Nestled amid Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Roanoke combines city vibes with mountain adventures.
by Vanessa Infanzon
The bright 100-foot star atop Mill Mountain welcomes visitors to Roanoke, giving the city its nickname Star City of the South. The Roanoke Star, a beacon since 1949, was meant to be a temporary decoration for the holiday season. Due to its popularity, it’s stayed lit every night since.
Part of Roanoke’s allure is the vibrant downtown, with many restaurants, shops and museums within walking distance. Many buildings have been left untouched, with intricate architecture and brick design intact. Center in the Square, a feed and seed warehouse built in 1914, has been reinvisioned as a seven-story cultural hub with aquariums, museums and, soon, a new rooftop restaurant and bar called Six and Sky. Vendors at the historic Roanoke City Market offer fresh produce, cheeses and artisan-made goods.
Fire Station One. Photographs courtesy Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge; Creative Dog Media
Two of Roanoke’s historic buildings have found new life as boutique hotels. The Liberty Trust, a 54-room hotel, opened in 2022 in the seven-story building that once housed Roanoke’s First National Bank. Various financial institutions operated in the downtown building for more than a century before it was reimagined as a hotel. The restored space honors its roots as “A Temple of Finance,” as one headline read when the building first opened in 1910, by preserving much of its design. Many of the original elements — the bank vault, marble columns and copper doors — remain intact.
An old-fashioned elevator delivers guests to their floor. Guest-room doors are copper or glass, framed in wood with a transom above. Rooms are contemporary, with clean lines and modern amenities. Large windows provide views of the city and mountains beyond.
In the evening, the lobby is transformed into The Vault, a bar and restaurant with an eclectic menu. A popular item on the menu is the Khachapuri, a fondue-like dish with origins in Georgia (the country), featuring cheese baked in a bread bowl and topped with an egg yolk. It’s mixed by the server tableside.
Four blocks away, Fire Station One, Roanoke’s newest boutique hotel, opened in February in a 115-year-old firehouse. Fire Station One offers a self-check-in experience — guests receive a code to the building and their rooms via email.
The Liberty Trust. Photographs by Jennifer Griffin.
The seven rooms and common room are spacious, with high ceilings, exposed brick and original wood floors. A fireman’s pole, wooden lockers, rounded staircase and other details preserved in the renovation add to the hotel’s appeal.
Hotel guests enter Fire Station One through TXTUR, a custom furniture showroom on the building’s first floor. TXTUR flows into Stock Café, a Nordic-inspired restaurant with chairs and tables designed by the Roanoke furniture company.
American art from 1850 to the present is on display at Taubman Museum of Art, also within walking distance from the heart of the city. The permanent collection includes handbags by Judith Leiber and works by Rev. Howard Finster, Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent, and glass artist Toots Zynsky. General admission is free on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. A guided tour is available for a fee seven days a week at 1 p.m. Through March 2024, Gainsboro Road and Beyond, the works of the late David Ramey, a Roanoke artist, will be on view.
Natural Bridge State Park. Photographs by Jennifer Griffin.
Before you head out to immerse yourself in nature, grab breakfast from Scratch Biscuit Co. or coffee and pastries from Roasters Next Door (RND Coffee). Shop for picnic provisions at Crystal Spring Grocery. Mac and Bob’s in Salem and the Village Grill in Roanoke are casual eateries for lunch and dinner. Make a dinner reservation (recommended) at The River and Rail — a reward for steps taken and mountains climbed.
Within 20 to 30 minutes from downtown Roanoke are numerous hiking and water activities. Carvins Cove Natural Reserve is a 12,700-acre park for hiking, kayaking and picnics, with more than 30 trails ranging in difficulty and length. Happy Valley is a popular trail for wildlife viewing, and Tinker Creek follows the cove for the first mile. Bring cash or a check to pay for the park admission and any equipment rentals.
Read Mountain Preserve, a 243-acre forest with 5 miles of trails, is adjacent to a residential neighborhood in nearby Bonsack, Va. The 4-mile out-and-back Buzzards Rock Trail takes hikers to a well-deserved bench overlooking the valley, with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.
Left – right: Brunch at River and Rail. Carvins Cove. Photographs by John Park.
Signs on Interstate 77 beckon visitors to Natural Bridge State Park and Dixie Caverns. A moderate hike of less than a mile brings you to the rock formation creating the 215-foot-tall Natural Bridge. Walking trails, including the Cedar Creek Trail that travels under the bridge to Lace Falls, a 50-foot cascade, are available throughout the park.
For a first-time (or second, in my case) trip into the deeper recesses of the Earth, Dixie Caverns in nearby Salem will amuse guests with its below-Earth scenery and above-ground vintage market. Tours are every hour, and while you wait, the antiques and collectibles will keep you occupied. SP
Getting there: Roanoke is a three-hour drive from Charlotte, heading north on I-77 to I-81. For more information, visit visitroanokeva.com.
Featured image: Roanoke Star. Photographs courtesy Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge: Creative Dog Media