On several occasions we have driven all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Extending from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south to Shenandoah National Park in the north, the parkway is one of the most scenic routes in America. In all these trips we had not taken much time to tour Virginia’s Roanoke Valley until this past October when we set aside several days to explore the area. We discovered Roanoke to be a vibrant city set in a gorgeous valley that offers a number of interesting day trips. We have enjoyed quite a bit of travel and can report that the fall drive along the parkway was simply outstanding.
The current town of Roanoke initially went by the name of “Big Lick,” after the area’s salt marshes. No more than a village at the time, its growth commenced in the late 1800s with the arrival of the Shenandoah Valley Railroad. At this point the town’s citizens decided to change its name to match that of the river that flows through the valley. Roanoke is derived from the Indian word “Rawrenock,” a shell bead that was utilized for trade and worn by Native Americans. The railway that would become the Norfolk and Western helped Roanoke become a major transportation center.
With a population of just under 100,000, Roanoke lays claim to being named an “All-American City” on five occasions. A thriving downtown offers galleries, museums, theaters, hotels, and condominiums, in addition to the usual assortment of banks, restaurants, stores, and offices.
The Historic Market District in the downtown center boasts a thriving City Market that dates to 1882. Stands sheltered under blue and white striped awnings are open year-round to offer local produce, baked goods, a few meats, and handicrafts from local artisans. The City Market building that once housed the farmers’ market has been renovated and now serves as home to several restaurants.
Center in the Square, a building currently undergoing a $30 million renovation, will house the Science Museum of Western Virginia, the History Museum & Historical Society of Western Virginia, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, and the Mill Mountain Theatre. The Center’s atrium is to have a 5,500-gallon living coral-reef aquarium plus three smaller aquariums. The building will be capped with a butterfly habitat.