Roanoke, the largest city in Southwest Virginia and once a thriving railroad town, was forced to reinvent itself with the decline of the big engines. So, this valley city, set in a bowl in the mountains, underwent a revitalization of historic buildings, added new museums and reinvented itself as a tourist hub for the region, drawing annually both cultural sight-seers and outdoors enthusiasts come to play in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.
Roanoke is often referred to as the Star City for the 100-foot tall illuminated star set atop Mill Mountain (the largest man-made illuminated star in the world, for the record), a popular spot to take in views of the valley. This modest peak, located between the city and the Blue Ridge Parkway, is also home to a 5-acre zoo with over 50 wildlife species, which affords panoramic vistas along with its resident animals.
Downtown's Market Square, started in the 1880s, is one of the state's oldest markets, still servicing a colorful assortment of produce vendors and other farm-made wares. The square's food court has a variety of ethnic foods for the sampling, as does the 1922 City Market Building.
Center in the Square, a converted warehouse downtown, is home to amongst other things the Mill Mountain Theatre, the Science Museum of Southwestern Virginia and the History Museum of Western Virginia. Nearby, the Virginia Museum of Transportation depicts the town's rail history. A new site, the O. Winston Link Museum presents photography of life along the railroad, but for more in the fine arts vein the place to go is the city's main art museum, recently relocated to a new, eye-catching contemporary building and now open as the Taubman Museum of Art.
The arts are alive in Roanoke with presentations by the local symphony orchestra, opera, ballet and theater groups. Dining choices run from informal to upscale dining at "The Library" with its book-lined walls and French cuisine.
The city of Salem, although separate from Roanoke, twines around its border. The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitors Center is located here as is the famous Hanging Rock Golf Club. The Salem Museum includes many exhibits and Dixie Caverns, just west of town, offer year-round underground tours.
Located in the Southwestern part of Virginia, Roanoke is about 190 miles west of Richmond off I-81.