Encompassing 43 square miles, with a population right around 100,000, Roanoke is the largest city on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with loads of great shopping, museums, and other attractions.
In our eyes, Roanoke is one of the must-see mountain towns for anyone taking a Blue Ridge Parkway road trip.
Arguably among the best places to start exploring Downtown Roanoke is a massive complex known as Center In The Square, which is located right in the heart of the city.
It’s an absolute whale of a fun time (including arcades, aquariums, and various family-friendly museums) disguised as an educational experience.
Center In The Square is also a hub for regional arts and an inclusive celebration of local culture, providing free space to 12 different non-profit organizations in five buildings.
Read on for our in-depth guide to the best things to do at Center In The Square, which is arguably among the top Roanoke attractions to visit!
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Center In The Square Info
ADDRESS: 1 Market Square, Roanoke VA 24011
HOURS: Mon 10:00 am – 5 pm; Tues- Sat 10:00 am – 8:00 pm; Sun 1:00 pm – 6:00 pm
ADMISSION: The Atrium Aquariums and Rooftop & Observation Deck are free. Museums are priced separately (around $10 each), or they can be visited on discounted combination passes.
DIRECTIONS FROM BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY SOUTH OF ROANOKE: Turn left onto State Rte 690 and follow it for 2.8 miles to US-221 N. Turn right and go 3.1 miles to Colonial Ave, where you’ll make another right.
Follow Colonial for 0.8 miles and turn right on Electric Rd, then go 1.8 miles and use right lane to take the US-220 N/I-581 ramp to I-81. Merge onto US-220 N and go 3.3 miles to exit 6 for VA-24/Elm Ave toward Vinton.
Use the middle lane to turn left onto VA-24 W/Elm Ave W, then turn right at the 2nd cross street onto Williamson Rd SE. In 0.4 miles, turn left onto Campbell Ave SE, then a quick left onto Market St SE.
DIRECTIONS FROM BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY NORTH OF ROANOKE: Turn left to merge onto VA-24 W/E Washington Ave toward Vinton/Roanoke. In 1.9 miles, continue straight onto E Washington Ave.
In 0.8 miles, turn left onto S Maple St, then make a quick right onto E Lee Ave, followed by a quick left onto Railroad Ave/Walnut Ave.
Follow Walnut Ave another 0.8 miles, then continue onto Wise Ave SE for 0.9 miles, where it turns left and becomes Norfolk Ave SE.
Continue onto Campbell Ave SE for 0.7 miles, then turn left onto Market St SE.
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History of Center in the Square
Much like Asheville NC, Downtown Roanoke had reached a point of desolation by the early 1970s, with crumbling infrastructure and growing issues with crime.
Driving the effort to revitalize the city center, the Western Virginia Foundation for Arts and Sciences opened the Center In The Square in 1983 as an educational and cultural hub.
It was originally located in a converted feed-and-seed warehouse. In exchange for two years of free rent, five non-profits—The Arts Council, The Art Museum, Mill Mountain Theatre, The History Museum, and The Science Museum— relocated to the Center to aid in the revitalization effort.
Nearly 50,000 visitors came to the Center In The Square’s opening weekend. Over the next three decades, the Center expanded to five separate buildings and a dozen different non-profits, all of which were housed rent-free.
Along with its beneficiary organizations, Center In The Square now creates more than $30 million of economic impact in Roanoke every year. But this monumental growth has not been without its struggles.
In 1992, the Commonwealth of Virginia stopped funding the foundation, halting some $600,000 of annual support.
Center In The Square staff had to be cut down by nearly 75%. Rather than relying on donations, the Center began selling services such as IT, marketing, and accounting to local non-profits at affordable rates.
In the early 2010s, after almost 30 years of operation, Center In The Square needed serious infrastructure updates.
Local businesses contributed to keep the community benefits intact, funding six new aquariums in the atrium, an eco-friendly rooftop spot, and an overall expansion of facilities.
To keep itself financially secure, Center In The Square developed a “Get Schooled!” program for low-cost student field trips, and created the Roanoke Pinball Museum, Roanoke STARCADE, and Kids Square to provide a steady income stream.
Things to Do at Center In The Square
It’s impossible to visit Center In The Square and miss the aquariums. They’re located right near the entrance, bubbling and gurgling away in the atrium.
The Living Coral Reef Aquarium holds 8,000 gallons, making it the largest of its type in the Mid-Atlantic Region. It’s home to some 250 colorful fish and 150 corals, and represents one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet!
Other cool aquariums on site include “Predators of the Amazon” and “Turtles of Virginia.”
“The Chomp Tank” has lots of aggressive marine fish, such as the invasive Lionfish and Pufferfish. There’s also a Moon Jellyfish tank, as well as a Koi pond on the roof. All of these aquariums are free for visitors to appreciate.
Rooftop & Observation Decks
On the Center’s 6th and 7th floors, you’ll find a green, energy-efficient technology display (yet another learning opportunity) that meets the highest standards in sustainability.
Aside from the aforementioned Koi pond, the roof also features observation decks that offer incredible vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Roanoke Valley.
There’s a hidden garden dome extending from the 5th floor, and one observation deck provides a cool view clear down into the atrium.
There’s a plant wall on the rooftop, as well as solar panels and solar tubes. The sixth floor has floor-to-ceiling windows, and the seventh (the rooftop) features beautiful gardens sprinkled throughout.
When the space isn’t rented out for special events (such as weddings), the rooftop and observation decks are free and open to the public.
The Roanoke Pinball Museum
The Roanoke Pinball Museum offers a wonderful mix of culture, education, and (mostly) downright fun. And spending time exploring the museum illustrates just how in-tune pinball has been with popular culture throughout the decades.
Some of the old fashioned machines in the place date back to the early 1930s, but they also have some modern machines as well.
In total, there are over 60 pinball machines that can be played as many times as you want for the price of admission. Tickets for a 2-hour time slot are $12.50 for ages 11 and up, or $9 for ages 10 and under with a paying adult.
Aside from being fun to play, with their quirky noises and colorful lights, the machines are chosen for their cultural significance and maintained to be in working order.
There is even an SOL-compliant school curriculum and resources to help students appreciate the history, science, artwork, and technological advancement of these modern American artifacts.
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With its attention primarily focused on kids under age 10, Kids Square is a unique museum that will have children chomping at the bit to learn by using the interactive exhibits to perform adult tasks and explore far-off places.
There’s a kids-sized town with a bank, clinic, schools, dentist office, restaurant, supermarket, and so on where little ones can do role-playing in these everyday settings.
Each display has a little something to teach them about the related topics, such as oral hygiene or money.
The Forest is a huge pretend forest with trees, campsites, and footbridges. The Theatre welcomes kids to perform plays. There’s a Sensory Hallway and a Sensory Hideout, as well as a Glow Room for kids to appreciate glow-in-the-dark magic.
In essence, it’s like a huge playground with equipment that ever so gently hints at learning about stuff.
The Roanoke STARCADE
The Roanoke STARCADE is pun-tastically named after the famous Roanoke Star, an iconic part of the Roanoke landscape for over half a century now. The STARCADE encompasses 3,000 square feet of tightly-packed arcade fun.
The space is filled with classic arcade games from the ’80s, like Pole Position, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Asteroids. There are also more contemporary classics, such as Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution.
In addition to video games, there are also classic arcade options like Skee Ball, Air Hockey, and Super Shot. There are even a few home video game consoles with numerous games to choose from.
Stepping into the facility will instantly transport adults back to childhood, with twinkling lights that can’t help but widen the eyes of any child who’s lucky enough to tag along.
There are family passes available, as well as annual memberships for frequent visitors and/or residents of Roanoke.
Harrison Museum of African American Culture
For those interested in digging into the rich culture of Appalachia and Virginia’s Roanoke Valley, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture explores a side of local history that has historically been overlooked.
The museum is filled with photo and memorabilia from African-American communities in and around Roanoke, including looks into early African-American schools, hospitals, and civic contributions.
There are also videos featuring oral recollections of elder members of the local communities.
The Harrison Museum celebrates contemporary African-American culture as well, showcasing artwork from local artists and hosting an ongoing speaker series.
Additionally, the museum organizes an annual Henry Street Heritage Festival with music, education, arts, food, and more. Check out the Harrison Museum website for various virtual events.
Mill Mountain Theatre
The Mill Mountain Theatre provides quality theatrical and musical productions that aim to educate locals and engage the community in the joy of live performance. It’s an effort to cultivate both the arts and the audience.
The Mill Mountain Theatre began in 1964, when two New York-based producers established a summer theatre in a vacant resort at the highest point in Roanoke VA. It was dubbed the Mill Mountain Playhouse.
That theatre burned down in 1976, so the company moved to the Grandin Theatre in Historic Grandin Village.
In 1983, the company found a second home at Center In The Square, reclaiming its history by becoming the Mill Mountain Theatre.
Mill Mountain has staged over 400 productions and is highly respected in both the region and the country. In addition to plays, there are year-round classes, lectures, and workshops designed to promote the performing arts.
Science Museum of Western Virginia
Another great time for the kids, the Science Museum of Western Virginia provides an eclectic look at science, from biology and human analogy to space travel.
Engaging exhibits teach children about life as an astronaut, the nuances of fungi, the systems of the human body, and the secrets of a healthy planet, to name just a few.
The museum is filled with interactive elements and hidden nooks with exciting discoveries.
There are exhibits for kids of all ages, including some designed especially for children on the autistic spectrum. It’s an entertaining environment wrapped up in the nuts and bolts of science.
Admission to the Science Museum of Western Virginia also includes entry into The Hidden Garden, which was previously known as the Butterfly Garden, but has now been refocused on food science and horticulture. –by Jonathon Engels; all photos by Emma Gallagher unless otherwise noted; lead image courtesy Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge