Discover Roanoke Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains

Written by Teresa Bitler

February 13, 2018
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Roanoke, Virginia sits east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and just west of what many consider one of the most beautiful drives in the country—the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. While it’s an ideal base for exploring the mountains or the parkway, the city has evolved into a destination in its own right, one you’ll want to discover.

Roanoke Virginia

An aerial view of the Roanoke Star, the world’s largest freestanding illuminated man-made star. Photo courtesy of Star City SkyCams and Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Trains, Art, and More in Roanoke

For a city of fewer than 100,000 people, Roanoke has a surprising number of impressive museums, beginning with those at Center in the Square in downtown Roanoke. All four—the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, History Museum of Western Virginia, Science Museum of Western Virginia, and Roanoke Pinball Museum—are small but very well done. (I had a blast playing the 45 machines at the pinball museum.)

With a Jupiter rocket on display outside, the Virginia Museum of Transportation is hard to miss. Step inside to see displays dedicated primarily to trains, cars, and aircraft, with other forms of transportation thrown into the mix. You’ll need about two hours to see everything, including steam and electric locomotives in the rail yard.

Roanoke Virginia

The 611 Locomotive VMT at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. Photo courtesy of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

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Train enthusiasts will also enjoy the O. Winston Link Museum. Dedicated to photographer O. Winston Link, it displays photographs he made of the nation’s last steam locomotives. Nearby, the Taubman Museum of Art displays 19th-century, 20th-century, and modern works of art in its 11 galleries.

Fun and Quirky Roanoke

But, there’s more to do in Roanoke than visit museums. The city is home to Black Dog Salvage, the storefront behind the DIY Network reality series “Salvage Dawgs.” Visit the two showrooms to shop for home décor, souvenirs, and dog gear and make a new friend in Sally or Stella, two of the namesake dogs who frequent the main showroom.

Roanoke Virginia

Inside Black Dog Salvage. Photo courtesy of Sarah Hauser and Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Next, drive up Mill Mountain to see the Roanoke Star, the world’s largest freestanding, man-made, illuminated star. You can see it lit up every night from the city below, but you can’t appreciate its size until you visit it on Mill Mountain. Plus, the view of the city below is fantastic!

Biscuits and Comfort Food

A visit to Roanoke wouldn’t be complete without biscuits at The Roanoker. Start your day as locals have for over 65 years with a hearty breakfast, including fresh-from-the-oven buttermilk biscuits. (The restaurant is also open for lunch and dinner.) Or, try a biscuit sandwich at Scratch Biscuit. I recommend the brisket biscuit. Yum!

Roanoke Virginia

Fresh biscuits at The Roanoker. Photo courtesy of Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

Hollywood’s Restaurant & Bakery is a good lunch option. The family-owned restaurant serves everything from burgers to fried oysters and vegetarian dishes. Save room for the homemade desserts—the peanut butter pie is delicious!

For a more upscale (but not stuffy) dinner, make a reservation at The Quarter, a New Orleans-style restaurant serving Cajun and Creole specialties like gator bites, jambalaya, gumbo, and shrimp and grits. The Quarter has an impressive wine list, too.

Sample Craft Suds

While there are a few mom-and-pop wineries outside Roanoke, the city is known for its craft beer scene. Begin with a tasting at Starr Hill Pilot Brewery & Side Stage, one of the area’s first craft brewers. The brewery has live music on the weekends and an open mic on Monday nights. (Check the online calendar for the current lineup.)

Big Lick Brewing Company is another local favorite, thanks to its emphasis on quality and variety. (The brewery rarely makes the same beer twice and boasts more than 80 recipes.) It’s the perfect place to kick back with a pint and play board games with friends.

Discover Roanoke Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains

A pint of ale at Starr Hill Brewery. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Deschutes Brewery is the newest entry into the Roanoke craft beer scene. Its tasting room in downtown Roanoke is a precursor to the company’s new production facility, located just outside the city. Deschutes plans to break ground in 2019.

Ballast Point Brewing Company, based in San Diego, already has a production facility near Daleville. Taste some of the 30 Ballast beers on tap, and enjoy burgers, tacos, and more at the onsite restaurant.

Historic Outlying Areas

The communities surrounding Roanoke have a lot of history. Head first to the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy to see where the celebrated African American educator and leader was born and freed. Although none of the buildings are original, they have been reconstructed based on Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery. They give a good sense of life on a small plantation in the mid-1880s.

At Ferrum College in Ferrum, the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum pays tribute to the men and women who pioneered the area. Costumed interpreters demonstrate how they cooked, drove oxen, and performed other chores on the farm. Visit with farm animals and tour the barn, house, and other historic buildings.

Roanoke Virginia

The barn at the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum. Photo by Teresa Bitler

Inside the institute, you’ll see crafts on display and video performances by Virginia legends, including the Carter Family and Stanley Brothers.

If you’re up for a physical challenge, the 4.4-mile, moderate hike to McAfee Knob is well worth the strenuous climb to the lookout, where you’ll be rewarded with 270-degree panoramic views of the valley below. Bring a friend to photograph you on the famous ledge and offer encouragement on the 4.4-mile trek back to the car.

Roanoke Virginia

McAfee Knob is one of the nation’s most popular hikes. Photo courtesy of Brent McGuirt Photography and Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge

My favorite Roanoke day trip, though, was Fincastle. Once a colonial frontier town, today it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It boasts log cabins, antebellum churches, and the Botetourt County Court House, originally designed by Thomas Jefferson.

When You Go to Roanoke

You can find more information on Roanoke at Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge website. Check out more articles on things to do and see in the state of Virginia from Wander writers. There are more articles specifically about Roanoke here.

Written by Teresa Bitler

Teresa Bitler is an award-winning travel writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, American Way, Wine Enthusiast, and AAA publications. She’s also the author of two guidebooks (Great Escapes Arizona and Backroads and Byways of Indian Country) and a contributor to Fodors Arizona & The Grand Canyon. While Teresa would never miss a must-see attraction, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York City, her favorite travel experiences are the unexpected ones: KoolAid with a Hopi medicine man, lobster prepared by a local on a Belizean beach, or a ride in a World War II-era bomber.

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