It’s hard to believe a year has passed since I visited Roanoke, Virginia for the first time. My husband, Fred, and I headed south last Mother’s Day weekend for my cousin’s wedding.
With a population of almost 100,000, Roanoke is the cultural and commercial center of southwest Virginia, about an 8.5-hour drive from here. It was a perfect time to see the Blue Ridge Mountains, and there are plenty of places to visit along the way, chief among them Pittsburgh. But for this trip, we started out from the Finger Lakes region and chose to explore the quaint Civil War city of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania en route.
I was excited about the ceremony and reception, but also to see a new city and the historic Hotel Roanoke, where rooms were booked for the family. I’d read up on it and its surroundings before setting out and was happy to see there was a walkway from the hotel to downtown.
The hotel itself is breathtaking. Some 125 years ago, it was a sprawling, wooden Queen Anne-style building, well-used but less than inviting in sepia images from that era. Railroad baron and owner Frederick J. Kimball poured money into the hotel over the years; it gradually transformed into a semi-circular Tudor luxury hotel with several additions. It closed in 1989 when Kimball’s railroad descendants decided to get out of the business and eventually sold to Virginia Tech. When it reopened six years later, it included a new conference center and the walkway.
We spent a lot of time in the hotel’s public areas, its antiques-filled lobby, Palm Court with a painted sky ceiling and Pine Room Pub. Most inviting of all were the rocking chairs on the deep verandas, where we joined other guests relaxing and taking in the view.
Saturday morning was our time to explore, and that meant strolling the enclosed walkway over the railroad interchange into downtown Roanoke. I loved the way it links old and new Roanoke, which struggled off-and-on to establish an identity but has gradually become a science and tourism hub with annual festivals, high-end boutiques and museums and galleries celebrating arts and culture. Some key places for appreciating this transformation include the Virginia Transportation Museum—which features the largest collection of steam and diesel locomotives in the United States—the O. Winston Link Museum and the Taubman Museum of Art.
The walkway led us to the 1885 City Market Building, home to shops and restaurants, including bright and upbeat Scrambled, where we joined my brother and his wife for a reasonably priced, tasty breakfast. Unique to the red-brick market building are colorful mosaics at each of four entrances, which were commissioned as part of a complete renovation in 2011.
After breakfast, we wandered along Market Street, gradually dispersing as each of us saw different things we wanted to explore: Farmers Market Square, shops and more. I’d been holding out hope of finding a lightweight dress for the wedding, realizing the one I’d brought was a bit warm for an outdoor wedding in sunny Virginia. I had no luck on that score, but did enjoy one particular shop, She’s International boutique, where owner Diane Speaks treated me like a long-lost friend, offering water and use of her restroom, labeled “Reserved Cabin Crew,” a nod to the airline career that sparked her enterprise.
Diane said she thought her days as an international flight attendant were numbered after 9/11, so she devised Plan B: using her international connections to shop for products around the world, leading to an inventory unlike any other. Among her top-selling items are colorful leather tulip purses. If there was any doubt the boutique is well known, it was dispelled when another tourist stopped me a block away, asking if I knew where it was.
As you can imagine, a wedding weekend isn’t the best time to see and do all in a new city. So, I came back to New York with an ever-growing list of places to see the next time I go down:
Black Dog Salvage. This was a Diane recommendation, and it tops my list. It’s the 40,000-square-foot marketplace that’s home to the DIY Network’s “Salvage Dawgs” and an unbelievable array of items.
The Taubman Museum of Art. Just over 10 years old and thriving after a rocky start, the museum’s exterior earned it the nickname “the wreck of the Flying Nun” in its early days. Locals told me the museum was viewed as too avant-garde in the beginning but once it brought in a Norman Rockwell exhibit, people embraced it. Of course, the turnabout was much more complicated than that, and I’m eager to see the balance that’s been struck.
Roanoke Pinball Museum. We were surprisingly close to the this; it’s on the second floor of market square and is part art, part science, part history—and totally interactive. You can even get tips on pinball wizardry.
Texas Tavern. Donna Barbalace, a Roanoke transplant now living in Ontario County, says they have “the best hotdogs in the world,” and my cousin says it is great for local color, late-night food, and eggs and bacon on the weekend. If you’re in the mood for a taste-off, my cousin's new husband swears by the dogs at The Weiner Stand.
Mill Mountain Star and Park. From a distance we saw the star, which has been a local icon since the 1940s, but I’ve read that the scenic overlook at its base provides a spectacular view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Carvins Cove Natural Reserve. As Roanoke revitalized itself in recent decades, a commitment to green space came into focus. This 12,700-acre city park is the second largest in the country and an outdoor tourism destination.
Craft beer and food tours. I’m thinking these will be a great way to get to know another side of Roanoke. Can’t wait to go back.
Story topics: Travel