With a population of around 100,000 people, Roanoke is both the largest city along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the largest in Virginia’s Blue Ridge region.
Extending its size, the Roanoke metropolitan area incorporates the neighboring city, Salem, as well as several small historic villages. It gives the whole scene a “mountain metro” kind of feeling.
Roanoke has a lot of the small Blue Ridge mountain town charm that’s customary to the region, with a historic town center, wilderness just minutes away, and spectacular scenery all around.
At the same time, it’s also got some true metropolitan vibes, including racial diversity, ethnic restaurants, numerous museums, and lots of pavement for pedestrians.
This duality makes Roanoke a truly unique experience for those traversing the Blue Ridge Parkway, with only NC’s largest BRP stop, Asheville, providing much of a comparison.
The city of Roanoke is located in the Roanoke Valley (less than 1000 feet above sea level), with the Roanoke River flowing right through it. So it has four mild seasons and a welcoming climate.
Among the many fine Roanoke attractions, there are multiple downtown areas and neighborhoods with historic architecture playing home to contemporary draws such as microbreweries, unusual museums (e.g. Pinball Museum), and the state’s oldest continually operating open-air market.
Outside the city, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Allegheny Mountains, as well as the second-largest municipal park in the United States and the Appalachian Trail, provide a playground for nature lovers.
Where to start? Read on for our guide to the 10 best things to do in Roanoke VA!
BEST THINGS TO DO IN ROANOKE VA GUIDE
- Explore Center In The Square
- Visit Roanoke Breweries
- Visit the Roanoke Star & Mill Mountain
- Hike to McAfee Knob
- Sample Roanoke Restaurants
- Go to the Virginia Museum of Transportation
- Shop in Grandin Village
- Stroll the Roanoke City Market
- See Natural Bridge State Park
- Explore Carvins Cove
Explore Center In The Square
Located right in the heart of Downtown Roanoke, Center In The Square is a great spot for families and the young-at-heart to visit.
There you’ll find several unique Roanoke attractions, including the Roanoke Pinball Museum, Harrison Museum of African American Culture, Roanoke STARCADE, Science Museum of Western Virginia, and Kids Square Children’s Museum.
The Pinball Museum, STARCADE, Science Museum, and Kids Square all offer interactive activities that are exciting for children, teens, and adults alike.
The building is also home to several large aquariums with exotic fish (Amazon Predators), local turtles, aggressive saltwater fish (The Chomp Tank), and a Koi pond.
Additionally, Center In The Square’s Mill Mountain Theatre offers two stages, the Trinkle Stage and Waldron Stage, which host live performances from music and theatre to shows for children.
Visit Roanoke Breweries
The increasingly excellent beer scene of the Blue Ridge Mountains is fairly well-known by now.
Asheville NC boasts some of the heavyweight craft beer breweries, including New Belgium and Sierra Nevada. And the Blue Ridge Parkway is packed with microbreweries, from Brevard all the way north to Roanoke.
Roanoke is also hip to that scene, with over a dozen microbreweries in and around the city, including several within walking distance of each other downtown.
Three Notch’d Craft Kitchen and Brewery (my favorite), Golden Cactus Brewing, Big Lick Brewing Company, Deschutes Roanoke Tasting Room, and A Few Old Goats Brewing are all within about a one-mile stretch.
The Starr Hill Pilot Brewery & Side Stage is a good stop when visiting the Roanoke Star, and Parkway Brewing and Olde Salem Brewing are worth sampling when you’re in the Salem area.
READ MORE: Exploring the 12 Best Asheville NC Breweries
Visit the Roanoke Star & Mill Mountain
The Roanoke Star, a.k.a. Mill Mountain Star, sits atop Mill Mountain and is visible from up to 60 miles away. This iconic local landmark can be spotted from many vantage points around the city.
It is, in fact, the largest free-standing, man-made, illuminated star in the world. Whatever technicalities are necessary for the superlative, the Roanoke Star is very cool… as is the stunning setting.
Built in 1949 as a temporary Christmas decoration, the Roanoke Star is huge. It weighs 10,000 pounds, stands 88.5 feet tall, and has 2,000 feet of neon tubing that consume 17,500 watts of energy.
From the summit atop which the star is perched, visitors can enjoy tremendous views of Roanoke and the surrounding Virginia mountains. There are also 10 miles of multi-use Mill Mountain hiking trails to enjoy.
Hike to McAfee Knob
Hiking to McAfee Knob is a guaranteed highlight for adventurous travelers passing through Roanoke. Just note that it requires setting the alarm clock early and strapping on your hiking boots nice and tight.
Getting to and from McAfee Knob involves eight-plus miles of hiking, with the last 1/3 of the trek being on a fairly root-filled and rocky trail.
The change in altitude is a whopping 1,700 feet, peaking at 3,197 feet above sea level on Catawba Mountain.
The route to McAfee Knob is part of the world-renowned Appalachian Trail. Visitors from around the world make the journey to enjoy this specific section of the trail for the astounding 270º panorama from the top.
The jaw-dropping view here is so popular that getting a parking spot near the trailhead can be a bit of a race, particularly on the weekend. Take our advice and get there early!
Sample Roanoke Restaurants
Despite being a rather small city, Roanoke is close enough to the metropolises of the northeast to have a diverse population and the fantastic culinary scene that goes along with it.
Downtown Roanoke is a great place to sample local flavors, as well as some international cuisines. Grandin Village is another great place to find diverse dishes.
Farm-to-table Roanoke restaurants include the award-winning Alexander’s, Local Roots, Lucky, Blue Apron, FarmBurguesa, and Pomegranate. The River & Rail, The Regency, and Billy’s are all great upscale options.
Family-friendly institutions in Roanoke and Salem include Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar, Blue Cow Ice Cream, Company, Mac and Bob’s, Macado’s, Corned Beef & Co, and Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint.
For Breakfast in Roanoke, Scrambled and the Scratch Biscuit Company are good for hearty fare, while RND Coffee and Little Green Hive provide more of a coffee shop vibe, with a few fun items to eat.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Downtown Asheville Restaurants
Go to the Virginia Museum of Transportation
The Virginia Museum of Transportation has the ability to take older visitors back in time and fill younger visitors with curiosity.
The museum has an amazing toy train display located near the entrance, with several trains chugging through an extensive model of the city of Roanoke.
The VMT has a huge collection of old cars, with some dating back to the late 1800s (including the first electric car), beautiful vintage pickup trucks, and even a DeLorean a la Back to the Future.
The most captivating exhibit is the assemblage of train cars, which contains early steam engines, cabooses, travel cars, and more. Visitors are allowed to climb up on some of the old trains to get that hands-on experience.
Beyond the trains and automobiles, there’s a Greyhound Bus display that recounts the history of the classic bus line. An extensive exhibit on African-American railroad workers is incredibly informative. And there’s a history of air travel exhibit as well.
Adding to the ambiance, the museum is set right on the train tracks that cut through the town of Roanoke VA, and it’s actually housed in the old downtown freight station.
Shop in Grandin Village
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Grandin Village is surrounded by tree-lined residential streets, and the downtown T-junction is lined with interesting shops, restaurants, and theaters.
The centerpiece of Grandin Village is the art deco Grandin Theatre, which dates back to the 1930s and was lovingly refurbished in the early 2000s.
There are great shops here, including New to Me and Urban Gypsy (clothing boutiques), Too Many Books (a top-flight used book store), and the Roanoke Co-op (health food and healthy products).
Just down the road, Black Dog Salvage (which is famous from the DIY Network series, Salvage Dawgs) is an adventure in historical architecture and collectibles.
Great Grandin Village restaurants include Little Green Hive, Taaza (Indian), Local Roots, Farmburguesa, and Scratch Biscuit Company, as well as Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar.
Grandin Village also has a Community Market on Saturday mornings, and the “Grandin Chillage” concert series on the last Friday evening of the summer months.
Stroll the Roanoke City Market
There is a bountiful collection of farmers markets around Virginia’s Blue Ridge, in Roanoke, Salem, Vinton, Botetourt, Catawba Valley, Grandin Village, Rocky Mount, and more.
But for first-time visitors, a morning spent exploring the Historic Roanoke City Market is a must.
The Roanoke City Market has been in continuous operation since 1882, with vendors offering up locally produced fruit, flowers, vegetables, meats, cheeses, handicrafts, and baked goods.
In addition to the farmers market stalls occupying the sidewalks in Downtown Roanoke, there are beautiful old market buildings now filled with wonderful eateries, many of which celebrate the locally sourced food available just outside.
Technically, the Roanoke City Market is open daily except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. But Saturday mornings are the best for seeing the most diverse array of vendors.
See Natural Bridge State Park
Though Natural Bridge State Park is a bit of a drive from Roanoke (approximately 40 miles), it would be tragic to be so close and not make the trip out there.
The Natural Bridge is an amazing rock formation formed by Cedar Creek, which carved out the limestone landscape beneath it over countless centuries. Now the bridge is 215 feet high and spans 90 feet across.
It was a sacred site for the Monacan tribe, who lived in the area prior to colonization. They believed it to be the location of a great victory over the Powhatans, centuries before Europeans arrived.
Natural Bridge also has famous U.S. presidents tied up in its history. George Washington once surveyed the land and allegedly carved his initials into the wall there (there is a “G.W.” still visible).
Thomas Jefferson bought the bridge and over 150 acres surrounding it from King George III in 1774. He paid 20 shillings (a little over two dollars).
The Virginia State Park boasts a 30-foot waterfall, a “Lost River” (for which the source cannot be found), several caves and caverns, a museum, and a huge gift shop. It’s also a great spot for a picnic!
Explore Carvins Cove
Located within the boundaries of Greater Roanoke, Carvins Cove is actually the second largest municipal park in the United States.
It spans over 12,000 acres, with a 630-acre reservoir formed by damming Carvins Creek. More than 11,000 acres of Carvins Cove is part of a conservation easement, the largest in Virginia’s history.
Carvins Cove’s size offers an excellent array of outdoor recreation opportunities. There are 60+ miles of multi-use trails that are renowned among mountain bikers, and are also open to hikers and horseback riders.
The mountain lake is open to kayaks, boats, and fishing as well, though there are restrictions in an effort to keep the water clean. Note that swimming is not permitted here at all.
The reservoir itself is absolutely beautiful, with clear water and the stunning Southern Virginia mountains as a backdrop. It’s a perfect place for renting the picnic pavilion for a wedding or other special events.
Or you can just go for the afternoon, with a picnic and a bit of energy for exploration! —by Jonathon Engels; photos by Emma Gallagher; lead photo by Where’s Gordo Photography via Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge