24 Fun Hours in Roanoke Virginia

Roanoke City Square. Tab Hauser photos.
City Square in Roanoke Virginia on Market Day. Tab Hauser photos.

Roanoke Makes an Ideal Stop When Driving I-81 or the Blue Ridge Parkway

By Tab Hauser
Senior Writer

Roanoke Pinball Museum Tab Hauser Photo
Director Nic Schell with his signed Gilligan’s Island machine

Roanoke Virginia makes for the perfect 24-hour break when doing a road trip that takes you on the very busy Interstate 81 or the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.

This city of 100,000 is located about halfway between the Maryland and Tennessee border. We stopped here to relax and have a little fun while taking a day off the highway.

Roanoke is called the “Star City” because of the lighted large star that sits on the mountain above. The city has a welcoming downtown area where you can keep yourself entertained, “watered” and fed, all within a walking distance of each other.

Blue Ridge Center Stop

When arriving in town your first stop should be Virginia’s Blue Ridge visitor’s center at 101 Shenandoah Avenue for two reasons. First, the friendly people here can pass on information about anything going on in the area along with free maps and tourist brochures.

The second reason is to visit the one-of-a-kind O. Winston Link Museum adjacent to the main desk.

Roanoke Museum
An O Winston Link Photo

Steam Trains and Night Photography

Winston Link was a photographer who documented the end of the age of steam locomotives. The man was obsessed with taking the most detailed night photography of these trains between 1950 and 1960.

As a photographer, I was amazed at the quality of his work you see blown up in the different galleries. (I recommend you search his name and click images to see his work)

I was also impressed by the amount and size of the lighting equipment he used on display. Back then, photographs did not take well in low lighting so he would load up a truck and spend hours to set up the equipment for the shot needed.

Now, a professional photographer can dial up the ISO (light sensitivity), place a few wireless strobes in the right places and take the photo much easier.

Start your visit with a short detailed video of his life and his work. Here you will also learn about the last of the steam engines. The video goes behind the scenes on how he staged and captured his images using at times, a mile of wire to connect all the lighting. This museum is a must-see for any train or photography enthusiasts. (Allow about one hour for your visit)

Walking Downtown Roanoke

Roanoke Market Square
Old City Market Building with modern Wells Fargo building towering above it

From the visitors center, it is a five-minute walk to the center of Roanoke. There you will find clean-looking low-rise brick buildings with restaurants, book and coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants, and microbreweries. In the center of town sits Market Square and a building called the Center in the Square 

For lunch we chose a place in the historic City Market Building at a table by the street. The City Market is Virginia’s oldest market opened in 1882. It is open year-round, seven days a week, closing on Christmas and New Year . The “City Market Saturdays” that take place from May – September offer an enhanced shopping experience with live music and family-friendly activities. Here you can find flowers, produce, cheeses, baked goods and crafts from vendors no more than 25 miles away making this a true locally sourced place.

Roanoke’s Center in the Square

The main attraction in Roanoke is their Center in the Square. This repurposed seed and feed building now is a seven-story entertainment and cultural center. In here are several museums. These museums deal with pinball and arcade games, science, regional African American history, and a children’s center. There is also the Mill Mountain Theatre for live theatre and concerts.

Roanoke Pinball Museum

For the fun part of your Roanoke visit, there are two non-profit museums that anyone can play in. The Roanoke Pinball Museum’s mission states it is “an interactive museum dedicated to the science, art, and history of pinball. Our games are fully playable and span a near-century or production from the 1930s through today”

Here, for $12.50, you get to play just about every pinball game you grew up with until your flipper fingers tire out. Their oldest nonelectric machine dates to the 1930s. We played themed games from dozens of movies and TV shows (including a signed Gilligan’s Island game). After driving for two days it was a good way to blow off some steam. https://roanokepinball.org/

Roanoke Arcade Museum
Using “The Force” to battle in the old Star Wars game

Video Arcade Heaven, No Quarters Needed

If pinball is not your thing or you want to move on to something more challenging, visit the Roanoke Starcade. For $11.00 you can play as many of their dozens of games in two large rooms.

I started with the vintage Star Wars simulator and moved to shoot bad guys, racing cars and motorcycles, throwing skeeball, shooting aliens, and blowing up tanks.

I ended with sinking submarines from the same game I played on 50 years ago. https://roanokestarcade.org/

Roanoke Harrison Museum of African American Culture
Harrison Museum of African American Culture

African American Culture in the Roanoke Valley

In the Center in the Square is the Harrison Museum of African American Culture. The museum is a resource center that provides opportunities for history, cultural and educational enrichment through artistic, cultural and historical exchange.

Here they celebrate the art and history of the African Americans from the Roanoke Valley. On display are pieces of art, memorabilia, photographs, and objects relating to the African-American’s in the region.

(We spent about 45 minutes looking through this small but well laid out museum)


Virginia Museum of Transportation

Locomotive 1218 in Roanoke
The giant steam engine 1218

This museum is dedicated to all things transport with an emphasis on the rail and on Western Virginia. There are galleries with ship models, road and railroad signs, model trains, busses, and aircraft.

There is also a room of old automobiles including a 1913 Detroit Electric Car of which 14,000 were produced.

What gets everyone’s attention is the rail yard and locomotive 1218 built-in 1943. It weighs in at 951,000 pounds with the coal tender extending to 121 feet. It was retired from service in 1959. It was then restored and used for special excursions between 1987 and 1991. In 2001 this massive engine was donated to Roanoke. http://www.vmt.org/

Catching a Broadway Style Show and a Star

For the evening entertainment, we purchased very reasonably priced tickets to see “Legally Blonde, the Musical” at the Mill Mountain Theatre located in the Center in the Square. We enjoyed this truly talented Broadway-quality show. https://millmountain.org/

At the end of the evening, drive up to see the Roanoke Star on Mill Mountain. There, shining down to the city below is a 90-foot star made of 2000 neon lights. The view is beautiful day or night.

Roanoke Food:

For lunch, we made our way to the Tacos Rojas at City Market Building. We ordered their very delicious burrito of the day.
It came out a little crisply, full of flavor and large enough for two of us to share with a few bites leftover. A deal at $10. There are a few other restaurants to choose from in the building.

SideCar Roanoke TabHauserPhoto
Ashley crafting a cocktail at SideCar

For dinner it was the trendy-looking Sidecar on First Street for its reputation and because their kitchen was open late after seeing the show. We ordered a few small plates and one dinner entre that was spot-on. Their craft cocktails are creative and tasty and bartenders friendly. https://www.sidecarva.com/

For breakfast (or lunch) do not leave Roanoke without stopping at the Scratch Biscuit Co. This place, as its name implies, makes biscuits from scratch with a delicious variety of things you can put inside them. My breakfast of eggs and country ham was a very Virginia way to start my day. Also ordered that morning were a fried green tomato, smoked sausage, and gravy biscuit that was cholesterol and calorie-worthy.

Just down the road from Scratch Biscuit Co. is Black Dog Salvage. This place became popular with 11 seasons of reality television. Their giant warehouse is filled with pieces of homes that were salvaged. Displayed here are old doors, stained glass, restored furniture, antiques and things for the home.

Local Roanoke Brews

Roanoke has a busy beer scene. If you like your microbrews consider visiting Big Lick Brewing Company

Lodging: We chose the Holiday Inn Valley View because it was completely refurbished three years ago. We liked its airy feel with its tall ceilings and modern look. Their happy hour draft beers at $2 hit the spot after a morning of driving and an afternoon of touring Roanoke. The hotel has a nice gym and a restaurant. website

Mabry Mill TabHauserPhoto 10T
Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway

If you have more time:

While my stay was about a 24 hour Roanoke road trip break, the city is a good base for nearby attractions. This can include visiting Carvins Cove which is the second-largest city park in the USA with 50 miles of hiking and biking trails. Nearby is Natural Bridge State Park that has an easy hike to this natural wonder. Driving south on the Blue Ridge Parkway from here is America’s prettiest rides

 For all things Roanoke click www.visitroanokeva.com/

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