15 Top-Rated Things to Do in Roanoke, VA
Roanoke is an attractive place to visit for tourists, whether you're looking to explore great museums and quirky attractions, or you're an active vacationer who places outdoor adventures high on their holiday things to do list.
Situated in the scenic Roanoke Valley in southwestern Virginia, the city is a four-season destination for avid hikers, rock climbers, recreational boaters, and lovers of sportfishing.
Urban explorers are equally rewarded with pleasant in-town greenways, cultural diversions, varied dining, and shopping discoveries unique to the region.
Regardless of your vacation style, be sure to refer to our list of the best things to do in Roanoke.
1. Explore Mill Mountain Park & See the Roanoke Star
The 568-acre Mill Mountain Park — home to the famous Roanoke Star (also known as the Mill Mountain Star) — has more than 10 miles of multi-use trails (hiking, walking, and biking), where visitors can explore the all-season natural beauty of the region.
For a moderately challenging hike, take the Mill Mountain Star Trail, a 3.5-mile round-trip from the base trail, and head along the nearby Roanoke River to the peak of Mill Mountain, the highest point in the city at 1,703 feet. Hikers experience an 838-foot rise in elevation and are rewarded with two scenic overlooks atop the mountain. Find ample free parking and good directional signage at the Star Trail parking lot just off Riverland Road SE at the Star/Wood Thrush Connector.
Connect with the short Watchtower Trail for the best panoramic views and photos directly at the base of one of Virginia's most legendary sites, the Roanoke Star. This quirky landmark, built in 1949 as a temporary Christmas decoration by the local merchants association, is today listed in the National Register of Historic Landmarks. At 89 feet high, the giant star is the largest star in America. It is illuminated each evening until midnight and is seen up to 60 miles away.
Hikers are welcome to bring their leashed dogs and will find picnic tables, restrooms, and water at the top and nearby along the Mill Mountain Spur Trail en route to Discovery Center, a naturalist center featuring exhibitions on the park, local wildlife, and trail maps. Children of all ages will love the Mill Mountain Zoo, a small but lively enclave, with local critters like the Indian crested porcupine, the red wolf, and the yellow-spotted side-necked turtle.
Address: 2198 Mill Mountain Spur, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: www.playroanoke.com/parks-facilities/mill-mountain-park
2. Shop or Eat at Roanoke City Market
Visitors feel the pulse of Roanoke at the historic City Market — known by locals as the Farmers' Market — all year-round, with boutique shopping, local produce, flowers, meat and cheese, local dining favorites, and some of the best people-watching in Virginia. Pay close attention to the market's four mosaic tiled entrances, each revealing a little of the history of this storied public space in more than 2,000 pounds of porcelain tiles.
Located in the heart of the city's Market District, the old market building was built in 1922 and is a great spot for lunch and to admire the architectural gem, renovated in 2011. Fork in the Market is a local favorite with wood-fired pizzas, gourmet hot dogs, and some of the best burgers in town.
Address: Market Square SE, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: www.citymarketbuilding.com
3. See the Aquariums at the Center in the Square
The Living-Coral Reef Aquarium is a show-stopper, located in the atrium at the Center in the Square in downtown Roanoke. The 8,000-gallon tank is home to both stony and soft living corals, 150 total, which are in turn home to hundreds of saltwater fish. These include well-known brightly colored fish like blue hippo tangs and clownfish, as well as the ecosystem's less flamboyant residents like sea stars, snails, and sea cucumbers.
Another visitor favorite is the Chomp Tank, which is home to the ocean's more aggressive residents like the venomous lionfish, as well as the spiky pufferfish and vibrant Spanish hogfish. The tank also has a population of moon jellyfish, both graceful and dangerous.
There are also several freshwater aquariums on display in the building, including one that highlights predatory fish that live in the Amazon River. The exhibit also educates visitors about the ecosystem of the river and its surroundings and its importance globally.
There is also a freshwater habitat for turtles native to Virginia, and on the rooftop, visitors will find a koi pond full of the vibrantly colored fish; the rooftop is also one of the best places in Roanoke to get panoramic views of the city, as well as the Blue Ridge Mountains.
All the aquarium exhibits are free and open to the public.
Address: Address: 1 Market Square SE, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: https://centerinthesquare.org/aquariums
4. Science Museum of Western Virginia
The Science Museum of Western Virginia is located on the 4th and 5th floors of the Center in the Square, filled with exhibits made for all ages, from pre-K through high school.
One of the museum's top attractions is the Parakeet Garden, a unique aviary where visitors can interact with more than 150 parakeets, including the opportunity to hand-feed these friendly birds.
Another top exhibit is the toy room, filled with oversized building blocks, a giant light-bright, and even retro arcade games. Visitors can also experiment with engineering and physics in the hands-on How it Works exhibit, and aspiring coders can expand their STEM skills while programming robots to navigate a maze and perform tasks.
There are also numerous exhibits focused on the natural sciences, with a major section dedicated to human anatomy and physiology. There is also an earth sciences exhibit with an interactive meteorologist's set, a Living River exhibit that explores the importance of the flow of water, and a touch tank filled with horseshoe crabs and other small marine life.
Other exhibits include the Ancient Ruins, which are home to several amphibians and snakes and the Cabinets of Curiosities, an eclectic collection of natural and man-made objects from around the world.
Address: 1 Market Square SE, Fourth Floor, Roanoke, Virginia
5. Kids Square Children's Museum
Located on the third floor of the Center in the Square building in downtown Roanoke, the Kids Square Children's Museum is full of exhibits that encourage young visitors to learn through play and imagination.
One of the most popular areas of the museum is the kid-sized town, filled with businesses of all sorts for the little ones to play grown-up. Kids can go to the bank, teach at a school, serve up food at restaurants, be a veterinarian, and even build in a "real" construction site. For kids who want to stretch their imaginations even farther, there is also a theater, where they can put on their own show.
A great space for getting out pent-up energy is the "Forest," an indoor activity space with tree climbing, slides, and even a kid-sized camper. Another popular area is the Glow Room, a blacklight-lit space filled with luminescent toys and activities.
For kids (and adults) who can find themselves overwhelmed in public spaces or just need a few minutes of peace, there is also the Sensory Hideout room, as well as the Sensory Hallway.
Address: 1 Market Square SE, Third Floor, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: www.kidssquare.org
6. Taubman Museum of Art
The Taubman Museum of Art is a must-visit whether you're an art aficionado or simply a casual consumer of culture. Housed in a stunning modern design by notable architect Randall Stout, the museum's permanent collection of some 2,000 unique pieces are spread across 11 different galleries, including works by Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins, Purvis Young, and John Cage.
A program of visiting exhibits including artwork from some of the country's top artists such as John James Audubon and Norman Rockwell, to name but two, are a frequent occurrence. Other highlights include displays of photography, folk art, and design-related material.
If traveling with kids, be sure to check out the availability of kids programs, including hands-on workshops and interactive displays. A café is also located on-site.
Address: 110 Salem Ave SE, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: www.taubmanmuseum.org
7. Harrison Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC)
Located on the second floor of the Center in the Square building, this museum is dedicated to preserving the history and culture of African Americans, as well as educating the public about the significant contributions made by peoples of African descent.
Exhibits cover a range of topics, including an in-depth look at what it was like to live as an African American during the Unites States' Jim Crow era. Other exhibits take a deeper look at slavery, abolitionists, and the civil rights movement through today.
The museum also hosts exhibits of African Americans' artistic works, as well as information about the significant contributions made to science and technology.
As part of its community outreach, the museum sponsors an annual outdoor event each September, the Henry Street Heritage Festival, as well as the Henry Street Music Festival, which features black artists and helps raise money for the organization.
The museum also hosts live speaking engagements by prominent figures and other events throughout the year.
Address: 1 Market Square SE, Second Floor, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: https://harrisonmuseum.com/
8. Roanoke Pinball Museum
This fully interactive museum is a favorite for all ages, featuring over 65 pinball machines in full working condition dating back to as early as 1932. Visitors can play until their heart's content while learning about the history and science behind the pinball machine.
Admission includes unlimited play, and the museum often hosts special events and tournaments.
Also located on the second floor of the Center in the Square building, Roanoke STARCADE offers the same one-fee admission to its museum-arcade, with unlimited play time. The arcade is home to more than 3,000 games, including old-school arcade cabinet-style games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, Arcade1up games like Joust and Gauntlet, racing games, modern arcade games like Guitar Hero, and home console video games.
Address: 1 Market Square SE, Second Floor, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: https://roanokepinball.org/
9. Carvins Cove Natural Reserve
In-the-know visitors acknowledge Carvins Cove Natural Reserve as a haven for off-road mountain biking, with more than 60 miles surrounding an 800-acre reservoir. The second largest municipal park in the United States, the reserve encompasses almost 13,000 acres, the majority of which are protected by the largest conservation easement in the history of the state of Virginia.
First-time visitors are well served by making an initial visit to Just The Right Gear, a cycling shop close to the Bennett Springs parking lot (one of three reserve entrances — Marina and Timber View being the others), where trail maps are available for purchase, and bikers can get local advice on which trails are best suited for their experience level. High-end bike and gear rentals are also available.
Beginners will find a gentler rise and more flats along Easy Street, Kit & Kaboodle, The Skillet, and Enchanted Forest trails. Bikers looking for tougher challenges will get all they bargained for on the Comet, Gauntlet, Hoe Trail, and Clownshead. Expect up to 2,400 feet rise in elevation along the most difficult trails.
Riders will find packed dirt, loose gravel, and tamped soil along these well-maintained trails. Carvins Cove is also popular for its canoe activities (equipment rentals and instruction available), and fishing.
10. Roanoke Valley Greenways
Safe, well-populated, and well-maintained, the interconnected Roanoke Valley Greenway allows visitors to experience the city up close and personal by walking or biking along the miles of trails found in its environs.
In and around the city of Roanoke, a favored trail is right along the Roanoke River, where even in town it is not unusual to spot deer, herons, geese, and other creatures that navigate the urban waterway. A great starting point for exploration is at Vic Thomas Park, just off Memorial Drive south of the river, where you can easily pick up the Roanoke River Greenway.
The renowned Black Dog Salvage is less than a block away. The nationally recognized purveyor of reclaimed architectural, commercial, and industrial fixtures and elements delivers on an intriguing, one-of-a-kind inventory that differs with every visit. Black Dog specializes in doors, windows, wrought iron, period lighting, garden statuary, and all manner of specialty home components that draw visitors from all 50 states.
After visiting Black Dog, head southeast on the Roanoke River Greenway towards Wasena Park. Check out the kids hanging ten on their long-boards at the Wasena Skate Park. The park is always a hub of activity, and it's fun to see the fancy footwork displayed by the locals on their boards and blades.
Continuing on the greenway, you'll cross the Mill Mountain Greenway en route to the Tinker Creek Greenway. Follow that north for less than a mile and reward yourself with a packed lunch at the picnic facilities at Fallon Park.
Official site: http://greenways.org/
11. Smith Mountain Lake
One of Virginia's most popular lakes — and the state's biggest — Smith Mountain Lake has nearly 500 miles of shoreline, earning the well-deserved moniker of the Jewel of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
SML, as it's known by locals, has a particularly impressive striped bass population, as state fisheries keep the lake well stocked. Visiting anglers can arrange for half- or full-day charters with a number of fishing professionals offering licensed guide services and plenty of experience traversing the 21,000-acre lake. They'll provide bait, gear, and all the expertise necessary to ensure those fishing have a safe and enjoyable experience on the lake.
In addition to stripers, lake goers may hook crappies, bluegills, or largemouth and smallmouth bass — all good eating fish that make freshwater fishing at SML a top tourist attraction for visitors.
Other fun things to do on the lake include water-skiing and wakeboarding, boating and sailing, and jet skiing. There's also a family-friendly beach for swimming, plus a number of nearby golf courses.
12. Hike McAfee Knob
With its incredible vistas and spectacular rock overhang perch, McAfee Knob is one of the most photographed spots on the entire Appalachian Trail. Many enjoy hiking here on the 3.5-plus miles of intermediate-to-difficult trails from the Virginia 311 parking lot leading up to the knob.
Climbers know it for the more than 70 challenging boulders of gnarly sandstone and slick quartzite that make for days of mini-summits to tackle. Most boulders are between 10 and 20 feet high with many offering plenty of vertical, lots of crimps, jugs, pockets, and edges. Bring pads, lunch, and a buddy; it's never a good idea to tackle the rocks solo, and McAfee is often deserted.
The recently re-opened Explore Park just off the Blue Ridge parkway is another popular recreational area in Roanoke that offers plenty of adventures. The park consists of 1,100 acres of spectacular scenery, plenty of walking and hiking trails, along with thrilling ziplines and a treetop adventure course suitable for families with younger kids. It also features camping and rustic cabins, a visitor center, plus a gift shop.
13. Bottom Creek Gorge Preserve
Birders, nature lovers, and outdoor photography enthusiasts love the scenic Bottom Creek Gorge Preserve. Less than 20 miles south of Roanoke, Bottom Creek is one of the important headwaters feeding the Roanoke River and offers visitors several well-marked trails to take in the vast hardwood forest, unspoiled landscape, and Virginia's second highest waterfall.
Photography enthusiasts will want to take the Red Trail (the longest trail here, at five miles round-trip) for the best vantage point to capture the 200-foot cascading waterfall, the second tallest in Virginia. Be sure to bring a long/telephoto lens as the overlook at the end of the trail provides a clear, open shot, but the falls are some distance away. Other falls vantage points are down a side path off the Yellow Trail.
Wild turkeys, owls, and numerous bird species can be spotted in the wildflower meadows and unique topography of the gorge.
14. O. Winston Link Museum and History Museum of West Virginia
Both located in the former N&W Railway train station, the History Museum of West Virginia and the O. Winston Link Museum are operated by the Historical Society of Western Virginia.
The History Museum of West Virginia, also known as the Roanoke History Museum, is home to natural, cultural, and historical artifacts and documents. Among its most significant specimens are examples of the Native American "Rawrenoke" beads, which gave the city its name. The museum also houses photographs, early census documents, and a letter written by Thomas Jefferson.
The O. Winston Link Museum complements the history museum's exhibits by presenting this artist's body of photographic and film work in which he documented the final days of the steam-powered Norfolk & Western Railway. The collections encompass images from Western Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, as well as the photographer's equipment.
Address: 101 Shenandoah Ave. NE, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: https://roanokehistory.org/
15. See Live Performances at Center in the Square
In addition to being home to some of the city's best museums, the Center in the Square hosts a variety of performing arts venues. The oldest of the organizations is the Mill Mountain Theater, established in 1964, which puts on live performances, as well as workshops and events.
The center is also home to the Roanoke Ballet Theatre, which performs at the center and various locations throughout the city.
The center also hosts the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, which performs everything from classical music to orchestral arrangements of modern music, as well as Opera Roanoke, which presents a variety of performances as well.
Address: 1 Market Square SE, Roanoke, Virginia
Official site: www.centerinthesquare.org
Map of Things to Do in Roanoke, VA
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Vacationing in Virginia: The beautiful state of Virginia offers no shortage of other fun things to do and places to visit for vacationers. Heading our list is Shenandoah National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty that contains a portion of the famous Appalachian Trail. Charlottesville, Virginia is another great destination for outdoor fans, as popular for biking as it is for sports such as golf and trail riding. And if you're looking for a great family seaside vacation, consider stopping for a few days in Virginia Beach, famous for its long boardwalk, parks, and long stretches of sand.
Historic Virginia: Your list of historic sites and places to visit in Virginia should include the state capital of Richmond, which served as the Confederate capital in the Civil War and also played a major role in the country's struggle for independence. Then of course there's Colonial Williamsburg, a "living-history" town that perfectly portrays life here during the 1700s. The naval town of Norfolk, too, is also worth exploring, especially around the harbor area where the battleship Wisconsin is docked.
Nearby States: From Virginia, it's easy to get a taste of some of the top tourist attractions and fun things to do in neighboring states. For adventure seekers, West Virginia offers some of the best trout fishing in the country. And North Carolina is a good idea, too, as it shares the same striking scenery in the Blue Ridge Mountains but also offers urban adventures in its capital city of Raleigh. And, of course, you should include a visit to Washington DC, the country's capital and home to no end of museums and attractions worth seeing.