Families and vacations go together like milk and cookies. Taking a break from your regular routines and engaging in shared activities and adventures with your kids is a cherished part of life as a family.
Luckily, there are a wealth of family vacation options across the U.S. Whether you choose a place of awesome natural beauty like the Grand Canyon, a history-filled urban vacation in Boston, or romping on the beach in San Diego, the memories will last a lifetime.
Read on and get acquainted with 14 of the most popular family vacation spots in the U.S.
1. Washington, D.C.
A visit to our nation’s capital is a must for families. Free museums and important monuments are fun and educational. The city is rich in history, yet it feels relevant. Take the time to explore both venerable and new attractions.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s official dedication took place in 2016. This absorbing collection includes thousands of objects from pre-Diaspora to the present, covering 400-plus years of the African American experience. Admission is free, but you will need a reservation.
Other popular Smithsonian museums include the National Museum of American History with its fine collection of pop culture memorabilia (including Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz movie) and the National Air and Space Museum. Both are free.
The National Zoo, one of the oldest zoos in the country, is a winner. It’s home to animals large and small, though the Giant Pandas steal the show. Admission is free.
Where to Stay: The Willard InterContinental swims in history. President Franklin Pierce was the hotel’s first presidential patron, President-elect Abraham Lincoln took up residence for 10 days prior to his inauguration, and Martin Luther King Jr. edited his “I Have a Dream” speech in the lobby. There’s a dedicated children’s concierge for the utmost in personalized service.
2. Grand Canyon, AZ
One of the seven natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon should be on every traveler’s bucket list. The South Rim is home to the tourist infrastructure of Grand Canyon Village and arguably, the best views.
Rim Trail connects a series of scenic overlooks. It’s over a dozen miles long, mostly paved and without significant changes in elevation. Clearly marked bus stops scattered along the way offer the flexibility to combine hiking-specific sections with riding the efficient free shuttle when little legs need a rest.
The canyon’s otherworldly rock formations, striking color palette and jaw-dropping size and depth should get kids wondering just how it was formed. A stop at the Yavapai Geology Museum answers some of these geological mysteries. Displays include interpretive panels and detailed 3D models.
Where to Stay: El Tovar is dramatically perched on the canyon’s South Rim. It enjoys a rustic dignity and individually appointed rooms and suites. Public spaces include a piano that illustrious guests, including former Beatle Paul McCartney, have played.
3. Boston, MA
With historic attractions and interactive museums, Boston wins accolades. Compact and walkable, it’s easy to explore.
At the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, re-enact a seminal moment in U.S. history when you board one of the restored sailing vessels and throw tea into the very same body of water where the Boston Tea Party took place in 1773. Live re-enactors, high-tech exhibits, historic artifacts and a film presentation add up to an engaging and a highly interactive way to examine the American Revolution.
The New England Aquarium is home to approximately 800 sea species. Time your visit for one of the numerous daily feedings, when divers dramatically plunge in and serve an aquatic feast to the creatures who call this tank home. Dozens of windows and viewing bays at different levels makes it possible for even tiny visitors to get a good look.
At the Museum of Science, inquisitive young minds will find hundreds of interactive exhibits. For tiny tots, the enclosed Children’s Discovery Center offers a safe space complete with live animals. The popular dinosaur exhibit includes a full-size model of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Live presentations and helpful interpreters enhance the experience.
Where to Stay: The Boston Harbor Hotel is a waterfront property with views of Boston Harbor. An indoor pool, delicious onsite dining options and a free Summer in the City entertainment series add to the fun.
4. Orlando, FL
With its legendary theme parks, Orlando is a dream vacation for many families. The rides and attractions at Disney World, Universal Studios, LEGOLAND, Sea World and other parks offer nonstop fun.
If you need a break from Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter, try an activity that feels miles away from the crowds. At Orlando Tree Trek, giant ziplines, suspended bridges and swinging surprises will get your adrenaline pumping. This elevated obstacle course is designed for all ages and fitness levels. Trained instructors give each participants a thorough safety demonstration and lend a helping hand throughout the adventure.
Where to Stay: Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center has live alligators, turtles, ponds and lush gardens beneath its sparkling glass atrium. Pools and a water park round out the fun.
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5. Niagara Falls, NY
Niagara Falls is Mother Nature’s masterpiece. Ride the Maid of the Mist for an exciting 30-minute boat tour. The seaworthy vessel zips past the thundering rush of water, spraying a powerful blast of mist directly on you. You’re sure to get wet despite the rain poncho you’re provided.
The falls are located within Niagara Falls State Park, with 400 acres of diverse terrain and wildlife. Stroll through the park or ride the cute trolley. Let the kids stay up late and watch the fireworks display over the falls, weather permitting.
If your family enjoys interactive history, drop by Old Fort Niagara. You’ll chat with busy tradesman, including blacksmiths and trappers, and watch battles re-enacted in the summer months.
Where to Stay: The Sheraton Niagara Falls is just steps from the falls. The indoor pool offers hours of weatherproof fun.
6. Los Angeles, CA
Visiting Los Angeles’ miles of sun-kissed beaches and numerous theme parks could keep a family busy for weeks, but there’s another side to this city that is worth exploring. Downtown has become a hotspot for families.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles is a perennial favorite. Labs offer glimpses of actual scientists at work while the Gem and Mineral Hall showcases sparkling rubies, diamonds and sapphires. The Butterfly and Spider Pavilions are open seasonally. The Nature Garden allows you to explore plant and wildlife without leaving the city.
Griffith Park is approximately 20 minutes from downtown. Spanning over 4,200 acres, it’s one of the largest urban parks in the United States, home to the Los Angeles Zoo and the Griffith Observatory. Travel Town Museum, with its dozens of railroad engines and miniature ride-on trains, will delight young train buffs. Horseback riding and cycling are active ways to enjoy the park.
Where to Stay: The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites presents a sleek ambiance in the heart of downtown LA. The resort-style heated swimming pool is a great place for the kids to splash after a day of sightseeing.
7. Branson, MO
With its theme parks, live entertainment and nearby nature, Branson is a top family vacation destination.
Silver Dollar City is a stellar theme park. Just in time for its 60th anniversary, the park is opening a new ride, Mystic River Falls. The park is known for its entertainment and food, including mouth-watering red velvet funnel cake and a new BBQ restaurant. There are 100 working craftsmen in the park so you may watch them at work creating hand-blown glass, natural soap and much more.
Don’t pass up the chance to browse the aisles at Dick’s 5 & 10 in the old downtown. It’s one of the last remaining “dime stores” in the United States. Kids will gravitate to the candy aisle, but there are fascinating knick-knacks hiding in every nook and cranny of this retro gem.
Along the waterfront in downtown is where you’ll find the Fountain Show at Branson Landing. These flaming fountains appear to dance, providing a fun show before, during or after dinner at this restaurant and shopping complex.
Where to Stay: Chateau on the Lake looks like a castle on the hill. Spectacular views over one of Branson’s lovely lakes and an ice cream shop onsite sweeten the deal.
8. San Diego, CA
San Diego’s fabulous beaches and family-friendly cultural activities pack plenty of vacation punch.
Balboa Park is ground-zero for fun. It’s home to the San Diego Zoo, considered one of the best in the world. Thousands of animals representing hundreds of species make their home here.
The San Diego Museum of Man and the San Diego Natural History Museum are also situated in Balboa Park, so you could easily spend an entire day here.
When it comes to beaches you’ll have your pick, though the sandy swath at Coronado Beach is hard to beat.
Active families can rent wheels and helmets and pedal San Diego’s numerous car-free bike paths.
Where to Stay: The Hilton San Diego Bayfront features a gigantic salt-water pool and a kid-zone pool with a slide. It’s a five-minute walk from San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, where you’ll find shops, eateries and Petco Park, home of baseball’s Padres.
9. New York, NY
The Big Apple is big fun for little visitors. There’s so much to do in this stimulating city that never sleeps.
The American Museum of Natural History’s permanent collection is world-class. Highlights include the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life, home to a 21,000-pound model of a blue whale suspended from the ceiling that locals refer to as Baby Beluga. The Rose Center for Earth and Space includes the Hayden Planetarium and numerous exhibits that explore stars, galaxies and planets.
New York City is famous for its skyscrapers. For unobstructed skyline views, don’t miss Top of the Rock. With decks on the 67th, 69th, and 70th floors, visitors have their pick of towering panoramas. On a clear day, Central Park and the George Washington Bridge are visible to the north. Look south for a sweeping vista of iconic skyscrapers, including an up-close look at the Empire State Building and a glimpse of the Chrysler Building.
Kids who enjoy performing arts will never forget the thrill of seeing a Broadway show; budding fashionistas can window shop on 5th Avenue. When you need a break from the urban pace, Central Park is a respite with playgrounds, a carousel, a fishing lake, a boating lake and miles of shady paths.
10. San Francisco, CA
The City by the Bay is a favorite with kids and their parents. Ride a cable car, stroll Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoy the carousel at Golden Gate Park.
The Exploratorium is one of the best hands-on museums anywhere in the country. Children may tinker with hundreds of exhibits that challenge human perception and teach how everyday objects work.
The California Academy of Sciences is another mecca of fun and learning. It’s a combination aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and natural history museum. Sustainability is its core so you won’t want to miss visiting its Living Roof.
This city is a haven for foodies, serving up everything from mouth-watering Ghiradelli chocolate to authentic dumplings at the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.
11. Myrtle Beach, SC
Myrtle Beach is a classic seaside vacation. The town aims to include families of all sorts with a special focus on accommodating visitors who are on the autism spectrum.
The boardwalk has been updated and expanded in recent years. It’s a patchwork of arcades, shopping, dining and entertainment. It’s where you’ll find the SkyWheel, a coastal Ferris Wheel that should delight youngsters. The beach has soft, tan-colored sand perfect for building sandcastles. With more than 50 courses, Myrtle Beach is considered the “Mini Golf Capital of the World.”
There are many fine family attractions. For animal lovers, Ripley’s Aquarium has recently added Penguin Playhouse with a nursery filled with baby penguins.
Brookgreen Gardens is known for its massive outdoor sculpture garden, coastal zoo, and adorable Enchanted Storybook Forest.
If you’re looking for kid-perfect live entertainment, the Pirate’s Voyage is a fun dinner theater experience.
Where to Stay: Coral Beach Resort and Suites is a modern beachfront hotel just a mile from the boardwalk. Indoor and outdoor pools, a water park, game room and bowling alleys provide plenty of fun.
12. Honolulu, HI
This multi-cultural Hawaiian capital is a vacation winner. No Aloha State holiday is complete without spending time at the beach. Ala Moana Beach Park is a long, flat stretch with lifeguards, restrooms, concessions and calm surf thanks to protection from the reef.
As glorious as the beaches are, the state’s distinct folklore and traditions are fascinating. Learn about Hawaiian history and culture at the Bishop Museum.
The Honolulu Zoo enjoys beautifully landscaped grounds. Watch a flock of pink flamingos and Asian elephants at play. The zoo is adjacent to 300-acre Kapiolani Park, a great place for the kids to run around.
For hands-on play, the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center encourages kids to use all of their senses as they engage in open-ended activities including literacy and art projects.
Where to Stay: The beachfront Kahala Hotel is located in an upscale residential section of Honolulu. The kids’ club offers Hawaii-themed activities such as hula dance lessons and lei-making.
13. Williamsburg, VA
Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history museum in the country. Roam the cobblestone streets and mingle with costumed interpreters who look plucked from the 18th century. Dozens of craft demos, including cooking, basket weaving, wig-making and blacksmithing, take place daily. Horse-drawn carriages, not cars, dominate so it looks exactly like it must have in Colonial times. Take it to another level and rent 18th century costumes for the entire family.
When the kids crave 21st century thrills, Busch Garden boasts epic roller coasters as well as gentle rides for tots. Kings Dominion is another terrific theme park for kids of all ages.
Where to Stay: The sprawling Kingsmill Resort offers golf, swimming pools, a lazy river, bike trails, tennis and parent’s night out when adults want a child-free evening.
14. Yellowstone, WY
The world’s first national park is a first-rate family vacation. Miles of lakes, waterfalls, majestic mountains and some 10,000 geysers and hot springs paint a stunning panorama.
The Old Faithful geyser erupts every 45 minutes or so, so catching a bubbling, hissing eruption is guaranteed. It draws a big crowd so get there early in the day for a prime viewing spot.
The park’s 900 miles of trails includes some excellent hikes for youngsters. The Yellowstone Lake Overlook is an easy 2-mile hike. The park is a wildlife haven so be on the lookout for large mammals, such as grizzly bears and elk, as you pass open meadows and forests.
Ranger-led programs, such as wildlife talks and guided hikes, abound. They are free of charge and many are geared to children.
Where to Stay: Canyon Lodge and Cabins is the largest overnight facility in the park. Rooms and cabins are comfortably furnished in a simple, rustic style. It’s centrally located near Canyon Village.
Allison Tibaldi is a travel writer based in New York City. With her husband and two kids, she has lived in Rome; Tuscany; Melbourne, Australia; Toronto; and Los Angeles. She studied early childhood development in graduate school and believes that travel is an important part of education. She writes for CNN, TravelChannel.com, HGTV, USA TODAY, Time Out New York, am New York, Family Traveller, Family Travel Forum, Travel Weekly, off Metro and numerous other publications. Follow her @gourmetrav.
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