Although Orlando and Washington, DC top most lists for family trips, there are 50 states, each with its own unique features, and many that are perfect for creating lasting family memories. Our suggestions are full of attractions with appeal for both kids and their parents, from amusement parks and historic sites to fine dining and upscale shopping. These dynamic cities attract their fair share of the tourist trade, but you can still find less crowded spots and budget-friendly things to do.
St. Louis, MO
Situated on the banks of the Mississippi, St. Louis, Missouri, "Gateway to the West," is a fantastic city to visit, especially with kids in tow. The famed Gateway Arch and Gateway Arch Riverboat Cruises, Six Flags St. Louis and the Magic House children's museum are definite must-sees. World-class St. Louis Zoo is a winner with kids of all ages – and made even better with a couple hours in the surrounding 1400-acre Forest Park. Other kid-centered attractions: Raging Rivers Waterpark, St. Louis Science Center and Planetarium, and Meramac Caverns in nearby Stanton. The Missouri Botanical Garden captivates with a butterfly house, Victorian hedge maze, children's garden and the Climatron, a geodesic dome housing a fabulous collection of rain forest plants. Grant's Farm is perhaps the most kid-centric of numerous historic sites. A shopping mall may not be an optimal choice, but kids are fascinated with historic Union Station, which has an indoor lake and paddleboats. And no trip to St. Louis would be complete without a Cardinals game – give them some peanuts and Cracker Jack!
Got a Jeff Gordon-wannabe? Take him to the US automotive capital, Detroit, Michigan. Needless to say, several car-related attractions here should keep the little guy enamored for at least a couple of days. Start with the Automotive Hall of Fame and GMnext Showroom. Then branch out to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in nearby Dearborn (more cars, plus historic stuff for Mom and Dad); the fascinating and idyllic Cranbrook (school, museum and historic site all in one) in Bloomfield Hills; or even Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio. Back in town, switch gears with a visit to the Detroit Science Center or the Detroit Zoo, or work off some energy at Belle Isle Park. The historic Eastern Market is exciting, too, especially on Saturday mornings. Golfing parents, take note: more than 30 golf courses are within 20 miles of downtown Detroit.
If your kids love ships and ocean creatures, Baltimore, Maryland is the place to go. Although frequently overlooked in favor of nearby Washington, DC, Baltimore offers plenty to entertain the family. First stop: the Inner Harbor. Plan at least two days here. Along with the National Aquarium, sights include the Baltimore Maritime Museum, the USS Constellation (last Civil War vessel still afloat), Port Discovery, the Maryland Science Center (complete with IMAX theater and planetarium), the observation deck on the 27th floor of the World Trade center, and the huge Harbourplace and The Gallery shopping complex. You can even take a ride on an actual topsail schooner – the Pride of Baltimore II. Further into the week, take in an Orioles game, or at least tour the stadium at Camden Yards, and marvel at the energy and variety at Lexington or Broadway Market. Wrap up the vacation with a leisurely stroll through the Maryland Zoo, a prowl on the beach at Sandy Point State Park or a hike through Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Whether you plan a couple of days or an entire week, Raleigh, North Carolina also has plenty to recommend it. There are several attractions geared toward the junior set: Playspace children's museum, Pullen Park with its train and carousel, and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, which has a massive Acrocanthosaurus skeleton. The Marbles Kids Museum celebrates cultures around the world with wonderful exhibits, and has the state's only 3-D IMAX theater. Get closer to nature at Falls Lake State Recreation Area, where the whole family can enjoy swimming, hiking, canoeing and camping. And, if you happen to be in town on the first Friday of the summer months, by all means head over to City Market for live music and fun shopping (the kids will love the cookie store!).
A bit further south is the metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia. A truly exciting city, Atlanta is usually thought of as a great destination for adults – there are numerous excellent restaurants, high-end shopping and a huge variety of concerts and shows every night of the week. But the city is just humming with exciting things for kids to experience. The obvious choices are Zoo Atlanta, the Georgia Aquarium and its brand new neighbor World of Coca-Cola, Six Flags over Georgia and Imagine It! The Children's Museum of Atlanta. Don't miss the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, and be sure to visit the Center for Puppetry Arts (catch a show there as well). Technologically savvy youngsters will be fascinated with the CNN Studio Tour, and even apathetic teens will perk up when "shopping" at Lenox Square or Atlantic Station. When it's time for a break from the hustle and bustle, options are myriad: try Piedmont Park, Stone Mountain Park or Lake Lanier Islands. If you're lucky, you may even snag tickets to see the Braves at Turner Field.
Austin, Texas is well-known to music lovers, and it does indeed have a plethora of fantastic bars and clubs where you can hear live music every night of the week, as well as music-related sights like the Stevie Ray Vaughan Memorial. But it's actually a great place to bring kids as well. For starters, there are the bats on the Congress Avenue Bridge: from March to November each year, thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats congregate here. The best time to catch the show is about shortly before dusk, as they leave to begin their nocturnal foraging. Other sites and activities that the kids are sure to love are Volente Beach Waterpark, Austin Nature and Science Center, and Dinosaur Park in nearby Cedar Creek. Spend some time outdoors at Zilker Metropolitan Park, the Austin Zoo, Barton Springs Pool or Bastrop State Park. Indoor entertainment options include the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex (bowling, video arcade, roller skating, movie theater) and Main Event (rock climbing, laser tag, billiards, bowling, miniature golf). Shopping opportunities abound. Try the Arboretum at Great Hills (a lovely open-air center), Barton Creek Square Mall (the city's largest) or Renaissance Market (one-of-a-kind local arts and crafts).
The state of Colorado is a popular winter skiing destination, but Denver beckons year-round. The city has a number of interesting museums adored by the younger set: Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colorado Railroad Museum, Denver Firefighters Museum, Forney Museum of Transportation, Museum of Miniatures, Dolls and Toys, and the Children's Museum of Denver, to name a few. That's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, though. Animal lovers will surely want to visit the Denver Zoo (the most popular cultural attraction in Colorado!), the Downtown Aquarium, Butterfly Pavilion and Insect Center, and Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison. Thrill-seeking kids will love Elitch Gardens and Water World. Sports fans can cheer on the Rockies at Coors Field, the Broncos, the Nuggets or the Avalanche. Plus, with the Rocky Mountains just a short drive away, this is the ideal destination for outdoorsy types.
Jackson Hole, WY
For an active vacation in the great outdoors, consider Jackson Hole, Wyoming, truly a year round destination. In the winter, both Snow King and Jackson Hole Mountain resorts are family-friendly ski spots, but take a day off skiing to enjoy outdoor adventures of a different kind: Goosewing Ranch Snowmobile Adventures and Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours are two fun options. Also, from early December until late March, the National Elk Refuge welcomes some 7500 of the magnificent animals – get a closer look with a sleigh ride through the refuge. Summer, on the other hand, is the ideal time to visit Bridger – Teton National Forest and Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone is just a 90-minute drive up the road. In town, the Jackson Hole Shootout Gang brings the Wild West to life Monday through Saturday at 6pm, the Bridger Gondola and the Alpine Slide replace on-mountain skiing (but are no less thrilling!), and you can explore the backcountry with Jackson Hole Trail Rides, on a horse instead of a snowmobile. Fishing, hiking, camping, whitewater rafting, canoeing, mountain biking – it's all here.
Here's one you may not have thought of: Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Mall of America alone could occupy a family for several days, with a massive number of shops (including a four-story Lego store), restaurants, theme park rides, bowling, arcades, an aquarium with more than 4500 animals, and even a NASCAR virtual racing center. Mall aside, though, there are a world of other choices for families. If the kids are clamoring for more rides, try the Valleyfair Amusement Park. Get thrills of another sort hiking or mountain biking in Minnehaha Park or Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Engage young minds at the Bell Museum of Natural History, the Ellingson Car Museum, and the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary. Catch a game: in addition to being a great destination for shopping, dining and historic/architectural appeal, the Warehouse District is home to both the Target Center (Timberwolves – basketball) and the Metrodome (Twins – Baseball, Vikings – football). Many kids will even be charmed by the Skyways that connect several downtown buildings. Need more? Adjacent St. Paul has two zoos, a number of museums that cater to pint-size visitors, and the fascinating Wabasha Street Caves.
The final entry on our list, Sacramento, California, may also come as a surprise. After all, "vacationing in California" usually means visiting LA, San Francisco or San Diego. But if you have small children, Sacramento really deserves closer inspection. For example, within the borders of William Land Park there are several attractions, including Funderland (a small amusement park for kids younger than 8 or so), Fairytale Town (fairy tale and nursery rhyme themed park for little ones), and the Sacramento Zoo. Try some splashy fun at Raging Waters, or with a float down the American River (American River Raft Rentals). Plan an educational day with visits to the Discovery Museum of Sacramento, Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, Towe Auto Museum and California State Railroad Museum. Outdoor adventures await at Discovery Park, the Effie Yeaw Nature Center, Gibson Ranch Park and Folsom Lake State Recreation Area. Day trip possibilities are numerous. Within about an hour are Six Flags Discovery Kingdom; the El Dorado, Mendocino and Tahoe Nat'l Forests; and the Jelly Belly Candy Company. Even San Francisco is only about 85 miles away.
Whether you choose one of these or a different destination for your next family vacation, just keep in mind that a little advance planning and creativity can make virtually any city exciting for kids. Above all, have fun!