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After road tripping down the east coast and into Virginia’s Blue Ridge, I’ve put together this guide with what you need to know to explore Roanoke and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.
10 Fun Things to Do in Roanoke Virginia
Tucked into Virginia’s Blue Ridge, Roanoke combines local culture, museums, good food, and breweries with easy access to all things outdoors. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail take you into the mountains in minutes whether you want to hike, bike, or go for a scenic drive.
If you’re driving the entire Blue Ridge Parkway from Virginia into North Carolina, Roanoke makes the perfect stopping point to stretch your legs and use as a base to explore the Blue Ridge Mountains. With a couple of days, you’re sure to see what makes Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge popular with travelers and outdoor enthusiasts, alike.
1. See the Roanoke Star up close.
When you tell anyone you’re visiting Roanoke who’s familiar with the area, the first thing they say is, you have to go up to the Roanoke Star! Also called the Mill Mountain Star because it sits on top of Mill Mountain, the star is the symbol of the city and one of the biggest (no pun intended!) Roanoke attractions.
You can drive, hike or bike up to the Roanoke Star to get a closer look at the landmark made entirely of neon tubing and standing nearly 90 feet tall. This trail map can help you plan your trip if you’d like to hike or bike up Mill Mountain or just explore some of the trails once you’ve driven to the top.
We loved how dog-friendly the area was and even though one of our pups is not as active as she once was, she had fun getting a ride on the trail in her doggie backpack! Overall, you’ll find Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge as a super pet-friendly destination.
Once you reach the top of Mill Mountain and the Star, you’ll also be rewarded with an impressive view of the city of Roanoke with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the backdrop. The area on top of Mill Mountain surrounding the Roanoke Star is also a great public space with the Mill Mountain Zoo for families and plenty of green to enjoy the outdoors all while still being just a few minutes from downtown Roanoke.
2. Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway.
If you’ve flown, taken the train, or arrived in Roanoke from a route other than the Blue Ridge Parkway, rent a car to drive along this scenic byway. At 469 miles long, the Blue Ridge Parkway spans from the southern edge of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the doorstep of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.
I always search for rental cars on Kayak because they search multiple sites at once. This makes it so easy to compare prices and choose the best deal.
Popular spring, summer, and fall, the Blue Ridge Parkway is dubbed America’s favorite drive and one of the most visited areas protected by the National Parks Service. Driving through in mid-spring, we got to see the young bright green leaves on the trees and purple and white flowers blooming in the lower elevations and along the river valley.
Roanoke sits in a sweet spot in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, with access points to the Parkway from all corners of the city. The drive is marked by mileposts and the scenic overlooks and stops in between them.
Pack your road trip essentials and plan to pull off into an overlook every couple of miles because of the camera-worthy views, like we did.
A few of our favorite spots were Pine Tree Overlook in between milepost 95 and 96, the Roanoke River Gorge just near milepost 115, and Cahas Mountain Overlook a bit further south near milepost 139.
3. Hike to McAfee Knob.
Just 20 minutes from downtown Roanoke, you’ll find the trailhead to McAfee Knob otherwise known as one of the most photographed spots along the Appalachian Trail and one of the best hikes in all of the United States. Its iconic rocky ledge overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains offers spectacular panoramic views.
The hike is medium to difficult because it climbs steadily in elevation. Round trip on the trail is roughly 8 miles and should take about 4-5 hours, especially when you factor in time to take photos or stop for a bite. The trail is popular, particularly in the peak fall season because of the fantastic foliage. Start your hike early to avoid the biggest crowds and to have an easier time finding parking in the lot.
4. Mountain Bike in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Did you know Virginia’s Blue Ridge is the Mountain Biking Capital of the east coast? There are more than 300 miles of biking trails in the Roanoke area including at the popular Carvins Cove and Explore and Mill Mountain Parks.
If you’ve traveled light, mountain bikes and gear are available to rent and buy from shops throughout the Roanoke area. Not to mention, the pros in the shops can make recommendations about trails and give advice no matter if you’re a pro or have only been out riding a handful of times.
5. Savor a breakfast sandwich from Scratch Biscuit.
Being from the northeastern corner of the U.S., I’m hardly a connoisseur of the classic southern biscuit. What I do know is a delicious breakfast sandwich when I taste one! My only regret is ordering just one.
Scratch Biscuit is full of the friendly local vibe you’ll feel all over Roanoke. Not to mention, a packed restaurant full of locals eating is always a sure sign you’ve stumbled on something special.
Serving up breakfast sandwiches on a biscuit with eggs, cheese, and meat, Scratch Biscuit might just be the best made-to-order southern biscuit sandwich you’ve ever eaten.
6. Find treasures at Black Dog Salvage.
Whether you’re a fan of the show Salvage Dawgs on the DIY Network or not, this is a must-stop in Roanoke. Black Dog Salvage is an architectural salvage paradise! The 40k(!) square foot warehouse is covered wall-to-wall and ceiling to floor with antiques from decades past, all restored to complete your home design vision with one-of-a-kind vintage gems.
We spent nearly an hour walking through the store (with our pups who were showered with love from the staff!) trying to figure out how we could make room in our car for everything from gorgeous stained glass windows to cleverly repurposed lockers perfect for an entryway or mudroom.
And even if you’re someone who prefers a modern look, you’re guaranteed a walk through the past and a history lesson with the scope of artifacts easily spanning at least 100 years. Your list of what to do in Roanoke, VA must include a stop at Black Dog Salvage!
7. Embrace the outdoors along the Roanoke Valley Greenways.
Nothing embodies Roanoke’s outdoor lifestyle like their 30+ miles of greenway paths connecting the city with the mountains and nature right at its doorstep. Used for walking, running, biking, and even in some cases, canoeing, visitors can easily combine active outdoor fun and nature while still staying in and around all the city has to offer. There are Greenway paths along the Roanoke River and even connecting to the trails leading up to Mill Mountain.
The greenways are pet-friendly, too, which is great for travelers on an east coast road trip with their fur babies! Choose a Greenway through city parks, wooded areas, along the river or even in neighborhoods around the city to explore Roanoke from all angles and with all members of the family.
8. Taste local brews on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Cheers Trail.
Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge are home to a number of breweries, wineries, and craft spirit tasting rooms. You can be in a revitalized neighborhood sipping on a local brew inside a renovated industrial space. Or outside of town, tasting a freshly brewed beverage while sitting on a terrace with views of the hills and beyond.
Big Lick Brewery right in Roanoke is a popular spot to sit out or in…even if you’re traveling with your dog! Taste the White Bronco and take advantage of the restaurants nearby to order some food for delivery right to your table at the Brewery. Of course, we also stopped at Unleashed Dog Bakery & Boutique in downtown Roanoke for a few pup snacks, too, before heading to the brewery!
Ballast Point Brewery serves up food and over 30 beers to taste from their oversized bar and restaurant with views of the Roanoke Valley. The terrace is the perfect spot to while away a few hours in the afternoon or evening, especially if you’ve been outdoors hiking or biking and want to sit back and relax with mountain views.
9. Shop and eat at the Historic Roanoke City Market.
The Historic Roanoke City Market has been operating since 1882, making it the oldest market of its kind in the entire state of Virginia. Farmers and vendors come to sell their fresh fruit and vegetables, baked goods, preserved foods, and crafts every day at the outdoor stalls in downtown Market Square.
The market is the heart of Roanoke’s Market District, which is also home to several blocks of delicious eateries and boutiques. We spent about an hour and a half walking through the market and the surrounding city blocks and came away with some fresh fruit for the road and a hearty breakfast from Scrambled located inside the City Market Building just across from the open-air market.
10. Visit one of the museums in Roanoke Virginia.
Downtown Roanoke has several museums to learn about local history and culture or even just to take a break from the endless outdoor activities in the area.
The O. Winston Link Museum is located in the same building as the Virginia Blue Ridge Visitor’s Center and next to Roanoke’s train station. To be honest, I’d never heard of O. Winston Link and was curious about who he was and why the city has a museum in his honor.
The museum tells the story of his life and works as a photographer, who dedicated a period of time documenting steam engine trains, the people and cargo who worked and rode on them, and what the industry did for Roanoke and the region.
The photography is also a testament to his skills as a photographer! I couldn’t believe the preparation he needed to undergo in order to take night train shots. He mapped out the location and positioned hundreds of flashbulbs to capture the moment at the exact time a steam engine train passed with no margin for error. Completely the opposite from today’s digital photographers who can take multiple shots in a blink!
The Virginia Museum of Transportation complements the O. Winston Link Museum with actual steam trains and other locomotives on display, in addition to a fantastic classic cars exhibit.
While the Taubman Museum of Art has over 2,000 works in its collection, including creations by local Roanoke artists and famous American artists like Thomas Cowperthwaite. In addition, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions with the works of various artists.
Where to Stay in Roanoke
We had a comfortable stay at the Home2 Suites by Hilton. The hotel is pet-friendly, which was a must since we were road tripping with our fur babies. We loved the spacious apartment-style layout of the room with sleeping and living areas, as well as a kitchenette complete with a full refrigerator. We easily stored and prepared snacks and meals for people and pets.
The hotel also has free breakfast, an outdoor grassy space to walk your dog, a pool, and an exercise room. Even better, if you’re a Hilton Honors member, you can earn Hilton points or redeem points for your stay.
Directions to Roanoke Virginia
From the southernmost point of Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, take the Blue Ridge Parkway south to milepost 120 and go in the direction of Mill Mountain. From this point, you are just a few miles from downtown Roanoke.
So, which things to do in Roanoke, VA would you like to do?
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