, which offer concerts, comedians, Broadway series with traveling Broadway shows. etc. Best wishes!

    • Fran
      Posted at 23:30h, 06 January Reply

      lived there almost five years… if you love Austin, you’ll dig Roanoke… i don’t remember music scene being anything, but just the outdoors is awesome

    • Robert Willingham
      Posted at 15:13h, 07 January Reply

      We moved to Roanoke (Salem, actually) ten years ago and have been very presently surprised. Even the quality of the mexican food is pretty good if you know where to go.

      • Robert Willingham
        Posted at 15:14h, 07 January Reply

        …pleasantly, that is.

    • Mercedes Camacho
      Posted at 22:25h, 07 January Reply

      Erin, it is an amazing city to live in. I actually moved from Roanoke to a town south of Houston almost 3 yrs ago. Although, I am from North Carolina. I miss the changing of seasons and colors of the leaves during that time. There is so much to do and see. So many wonderful people as well.Visit Alejandro’s restaurant and Blues BBQ downtown.

    • Stephanie
      Posted at 22:29h, 07 January Reply

      How funny. My son lived in Austin for 2 years before moving to San Antonio. I loved
      visiting Austin it has its own uuniqueness. I live outside of Roanoke in called Rocky Mount and theis a beautiful lake called Smith Mountain Lake. It is surrounded by the mountains.there are also some great wineries around. Hope this will help you.

    • evie
      Posted at 17:46h, 08 January Reply

      And don’t forget the fabulous Yoga going on in Roanoke. There are 2 studios and other folks teaching privately or in smaller studios. If you are a Yoga enthusiast, there are some great things happening.

    • smiley
      Posted at 14:46h, 18 January Reply

      Nice article about Roanoke. And it is true that natural beauty abounds. Unfortunately, it has become typical to mow down mountains for commercial interests and the powers-that-be don’t have the balls to say no. Check out Slate Hill, recently renamed South Peak in order to avert negative publicity.
      Perhaps the article didn’t mention this travesty to the area’s best feature (natural beauty) because it is actually just outside the city limits in Roanoke County. However, it still illustrates the short-sightedness of elected officials in their support of such projects to bring in a few tax dollars while destroying the best reason for living in Roanoke….THE MOUNTAINS!!!!!!

    • Valerie Eagle
      Posted at 21:42h, 04 February Reply

      Hi Erin,
      I hope you got the job. I just wanted you to know that I graduated from UT and lived in Austin for 6 years. I have found Roanoke to be very full of interesting places and people and continues to satisfy my cultural needs. Please call me if you would like to talk. Valerie

  • Stuart Revercomb
    Posted at 12:47h, 06 January Reply

    Hi Chris – I am the publisher of the Roanoke Star and I wanted to ask your permission to run this article in our community newspaper this week . . . Would also be featured on http://www.theroanokestar.com. Thanks!

    – Stuart

    • Christina Ricchiuti
      Posted at 12:59h, 06 January Reply

      Hi Stuart- Thank you so much. What a complement! I’ve emailed you- thanks!

  • K
    Posted at 16:25h, 06 January Reply

    Finally!! Someone that doesn’t advertise for Bubblecake, and gives Viva La Cupcake the applause. The employees at Viva really know how to treat their customers, and the cupcakes are actually homemade. As for Bubblecake…pfft!!

    • Christina Ricchiuti
      Posted at 21:23h, 06 January Reply

      I did love my stop into Viva la Cupcake. I didn’t have the opportunity to try Bubblecake, but I have to admit that their cupcakes look pretty delicious, too! (Perhaps I’m an equal opportunity cupcake aficionado?)

  • Chad
    Posted at 16:51h, 06 January Reply

    I’ve lived in Roanoke my whole life, and I love it here. It’s very neat to see how our town looks from the perspective of a visitor.

    • Linda
      Posted at 20:30h, 06 January Reply

      HI Chris, I just want to thank you for the great article you wrote about Roanoke. I live near the Grandin area. I am going to enjoy your site…I love to travel, but have limited time and funds, so know your blog is going to be helpful!

      • Christina Ricchiuti
        Posted at 21:15h, 06 January Reply

        Thank you, Linda! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Regarding limited time and funds… I like to say: If I can do it, you can do it. I’ve got lots of 2014 quick-trips coming up, so stay tuned! (And definitely chime in with recommendations… I’m always looking for trip ideas.)

  • Elena
    Posted at 17:44h, 06 January Reply

    I arrived in Roanoke via Brooklyn NY thanks to a young son’s love of trains. What started as a weekend trip 20 years ago, ended up being our new hometown one year later. Best thing I could have ever done for my children. Love the Roanoke Valley…glad you enjoyed it too!

    • Christina Ricchiuti
      Posted at 21:20h, 06 January Reply

      Love it! Thanks for sharing, Elena.

    • Jess inch
      Posted at 13:14h, 09 February Reply

      Elena, What schools do you recommend? We may be relocating with kids.

      • Elena
        Posted at 11:01h, 02 March Reply

        Hi Jess. My kids went through Roanoke County schools — Oak Grove Elementary, Hidden Valley Middle School, Hidden Valley High School. My daughter also took advantage of Burton Technical School’s Mass Communications program (dual enrolled with HVHS & VWCC) I highly recommend Burton. They offer a variety of programs which not only dual enrolls with Virginia Western Community College for credit, but offers internships. My daughter graduated VWCC in one year because of all her college credit and now (for two years) has a full-time position at a local television station directing the news…the same station she interned with. Unfortunately my son had to leave Roanoke and relocate to Raleigh for a good-paying position. I’ve lived in Roanoke for 20 years so if you’d like to contact me with questions I’d be happy to help you…I won’t sugar coat anything. Light540@gmail.com

  • Barbara Duerk
    Posted at 18:15h, 06 January Reply

    Neighborhoods and Village Centers make living in Roanoke perfect for people who like tree lined streets and sidewalks. South Roanoke Neighborhood is connected to downtown M-F by a trolley that runs every 15 minutes. The Rail House brewery within walking distance of neighborhoods offers 4+ beers. Bring your growler.

    • Christina Ricchiuti
      Posted at 21:18h, 06 January Reply

      A trolley?! How charming. What a great idea- I could see it fitting in perfectly. And thanks for the tip about Rail House Brewery– I’ll have to check it out next time I head down that way.

      • Vince
        Posted at 15:33h, 07 January Reply

        Not a trolley, just a bus with a trolley facade.

      • RoanokeGuy
        Posted at 21:47h, 07 January Reply

        That trolley isn’t so charming if you have had a slide on the seats. For some reason a local hospital and the city bus company operate it for appearances and as a nod to a past trolley that was in town yearssss ago. The current version mostly transports hospital employees between a few of their buildings, some homeless, and some that need to go to the doctor but don’t have a lot of money. If you ride, you might need a nose plug.

    • Vince
      Posted at 15:36h, 07 January Reply

      Grew up in NW Roanoke — no neighborhhood feel, no tree-lined streets and no sidewalks, except along Melrose. South Roanoke is a very small part of the City, and most of the City has none of the amenities of South Roanoke.

  • Terrie
    Posted at 19:38h, 06 January Reply

    Hope you’ll come back and see even more sites…neighborhoods out of the city and in the county…awesome; did you go up to THE STAR…great veiw of the valley below. Go in the Wachovia Tower and go to the top and you’ll see even more awesome views…looking toward the St. Andrews Church and across Hotel Roanoke, etc. wow and wow.
    Yep…lived here since ’71 and love it…so glad you mentioned Alexander’s…my favorite restaurant here…but oh…there are so many good ones.
    And don’t forget all those cute and novel little shops all along the Market area!
    Thanks for the review!

  • mouse
    Posted at 22:27h, 06 January Reply

    Christina, Great write-up, but how in the world could you get out of town without a stop in the *real* historic eateries? The Roanoke Weiner Stand, The Texas Tavern, and the world-famous, National Historic Landmark The Coffee Pot?

    Your host and guide did you a great disservice!

    • Christina Ricchiuti
      Posted at 22:49h, 07 January Reply

      So much to do, so little time! I did go past the Roanoke Weiner Stand and it looks really fun. Next time, I’ll try to stop in!

  • Steffan
    Posted at 04:59h, 07 January Reply

    I grew up on windy gap mountain and have always loved Roanoke and I am glad you got to experience the beauty and culture of a city I am proud to call my hometown. If you go again try CJ’s it is run by my cousins and they do the best fried chicken and wings in the area. For anyone moving to Roanoke old Sw is nice and there are even nicer home in the surrounding area of Franklin County that is a short drive to and from the city.

  • Bryan
    Posted at 09:27h, 07 January Reply

    Welcome to Roanoke! As a Roanoke-born, DC-living late-20-something, I am very excited to see that you had a great time in my hometown. The area has really grown over the past 5 to 10 years. You really did hit some great highlights of the area, but never even got to explore all that Roanoke County has to offer. Although not as vibrant as Downtown Roanoke, there are several great restaurants and venues to explore. The Coffee Pot is one of the more popular music spots in the county with live music several nights out of the week. Down the road, Gracies Pizza is still one of my “must haves” when I come home to visit the family. In addition, there are several award winning vineyards in the area, including Valhalla Vineyards, which has a view even better than the view from the Star. Regardless, thank you for highlighting my hometown and showing people that there is so much more than people would think.

  • Michael
    Posted at 09:37h, 07 January Reply

    You will also find theater in Roanoke. The oldest community theater in Virginia is here, Showtimers. An offshoot (though denied, but I was there) is the Mill Mountain Theater, a semi-professional theater. There is the graduate playwrighting at Hollins College, the Attic Theater in Fincastle. The Off the Rails Theater is excellent, and there is the Star City Playhouse. All of these rely on local talent, so if you can act, you will have a wealth of opportunity here. If you just want to see excellent theater, this is the place.

  • Little Dickey
    Posted at 09:42h, 07 January Reply

    Nice article. I grew up in Roanoke. Haven’t lived there in years, but visit every year to see family. You didn’t mention my two favorite culinary “musts” – the Roanoke Weiner Stand and the New Yorker. I have to go to them each time I visit – give them a try next time.

  • Craigmo
    Posted at 10:51h, 07 January Reply

    Thank’s and please come again. As a lifer here we keep getting better and better. Tons of live music to go along with great resturants. I can easily ride my bike to work. We also have an awesome Community College!

  • Bruce Wood
    Posted at 11:12h, 07 January Reply

    Greatest place in the world to raise a family. Both of my kids, who are now grown, were born here…

  • tanya breese
    Posted at 11:12h, 07 January Reply

    shhhhh, i don’t want everyone to know about roanoke! let’s keep it a secret!! 🙂

  • Mark Petersen
    Posted at 13:16h, 07 January Reply

    I moved to Roanoke from Los Angeles in 1996. I have left twice but only come back. We have no traffic jams and the lifestyle is very casual. Everyone does their own thing. And it’s nice to see people you know at the grocery store and watch their kids grow up.

    Iam sticking around ’cause I think Roanoke is only going to get even better in the coming years.

    Great Outdoors, Great Bicycle trails!

    • tanya breese
      Posted at 14:00h, 07 January Reply

      hey, we are from san diego originally….LOVE it here! the only thing i miss is our mexican food!

  • Brent McConnell
    Posted at 13:18h, 07 January Reply

    Next time, make your way over to Vinton, a small town on the east side of Roanoke County with famous landmarks like the Vinton Bowling Alley and New York Pizza. I’ve traveled a lot (even Italy) and have yet to find better pizza. #TeamVinton

  • Liz Long
    Posted at 14:35h, 07 January Reply

    Thanks so much for visiting! I made sure to share this through Roanoker magazine’s social sites because this was such a great piece!
    As the 20-something crowd, I’m always so proud to see other younger people visiting and loving it as much as I do. I moved here from Nashville and worried about coming from a bigger city, but how wrong I was! Always plenty to do and it’s hard to go anywhere without bumping into friends because that’s just the atmosphere here. As a writer, support here is in spades too! Thanks for highlighting our great city – it’s only getting better!! Come back soon 🙂

    • Christina Ricchiuti
      Posted at 22:47h, 07 January Reply

      Thanks for sharing this, Liz! I’ve been blown away by the outpouring of support and interest. If nothing else, I’ve learned that Roanokers are — generally — so proud of their hometown. I’m so glad that I had an opportunity to visit.

  • Benji
    Posted at 17:31h, 07 January Reply

    Roanoke sucks. If you’re looking for a small town of closed-minded, religious zealots who are all up in your business, move here. The nature is great, but when the hottest thing to do in town is catch a meal downtown after blowing some cash at the Valley View Mall following Sunday services, it’s time to look elsewhere.

    • Betty S. Turner
      Posted at 13:42h, 10 January Reply

      You have a very negative attitude. Perhaps that counts for your negative experience. Roanoke is a live and vital city with all kind of opportunities, large and small. Sorry you are disappointed in your experiences. Lighten up and maybe something good will happen for you.

  • David
    Posted at 20:47h, 07 January Reply

    I moved to Franklin County it’s next county south of Roanoke county. And I do like Roanoke. With it’s older small town fill and yet you can still have a good time with a lot of things to do.With all the history civil war to moonshine and everything between. And real good music seen from Bluegrass to rock and roll. From craft beers there are 5 brewers in an around Roanoke. But come check Roanoke and Franklin county out. Y’all just may put down roots here.

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