One of the best things about Roanoke, Virginia, is that it’s so essentially down-to-earth. You don’t have to be a glamazon to eat great food here, or to drink the local wine, or to rub elbows with the city’s best people. In fact, if you’re out and about on a budget, there are plenty of opportunities to experience the Star City’s very best.
Whether you’re a homegrown local or a pilgrim from far-flung locales, I hope you’ll try some of these special activities … for free!
1: Go Outside!!
It’s no secret that Roanoke’s best side is probably outside. Not sure where to start? Pack a picnic lunch and make a pilgrimage to the Roanoke Star, where you can see the city spread out before you in all directions, its streets spiderwebbing into the blue hills.
Hoping for something a little more active? Take a jog or a bike ride on the area greenways, which loop through many of the city’s prettiest parks and hug tight to the curves of the river — there’s even a kayak launch!
If you’re in the mood to get your heart pumping, the surrounding mountains are home to some of the best-loved hikes in the Blue Ridge, including McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth, Sharp Top and the Tinker Cliffs. Devil’s Marbleyard — a playground for adults who like to skitter and scramble — is an unmissable afternoon of fun.
And while you’re out and about, don’t miss the city’s annual Go Outside Festival each fall– a celebration of all things outdoors. You can catch rock climbing demonstrations, lumberjack chainsaw contests, high-flying agility dogs … all for free!
2: Catch a Free Flick
If you’ve never visited the historic Grandin Theatre in the Village … do! In addition to its general-admission selections, this small, cozy establishment hosts plenty of opportunities to enjoy film for free, from classic Saturday Matinee features, to indie reels and locally made documentaries. Check out the theatre’s calendar to see what’s showing next … including Marlon Brando’s classic On the Waterfront on Saturday the 12th — gratis.
Not had enough free movies? Check the events list on the Facebook page for Virginia Western Community College from time to time. The campus hosts a series of free-movie Fridays — open to all — each semester. Their last movie for Fall 2016, The Magnificent Seven, plays on December 2, and you can find the full details here.
3: Stage a Photo Shoot at the top of Center in the Square
Right in the middle of downtown Roanoke, you’ll find the city’s unique Center in the Square building — home to four museums and a theatre … and — yes! — there really is a pinball museum!
But here’s a little secret: while all these (legitimately wonderful) museums charge admission, you don’t have to spend a *dime* to enjoy the view from the stunning rooftop garden. Just take the staircase or the elevator all the way to the top, and then aim your camera in just about any direction … What a view!
Once you’re done snapping, go back downstairs to the atrium and press your face against the glass at the aquarium. Guaranteed to make you smile!
4: Strike a Pose … a Yoga Pose, that is!
Free Yoga for the People is a series of one-hour yoga sessions held in public spaces, twice a week. Check this Facebook page for more information, or call (54o) 588-8558.
5: Cozy Up at the Library
I’ll tell you a little secret: T and I *love* spending dreary Saturday afternoons at the South County Library, where there’s a roaring fire, a perfect jumble of fabulous magazines, and of course … books! The mountain view from the giant windows is particularly picturesque as the snow skitters and swirls against bare black tree limbs … but just as pretty when the hills burst into pink clouds in spring.
When the weather’s nice, we amble along the walking trails out back, and — when we’ve got a little change jingling in our coat pockets — we treat ourselves to a cup of joe at the little coffeeshop in the lobby.
Bonus: the SoCo Library also hosts a series of monthly Movies for Grownups in its theatre… all for free!
If you’re not near the SoCo branch, explore one of the valley’s other great locations. You can find the full list of city locations here, the Salem location here, and the County locations here. The libraries are linked to make lending easier.
6: Meet Other Bookworms with Roanoke Valley Reads
Speaking of literature … Every October, our little city collectively reads a single special book … then meets in small groups to discuss.
The month culminates in a free community reading with the author, historically held at the Jefferson Center. So far, the city has played host to the likes of David Baldacci (Wish You Well), Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) and Beth Macy (Factory Man) … and this year, there’s Amy Waldman, author of The Submission.
Bookmark this site and check back in time for next October … it’s a great way to meet other readers in the valley!
7: Enjoy Live Theatre
Roanoke is home to numerous performing arts groups, and many host at least one or two free performances per year.
Mill Mountain Theatre is probably the best known, and the organization’s Young Audiences series features free and pay-what-you-will shows. Each summer, the Theatre also hosts its free and tremendously popular Overnight Sensations program — a lineup of short performances written, rehearsed and performed in just 24 hours.
8: Mix, Mingle and Enjoy the Art
Roanoke’s local art museum, the Taubman, keeps its doors open for free year-round … but if you’re an art lover, downtown Roanoke is an especially fun place to mix and mingle on first Fridays each month, when a number of the downtown galleries stay open late for those who can’t typically make it during the day. This no-cover “art crawl” is called Art By Night, and it’s a great way to experience the local art scene in a way that feels welcoming and unpretentious.
The museum itself often hosts a little live music on this night, or a special exhibition or speaker, with refreshments available for purchase.
9: Stay Smart and Cultured at Hollins University
True story? I *almost* attended Hollins University back when I was in undergrad, and every once in awhile I get the yen to go back…if for no other reason than to catch a great reading or art installation. The college is home to *lots* of thoughtful, creative people, and it opens its doors to the community on many occasions … most of them free.
There’s a series of wonderful free literary readings, student recitals in music and dance, and of course, the college’s Eleanor D. Wilson Museum — a lovely arts center open to the community with free events.
Bookmark Hollins’ events calendar here.
10: Take a Drive on the Parkway!
Okay, so I admit … This one *might* cost you a little dough for gas money … But there are few more exhilarating (and romantic) ways to spend the day than easing your car up the sides of the mountains and then roaring over the ridgetops, enjoying the stellar view.
In the fall, the foliage near the Blue Ridge Parkway flames red and orange and burnt sienna.
And on a cold winter night … oh, my stars. (Literally.)
There are several scenic overlooks where you can pull off and snap a few fabulous photos … or perhaps steal a kiss.
So what do *you* love to do for free, Roanoke? I’d love to know!