By Guest Blogger Jeana McLean

About a 2 hour trip from most parts of the triad, we discovered this fun little gem when we had a long weekend but didn’t want to drive too far. We didn’t do much research in advance, so were pleasantly surprised by all the fun things to do in Roanoke, Virginia. And so many FREE things to do, too!

There are plenty of good hotels in the area, if you don’t mind staying about 10 minutes outside of the downtown area, rates are a good $20 cheaper, but the travel time can get frustrating if you are going in and out 2-3 times a day. We found one with a good free breakfast and a nice indoor pool, always fun with two 12-year-old boys!

A quick drive to the top of Mill Mountain is a great place to start your visit– bring a lunch and see the Roanoke Star and the Mill Mountain Zoo. There is a great viewing platform and you can call grandparents who can get online and see you via the satellite standing on the platform! This is also fun to do at night – really pretty to see the skyline at night. This was the first time we had done that and the kids were awed. There are a ton of hiking trails, but for those less adventurous there is a small walking trail around the star, with rocks the kids can climb on. No charge for the star or park area. There is also a small playground down the hill with a really tall slide that kept shocking us. On the same mountain (but not free) is the Mill Mountain Zoo. Really nice little zoo, not too expensive, $9 adults, $6 for kids.  Lots of fun animals you won’t see in the big zoos like a Snow Leopard and Red Tailed Panda. They have a small train that goes around the zoo as well as a playground. It’s all shaded so it stays pretty cool, too.

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Bayou Snowballs – Best. Flavored. Ice. Ever. according to my son at least. It’s not fair to call it a snow cone, because to my mind, that’s some rough ice with sickly sweet syrup poured over it. There is something about their ice (that they proudly make themselves) and the way they shave it, and the way they layer it with their syrups (that they make themselves) and layer it and shave it and layer it and shave it… Must visit in Roanoke. They also have ice cream for those of us who like our cold treats creamy.

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Center in the Square – pay to go to museums, or just climb to top, see fish pond, garden, amazing view, picnic lunch on the roof, eat a snowball.

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Railwalk – interesting if you are into railroads. If not, just a nice stroll along the railroad tracks, maybe while eating a snowball. There’s also a cool walkway that goes over the tracks – my boys were fascinated watching an endless coal train go by. It takes you over to the beautiful Hotel Roanoke – wish I had been dressed nicer so I could have gone in and looked around.

Farmers Market – if you are there on a weekend, great open air place to stroll around, lots of shops in addition to all the stalls.

Food – Fork in the Alley, fun spot, good pizza. Not cheap but not too bad. The service takes a while so don’t go if you are starving! Right next door is Bubblecake, a cupcake shop – sometimes it’s hard to tell if it’s open or not but they have really yummy cupcakes. I got a mini and left wishing I had bought a dozen. My son hates cupcakes, his buddy LOVES them!

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Great place to eat on a day you are downtown – it’s in a historic Brick Building and is a Food Court of sorts,  with “Fast-Food” though not as typical as you may think.  You can get a Burek at Euro Bakery (Think Bosnian/Turkish Meat “Pie”)!  Great place when the family can’t agree on what they are in the mood for. This Building is at the “Entrance” to the Farmers Market and the rest of the City Market Square. Lots of seating in a comfortable indoor food court!

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Green Ridge Recreation Center and Splash Valley Water Park – we have not been here so can’t vouch for it personally, but I did find out it’s open to the public and you can buy day passes.

There’s a great playground area up near the hospital – has some fun rocks the kids love climbing on as well as a playground for younger kids. It’s near an open amphitheater – another fun place for a picnic lunch.

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When was the last time you visited Roanoke, VA? Share your tips and ideas by commenting below!