You know those towns that boast about having something for everyone? And usually it’s a gimmick because, come on. But Roanoke, nestled in southwestern Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, actually delivers. There’s the outdoorsy side with more than 600 miles of trails, and a sophisticated downtown flush with museums, history and good food. “People are always so surprised,” says Taylor Spellman, who’s lived in the region for 17 years and is a public relations manager with Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge, a tourism bureau. “There’s an incredible balance of metro and mountain, and spring is when all our trees are blooming. It’s a very friendly, vibrant, hospitable community.” Bonus: In October, Amtrak resumed service to and from Roanoke after a 38-year hiatus. If you’re tempted to take the five-hour trip from Union Station, here are activities for a variety of personality types.
If you’re into celebrity sightings but can’t afford a trip to L.A., gaze at the Roanoke Star.
At 100 feet tall, it’s the largest free-standing, man-made, illuminated star in the world. (More star power than that D-lister you’d have run into in Hollywood.) Mill Mountain’s Roanoke Star has been lit up every night since its premiere in 1949, thanks to 2,000 feet of neon tubing. “It’s kind of our claim to fame,” Spellman says. From its base, you can take in a panoramic view of the surrounding valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Pro tip: After you’ve checked out (slash, taken many photos of) the star, explore the rest of Mill Mountain Park. It’s 568 acres, and there’s even a zoo. Accessible from Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 120; the overlook is at 2198 Mill Mountain Spur, Roanoke, Va.; free.
If you’re an arcade game junkie, or just nostalgic, plunge into the Roanoke Pinball Museum.
Visit the ’70s with vintage pinball games like “Nitro Ground Shaker” and “Paragon.” The museum, which opened in 2015, is home to more than 55 machines that date back to the 1930s. There are over 200 other kinds of arcade games, too, and they’re all yours to enjoy for a $12.40 admission fee, says Jim Sears, president and general manager of Center in the Square, the arts and culture building that houses the museum.
“Dad: Challenge your kid to get a better score than you on your favorite machine from 20 years ago,” Sears suggests. And as with any good museum, there’s plenty on the science and history of its subject, so it’s not all just fun and games. If you take your pinball particularly seriously, schedule a trip around one of the tournaments the museum offers each year. Center in the Square, One Market Square SE, Roanoke, Va.; open Tuesdays-Sundays, various hours, $12.40 (kids 6-8, $6.78).
If you’re a DIYer, rummage around at Black Dog Salvage.
Ever catch the reality show “Salvage Dawgs”? Then you know Black Dog Salvage and need to save a few hours, or days, to visit its two warehouses. “It’s architectural salvage, with the ‘architectural’ being elements of design, house parts, building parts, things as mundane as a doorknob to a $30,000 bar out of Chicago,” co-owner and series star Mike Whiteside says. “It’s society’s castoffs, reclaimed for either their intended purpose or [a] repurposed purpose.” There’s plenty of DIY material to comb through, plus a marketplace that showcases the team’s creations, like one-of-a-kind furniture. 902 13th St. SW, Roanoke, Va.
If you’re just counting the minutes till your next meal, take a food tour.
Tour Roanoke offers lots of options: a downtown food and cultural tour, a Sunday brunch tour, a craft beer tour, an Appalachian ’shine and spirits tour. Most last three hours, involve walking from spot to spot and cost $52 to $58 per person. “Our food tour [operation] is one of my favorite things,” Spellman says. “We have a really vibrant culinary scene, and the guides mix in the history of all the places you see.” On the downtown food tour, for example, you’ll samples dishes at a Lebanese restaurant, a chocolatier, a 24-hour tavern, a corned beef eatery and more. Go to roanokefoodtours.com for details.
If you like to commune with nature, go all out with Roanoke Mountain Adventures.
Get acquainted with Roanoke by paddling through its rivers, or see a whole lot real fast via bicycle. Roanoke Mountain Adventures offers three types of bike rentals: mountain bikes, road bikes and hybrid bikes, also called cruisers. Don’t have any way to get from the shop to the mountains? The company will take you there in a shuttle, and they offer guided tours, too. If you’re not a biker, rent a kayak or try stand-up paddleboarding, either by yourself or with an instructor.
“We get a mix of people who are do-it-yourself outdoors folks and then people who are newer to this kind of stuff,” co-owner and operator James Revercomb says. “Spring and fall are the best times of year to bike — it’s just a nice time to be in the mountains.” Go to roanokemountainadventures.com for details.
If you’ve got a convertible, take one of America’s favorite drives — the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The 469-mile scenic drive curves through Virginia and into North Carolina, and in the spring and summer, it lights up with a kaleidoscope of shrubs, wildflowers and trees. There are eight entry points to the parkway throughout the Roanoke region, and the closest to downtown is a 10-minute drive away. “It’s a huge, iconic part of our region,” Spellman says. Word to the traveling wise: The speed limit is 25-45 mph along the entire route, so allow ample time for the journey. And bring your sneakers in case you can’t resist the siren call of the parkway’s many trails. Go to blueridgeparkway.org for details.
If you’ve got a fine eye, pop into the Taubman Museum of Art.
Even if you don’t visit the Taubman, you’ll notice it — and from a distance. The building, designed by renowned architect Randall Stout, mimics the Roanoke region: The 77-foot glass peak in the atrium, for example, pays homage to the Roanoke Star, and the undulating roofline is reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “It’s a gem in the Roanoke Valley, and if you come up to our balcony on the third floor, you have a perfect panoramic view,” executive director Cindy Petersen says. (It’s free to get in, though some activities carry a small fee.)
The museum’s three-story atrium currently features “Flower Bomber,” a replica of a World War II B-25 bomber surrounded by 3,000 aluminum flowers. Another current exhibit, “Reclamation! Pan-African Works From the Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection,” showcases nearly 100 pieces by various artists, including Kehinde Wiley, who painted the official portrait of Barack Obama. 110 Salem Ave. SE, Roanoke, Va.; open Wednesdays-Sundays, various hours, free.