Maybe these cities have never screamed “family vacation” to you, or they just never came to mind when planning your next trip. Well guess what? These hidden gems offer all kinds of kid-friendly fun, from imaginative play spaces and hands-on animal encounters to unique festivals and offbeat roadside attractions. Consider these under-the-radar cities the next time you’re looking for a new long weekend or vacation destination.
1. Abilene, TX
Abilene is home to the largest public collection of storybook character sculptures in the United States, so it’s not surprising that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently gave the Texas city the right to call itself “The Storybook Capital of America.” You’ll run into depictions of well-known characters like the Cat in the Hat, Stuart Little, and the Three Little Pigs as you explore the city. Keep the story going with a visit to the free National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, which displays a collection of original storybook art and offers free family art activities on Saturdays.
The city looks back on its Lone Star State past at Frontier Texas, an interactive history museum where kids can experience a virtual buffalo stampede and prairie thunderstorm at the Frontier Experience Theater. At the walkable Abilene Zoo, visitors can feed giraffes and see cougars, river otters, and other animals native to Texas, including the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. And the second floor of the city’s Grace Museum houses a children’s museum with lots of hands-on fun plus a special area for kids under age 4.
Recommended Hotel: Courtyard Abilene Southwest
2. Long Beach, WA
Located in the southwest corner of Washington state on its namesake peninsula, Long Beach has been drawing visitors to the Northwest coast since the 19th century. As its name suggests, you can get out on the sand here or take in Pacific Ocean views from the low-key, half-mile Long Beach Boardwalk.
Its four-block-long downtown is home to sweet spots like the landmark Cottage Bakery and the action-packed Fun Beach Speedway go-kart track and Funland arcade center. The World Kite Museum features a collection of more than 1,500 kites from 26 countries and hosts the annual Washington State International Kite Festival during the third week of August. At the Cranberry Museum, families can tour a bog and delve into the history of the all-American fruit.
Long Beach is also home to some quirky attractions kids will love, like Marsh’s Free Museum that’s filled with a sizable taxidermy collection, America’s largest collection of fishing glass floats, and all kinds of other oddities. Long Beach also lays claim to the World’s Largest Chopsticks and the self-proclaimed World’s Largest Frying Pan, which make for good photo ops. The frying pan first appeared almost 80 years ago to promote the Long Beach Razor Clam Festival, still a popular annual event in these parts.
Recommended Hotel: Lighthouse Oceanfront Resort
3. Valparaiso, IN
In February 2019, Indiana Dunes National Park became the country’s 61st national park and the first in the state of Indiana. Valparaiso makes a great home base for exploring the 15,000 acres on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, where families can swim, hike, fish, bike, and even snowshoe in the winter.
College hoops fans will know Valparaiso from its March Madness appearances. But there’s more to the university than basketball. Its Brauer Museum of Art, for example, houses a collection of more than 5,000 pieces of art from the mid-19th century to today, including works by accessible-to-kids artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and Ansel Adams.
But families should also get to know Valparaiso because of places like the retro 49’er Drive-in Theatre, Valpo Velvet Ice Cream (a downtown dessert favorite for more than 70 years), and Gabis Arboretum at Purdue Northwest, a 300-acre site with exhibits like the Railway Garden, with its outdoor model train and the new TreeSong Music Garden filled with outdoor instruments. During the summer, Broken Wagon Bison Farm offers tours where visitors can observe its 70-strong herd, then enjoy a complimentary stick of bison jerky. And September’s annual Valparaiso Popcorn Festival features a popcorn parade and other activities honoring native son and kernel king, Orville Redenbacher.
Recommended Hotel: Hampton Inn and Suites Valparaiso
4. Fort Bragg, CA
Located on California’s Mendocino Coast about 150 miles north of San Francisco, Fort Bragg is home to bucket-list-worthy Glass Beach, where trash that was dumped into the ocean in the early 20th century (before everyone knew better) has turned into smooth sea glass treasures that have washed up on the beach. Search for rare “ruby reds” (from auto taillights) or sapphire pieces from apothecary bottles. (Note: You can hunt, examine, and snap photos as much as you like, but visitors are prohibited from taking sea glass from the beach, which is located within MacKerricher State Park.) To learn more about what you found, visit the city’s International Sea Glass Museum with more than 3,000 pieces on display.
Families can explore the coast on boat and kayak tours, where they might spot sea lions and other wildlife, then learn more about what they saw at the Noyo Center for Marine Science’s Crow’s Nest Interpretive Center. Or they can hop aboard the Skunk Train, which has been traveling through the area’s redwood groves since 1885 (and got its name from the smell of its gas-powered engines combined with its crude oil–burning pot-bellied stoves), or pedal the route themselves on the unique Skunk Train Rail Bikes. Families with kids ages 6 and older can also go horseback riding on the beach with tour operators like Ricochet Ridge Ranch.
Recommended Hotel: The Beachcomber Motel and Spa on the Beach
5. Winston-Salem, NC
Winston-Salem’s roots date back to colonial times, when Moravians first settled in the city back in 1753. Kids can step back into the past at the Old Salem Museums & Gardens, a living history site where they can learn about life in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Make sure to take a photo with the giant coffee pot.) To taste your way through history, sample foods associated with the city like Moravian cookies and sugar cake on the self-guided Historic Moravian Culinary Trail.
At the Kaleideum Downtown, little ones can climb a two-story beanstalk, explore an enchanted forest, and pretend they’re working in a Krispy Kreme doughnut factory. (Winston-Salem is the birthplace of these oh-so-tasty “hot now” treats.) Sister site Kaleideum North offers STEM-related exhibits and a planetarium.
See what’s biting at Salem Lake, or discover what’s growing in the gardens at Historic Bethabara Park. In the Downtown Arts District, families can check out the colorful murals painted around the city or take part in the First Friday Gallery Hop. Little speed demons might enjoy the Winston Cup Museum, where race cars driven by legends like Dale Earnhardt, Sr. are on display.
Recommended Hotel: Kimpton Cardinal Hotel
6. Tulsa, OK
Tulsa’s Gathering Place park was recently named the best new attraction in the country by USA Today. And it’s not hard to see why: The sprawling (and free) park along the Arkansas River features a boathouse, skate park, gardens, nature trail, and all kinds of family-friendly fun. Young visitors can zoom through Slide Vale’s four slides, cool off at the Mist Mountain splash area, and enjoy the view of downtown Tulsa from the swings at Swing Hill (the highest point in the park). At the five-acre Chapman Adventure Playground, kids can climb, slide, and scramble across suspension bridges through areas with names like Land of the River Giants and Skywalk Forest that help imaginations run wild (and okay, maybe the kids too).
Tulsa’s also home to a zoo with a new exhibit area for tigers, snow leopards, and other Asian animals and the Discovery Lab children’s museum, where kids can navigate tunnels and a 30-foot slide made entirely of packing tape. The newish Tulsa Botanic Garden includes a whimsical Children’s Discovery Garden, with a Stream Valley section featuring spitting statues and an art wall that can be painted with water and a tree fort located at its highest point. When the kids get hungry, take them to the Mother Road Market for tacos, pizza, barbecue, ice cream, and other eats from some 20 different vendors. Then burn off the meal at the site’s nine-hole mini-golf course themed with Route 66 landmarks.
Recommend Hotel: The Mayo Hotel
7. Springfield, IL
Illinois’s state capital offers lots of ways to learn about its most famous past resident, who happens to be the 16th U.S. president. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum uses interactive exhibits, holographic displays, and an extensive collection of artifacts to trace the life story of Honest Abe. Kids will enjoy the Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic section of the museum, where they can play with reproduction toys, try on period clothing, and get their pictures taken with a life-sized model of Lincoln as a boy. Families can also tour the Lincoln Home National Historic Site (where Abe lived before he moved to the White House), visit his tomb, and see the train depot where he gave one of his most famous speeches.
But there’s more to love about this city besides Lincoln. Younger kiddos can ride the Zoo Choo Train at Henson Robinson Zoo, home to more than 80 species of animals. And kids of all ages will have fun at Knights Action Park, with its driving range, batting cages, eight waterslides, and wave pool. Wannabe politicians can visit the governor’s mansion, current state capitol, and Old State Capitol site, while budding architects can tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House. The city’s also home to Route 66 landmarks like the Cozy Dog Drive In, serving up battered hot dogs on a stick, and the Route 66 Twin Drive-In movie theater.
Recommended Hotel: President Abraham Lincoln Springfield — a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel
8. Columbia, SC
As the state capital of South Carolina, Columbia’s history stretches back to the 1700s. But this city (the second largest in the state) also has plenty of modern-day appeal for traveling families. Visit the Soda City Market, which takes place every Saturday morning and offers some 150 vendors selling food and crafts. The EdVenture children’s museum features exhibits where kids can pretend to be veterinarians, farmers, or firefighters. Its 40-foot-tall ambassador, Eddie, is the world’s largest 10-year-old “boy” that kids can climb inside of to learn how the human body works.
Riverbanks Zoo & Garden is home to more than 2,000 animals, and its Waterfall Junction offers a fun spot for cooling down on a hot day, with a 25-foot cascade, life-size T-Rex replica, and tree houses and other hiding places. Search the stars at the planetarium and Boeing Observatory at the South Carolina State Museum, which also features exhibits on fossils, military history, and other subjects. At the Columbia Museum of Art, families can complete a scavenger hunt through the galleries or check out a backpack filled with interactive activities that help little ones appreciate the works on display. And Columbia is close to Congaree National Park, home to the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States.
Recommended Hotel: Hyatt Place Columbia / Downtown / The Vista
9. Wichita, KS
With its middle-of-the-country location, Wichita is easy to get to from almost everywhere in the United States. Families should consider a trip to check out spots like Tanganyika Wildlife Park, where visitors can have hands-on encounters with lemurs, pygmy hippos, lories, giraffes, and other creatures, and the Museum of World Treasures, which displays everything from dinosaur fossils (like Ivan, one of the most complete T-rex skeletons in the world) and military artifacts to Egyptian mummies and African masks.
The Downing Children’s Garden at Botanica Wichita includes a treehouse and musical maze, while the “Ring of Fire” is lit for 15 minutes each night at the Keeper of the Plains Plaza. Take a free Family ArtVenture tour on the fourth Saturday of the month at the Wichita Art Museum (where general admission is always free on Saturdays) or experience life on the frontier at the Old Cowtown Museum. If the kids need to burn off some energy, the Great Plains Nature Center includes Chisholm Creek Park, one of the largest parks in Wichita with more than 2 miles of trails.
Recommended Hotel: Hyatt Regency Wichita
10. Milwaukee, WI
Located on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Milwaukee makes for a fun-filled Midwest family getaway. Start with a trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum, whose stunning Quadracci Pavilion would make an eye-catching backdrop for a family photo. Admission is always free for kids 12 and under, and daily drop-in activities and experiences help guide families through the collection of some 30,000 works.
At the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum, kids can virtually customize and ride a Harley-Davidson, then the whole family can head to the city’s Harley-Davidson Museum to learn more about the iconic American motorcycle manufacturing company, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1903. Discovery World offers exhibits with focuses ranging from the Great Lakes ecosystem to the sounds of Les Paul guitars, while Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory takes families out of Milwaukee and into the desert or tropics.
Milwaukee is known for its breweries, and spots like Sprecher Brewery offer family-friendly tours where parents can sip suds while the kids sample gourmet sodas. Eating is another great way to explore the city, and families can hop aboard Milwaukee Food & City Tours’ Pizza Bus to try slices from three different pizzerias, each with their own style of pie. And your kids will love you if you take them to the Jelly Belly Visitor Center just outside the city in Pleasant Prairie, where they can ride the Jelly Belly Express train before sampling some of the company’s many jellybean flavors.
Recommended Hotel: Residence Inn Milwaukee Downtown
11. Rochester, NY
This gateway to the Finger Lakes has been undergoing a major revitalization, which means it’s time for families to put the city on their radars. Devoted to the history of play, the Strong Museum is home to exhibits featuring familiar characters like the Berenstain Bears and residents of Sesame Street, as well as the Toy Halls of Fame showcasing popular playthings over the decades. Coming in 2020: a 100,000-square-foot expansion that will include the World Video Game Hall of Fame.
In honor of its 50th anniversary, the Strasenburgh Planetarium at the Rochester Museum & Science Center got a total overhaul and now features new technology that allows visitors to see the Earth in real time. Teach the kids about one of the original girl power pioneers at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, where the suffragette lived and worked on her efforts to secure women the right to vote. It’ll be the site of some major celebrations in 2020, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and Anthony’s 200th birthday. And while your kids may only know how to take a photo on a smartphone, the George Eastman Museum will show them how it was done back in the day.
Recommended Hotel: Hilton Garden Inn Rochester Downtown
12. Bowling Green, KY
You could consider this city in southern Kentucky something of an underground destination—literally. Bowling Green is home to Lost River Cave, which families can explore on Kentucky’s only underground boat tour. It’s also a good jumping off point for visiting Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest known cave system in the world.
Back above ground, families can paddle the Green River, learn about native son and baking icon Duncan Hines at the Kentucky Museum, and check out more than 80 vintage sports cars at the National Corvette Museum, which also offers a KidZone where young visitors can design and test their own concept cars. (GM’s Bowling Green plant is the company’s only manufacturing location for the Corvette.) Beech Bend Amusement Park mixes throwback fun with modern-day thrills, offering rides like the Kentucky Rumbler wooden rollercoaster, Bluegrass Breeze Swing, and classics like bumper cars and a Tilt-a-Whirl. There’s also a splash park with a wave pool, lazy river, and a new 500-foot-long “flying saucer” slide.
Recommended Hotel: Hyatt Place Bowling Green