Ask anyone what Roanoke, Virginia is known for and they’ll tell you about the colony that disappeared from Roanoke in the late 1500s. Rest assured, nothing mystical occurred. It’s since been theorized that the colonists were forced to move to Hatteras Island due to hardship. Today, Roanoke is considered to be one of the top travel destinations in that part of the country. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, visitors to Roanoke are treated to breathtaking views and fresh mountain air. The first time I visited this city of just over 100,000, I was struck by the genuine demeanor of the residents. I kind of felt like I had gone back to a simpler time, when neighbors knew neighbors and people looked out for one another. I quickly realized that one day wasn’t going to be long enough to spend in Roanoke, so I vowed to return again in the future. In the meantime, I asked several locals what sights and activities I shouldn’t miss. The Appalachian Trail runs through the northern part of Roanoke County, and tempted though I was to be able to say I hiked the Appalachian, I decided to focus on other activities, like seeing the Roanoke River and checking out the winemaking area.
Roanoke has four seasons, so make sure you dress accordingly. If you do decide to do some mountain trekking, bring a jacket, because it gets chilly at the higher elevations.
Downtown Roanoke is fairly lively, with lots of areas blocked off to traffic so it’s pedestrians only. I liked that there were plenty of people milling around, stopping in at craft breweries, restaurants, bars and even a few art galleries. The place felt alive—vibrant, even—and it just felt like a safe, cultured small town.
Getting There from Smith Mountain Lake
Traveling to Roanoke, Virginia from your rental near Smith Mountain Lake only takes about an hour. Just get on 40 West until you come to Route 834 and then take a right. About 7.7. miles up Route 834, you’ll turn left onto Route 670. Route 670 will bring you to a little town called Burnt Chimney. Once there, you’re going to make a right onto 122 N, and then a quick left onto 116 North. Then ride 116 North all the way into Roanoke.
Popular Activities in Roanoke
When you take a day trip to Roanoke, one of the first things to greet you will be the Mill Mountain Star atop Mill Mountain. This is a great first stop after your hour-long journey from Smith Mountain Lake. Drive up Mill Mountain and stretch your legs on one of the many trails that extend from the Mountain Park, with 568 acres to explore on foot.
Next, stop at the City Market Building. This is a fun place to browse. It’s a large, historic building with a multi-vendor market inside. You’ll find wine tastings, unique souvenirs to buy, ice cream to sample and a huge variety of different cuisines to try, from Greek Gyros to Japanese sushi, to handmade pizza. The building maintains its own calendar to keep visitors updated about special events, too.
If you're into history and museums, there is tons to find in this city. Stop by the Museum of Transportation or the Pinball Museum for a trip down memory lane.
Did someone say shopping? If you love antiquing, you won’t want to miss the many Roanoke antique shops. Roanoke was founded in 1585, so it’s absolutely teeming with antique furniture and doo dads that you won’t find anywhere else. Since you only have a day, you have to go to Black Dog Salvage. This 40,000 square foot “museum of history” even has its own TV show (Salvage Dawgs), which airs on Netflix and the DIY Network. They also have a second location less than a mile away with 20,000 more square feet! Whatever you’re looking for, you’ll find it at Black Dog on 13th Street, near the Roanoke River.
I mentioned wineries earlier, which Ipiqued your interest. Consider visiting Valhalla Vineyards, on Mt. Chestnut Road in Roanoke. Their wine tasting room overlooks Roanoke Valley. They store their wine in barrels in a cave that’s 60 feet underground. They have a picnic area, but no food is served.
Best Places to Eat in Roanoke
Now that you’ve built up a good appetite, it’s time to dig in to the best places to eat in town.
For Farm to Table, try Local Roots, a fine dining eatery featuring locally-sourced ingredients. As such, their menu varies, but examples include Prince Edward Island mussels, Pan-seared Cobia and Acorn Squash Bisque.
For an old-fashioned diner experience, try Texas Tavern on Church Avenue SW. This diner-style eatery features good American food, served fast and hot. Think burgers, hot dogs, soups and shakes.
Save room for dessert at Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar, where you’ll enter a quaint red brick building and be transported to heaven. They even have gluten-free versions of desserts, like Double Chocolate Cheesecake with Strawberry and German Chocolate Cake.