Virginia’s Blue Ridge with kids is an inspiring way to enjoy culture, history, nature, and more (even for a Roanoke native)
In the heart of Virginia’s rolling Blue Ridge Mountains, the Roanoke area and beyond offer so many things to do with kids during a family vacation. For our own family of four (Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster), we traveled to Roanoke in June 2022 not only for a summer vacation, but to see family we hadn’t gotten to see since before the pandemic.
Plus, Anthony grew up in Roanoke. Now that our kids are a little older (ten and seven), we wanted to experience Roanoke not just as a chance to see loved ones, but to travel the area like we would anywhere else we wanted to explore.
Our Roanoke family summer vacation in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains
We want to thank Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge for sponsoring our visit. Our opinions, however, are our own.
Plan your amazing family vacation to Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge
Save at attractions, restaurants, and more with the FREE VBR Savings Pass
Why is Roanoke a great family vacation destination?
From Smith Mountain Lake in Franklin County to the winding scenic driving of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Roanoke area and beyond offers a range of in-town and outdoor recreation that’s perfect for families. With a convenient in-town regional airport, an Amtrak train stop, and quick access to major highways such as I-81, it’s also easy to get to and from the area.
Walkable Downtown Roanoke combines museums, shops, restaurants, and family friendly pubs and wineries. Plus, you and your kids can marvel at the local crafts and farm-fresh foods available at the Historic Roanoke City Market, which began in 1882.
With over 1,000 miles of hiking and biking trails (including a stretch of the famous Appalachian Trail), the area is also considered America’s East Coast Mountain Biking Capital. In addition to Smith Mountain Lake, water recreation enthusiasts can enjoy the Upper James River Water Trail and the Roanoke River Blueway.
Whether you and your family want to enjoy the area inside, outside, or a bit of both, Roanoke offers kid friendly activities, plus plenty of options for parents, in urban and rural settings that regularly receive accolades for having a high quality of life.
What to do in Roanoke with kids
Anthony is a dad who loves to show his kids the world. We’d been looking forward to our son and daughter being old enough to appreciate more excursions in and around Roanoke. Based on our family vacation experience in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, and Anthony’s background as a Roanoke native, here are ideas for what to do in Roanoke with kids.
Things to do with kids: Roanoke activities and attractions for the whole family
Just about wherever you are in Roanoke, there’s a good chance you can look up and see the famous, 88.5-ft. high Roanoke Star. While visiting the Star on top of Mill Mountain, you can get fresh air along walking trails, and see animals at the Mill Mountain Zoo.
Hint: Take a family selfie under the Star!
At 469 miles, if you stretched out the Blue Ridge Parkway, “America’s Favorite Drive” would actually be longer than Virginia itself. Whether going end to end or picking a stretch for a day’s scenic drive, we enjoy getting on the Parkway to watch the hills and forests of the area go by. Plus, the Parkway is an ideal gateway to outdoor destinations such as the Peaks of Otter, Buck Mountain Trail, and a lot more. For close-to-town outdoor recreation, Explore Park offers trails, themed kid friendly special events like Illuminights and the T-Rex Trail, plus cabins and camping options if you want to stay overnight.
As soon as you reach Center in the Square’s second floor, the beeps, boops, and flashing lights of the Pinball Museum will greet you. Our kids had dabbled in pinball before, but a post-lunch pinball bash turned them into big fans. Wood and pin machines from the 1950s coexist with modern takes on the brand, including machines themed with Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, The Addams Family, and more.
Hint: Keep an eye out for a gentleman in glasses and a beret. Along with serving as the museum’s executive director, Nic Schell has a wealth of stories from his nationwide travels restoring pinball machines during what he calls his “North American Pinball Tour.”
It’s one thing to revisit your hometown with your kids, but what if you can revisit some of your favorite arcade games with them too? On the second floor of Downtown Roanoke’s Center in the Square, the STARCADE was a wonderful way to get some indoor downtime after outside adventures earlier in the day. (It’s also a good back-pocket option during bad weather.) We introduced the kids to some of our favorite arcade games, such as Skee-Ball, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Crystal Castles, and Dance Dance Revolution.
When Anthony’s dad offered to take the kids Friday morning, we parents jumped at the chance for an art museum date. The steel and glass of the Taubman rise up from the edge of Downtown Roanoke, evoking the surrounding mountains and the Roanoke Star. Inside, an 11-gallery adventure in world-class art awaits.
Among the permanent collection, keep an eye out for works from John Cage and John Singer Sargent. During our visit, we marveled at a temporary exhibition showcasing the role of just-up-the-road Natural Bridge in American 19th-century art. Nearby, some enthralling, whimsical canvases from Grandma Moses drew us in close. We’ve studied the art of Grandma Moses with Connor and Aster. Seeing her paintings here almost made us wish we’d brought the kids. Almost.
Hint: Head to the third-floor outdoor overlook for a couple’s selfie with downtown’s iconic neon signs.
Anthony’s uncle, Rudy, is an award-studded master homebrewer. A few years back, Rudy told us he was looking at opening a brewery. Let’s just say we were rather enthusiastic in our support.
Today, just across the 5th Street bridge from the downtown core, Twisted Track Brewpub offers not only a huge patio and an extensive menu of craft beer, cider, wine, and kombucha, but a robust, diverse food menu, all prepared in Twisted Track’s house kitchen.
Our favorite part, though, was not the delicious pretzels, Italian sub, or even the Stuck In Vienna Lager. It was the big shelf of games, toys, and books, perfect for engaging the kids at this family friendly brewpub.
Hint: Along with Twisted Track, check in to least 5 other local breweries on the VBR Cheers Trail and get a free Cheers Trail shirt!
In and around Roanoke: Honorable mentions
Here are a few other attractions, destinations, and places to eat to keep in mind for your family during your Roanoke vacation:
- Virginia Museum of Transportation
- O. Winston Link Museum & History Museum of Western Virginia
- Grandin Theatre
- The Pie Shoppe
- Southeast Roanoke River Greenway
- Deb’s Frozen Lemonade
- New York Pizza
- Brambleton Deli
- Bratcher’s Ice Cream Parlor
Virginia’s Blue Ridge and beyond: Day trips from the Roanoke area
Roanoke and the immediate vicinity offer your family an array of indoor and outdoor activities. However, it’s easy to go a little farther from town and have incredible day trips in the Blue Ridge area—and even a bit beyond.
Float the Upper James River with Twin River Outfitters
Just half an hour north of Roanoke and a few minutes off I-81, the small town of Buchanan lies nestled along the banks of the Upper James River. Twin River Outfitters is your local source for renting river-ready tubes, kayaks, rafts, and canoes (along with safety gear).
After flying across the country and having a big family reunion, we spent the next day on the river, just the four of us. While guided trips are available, Twin River staff shuttled us up to an upriver park and helped us get our tubes in the water (complete with lines for lashing our four tubes together for a true family float). On the water, calm and quiet settled over us. An occasional fish leaped up, shining silver against the green, forested river banks.
We loved our float so much, we went for a second—after a quick lunch stop at nearby North Star Restaurant.
Marvel at a natural national treasure at Natural Bridge State Park
A schoolkid growing up in Roanoke can expect many field trips to the area’s natural, cultural, and historical landmarks. Big on Anthony’s list to return to, and get to show the kids, was Natural Bridge. Minutes from Buchanan, you can easily combine a day’s river float with a wander under this 215-foot tall natural wonder.
Along with hiking trails and a replica Monacan Indian Village, a visit to Natural Bridge takes you to an esteemed member of America’s national treasures. During the 1800s, painters from all over the US flocked here to render the bridge in pigment and canvas. An original two-volume coffee table-style book, the 1872–1874 Picturesque America, even elevated Natural Bridge to the same lofty status as Niagara Falls.
Splash away at hot day at Smith Mountain Lake State Park
From fishing to skiing, canoeing to power boating, Smith Mountain Lake is a premier day trip or overnight destination when needing to cool off during a hot day. The state park area also offers boat rentals, a 500-foot public beach, and 13 hiking trails.
The lake is only about thirty minutes south of Roanoke. Build in time for other destinations along the western shore area such as the free Booker T. Washington National Monument, and an ice cream break at Homestead Creamery in nearby Wirtz.
D-Day was one of the most critical moments of the entire twentieth century. So if you’re wondering why D-Day’s official national memorial is located in the small town of Bedford, about forty minutes east of Roanoke, it’s a fair question—with a heart-wrenching answer.
Per capita, Bedford lost more hometown D-Day soldiers than anywhere else in the US. Whether to pay respects or to build on your children’s education, a visit to the D-Day Memorial can be a thought-provoking way to honor America’s veterans and show your kids a turning point in world history.
Day trips from Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge: Honorable mentions
Looking for a few more excursion ideas? Here are four other great destinations for a day trip or more:
A family vacation to Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge is full of things to do with kids
Anthony had always looked forward to exploring his hometown as a travel destination with his family. Over our week in Virginia’s Blue Ridge, we got to be out in nature and enjoy the attractions of the city. We visited places Anthony hadn’t been to since he was a child. Our kids experienced some of the many wonders that make the Roanoke area an amazing place to visit.
And even though we saw so much, we parents know that there will still be so many more new things for us to include on our next family vacation to Roanoke and Virginia’s Blue Ridge.