Updated on October 16, 2023 by Julie McCool
Are you looking for the best things to do in Roanoke Virginia? Visitors to this metro mountain town will find a rich collection of Roanoke attractions and activities in the walkable downtown and surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.
Roanoke VA is an excellent base for exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Southern Shenandoah Valley. With direct access to Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway, miles of hiking trails, mountain biking, and scenic vistas are close at hand.
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As regular visitors to the area (our son went to nearby Virginia Tech), we love Roanoke's compact downtown. There are excellent hotels in Roanoke VA plus plenty of local fun, food, and drink. Read on to discover the best things to do in Roanoke and plan your visit.
Where to Stay in Roanoke Virginia
Looking for a great Roanoke hotel? Here are four of our favorites. Find more info, photos, and tips in our guide to the Best Downtown Roanoke Hotels.
- It's hard to beat the relaxed elegance and central downtown location of the historic Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center. A covered pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks leads to the downtown core, and rooms in the front have wonderful views of the Mill Mountain Star.
- The Liberty Trust is another beautiful historic hotel in downtown Roanoke. Rooms in the restored bank building offer modern comforts and easy access to all of the downtown attractions. The hotel is steps from the Amtrak train stop, perfect for a car-free vacation.
- Fire Station One is a small boutique hotel in a historic fire station. Choose from 7 unique rooms that combine history, luxury, and modern amenities in a great downtown location.
- Closer to the airport and about a 10-minute drive from downtown, the Roanoke Hyatt Place makes a good base if you are visiting Blacksburg and the Shenandoah Valley. The hotel has spacious, nicely decorated rooms that include a comfortable living room area.
Best Things to Do in Roanoke Virginia
Roanoke activities offer something for every age including excellent museums, delicious local restaurants and breweries, unique shops, and outdoor adventures. Here are top places to visit and things to do in Roanoke's historic downtown and surrounding areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
The Roanoke Star (aka the Mill Mountain Star) has been shining over the city since it was constructed in 1949. It is the largest, free-standing, man-made, illuminated star in the world and is visible from downtown.
Mill Mountain is a fun destination for a close look at the 88.5-foot metal star towering over you. A platform in front of the star offers beautiful views of the downtown and the Blue Ridge Mountains beyond.
Mill Mountain Attractions
Near the star, the Mill Mountain Zoo is home to snow leopards, red pandas, and a new conservation program for Red Wolves. At the Mill Mountain Discovery Center, kids can attend nature programs and everyone can enjoy the wildflower garden and animal exhibits.
You can reach the star overlook via a paved road or hiking and biking trails through Mill Mountain Park. A network of mountain biking trails on Mill Mountain connects to the paved Roanoke Valley Greenway.
Virginia Museum of Transportation
The Virginia Museum of Transportation preserves and presents a truly impressive collection showcasing full-size and model trains, bus memorabilia, antique cars, and aviation. The indoor exhibits are fascinating, but wait until you step out back to the Rail Yard.
The Rail Yard is home to an awesome collection of historic steam and diesel engines, cabooses, and other rail equipment. The size of the locomotives looming above as you stand beside them is dizzying.
The Museum of Transportation is one of the best things to do with kids in Roanoke and is a must-visit for train lovers of all ages. Tip: walk around the right side of the museum to see the Jupiter Missile that transported two monkeys into space and safely back to earth.
Taubman Museum of Art
The Taubman Museum of Art is another impressive museum in Roanoke's collection (the city boasts several in the downtown area). The building's dramatic exterior on Salem Ave SE evokes the unique attributes of Roanoke's valley and mountain setting.
Inside, a bright three-story atrium displays changing sculptures floating above the ticket desk. Changing and permanent exhibits fill the museum's three floors, along with a cafe and educational space.
The Taubman Museum's permanent collection includes a range of works from American artists like Norman Rockwell and Winslow Homer plus contemporary and regional art. Don't miss the Judith Leiber collection of ornate handbags.
Center in the Square
Families looking for kid-friendly things to do in Roanoke will find plenty of fun at the Center in the Square located on Market Square SE. The Center houses an eclectic collection of small museums and interactive spaces including:
- Roanoke Pinball Museum (pictured above)
- Roanoke Starcade features a great collection of arcade games
- Science Museum of Western Virginia
- Harrison Museum of African-American Culture
Our favorite, the Roanoke Pinball Museum, houses a cool collection of more than 50 pinball machines from the 1948's Screwball to modern games. You can check out the collection for free, or enjoy a day of play for $13.50 (less for kids).
The Science Museum of Western Virginia is a fun place for kids with interactive exhibits about the living river, parakeets, the human body, and more.
History and railroad fans will enjoy an easy stroll on the Roanoke Railwalk. A series of markers between Norfolk Ave and the railroad tracks explain the area's railroad history. The railwalk starts at the Museum or Transportation and ends near the Taubman Art Museum.
Roanoke Valley Visitor Center
The Roanoke Valley Visitor Center, located in a historic train station, offers regional maps, brochures, and helpful advice. Allow time to visit the Loewy Gallery and the History Museum of Western Virginia. Raymond Loewy is known as the Father of Industrial Design, and the gallery collection highlights his beautiful and functional designs.
The O. Winston Link Museum features a poignant display of Winston Link's photographs documenting the final days of Norfolk and Western Railway steam engines. The Visitor Center also has a great view of the art museum and the trains passing by out back.
MLK Bridge and Henry Street Historic District
The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Bridge is a pedestrian walkway that spans the railroad tracks. The cantilevered wooden bridge crosses the tracks between First Street and the Henry Street Historic District.
On the north side of the bridge is a statue honoring Dr. King. In addition, historical markers share details about Henry Street, a commercial and entertainment center for African Americans between 1917 and the 1950s. In addition to the interesting history, the bridge is a great place to watch passing trains.
Downtown Roanoke Murals and Architecture
One of our favorite things to do in Roanoke is enjoy a relaxed stroll around the walkable downtown. While you walk, check out the architecture, an interesting mix of old and new, and Roanoke's colorful downtown murals.
Here are a few of our favorite spots for art, architecture, and Instagrammable spots in downtown Roanoke:
- A colorful postcard Greetings from Roanoke mural on Jefferson St is a nice selfie spot.
- Two classic ad signs, for H & C Coffee and Dr. Pepper sign adorn buildings on Williamson Road (best viewed from the bridge over the tracks).
- Two fading advertising murals for Pepsi-Cola and Uneeda Biscuit grace the side of a lot on Jefferson St.
- A dramatic mural of a woman blowing backward adds to the view from Big Lick Brewing, one of the best breweries in Roanoke. Nearby Golden Cactus Brewing also has a nice colorful mural.
- We like the colorful row of brick buildings on Norfolk Ave, next to the Museum of Transportation. Don't miss the beautiful red entrance to Betty Branch Sculptor Studio.
Black Dog Salvage
A visit to Black Dog Salvage is one of the top things to do in Roanoke for fans of the popular TV show Salvage Dawgs. Even if you don't watch the show, you'll find a lot to love at this eclectic shop.
The architectural salvage business mixes building components and unique home decor. Shop for everything from full-size fire surrounds and restored furniture to art and gift items in a sprawling space near Memorial Bridge.
Great Roanoke Restaurants
Visitors will find a tasty range of Roanoke restaurants to choose from both in the downtown area and surrounding neighborhoods. Here are some of the places to eat in Roanoke that we have enjoyed.
- For a special occasion or dinner with friends, head to The Vault at The Liberty Trust hotel. Here you can enjoy small plates, creative cocktails, and a great selection of wines by the glass. The Pescatarian Charcuterie Board and the Khachapuri are eclectic and delicious. For an intimate dinner, reserve the table inside the vault at The Vault.
- Tuco's Taqueria Garaje serves modern Latin American food in a hip space on Salem Ave SW. Visit during Happy Hour for great deals on margaritas. We also enjoyed the margs at Alejandro's Mexican Grill on Campbell Ave and the entrees are generous.
- Pick up fresh produce and more at the Historic Roanoke City Market, which has been selling locally farmed goods since 1882. The seasonal farmers market takes over the outdoor stalls every Saturday from May to September.
- Pop into Bread Craft Bakery for fresh pastries, breads, and sandwiches. The spinach feta croissants and frittatas are scrumptious!
- In the Roanoke City Market Building, Scrambled is a popular spot for pancakes, eggs, and other breakfast items.
- Enjoy your morning coffee with local shopping at Little Green Hive Downtown in the Crafteria market.
- On the Rise Bread Company is another good choice for breakfast and lunch.
- A giant slice of pizza from Benny Marconi's is large enough for two. Or head to Fork in the Market, a popular spot for brick-oven pizza, and some of the best burgers in town.
- Texas Tavern on Church Ave is a throwback spot serving basic burgers and dogs at rock-bottom prices.
- Dinner at Local Roots Restaurant features locally sourced and lovingly prepared dishes in the Grandin Village neighborhood.
- Also in Grandin, start the day with Scratch Biscuit Company or treat yourself to a classic soda bar sundae at Pop's Ice Cream.
- North of downtown, Viet Sub serves delicious pho in a no-frills spot on NE Williamson.
Downtown Roanoke Breweries
There are several great Roanoke breweries in the downtown area.
- We loved the selection of standard and seasonal craft brews at Big Lick Brewing Company, which has nice space indoors and out.
- Right across the street, Golden Cactus Brewing offers tasty craft beer in a bright indoor space and colorful patio. There's even a sandpit play space for kids.
- Olde Salem Brewing Company opened a second location in the former Deschutes Tasting Room on Market Street.
- Three Notch'd Craft Kitchen and Brewery creates small-batch brews and tasty meals across from the historic Roanoke City Market.
- Twisted Track Brewpub, across the tracks from downtown in the space formerly occupied by Soaring Ridge. They have a nice patio with fire pits.
- Still on our list to try: A Few Old Goats, a microbrewery at the western end of downtown.
Check our complete guide to Virginia's Blue Ridge Cheers Trail for more Roanoke area breweries.
Unique Roanoke Shops
Unique downtown shops help make Roanoke a fun getaway destination. Allow time to browse and you're sure to come away with special finds or the perfect gift. Here are some of the Roanoke shops and boutiques to check out.
- Crafteria is a combination coffee shop and makers market where small local businesses can display their goods in a shared space. Our latest Crafteria purchase is a hand-dyed towel and breakfast from Little Green Hive.
- At chocolatepaper you can pick up a card, shop for gifts, and treat yourself to beautiful handmade chocolates. The solid chocolate Roanoke Star makes a tasty souvenir and they have an excellent selection of puzzles.
- She's International Boutique offers a curated collection of clothing and accessories including one-of-a-kind Tulip Bags.
- Mast General Store is the place to go for clothing, outdoor gear, and more from popular brands like LL Bean, Birkenstock, and Yeti in a classic department store setting.
- Check out the custom furniture at the Txtur showroom in the newly renovated Fire Station 1 landmark building (also home to a boutique hotel and restaurant).
- The gift shop at the Taubman Museum of Art is another great spot for interesting gifts.
More Things to Do in Roanoke and Virginia's Blue Ridge
Roanoke is a wonderful base for exploring Virginia's Blue Ridge region. The Blue Ridge Parkway passes just east of Mill Mountain, and the city is less than an hour from Virginia Tech and the Blacksburg area.
Roanoke Area Outdoor Activities
Roanoke offers easy access to Outdoor Activities in Roanoke including:
- Iconic sections of the Appalachian Trail like McAfee Knob are close by. There are also easy hiking and biking trails near the Roanoke River and other local parks.
- Roanoke is one of the best destinations for mountain biking on the east coast, with acres of dedicated trails at Explore Park, Carvins Cove Natural Reserve Area, Mill Mountain, and more.
- Just an hour from downtown, Smith Mountain Lake is one of the most beautiful spots for boating and paddling in Virginia.
Booker T Washington National Monument
Visit the Booker T Washington National Monument to learn about the early life and lasting impact of the great African American leader. Washington was born a slave and spent his early years toiling on this Virginia plantation.
After learning of their freedom in 1865, Washington's family moved to West Virginia where he worked tirelessly to educate himself. He later became the first President of the Tuskegee and Normal School, and his oration and writings made him one of the most influential African Americans of his era.
Visitors to the Booker T Washington National Monument can see the buildings and walk the paths that he once walked as a slave. Don't miss the short video in the Visitor Center, which is an excellent introduction to the site and the man.
Visiting Roanoke Virginia
Roanoke is about a 4-hour drive from Washington DC via Route 81. Amtrak offers twice daily train service right to downtown. Amtrak is a fun and relaxing way to travel from Washington DC, Baltimore, and New York City for a relaxed car-free getaway.
There are so many things to do nearby. We recommend staying a few nights when you visit the Blue Ridge region. Roanoke can anchor a road trip through Southern Shenandoah Valley to Northern Shenandoah Valley. Or stay in the city at the start of a road trip through Southwest Virginia.
Portions of our trips to Roanoke were hosted by Visit Virginia's Blue Ridge tourism.