Roanoke is a train town. It grew up as a railway hub, sending trains out west to Ohio and south to the Carolinas, as well as manufacturing the steam locomotives themselves. You can't catch a train there now (although commercial lines still run through the city), but you can sate your railway lust at the Virginia Museum of Transportation ( 540-342-5670 or vmt.org ). Once that's done, take a leisurely drive through rolling hills to check out what this city in the mountains still has to offer.
Is the staff at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center ( 540-985-5900 or hotelroanoke.com ) trying to hide you from the axe murderers, or are they making sure you can be found? As you wind your way through its maze-like corridors to your room, your thoughts will inevitably turn to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. That's actually a compliment. Like the grand (and fictional) Overlook Hotel of the movie, the Hotel Roanoke is full of history, gleaming woodwork and atmosphere. It was built in 1882 right next to the train station as a luxurious retreat for wealthy travelers. Beautifully restored and now operated by the Doubletree arm of Hilton Hotels & Resorts, the beds are soft, the windows of its Tudor edifice are many-paned and its 19th-century-style lobby flows effortlessly into a sitting area dominated by a large, round settee reminiscent of the 1920s. A modern glass bridge over the train tracks now connects the hotel to the downtown area, making dining and other attractions just a short walk away.
The Taubman Museum of Art ( 540-342-5760 or taubmanmuseum.org ) is housed in a spectacularly designed building by Frank Gehry protégé Randall Stout. The museum's sharp jutting edges and the soaring planes of its roofline are meant to evoke the rocks and mountains surrounding the city, and they're immediately visible as you drive into town. After walking through its large, sunlit atrium lined with glass and steel, head to the galleries on the second floor, which contain works by Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Sally Mann and Robert Motherwell, as well as Richmond artists including Richard Carlyon, Sally Bowring and Davi Det Hompson.
Built in 1949, the red, white and blue Roanoke Star sits atop Mill Mountain, and the framework and 2,000 feet of neon tubing are more than 88 feet high. It's a dramatic sight at night (Mill Mountain Park closes at 11 p.m.), and during the day, the overlook in front of it offers an expansive view of the city and the mountains behind it. And if you'd like to check out the view from home, the Roanoke StarCam ( roanokeva.gov/starcam ) offers a real-time look. Nearby is the Mill Mountain Zoo ( 540-343-3241 or mmzoo.org ), home to red pandas (also known as firefoxes), snow leopards, wolverines and dozens of other animals.
A popular choice for dinner is Metro! ( 540-345-6645 or metroroanoke.com ). The restaurant offers a hodgepodge of Asian dishes, including a full sushi menu, as well as steaks and seafood. And if it's crowded, the front entrance provides comfortable couches and cookbooks to flip through while you wait for a table.
Three Richmond chefs recommended that I try Local Roots Restaurant ( 540-206-2610 or localrootsrestaurant.com ), and for that advice, I'll always be grateful. You'll have to get in your car and drive a couple of miles to the Grandin Village neighborhood, where you'll find great furniture shops, a cupcake bakery, a natural-foods store and The Grandin Theatre ( 540-345-6177 or grandintheatre.com ), a restored movie palace built in the 1930s. Local Roots provides uses locally sourced ingredients masterfully put together. The menu changes often according to what's fresh, seasonal and available. I began my dinner with a Bellini-tini, a combo of fresh peach purée, prosecco and vodka that was effortlessly dangerous to drink, and then moved on to the Big Pine trout, a perfectly cooked dish of rainbow trout with crispy skin, thick smoky bacon, roasted potatoes and more sweet peaches.
Ringing the downtown farmers market are boutiques, restaurants, a great kitchen shop called Ladles & Linens ( ladlesandlinens.com ) that carries everything from All-Clad pots and pans to exotic salt, and chocolatepaper ( chocolatepaperroanoke.com ) — a store that sells, along with chocolates and stationery, quirky gift items that are the signature of its owner, Richmonder (and Mongrel owner) Mark Burkett.
The oldest continuously operating farmers market in Virginia is located right in the middle of downtown. The Historic Roanoke City Market ( downtownroanoke.org/city-market ), built in 1882, is open year-round, seven days a week. Along with local farmers selling their goods, you'll also find artists, jewelry makers, crafters and even a seafood purveyor, Local Seafood Delivery LLC ( 276-206-0008 or localseafooddelivery.com ), where fresh fish from the North Carolina coast is offered Thursdays through Saturdays.