East Coast Getaway: do everything in Roanoke VA

Roanoke Valley from Mill Mountain
Admittedly, Roanoke VA isn't on the tip of anyone's tongue in Phoenix.  Most people I meet only know of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.  When I clarify that there is, indeed, an existent Roanoke in the Appalachian Mountains they hear "Appalachia" and assume inbred hillbillies.  When I clarify there's a difference between Appalachia and Appalachian, they lose interest and talk about something other than where I'm from--with someone other than me.  Ten years ago, I might have agreed that their disinterest was justified; now, though, Roanoke is becoming a bit like a Fort Collins of the East.  

For visitors from hot Arizona, Roanoke can easily be a three season destination.  Come for the spring blooms, the fall colors, or the ability to condescend to locals about how 92 degrees in July is NOT hot.
The most direct parallel between Roanoke and Fort Collins is the brewery scene.  Ballast Point Brewery recently opened a tasting room and their only East Coast Brewery in the Roanoke area (555 International Parkway, Daleville VA).  Deschutes Brewery is also on its way, with the tasting room grand opening to be August 28, 2017 (315 Market Street SE, Roanoke VA), and their own brewing facility hoped for by 2021.  

Plenty of other local breweries litter the area.  I'm a fan of Starr Hill's beer (Roanoke location opening September 16), and have heard great things about Big Lick Brewing.  Visit Roanoke has a list of the 15 breweries in and around Roanoke.  Or if you want to leave it to the professionals, take a craft beer tour with Tour Roanoke.


Another Roanoke staple
With all that drinking, you'll want something to eat.  You pretty much can't go wrong with any of the restaurants in Downtown Roanoke.  Whether it's a southern fried buttermilk chicken at Table 50; an "Alltime Combo" sandwich (maybe the only sandwich crave on a regular basis) or shrimp and grits at Corned Beef & Co.; the incredible Indian lunch buffet at Nawab; or delicious, southern-inspired vegetarian at Firefly Fare...you really can't go wrong.  DowntownRoanoke.org has a more comprehensive restaurant list.

Beyond Downtown, there's River and Rail--where everything is from scratch with local, seasonal ingredients; Local Roots, a farm-to-table restaurant that was ranked one of the top 100 in the US for foodies; Cafe Asia, where you can get sushi and a variety of Asian dishes; the award winning Carlos Brazilian International Cuisine  and more. 


Or if it's a quick bite you're after, there's the local staple Roanoke Weiner Stand; or the mid-Atlantic phenomena Sheetz--a gas station with pretty tasty made-to-order salads, sandwiches, fries, and other delights.

While you're making your rounds Downtown, do some shopping at 310 Rosemont for fashionable clothes; ChocolatePaper for chocolate, greeting cards, and a variety of local creations; or just browse down Market Street.  For a list of retail locations Downtown, check out the directory at DowntownRoanoke.org.  

Also on Market Street, check out the Farmer's Market.  It operates year-round, with official hours of 8:00-5:00--but many vendors pack it up by lunch time.  

While you're in the area, and before you're too boozed up, check out Black Dog Salvage--star of Salvage Dawgs on DIY Network, for a collection of salvaged materials and the best collection of antiques and handcrafted items you'll find in the area.  

After a gluttonous day of food and drink, take advantage of Roanoke's outdoors.

Roanoke is gaining recognition as a mountain biking destination, offering diversity from its long history as a great hiking city--with the Appalachian Trail running through the area.  Roanoke is trying to be the only ride center on the east coast to earn above bronze accreditation from the International Mountain Biking Association.  Third-party recognition is not necessary for you to have a great ride, though.  To start, check out the Roanoke Chapter of the IMBA to join them on a group ride or email them for a trail-ambassador tour of the area. Or if you want to go it alone, VisitRoanoke.com has a list of bike rentals, trails, and more group rides.

If hiking/walking is your thing, you're in luck!  You can check out
The Cascades
the famous McAfee Knob (allegedly the most photographed location on the AT), the beautiful Tinker Cliffs, or the unique Dragon's Tooth.  Take a trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway for a more challenging hike to a 200' water fall at Apple Orchard Falls.  Or head the other direction for an easy hike to the grander Cascade Falls.  Roanoke Outside has a database of additional hikes in the area.





If a day on the water sounds better, you can head to Smith Mountain Lake--the second biggest body of fresh water in the state, where you can fish, boat, or lounge.  Most of the property bordering the lake is for private lake houses, so check out Smith Mountain Lake State Park for a day or overnight trip.  At the park you can camp overnight, or just lounge at its beach for the day.  Renting a boat opens the expanse of the lake to your exploration or water sports.  Bridgewater Marina is one of the main rental companies, with 5 locations around the lake.

For a more adventurous water trip, rent a canoe/kayak/SUP and head out to one of the many rivers and creeks.  Roanoke Outside is back at it with a list of many waterways as well as places to rent your watercraft and stock up on fishing gear.

If you're in the mood for a scenic drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway is what you're looking for.  The Parkway runs through Roanoke on its journey from the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee to Shenandoah National Park in VA.  Along the way, there are many cultural stops to learn about Virginia's history; as well as scenic views, camp sites, hiking trails, and picnic areas.  



On your way to the Parkway, check out the Mill Mountain Star.  You'll have seen this landmark from most anywhere in Roanoke; it's the largest free-standing illuminated star in the world!  You can admire from afar, or drive up for an up-close view of the star and panoramic view of the city.


 Another great option is to drive through the mountains to Paint Bank for lunch at the Swinging Bridge Restaurant.  Have a buffalo burger, made from buffalo raised on a nearby ranch, or chicken smoked in-house.  After lunch, head over to the Paint Bank General Store for country souvenirs.  Before leaving, check out Tingler's Mill for a look at a historic mill.  Directions to the Swinging Bridge should get you to everything:  16071 Paint Bank Road, Paint Bank VA.

If you need a break from the adventures and are still not ready for more craft beer, Roanoke has a few solid cultural destinations too.


The Science Museum of Western Virginia is a great choice if you're with kids.  It was always one of my favorite field trips in elementary school, and still has the Chesapeake Bay touch-tank that lured me back repeatedly.  Like most of the destinations listed, the Science Museum is in the thick of Downtown and won't require much of a detour to fit this into your day of exploration.

Continue your museum tour by heading a couple blocks north to the Taubam Museum of Art.  The museum has existed under several name iterations since 1947.  In 2008 the locally controversial current home was opened for display (controversial for the fact of the government spending money on things, particularly art things, and the fact that the thing was piece of very modern looking architecture).  Since then, the Museum has become a Roanoke landmark and home to a number of interesting art exhibits.  Best of all, general admission is free.


If you prefer to take your culture sitting down, the Mill Mountain Theatre is your answer.  Also located Downtown, it's a convenient destination for dinner and a show.  Mill Mountain Theatre is a year-round playhouse offering a blend of recognizable Broadway hits and up-and-coming local and regional creations.  


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