We just got back from a family road trip a couple of weeks ago. We drove from our home near Orlando, Florida, to Roanoke, Virginia (with a stop in Charleston, South Carolina). Now, Roanoke isn’t an obvious choice for a vacation destination. We actually went there to spend a few days with my best friend, who has been living there for many years. And, on every visit we make to Roanoke, we explore more and more of the family-friendly things there are to do there.
The city of Roanoke is nestled in the Roanoke Valley. It has gorgeous mountain views in every direction. It’s also just a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Roanoke is a small city. It has the charm of a small town with all the big city amenities you need. And, thankfully for families, it has lots of fun things to do. Here are just a few of our favorite things Roanoke has to offer.
Mill Mountain and the Roanoke Star
The Roanoke Star is the symbol of the city and it’s the largest man-made, free-standing, lighted star in the world. It’s located on top of Mill Mountain where there’s also an overlook with great views of the city and the surrounding mountains.
There are 10 miles of hiking trails on the mountain as well as restrooms and a covered picnic area.
Just before you reach the top of Mill Mountain, there is a Discovery Center that houses some small wildlife exhibits. There is a small playground as well as a wildflower garden next to the center.
This is one of our favorite stops in Roanoke for the great view and the free, outdoor fun we all can enjoy.
Mill Mountain Zoo
The Mill Mountain Zoo is also located on Mill Mountain. It’s a small zoo that houses about 170 animals. It also has a playground and Zoo Choo train ride that are open seasonally (check their site for details before you go).
If your kids are really into animals, then definitely stop in here if you’re visiting Mill Mountain. The admission prices are reasonable, parking is free, and outside food and beverages can be brought in, making it an easy, budget-friendly visit, especially with little ones.
Virginia Museum of Transportation
If you have anyone in your family who’s into trains, planes, or automobiles, then the Virginia Museum of Transportation is a great place to spend a couple of hours exploring Virginia’s transportation history.
The museum is housed in an old railway freight station downtown. There’s a nice collection of cars and trucks, including some of the earliest car models, as well as a 1981 DeLorean (Back to the Future)! They also have an aviation gallery with some interesting displays about the history of aviation in Virginia.
The museum’s largest collection of vehicles and memorabilia is related to trains. Train fans will go crazy over the huge variety of engines and train cars housed behind the museum building, as well as the detailed history of the passenger and freight train lines that ran through Roanoke.
And, if your family loves miniatures like we do, you’ll enjoy their amazing Model Circus Exhibit. There are various circus scenes, complete with hundreds of spectators, performers and animals. There is also a cute O-Gauge Model Train Layout.
Little ones will enjoy the small outdoor playground. There is a very small transportation safety-themed play area for younger kids as well.
Roanoke Pinball Museum
If you’re part of Generation X like Hubby and I, then you grew up playing pinball. The Roanoke Pinball Museum is a great place to relive those childhood years and show your video game-playing kids what pinball is all about.
This compact “museum” houses around 45 pinball machines from the 1940’s to the 1990’s. You get unlimited free play on all the machines with your paid admission. You can even leave to grab lunch or a snack and then come back later the same day as long as you show your ticket stub. This is a great place to visit on a rainy day or when you want to do something totally different.
The museum has stools available for younger kids to sit on while they play. It can get noisy in there when it’s very busy, so bring earplugs if your little ones are sensitive to loud noises.
Parks and Playgrounds
Roanoke has a lot of great parks and playgrounds that are perfect for the whole family to enjoy. Besides Mill Mountain mentioned above, we like Wasena Park, Smith Park, Fishburn Park, and Elmwood Park.
Wasena Park is on the Roanoke River and has a cute little playground and restroom facilities. There’s lots of open space for the kids to run and play.
Smith Park is on the Greenway (trail) and has a fantastic inclusive playground with ramps, as well as restrooms and lots of trees and a covered picnic area for shade. There’s plenty of open space for the kids to roam. It’s also next to the Roanoke River, as well as the train tracks (for train watching).
Fishburn Park also has access to the Greenway. The playground is smaller, but it has lots of room to run or play ball. It also has restrooms and a nice little trail through the woods.
Elmwood Park is located in the heart of downtown and features an outdoor amphitheater where events are held regularly. On hot days, your little ones can run through the fountains near the state to cool off. In winter, there’s a small ice skating rink there. Everyone can enjoy the cultural art walk, as well as the walkway lined with magnolia trees, which is really pretty when they are in bloom. There’s also a cute Peter Pan-themed playground for the little ones to enjoy.
Art Venture at Taubman Museum of Art
The Taubman Museum of Art is located downtown in a very modern, artsy building that features a huge glass atrium. The museum has 10 galleries, including a permanent collection of 19th and 20th century American art. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday and admission is free!
The best part about the Taubman Museum of Art for kids is the Art Venture section. At a cost of $5.00 per person, kids have access to 14 different interactive stations with activities and information to stimulate learning. There are blocks for building, clay for sculpting, art supplies for painting or drawing, a stage to put on puppet shows, a sensory area for younger kids, and so much more.
The museum is a great place to get inspired by art and to let your kids explore their creative side.
Roanoke has a surprisingly huge number of restaurants for a smaller city. You can find just about any type of cuisine here and a decent number of great restaurants are very kid-friendly.
There are still so many restaurants we haven’t tried yet, but our favorites include Wildflour Market and Bakery (vegetarian-friendly), Fork in the Alley (pizzas/burgers), On The Rise Bread Co. (sandwiches/salads), Burger in the Square (burgers), and Brambleton Deli (almost everything).
If your little ones are a bit more adventurous, we recommend Cedars Restaurant (Lebanese). Our Little Dude was perfectly happy eating his hummus, pita, and French fries!
We also really like Mac and Bob’s, a family-friendly sports bar and restaurant in nearby Salem.
And, if all the sightseeing and playground stops have Mom and Dad losing steam, Roanoke has many wonderful independent coffee shops, cafes, and bakeries. Our current favorite stop for lattes or cappuccinos is Sweet Donkey Coffee. And, for dessert, we love Pop’s Ice Cream and Soda Shop, a tiny little place with yummy sundaes and milkshakes.
So, whether you find yourself making a quick stop in Roanoke, Virginia on your way to somewhere else, doing a weekend getaway, or using it as a base for exploring the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains, you’ll have plenty of options to keep your kids happy during your stay.
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