There’s no shortage of destinations that cater to families, but certain places go beyond expectations. From walking amongst the skyscrapers in Chicago to swimming with stingrays in the Bahamas, these spots will have your kids asking to stay longer or even go back again. Here, the best places to take your kids on vacation.
1. Orlando, FL
Sure, there’s Disney, but there’s plenty to do outside the Magic Kingdom, too.
Orlando is packed full of attractions, restaurants, great hotels and hospitable people. The question isn’t what to do, but where to start? Be sure to hit Wonderworks; it’s an attraction that really does appeal to kids across ages, and there’s a nice “edu-tainment” slant to the activities. Relive the earthquake of 1989 by feeling the power behind a magnitude of 5.3 on the Richter scale. Lay on a bed of nails and get the science behind why it doesn’t hurt (it really doesn’t). In the light and sound exhibit, try moving at the speed of light. Plan to spend at least an afternoon—if not the day here.
A great full-day option is Discovery Cove, where you can go swimming with the dolphins or take an underwater walking tour on SeaVenture, The Grand Reef’s aquatic adventure that allows you to experience sharks, rays and colorful fish up close. Snorkel with hundreds of tropical fish, relax on a sandy beach, or traverse through a rain forest, past cascading waterfalls, before making your way through an underwater cave.
Want lots of experiences in one place? Then ICON Park is ideal. There’s shopping, restaurants and attractions including the famous 400-foot-tall observation wheel (the massive ferris wheel was fashioned after the London Eye). The Wheel has some of the best views in Florida—get 360 degree vistas in all directions while staying cool in a nice air-conditioned glass capsule. At ICON Park, there’s also Madame Tussauds Orlando, SEA LIFE Aquarium, the quirky Skeleton Museum, and the Orlando StarFlyer—the world’s tallest swing ride.
Where to Stay: Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando will make you feel like you’re in the Caribbean with its cascading waterfalls, 16,000-square-foot pool and island theme. The resort has over 1,000 guestrooms and four on-site restaurants. But perhaps the biggest perk is that travelers staying here get early park admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, complimentary water taxis to park entrances and several other exclusive benefits throughout the parks and CityWalk. For Harry Potter fans, it doesn’t get much better than this.
2. Quebec City, Canada
You don’t have to travel across the pond to feel like you’re in Europe. Québec City is just a short hop from the U.S., but will have you feeling like you’re in France. A top attraction in this city is the changing of the guards at the Citadel. Tours of the citadel are given hourly, but be sure to get there at 10 a.m. each morning when the changing of the guard happens. It’s full of pomp and circumstance—complete with marching band—and the entire event takes approximately 35 minutes.
To get a sense of Québec from the air, take a helicopter ride over the St. Lawrence River. GoHelico tours fly over the aquarium, the old city, the Frontenac, the Citadel, the Plains of Abraham, and Montmorency Falls. Walking around? Try the Funicular in the old city—it’s a fun experience, especially for little kids. If you’re into marine mammals, Aquarium du Québec is the place to go. It’s small enough to cover in an afternoon, but big enough to keep kids of all ages entertained. The aquarium is home to more than 10,000 animals representing more than 300 species. Don’t miss the giant walrus that plays peek-a-boo with the crowd!
Where to Stay: One of the most recognizable hotels in the world, Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is located inside the walls of Old Québec, where shopping, restaurants, and stores abound. The hotel recently underwent a multimillion dollar renovation and the result is stunning. There are 610 rooms, and the pool is a great place to relax after a full day of exploring. It’s a great place for multigenerational families.
3. Myrtle Beach, SC
The Myrtle Beach area, also known as the Grand Strand, consists of 60 miles of sandy beaches, plenty of family attractions and entertainment options, and over 1,800 restaurants. It’s no wonder the area is home to more than 17.2 million visitors annually! With over 215 sunny days per year, Myrtle Beach really is a year-round, family-friendly destination.
Spending the evening walking around the boardwalk—and taking in its energy and vibe—is truly one of the top pastimes for visitors. The boardwalk has undergone several revitalization efforts and the result is an expanded area with more attractions and eateries. A highlight is taking a ride on the Skywheel. The 200-foot-high observation wheel with temperature-controlled glass gondolas really does have amazing views of the of the coastline.
Another fun attraction is Family Kingdom amusement park, with 37 rides including plenty of fast-action rollercoasters. There’s also an area that targets little kids. Be sure to get the combo pass; it allows you access to both Family Kingdom and its sister attraction, Splashes, the only oceanfront water park in the area. Myrtle Beach is also known as the “Mini Golf Capital of the World” and with over 50 courses, it’s easy to see why. Try the Jungle Safari, where the zebras, elephants, lions, and other animals give mini-golf a fun, safari vibe.
Where to Stay in Myrtle Beach: The Island Vista Resort has three-bedroom, three-bathroom oceanfront suites that are spacious enough for families who want to spread out. Each one has a full kitchen, plus a washer and dryer (a great amenity when traveling with little kids who go through multiple clothing changes a day). The resort also has multiple pools and hot tubs, including a lazy river. The location, literally steps from the beach, is hard to beat.\
4. Philadelphia, PA
Philadelphia, only two hours from New York City, is a great place for families. Be sure to hit the Franklin Institute—from the the IMAX theater and special exhibits to the SportsZone center, it’s easy to spend a whole day there. If you can only hit one museum while in Philly, this is the one.
Other can’t miss experiences include the Liberty One Observation Deck, where floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows offer stellar views of all the city’s major landmarks; the Liberty Bell (best viewed at the very beginning or end of the day when the lines are shortest); Independence Hall, where you can see the U.S. Constitution; the fairly new Museum of the American Revolution, with interactive exhibits for kids; and the Betsy Ross House, where a Betsy Ross reenactor explains how George Washington came to visit her 18th century upholstery shop and asked her to sew the United States’ very first flag. The kids can ask any questions and Betsy has an answer.
While in this area, be sure to wander around Elfreth’s Alley, America’s oldest continuously inhabited street. The cobblestone makes it a really picturesque and quaint spot.
Where to Stay: Sheraton Society Hill Hotel has a terrific location in the heart of the historic district. It’s a great home-base because many of Philly’s top attractions—Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, and Penn’s Landing—are a short walk away.
5. Riviera Maya, Mexico
With direct flights from many East Coast cities, Mexico’s Riviera Maya (a short drive from Cancun) is a great place to relax and explore with kids. For kids who love to climb, be sure to visit the Ruinas de Coba. Skip the crowds that hit Chichén Itza and Tulum and instead head to this set of Mayan ruins, smack dab in the middle of the jungle. (As an added bonus, unlike Chichén Itza and Tulum, you can climb Coba’s pyramid.) You can bike or walk the grounds (and for those who are uber adventurous, hike up the Nohuch Mul pyramid at Coba). Another good day trip is to Xel-ha. It’s a water park built into the natural surroundings. The kids can swim in cenotes (the Yucatán peninsula has more cenotes—underground tunnels—than anywhere else in the world); go tubing along the mangroves; zip line in the water; and hit up the many waterslides.
Where to Stay: The Fairmont Mayakoba, Riviera Maya is nestled in the heart of Riviera Maya and offers plenty of active adventure. The property is spread out, with individual casitas (small houses) located around the lagoon and beach. Due to the resort’s size, it offers free bike rentals so families can bike to various spots around the property, as well as to the beach and nature trail. Bonus: The Fairmont Mayakoba offers an all-inclusive package.
6. Washington, D.C.
With all of the free Smithsonian museums, plus plenty of fun attractions, Washington, D.C. is a great place for kids. The National Air and Space Museum is the the most-visited museum in Washington, and for good reason. Kids love the aircraft and space exhibits, plus there’s always a great IMAX movie. The National Museum of Natural History is another good option. Be sure to hit the must-sees attractions: the Hope Diamond and plenty of dinosaurs and mammals from around the world. The National Zoo is free and worth it to see the pandas (and is a good way to take a break from all the history and science museums).
Other good options are the The International Spy Museum and Big Bus Hop-On Hop-Off Tours, which allow you to see the zoo, Arlington National Cemetery, and the National Mall and Tidal Basin. Don’t forget to visit the many memorials—Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin Delano Roosevelt—and head to a Nationals baseball game if you’re there at the right time of year.
Where to Stay: Hotel Madera – A Kimpton Hotel has a great location near Dupont Circle, and offers bunk beds, kids’ bathrobes and in-room games.
7. Atlantis, Paradise Island
If you love marine animals, Atlantis at Paradise Island in the Bahamas is the place to go.
Home to the largest open-air marine habitat in the world, Atlantis Resort has more than 50,000 marine animals and 250 species throughout its expansive property. Kids have the chance to swim with dolphins and stingrays, become trainers for a day, or simple enjoy all the slides, rides and thrills of the Aquaventure water park. This endlessly entertaining water experience contains millions of gallons of water, 20 swimming areas, 11 pools, a seven-acre snorkeling lagoon, 18 waterslides, both fast- and slow-paced river rides, and a life-size replica of a Mayan Temple. Planning your Atlantis vacation and not sure where to stay? Check out this helpful Guide to Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas.
Where to Stay: The Reef Atlantis has 497 rooms and is perfect for families traveling in groups or for multigenerational travel. The beach is just steps away and all rooms have private balconies overlooking the ocean and white sands. The rooms also have a kitchen area, which is perfect for families who like to make their own food and can enjoy eating on the balcony. Plus, if you stay at The Reef Atlantis, you have access to the private Cascades pool.
8. Snowmass, CO
Located just 9 miles from Aspen, Snowmass is an under-the-radar destination that is quickly becoming a favorite for families. And while most people think of Colorado as a winter destination (95 percent of the lodging in Snowmass is slope-side), it’s also an amazing destination in the summer. With over 2.8 million acres of wilderness, this is the ideal place for horseback riding, hiking, biking, and plenty more. Plus, with over 30 restaurants in Snowmass Village, you’ll have plenty of culinary options, no matter how finicky (or adventurous) your family may be.
A great activity for families is horseback riding with Snowmass Creek Outfitters. Their trail rides range from 90-minute to full-day and even overnight trips. One of the most popular rides is the 90-minute Rodeo Ride, where expert horse wranglers take families up in the hills of Snowmass to get views of Mount Daly and the Elk Mountain range. The Snowmass Rodeo is another great option—it’s the longest running one in the state of Colorado. It takes place every Wednesday and kids (and adults) will love the competitions.
Another great kid activity is the Lost Forest, where kids could easily spend a day here riding the coaster, trying their luck at the climbing wall and seeing what level they can get to on the ropes challenge course (there are five levels). Nearby options also include rafting, fly fishing, hiking and biking.
Where to Stay: There are plenty of lodging options, from the newly opened Limelight Hotel Snowmass to the well-established Viceroy Snowmass. The Crestwood Condominiums are an especially great option for families, with rooms ranging from one-bedroom, one-bath up to four-bedroom, four-bath.
9. Chicago, IL
The Windy City has long been a top destination for families—it’s a quick flight from just about anywhere. Chicago is known for its deep-dish pizza and one of the best places to sample it is Gino’s East. They’ve been making it the same way for 50 years, with secret-recipe dough, mounds of fresh mozzarella cheese, a variety of toppings, and tangy tomato sauce.
Food aside, there are plenty of activities to keep your kids busy. The world-famous Shedd Aquarium is one of the largest (and nicest) in the world; the Skydeck Chicago lets kids feel like they’re walking among the skyscrapers; The Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry and the Adler Planetarium are all great educational and fun spots; and walking alongside the lake front (and beach) in good weather is a highlight for many.
Where to Stay: For most families, it’s all about location and a great pool. The Kimpton Hotel Palomar Chicago, located in the heart of River North, checks off both boxes (and then some). It’s walking distance to most of the city’s top attractions, and the rooftop pool is amazing.
10. Los Angeles, CA
Families will find so much to do in and around Los Angeles. Highlights include Universal Studios Hollywood, the Warner Brothers Studio Tour (a must for Muggles!), the Hollywood Walk of Fame, movie star-themed tours (especially fun for celebrity-obsessed teens), and Griffith Park Observatory, with amazing views of LA.
Nearby, you’ll find Venice Beach and the famous Santa Monica Pier, with rides and eats the whole family will enjoy.
Where to Stay: Set atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island, Terranea Resort, A Destination Hotel, is a mere 30 minutes from LAX; yet, it feels a world away from the bustling city. This quintessential California resort offers stunning ocean views at every restaurant, hiking trail and pool. There is also an adventure concierge to plan activities throughout your stay.
Judy Koutsky is an award-winning writer and editor. Her work has appeared in over 30 publications including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Parents, WebMD, Prevention, and Scholastic. You can view her website at JudyKoutsky.com.