The United States is very big; individual states are larger than many European nations. And because of its sheer size, many American small towns have remained just that.
Which is not to say they haven’t kept up — all along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Valley there’s culture and food that’s of the moment, amid places that have been around long enough to be authentically nostalgic.
Driving is the best way to experience them so you never miss a beloved local restaurant, a quirky roadside attraction or a scenic detour.
Dip down into the Shenandoah Valley to this former railroad hub. The Depot Grille (346 Greenville Ave., 540-886-0435) no longer services trains, but you can get a burger made with organic, grass-fed beef from a nearby farm. Save room for the wheelie at vintage drive-thru Wright’s Dairy-Rite (346 Greenville Ave., 540-886-0435), because the only thing better than a warm glazed doughnut is one topped with vanilla ice cream and candy. Walk off lunch along downtown’s loping main stretch, stopping into boutiques selling local wares, art galleries and bars for every beverage from coffee to wine; or make your own unique souvenir by blowing your own glass ornament at Sunspots Studios (202 S. Lewis St. 540-885-0678).
Before heading to the evening’s entertainment — one of several shows running simultaneously at the raucous Blackfriars Playhouse (10 S. Market St., 540-851-1733), the world’s only replica of Shakespeare's indoor theater — meet for “inspired Southern cuisine” and metropolitan cocktails at the upscale Zynodoa (115 E. Beverley St., 540-885-7775). The afterparty is at Byers Street Bistro (18 Byers St., 540-887-6100) for the game or live music. Then sleep it off in one of the soft beds of the opulently renovated Stonewall Jackson Hotel (24 S. Market St., 866-880-0024)
On the road
Once deeded to Thomas Jefferson when the Colonies were on better terms with George III, the Natural Bridge (15 Appledore Lane, 800-533-1410) is the remnant of a collapsed cavern (with more to explore below), and a surefire way to feel awed by nature. Speaking of which, ostriches don’t need to fly to get respect, as you’ll learn while driving through Virginia Safari Park (229 Safari Lane, 540-291-3205). For more goofy photo ops, swing through Foamhenge (4942 S. Lee Highway, 800-533-1410), which is exactly what it sounds like.
This is a town that doesn’t wait until you appear on its doorstep to serve up hospitality. The Southern Inn Restaurant (37 S. Main St., 540-463-3612) saw the chance on a beautiful day to bring its fried chicken picnic outdoors. The picturesque Virginia Military Institute’s mint green buildings are set off by red brick everywhere else in town, and its uniformed cadets often turn up on the rolling streets. See the city’s stately homes on a Lexington Carriage Company tour (540-463-5647) with a pint of black raspberry from Sweet Things Ice Cream Shoppe (106 W. Washington St. 540-463-6055) in your hand.
On the road
Designate a driver and stop by Devils Backbone Brewery (50 Northwind Lane, 540-462-6200) for sinful varieties like Azrael (golden ale) and Cattywompus (Belgian IPA). Besides being Virginia’s oldest covered bridge, the Humpback Bridge (Route 60 near Covington) also hosts one of over 20 LOVEworks signs, part of the Virginia Is for Lovers marketing campaign. (Find them all here.)
Far from a lost colony — it was developed as a railway hub after the Civil War — Roanoke’s downtown hosts regular fairs that draw artists, farmers and crafters. Clustered in the middle is Center in the Square, which consolidated three museums, six aquariums and a new butterfly garden (One Market Square S.E. 540-342-5700) under one roof, spurring a cultural revival.
To get a sense of where the city is headed, just ask its people. The waitress at nearby Local Roots (1314 Grandin Road S.W. 540-206-2610) can tell you where all the ingredients on the small but bold menu came from. (They also make a mean michelada.) Pennie of Viva La Cupcake (1302 Grandin Road, 540-204-3100) makes bacon-maple and four-chocolate treats of dense cake and light frosting. Black Dog Salvage (902 13th St. S.W. 540-343-6200) co-owner Mike Whiteside talks about upcycling with the same enthusiasm as anyone in Brooklyn, which might be because he was doing it before it was cool. Though now that it is, the shop is featured on the DIY network's "Salvage Dawgs."
After hours, let this city show you a good time - from biker bars to retro nightclubs to backyard bars with live music, there’s plenty of people burning the 2 a.m. oil. Soak up your hangover withRoanoker Restaurant’s famous biscuits (1314 Grandin Road S.W. 540-206-2610) in the shadow of the Roanoke Star (Mill Mountain).