What to do in Roanoke, VA
Roanoke is a small mountain city in the heart of Southwest Virginia. Although it’s small, it has a lot to offer its visitors including music, hikes, and even zoos. Roanoke has a little something for everyone to enjoy and since it’s now a stop for Amtrak, more people have the opportunity to experience this charming city. To help plan your visit or stopover in Roanoke, VA, here are some activities for you to enjoy.
The Roanoke Star
When it was first constructed in 1949, the star was meant to be seasonal–only lit up during the Christmas season. Now, the Roanoke Star is one of the most beloved sites in the Roanoke Valley, and it is a must-see stop when driving along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Perched upon Mill Mountain, the neon star stands at 85 feet and is made from 2,000 feet of neon tubing, making it the largest free-standing, star in the world for the last 65 years.
The Roanoke Star can be accessed from the Blue Ridge Parkway at the 120-mile marker.
Downtown Roanoke, VA
In my youth, I spent many weekends exploring downtown Roanoke with my friends. The Center Square is home to a variety of events year-round, including festivals, farmer’s markets, concerts, and so much more. Even if you’re just visiting for an afternoon or evening, there are dozens of local restaurants with live music to enjoy. Since the Roanoke Amtrak station is right next to Downtown Roanoke, it’s the perfect spot to relax between trains if you have a long layover.
If you’re in the area during the summer, be sure to check out First Fridays, a concert series that has been raising money for charities since 1989. Every first Friday of the month, the organization hosts live musicians and gives young professionals a chance to network with their peers or just hang out with friends.
Even if there are no events going on, Downtown Roanoke is home to some great, locally owned, restaurants. Here’s just a few to get started:
- Awful Arthur’s Seafood Company
- Wasabi’s – Casual Japanese Restaurant
- Alejandro’s Mexican Grill
- Lucky Restaurant – Farm to Table
The Taubman Museum of Art
The Taubman Museum of Art has a long history with the City of Roanoke, having originated in 1947 when the Association of University Women requested a permanent art collection be moved to The Hotel Roanoke. Over the years, the Taubman–then known as the Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts–moved around until it found a permanent home in Downtown Roanoke in 1983.
The building that became the Taubman Museum of Art opened in 2008 and remains a cherished part of Roanoke City. I spent many First Friday Nights–when the museum stays open until 9:00–wandering the art exhibits with friends. Though Roanoke isn’t the largest city, the museum still receives exhibits and pieces from some of the most well-known artists around the world, including Yoko Ono and Norman Rockwell.
With no entry fee, Taubman provides its patrons with a wide variety of art exhibits from all over the world. The museum also offers amazing programs for families to help encourage children to fall in love with art. It’s also a beautiful building that would be perfect for a wedding venue.
Roanoke Pinball Museum
The Roanoke Pinball Museum is a great argument for why one must explore their own cities–because I had no idea this existed. The Roanoke Pinball Museum is an “interactive museum dedicated to the science and history of pinball.” The museum opened in 2015 and is home to 60 pinball machines from over the decades–from 1932 to the present.
Not only does the museum offer fun and games, but it also offers SOL-Standard (Virginia State Standardized test) educational resources to help teachers reinforce their lesson plans.
Hikes in Roanoke, VA
Roanoke Mountain [x]
Roanoke Mountain is the first on this list because it’s considered the most accessible for all levels of hikers; however, because the route is unpaved it’s not wheelchair accessible. The complete hike is a 0.4-mile loop and only takes about an hour. But, with two scenic overlooks and an easy incline, it’s not a terrible way to spend a sunny morning–especially if you’re not usually the hiking type.
Mill Mountain Star Trail [x]
The Mill Mountain Star Trail is a moderately difficult trail that offers another way to access the Neon Star. The out-and-back trail is 3.7 miles in total and ascends about 800 feet. When you’ve reached the top of the trail, you’ll be welcomed by a beautiful view of the Roanoke Valley and the Instagram-worthy star. You’ll also find picnic areas and the Mill Mountain Zoo, so it can make for a great Saturday for the whole family and even your dog–as long as they stay leashed.
Dragon’s Tooth [x]
Dragon’s Tooth (blue-blazed) is the most difficult trail in the area, which also makes it the most rewarding if you’re able to make it to the end. The 4.5-mile, out-and-back trail takes about three hours to complete, not including the time taken to explore the top of the mountain. Though that may not sound too bad, about 0.7 miles of the trail is a rock scramble that will really test your endurance, and it’s not recommended to bring older dogs with you as they may not be able to handle this portion of the trail.
If you’re worried you’ll be too tired to make the trip back down, then you’ll be happy to know that Dragon’s Tooth offers plenty of areas for camping and picnicking along the trail.
Bottom Creek Gorge [x]
Bottom Creek Gorge is a 4-mile descending hike that leads to the second tallest waterfall in Virginia and features amazing scenery throughout. There are three different loops to choose from once you’ve entered the trail, each with its own difficulties and views.
- The Duval Trail – This trail is often the quietest, making it a great place to find some solitude. Dogs are allowed on this trail as long as they are leashed.
- The Johnson Trail – This trail is great if you’re going on a family outing and the kids have not built up their endurance yet. Johnson Trail is the most direct route to the view of the falls. However, because it is the shortest trail, it is also the most crowded.
- Knight Trail – The Knight Trail follows the river all the way to the falls. Because of this, the trail starts flat but has the steepest decline toward the water–which can be slick after rain.
McAfee Knob [x]
McAfee Knob (white-blazed) is one of the most photographed spots on the Appalachian Trail. It’s about a 4.4-mile ascent to McAfee Knob, where you’ll be welcomed by a stunning panoramic view of the valley and surrounding mountains. To return, you have the option of retracing your steps or taking the old fire road down to Route 311 and the parking lot.
Because the trail is a steady climb of 1,700 feet and moderately difficult, you’ll want to set aside at least four hours for the adventure. It is advised to hike the trail during weekdays as it does get crowded and parking is limited on weekends.
Roanoke is a small city that has a little something for everyone. So the next time you’re planning a trip down South, don’t forget to include Roanoke in your itinerary.
Have you visited Roanoke, VA? What would you recommend to your fellow travelers?