In the foothills of Appalachia, and one of the biggest towns along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Roanoke brings nature and city life together as one. Whether you’re road tripping down the famous parkway or looking for your next “off-the-beaten-path” vacation, there’s no reason Roanoke shouldn’t be on your list.
It’s a great year-round destination with plenty of fun things to do in Roanoke itself. Here, those that enjoy the urban landscapes can wander through a historic downtown, passing boutique stores and unique museums. While weekend warriors and outdoor enthusiasts can head for hills to climb, hike, and fish.
12. Black Dog Salvage
For a long time, Black Dog Salvage was the place for locals to go to embark on their own DIY adventures. Now, thanks to the popular TV show Salvage Dogs, Black Dog Salvage is a must-visit attraction in Roanoke. Part magnificent, part overwhelming, the massive warehouse is compiled with architectural salvage and repurposed works everywhere you turn.
From the moment you walk in, you’ll get swept up by the sheer amount of displays and offerings. It’s an antique shop on steroids mixed with artistic and handcrafted creativity. Whether you commit to a purchase (and the eventual extra baggage fee) or just browse, you’ll quickly develop a soft spot for this Roanoke gem.
11. City Market
A farmers market that runs throughout the year, Roanoke’s City Market is not only a way to support local produce but for the community to come together. In the heart of downtown, the market is held in an old gem built in the 1920s and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Whenever the market is on, you can feel the atmosphere rise in the historic district. Aromas of fresh food and artisanal cheeses float through the air, alongside large sections of beautiful flowers and craftwork. Whether you shop or not, it’s a great way to experience local life before dining the popular Fork in the Market.
10. Roanoke Valley Greenways
Over 25 miles of trails make up the Roanoke Valley Greenways, an urban path that meanders through the city’s green space. With the trails available for a mix of biking, walking and running, you can easily visit major landmarks throughout Roanoke, including Mill Mountain, Read Mountain, and Carvins Cove.
From these landmarks, you can take a number of side trails to further explore each destination. A popular trail follows the Roanoke River, beginning at Vic Thomas Park with the chance to see deer, geese, and herons along the way. Before passing Black Dog Salvage, Wasena Park, connecting to the Mill Mountain Greenway and ending at Fallon Park.
9. Mill Mountain Zoo
On the peak of Mill Mountain, the Mill Mountain Zoo is an educational center and animal sanctuary that has operated here since the 1980s. Not just the opportunity for visitors to witness majestic animals and rare species with their own two eyes, the zoo has a heavy focus on education.
Today, the Mill Mountain Zoo is the home for over 170 animals and just shy of 90 species. 21 of the 90 are endangered, with the zoo being responsible for dozens of promising births over the last 15 years. Some animals you’ll be able to see up-close include red pandas, wolves, cougars, Indian crested porcupines and wondrous snow leopards.
8. McAfee Knob
When thru-hikers set out on the Appalachian Trail, they quickly began dreaming about taking their photo on the edge of the famed McAfee Knob. Like a line of kids waiting for their school photo, they stand patiently before commemorating the experience with a unique pose just feet from an immense drop.
McAfee Knob juts out of the surrounding ridgeline, offering expansive views as far as the eye can see. Arriving at the iconic viewpoint will take a moderate to hard 3.5 mile trail from the trailhead at the Virginia 311 parking lot. Load up your bag with lunch and treats so you can make the most of your seat in the heavens as you gaze upon the lush nature below.
7. Center in the Square
In the center of downtown Roanoke, the Center in the Square is a community-backed arts and cultural space with multiple attractions. Center in the Square is home to five museums, including the Pinball Museum and the Virginia Museum of Transportation along with the sprawling Living-Coral Reef Aquarium.
During the day, travelers and families can explore the square’s many attractions, making use of the brief walks between each. You won’t have to go far for a break with nearby eats at the Rooftop Gardens and local shops. But when the night arrives, Center in the Square also offers live performances at the Mill Mountain Theater. Kick back and enjoy a night of plays, dance, or even opera.
6. O. Winston Link Museum
Dedicated to the life and times of O. Winston Link, the museum showcases some of his greatest works. A prominent photographer in the 1900s, he is particularly noted for his photography skills regarding the railroads. For this reason, the O. Winston Link Museum is housed within the historic and restored Norfolk and Western train station.
Today you can explore what was once a major transport hub and find hundreds of large-scale photographs, prints, and displays. O. Winston Link was devoted to telling the story behind the image, which covers many aspects of transport, from famous train rides to the rural families that depended on it. After admiring the preeminent photography, learn more about the man behind the pieces through interpretive displays showcasing his early life and career.
5. Taubman Museum of Art
In a new and striking building, the Taubman Museum of Art opened in 2008 and immediately became a local hit. The modern building was designed by Randall Stout, a renowned architect and is now home to a permanent collection of 2000 works from John Cage to Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins.
In combination with a splendid rotation of temporary exhibitions, the Taubman Museum of Art can be enjoyed by everyday fans and art connoisseurs alike. Take your time wandering between over 10 different galleries that have a keen focus on national artists primarily from around Appalachia. The museum hosts several events throughout the year, so be sure to check what’s on when you’re in town. Additionally, the Taubman Museum of Art hosts kids’ programs and workshops.
4. Roanoke Pinball Museum
Roanoke is home to a series of beguiling museums that are sure to pique your interest. Perhaps the most intriguing of all is the Roanoke Pinball Museum. From the moment you enter, a burst of bright colors will wash over you as you gaze upon almost 70 games that date as far back as the 1930s.
For the base entry price, you can play all the games in the museum over the course of two hours. So no need to load up on quarters. Unleash your inner-kid as you reconnect with some iconic retro games. A great rainy day activity, the Roanoke Pinball Museum, is also a much-loved family experience. For those with young ones, spend time introducing them to the games you played when you were their age.
3. Blue Ridge Parkway
From Virginia to North Carolina, across 469 miles of tree-laden scenery, the Blue Ridge Parkway is “America’s Favorite Drive”. From Roanoke you can connect to the parkway within ten minutes, with ample nearby turnoffs for appreciating the gorgeous valleys and several trailheads to explore the mountains, including the famous Appalachian Trail.
You can see the iconic Mill Mountain Star and the zoo from milepost 120 while at milepost 115 you can make a short detour to Explore Park. But the best way to experience the sheer beauty of the drive is to simply get behind the driver’s seat and see where the windy roads take you. This is especially accurate in the fall when the rolling hills turn auburn and the crisp mountain air creates rising mist down in the valleys.
2. Virginia Museum of Transportation
Complete with multiple sections of interactive and interpretive exhibits, the Virginia Museum of Transportation tells the story of local and national transport through the ages. The museum discusses the important role that trains and aviation, among other forms of locomotion, have played in the growth of Roanoke.
The museum is mostly filled with exceptional permanent exhibits, including the automobile gallery, from Mud to Mobility. This section features a floor painted with dirt so you can fully grasp the concepts at hand. The highlight of the exhibit is the fascinating old cars, including the first electric car. From there you can explore the railroad exhibits which feature a toy train display that kids will love. Last up are displays on human flight including hot air balloons, a gyrocopter and modern aircraft.
1. Mill Mountain Star & Park
Built in 1949 as a temporary decoration for the year’s Christmas, the Mill Mountain Star and Park won Roanoke’s heart and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s the largest star in the United States, standing at almost 90ft tall and when illuminated, the Mill Mountain Star can be seen from 60 miles away.
Exploring the park on foot is the way to go, with over ten miles of trails to choose between. A moderate to difficult 3.5 mile trek will take you from the Roanoke River to a mountain viewpoint for splendid scenery. From there, connect to the Watchtower Trail to arrive at the base of the expansive star for photos and further stunning views.