[Updated January 15, 2022]
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.
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, international 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 region makes for a sensational road trip for those who love to drive, but large groups can also charter a bus rental in Roanoke for exploring the Blue Ridge area.
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 and activities, 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!
READ MORE: 30 Fascinating Blue Ridge Mountains Facts
BEST THINGS TO DO IN ROANOKE VA GUIDE
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
- 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
- Hunt for Treasure at Black Dog Salvage
- Hike/Bike the Roanoke River Greenway
- Play at the Roanoke Pinball Museum
- Visit the Harrison Museum of African American Culture
- Get Interactive at the Science Museum of Western Virginia
1. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
The world-renowned BRP (the most popular place in the U.S. National Park System, with 15 million annual visitors) passes just 10 minutes west of downtown Roanoke VA.
And though temporary Blue Ridge Parkway closures from Milepost 114 to 128 may require some detours, the town is a perfect base for exploring some Virginia’s best Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks, hiking trails, and parks.
Head south to reach beloved Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks such as Groundhog Meadow (MP 189), Mabry Mill (MP 176), and Devil’s Backbone (MP 143.9). The Mill Mountain Overlook (MP 120), Roanoke River Gorge Overlook (MP 114.9), and Purgatory Mountain (MP 92.1) all offer excellent scenic views a bit closer to town.
Popular Blue Ridge Parkway hikes near Roanoke include the Rocky Knob Recreation Area (MP 169, where you’ll find multiple trails), Roanoke Mountain Summit Trail (MP 120.3), Virginia’s Explore Park (MP 115, which offers 14 miles of trails), Roanoke River Trahlyta ail (MP 114.9), and the iconic Sharp Top Trail at Peaks of Otter (85.9).
There aren’t as many Blue Ridge Parkway waterfalls in Virginia as in North Carolina, but options for day trips from Roanoke include Rakes Mill Pond (MP 162.4), Fallingwater Cascades (MP 83.1), and Apple Orchard Falls (78.4).
READ MORE: The Best Blue Ridge Parkway Hotels & Cabin Rentals
2. 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.
There are over a dozen breweries in Roanoke and the surrounding areas, 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: The 8 Best Breweries in Roanoke VA, the Heart of Virginia’s Blue Ridge
3. 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.
The Mill Mountain Discovery Center has a wildflower garden and frequent nature programs. The Mill Mountain Zoo is another tourist attraction located on the mountain.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Christmas Towns in North Carolina
4. 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!
READ MORE: The 15 Best Boone NC Hiking Trails to Explore
5. Sample the Best 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 Rockfish are all great upscale options.
Family-friendly restaurants 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 the best 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 10 Best Restaurants in Roanoke VA
6. 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 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.
READ MORE: The 15 Best Lakes in the Virginia Mountains to Visit
7. Shop in Grandin Village
Grandin Village is a nifty little neighborhood less than five minutes from Downtown Roanoke, and it’s a great place to get that small mountain town feeling right in the heart of the city.
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).
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.
READ MORE: The 20 Most Beautiful Wildflowers in Virginia (& Where to See Them)
8. 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.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Things to Do in Luray VA (Gateway to Shenandoah)
9. 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!
READ MORE: The Best Restaurants in Lexington VA & Natural Bridge VA for Foodies
10. Explore Carvins Cove
Located within the boundaries of Greater Roanoke, Carvins Cove is a lake-lovers’ haven and 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 Natural Reserve is part of the largest conservation easement 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!
READ MORE: The 15 Best Lakes in the Virginia Mountains to Visit
11. Hunt for Treasure at Black Dog Salvage
This Roanoke warehouse was made famous by the reality TV show Salvage Dawgs, which ran for 11 seasons (143 episodes) on HGTV, DIY, and other networks.
Billed as “one of the country’s premier architectural salvage operations,” the company is led by relentlessly curious treasure hunters Robert Kulp and Mike Whiteside.
They made a name for themselves by reclaiming/reselling vintage elements from historic structures that were scheduled to be demolished or renovated. Their eclectic shop is popular with contractors, interior designers, and DIY innovators.
The massive warehouse is a fascinating place to explore for those with an interest in history, collectibles, antique signage and furniture, and retro-hip iconography. But the treasures aren’t limited to the inside, as the Instagram-ready “LOVE” sign pictured above can attest.
The Black Dog Salvage grounds also include a guest house/special events venue (The Stone House), a Dog Bowl Market the third Sunday of every month, and the Dog Bowl Concert Series, with a stage for live music.
READ MORE: Exploring the Blue Ridge Music Center Near Galax VA (Blue Ridge Parkway MP 213)
12. Hike/Bike the Roanoke River Greenway
Located right behind Black Dog Salvage, the Roanoke River Greenway is the backbone of a much larger planned Roanoke Valley Greenway system.
There are seven different trailheads from which you can access the picturesque pathway, all of which are located between Bridge Street and Bennington in Downtown Roanoke.
The wide, paved greenway is used for hiking, cycling, jogging, and rollerblading, with lots of wildflowers alongside the path and lovely views of the Roanoke River (which is also great for fishing and kayaking).
One of our favorite elements was the abundance of artwork along the trail, as well as the access it affords to lovely picnic spots in Memorial Bridge Park, Smith Park, Wasena Park, Vic Thomas Park, and River’s Edge Park.
READ MORE: The 10 Best Virginia State Parks in the Blue Ridge Mountains
13. Play at the Roanoke Pinball Museum
Part of the Center In The Square development in downtown Roanoke VA, the Roanoke Pinball Museum offers visitors loads of fun, with a dash of history and education as well.
You can get tickets for a 2-hour time slot for $12.50 for ages 11 and up, or $9 for ages 10 and under with a paying adult. During that time you, can play as many times as you want, with 60+ pinball machines to choose from.
The oldest pinball machines in the museum date back to the early 1930s, but they also have many from the latter half of the 20th century and several modern games to play as well.
These classic machines were chosen for their cultural significance, and are regularly maintained to ensure peak playing performance.
For educational purposes, the museum offer an SOL-compliant school curriculum and resources to help students appreciate the history, technology, and artwork of these awesome American artifacts.
READ MORE: Things to Do at Center In The Square in Downtown Roanoke VA
14. Visit the Harrison Museum of African American Culture
If you’re fascinated by the rich history of Appalachia, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture explores a side of Virginia history that has historically been overlooked.
Focusing on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the museum is filled with memorabilia from African-American communities in and around Roanoke, including looks into early schools, hospitals, and civic contributions.
There are also videos featuring oral recollections from interviews with elder members of local black communities.
The museum also celebrates the more contemporary side of African-American culture, showcasing newer artwork from local artists and hosting a series of informative and educational guest speakers.
Additionally, the Harrison Museum organizes the Henry Street Heritage festival, which features art, education, food, music and more. Check out the museum’s official website for various virtual and in-person events.
READ MORE: 40 Fascinating Facts About Cherokee Culture & History
15. Get Interactive at the Science Museum of Western Virginia
One of the coolest things to do in Roanoke with kids, the Science Museum of Western Virginia provides an eclectic look at an array of scientific fields, from biology and human analogy to space travel.
Located at Center In The Square, the museum‘s impressive exhibits offer visitors an opportunity to learn about life as an astronaut, the systems of the human body, the secrets of a healthy planet, and more.
The museum is filled with interactive elements and hidden nooks for kids to discover.
There are an array of different exhibits to explore, including a few specially made for kids on the autistic spectrum. It’s a delightful mix of the nuts and bolts of science and hands-on entertainment.
Admission to the museum also includes entry to The Hidden Garden (formerly known as the Butterfly Garden), which has been retooled to focus on food science and horticulture.
—by Jonathon Engels & Bret Love; photos by Emma Gallagher unless otherwise noted; lead photo by Where’s Gordo Photography via Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge