Picture a vibrant town square lined with red brick buildings, a main historic market, hip boutiques, and art galleries galore — all beneath a backdrop of the stunning Blue Ridge Mountains. That’s Roanoke, a southern Virginia city known for its natural beauty, quality of life, and thriving central core. Here’s an art-filled itinerary for enjoying this charming town, all without breaking the bank.
Downtown Roanoke & City Market
Start here, exploring the main square and its thriving arts and foodie scene. Situated around the historic City Market, built in 1882 and beautifully restored to its original grandeur with shops and restaurants both inside and out, and sidewalk cafes that go around the entire building. This is the oldest such market in continuous use in Virginia; the original 1882 vending licenses were issued to 25 “hucksters.” The City of Roanoke offers a free walking tour guide available in pdf, map, or podcast.
Center in the Square
In the open square across from City Market, a fresh outdoor farmer’s market takes place daily, surrounded by independent shops, restaurants, and the gem of downtown: Center in the Square. After an expansive renovation that was completed in 2013, the Center is home to numerous organizations including the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, Science Museum of Western Virginia, Mill Mountain Theatre, ballet and symphony companies, and the Blue Ridge Arts Council. Its newest addition, just opened on June 19, is the Roanoke Pinball Museum featuring 46 machines from 1948 through today. Visitors can not only learn about the history of pinball, but can actually play these vintage games. You can enjoy each attraction individually, or purchase a Center Pass to all attractions for $15 to $25. Don’t miss the aquariums on the ground floor atrium and the green rooftop, both of which are accessible without charge.
The Taubman Museum & Art Galleries
An architectural wonder with stunning design elements that symbolize the surrounding mountains and nature, the Taubman Museum of Art showcases American, modern and contemporary, design and decorative, folk and visionary, and regional works of art. Multiple rotating exhibits offer exciting opportunities to see something visionary, and a large children’s area provides artistic expression for the little ones.
Other museums and art galleries dot the surrounding streets; a few doors down from the Taubman is Appalachia Press, owned by printmaker John Reburn, whose love for printed materials results in vintage letterpress renditions of diverse words and images that are truly one of a kind. A block over is The Market Gallery, a member cooperative of 30 regional artists exhibiting various art forms. And for a fun and unusual look at the Roanoke art scene, check out the free Art by Bike tour with downloadable map.
You might notice the large star overlooking the town; head up to the Overlook on Mill Mountain to get a closer look at the world’s largest man-made star, which was first lit in 1949, and provides a bird’s-eye view of the city from this historic landmark. While on Mill Mountain, you can also take in Discovery Center, a place to explore the natural world; and the Mill Mountain Zoo, home to more than 175 animals including mammals, birds, reptiles, and invertebrates.
If you’re a train fan, head over to the O. Winston Link Museum, which documents the last days of steam rail travel through photography. And after 20 years of sitting silent, the Norfolk & Western 611 Steam Passenger Locomotive has been restored and proudly thundered into Roanoke on May 30. Passengers can buy tickets to experience the thrill of a ride on the 611 through July.
For music fans, don’t miss The Crooked Road, Virginia’s Heritage Music trail. With several spots in or near the Roanoke Valley, this 333-mile trail that winds through the mountains of Southwest Virginia highlights the history and impact that local music styles such as bluegrass, gospel, and country have had on the area. Nearby towns including Floyd and Franklin County offer venues for visitors to experience authentic, live mountain music as well.
Where to Eat and Stay
The Roanoker Restaurant is a local favorite serving home cooked meals for more than 65 years. Try their signature biscuits, made by Sandra Scott for the past 20 years and taste like melt-in-your-mouth edible, buttery clouds. Across the enclosed walkway from downtown, the Hotel Roanoke‘s Regency Room (circa 1882) is where you can splurge on a delicious meal in a location steeped in history; don’t miss their signature peanut soup with spoonbread. The Hotel Roanoke has reasonable rates that start at $149.