Family Vacation Ideas: Best Under-the-Radar Destinations in the U.S.
Whether you like quiet towns with beautiful natural surroundings or cities with a choice of museums, restaurants and shops, these unique vacation spots will keep you busy with their attractions, events and great scenery. Depending on your kids’ ages, you can choose a destination where they will get a chance to learn about important historical events hands-on, or engage in age-appropriate activities at children’s museums and playgrounds. Plan a quick weekend getaway or a family road trip to discover some or all of these beautiful places. Here are some of the best underrated family vacation ideas in the United States. Grand Marais
»Grand Marais, Minnesota
Grand Marais is a lovely harbor town nestled on the shores of Lake Superior against the backdrop of the majestic Sawtooth Mountains in Minnesota. The town is bursting with great scenery, local art, and a diverse choice of adventures. The town’s natural beauty has long attracted artists from afar to capture it, and is home to the renowned North House Folk School, as well as a range of restaurants, cafés, and shops.
Explore the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on a canoeing trip, or drive along Lake Superior to Grand Portage State Park to see the breathtaking High Falls, the highest waterfall in Minnesota. Visit the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center and learn about the history of the Gunflint Trail, or enjoy exhilarating adventures on a Towering Pines Canopy Tour, Mountain Tram ride or Alpine Slide. The town is located about four hours from Minneapolis and plays host to a number of kid-friendly festivals such as Moose Madness and the Fisherman’s Picnic.
Where to Stay: The Shoreline Inn has beautiful views of the water, connecting family rooms and offers easy access to the town shops and restaurants.
Where to Eat: Harbor House Grille serves homemade American cuisine such as wood fired oven pizza, sandwiches and a tempting kids’ menu.
Don’t Miss: Explore the lake in a kayak with North Shore Expeditions which offers kayaking trips for families with children under 13 years old in tandem kayaks.
More vacation ideas: family trips and other Weekend Getaways in MN.
Photo: Rikk Flohr/Fotolia
» Leavenworth, Washington State
Old-world Bavarian charm meets modern-day Northwestern hospitality in this beautiful German-American town. Nestled amidst the magnificent Cascade Mountains in Washington State, this beautifully designed destination offers a plethora of fun things to see and do, ranging from seasonal outdoor activities, theater-under-the-stars, festivals, food fairs and Bavarian traditions. There is a wide range of outdoor activities, including hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and watersports.
For some indoor fun in Leavenworth, head to the Icicle Junction Activities Center, where you can find mini golf, arcades and great restaurants. There are a number of parks around town with shady picnic spots, children’s playgrounds, bicycle paths and a skate park. Visit the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum to view a collection of nutcrackers, including Mickey Mouse, Darth Vader, Disney and Sesame Street characters.
Where to Stay: The Enzian Inn will make you feel like you have teleported to the Bavarian Alps with its inviting European décor.
Where to Eat: Andreas Keller Restaurant offers fun live events and has been serving traditional Bavarian food and imported draft beers for 20 years.
Don’t Miss: Schocolat’s gourmet chocolates are sure to be a hit with kids.
More places to visit: Asheville, Iowa, Portland, Kansas City, Hawaii Honeymoon, Arizona.
» Lake Charles, Louisiana
In Lake Charles, Louisiana families are surrounded by beautiful natural landscape, scenic rivers, tranquil lakes, fun festivals, and fairs. Lake Charles offers a wide variety of things to do for whole family, including camping, swimming, mini golf, laser tag and bowling. Explore beautiful natural scenery, wildlife and birds along the Creole Nature trail.
Wrapping around Lake Charles Civic Center and bordering the lake, the Lakefront Promenade, otherwise known as Bord du Lac Drive is ideal for biking, relaxing strolls, and horse-drawn carriage rides. Bord du Lac Park has great playgrounds and adventures for children, including a pirate’s ship, climbing wall, a maze tunnel and a tree house.
Where to Stay: Grosse Savanne Lodge is a plantation-style retreat with a game room, fireplace and large porches.
Where to Eat: Luna Bar & Grill has a delicious kid’s menu, including fried shrimp, kids burger, grilled cheese and chicken strips.
Don’t Miss: Have a family picnic with a view of the water in Prien Lake Park.
More vacation ideas: Atlanta, Long Beach, Maui, Tropical Islands.
» Cincinnati, Ohio
Boasting a vibrant art scene, major league sports teams, Newport Aquarium with walk-through tunnels, and a popular riverfront bustling with shops, restaurants and cafés, the city of Cincinnati is bursting with great things to do on your family vacation. Overlooking the Ohio River in southwestern Ohio, the city is home to the famous Kentucky Speedway and Kings Island, where you will find the longest inverted roller coaster in the world.
Head up to the Carew Tower Observation Deck to take in 360-degree panoramic views, visit the numerous parks such as Fountain Square with its historic ice rink, or take the kids to see a show at the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden provides a great way for children to learn about animals, walk through beautiful gardens and go on fun rides. Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal has a children’s museum, history museum and a science museum where you will find something to do with kids of all ages.
Where to Stay: The Millennium Hotel Cincinnati has family-friendly accommodations, an outdoor pool and is close to the Beach Waterpark and Cincinnati Zoo.
Where to Eat: Take the kids to Greater’s for handcrafted ice cream and other treats.
Don’t Miss: Watch the Cincinnati Reds in action at their new ballpark.
Great family resorts: Grand Geneva Resort, Hilton Chicago/Indian Lakes, Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, LEGOLAND Hotel and Rough Creek Lodge.
Photo: Paul Lemke/Fotolia
» Athens, Georgia
Nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the hip college town of Athens, Georgia, is a unique blend of old and new, where beautifully preserved Antebellum architecture and a quaint Victorian-era downtown district merge seamlessly with trendy stores, vibrant nightlife, and a blossoming culinary and contemporary art scene.
Home to the University of Georgia and the Georgia Bulldogs, this beautiful town has much to offer in the way of family fun. Take the kids to Bear Hollow Zoo, visit the botanical gardens, spend an afternoon at the Georgia Museum of Art and have fun outdoors at the Sandy Creek Nature Center. Trail Creek Park has outdoor exercise equipment, football, softball and Frisbee games.
Where to Stay: Graduate Athens has individually decorated rooms, a pool and a spa.
Where to Eat: Mama’s Boy is a great spot for a family breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Don’t Miss: Let the kids climb, jump and play at the World of Wonder Playground, followed by a family picnic in Southeast Clarke Park.
Travel destinations: Sioux Falls, SD, West Palm Beach, Fargo, ND
» Madison, Wisconsin
Madison is a beautiful university town with a friendly atmosphere, and exquisite natural scenery of glacial waterways and beaches. Home to over 250 parks and green spaces, this vibrant town is perfect for a family getaway that combines culture, history and outdoor fun. Head to one of the beaches around the city, or explore the parks where you will find jungle gyms, sporting facilities and picnicking areas.
Henry Vilas Zoo provides a great day out for kids, and the International Crane Foundation boasts lovely nature trails to walk, exhibits to explore and is the only place in the world where you will find all 15 species of cranes. The Madison Children’s Museum features excellent exhibits for children to imagine, play and learn, and the Overture Center for Arts offers popular children’s programs on Saturday mornings, with storytellers, jugglers and theater. If you are staying over the weekend, visit the farmers market which features live music and great food.
Where to Stay: The Edgewater has beautiful rooms and suites with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lake.
Where to Eat: Babcock Hall Dairy Store has excellent ice cream, sandwiches and pastries.
Don’t Miss: Olbrich Botanical Gardens are filled with stunning flower displays, fountains and a waterfall - admission is free.
More Wisconsin destinations:
Madison, Milwaukee and Bayfield
»San Jose, California
Silicon Valley meets Spanish heritage in this culture-rich Californian town, which boasts a wealth of beautifully preserved architecture, an array of excellent museums, art galleries and theater, as well as bountiful family-friendly activities. The Children’s Discovery Museum and the Tech Museum of Innovation are a great stop for their fantastic hands-on interactive exhibits, where children can poke, prod and tinker.
The Golden Gate Railroad Museum in San Jose offers a wonderful introduction to the world of trains, while the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum provides a fascinating insight into ancient Egypt. Head to Voorhees State Park for hiking, sledding, biking and skywatching programs, or Raging Waters for some family fun spread over 23 acres of water-based activities and attractions. Holly Hummingbird Farm offers farm tours, picnics and interaction with a range of farm animals. Happy Hollow Park and Zoo is a family favorite as well.
Where to Stay: The Fairmont San Jose has spacious rooms and a rooftop pool.
Where to Eat: Caffe Frascati serves delicious panini and cappuccino.
Don’t Miss: San Pedro Square Market for great food, coffee and weekly entertainment. Here you will find wood-fired pizza, great sushi, art and the oldest building in San Jose.
Great California weekend destinations: San Diego, Newport Beach, Santa Cruz and Healdsburg.
» Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock offers historic sites, attractions and great restaurants. Families can visit museums with interactive hands-on activities, such as the Museum of Discovery, where kids learn new concepts in mathematics, science and technology in a fun way, the Clinton Presidental Library, or the Aerospace Education Center, which introduces children to the science of aviation and space.
Visit Little Rock Zoo where you can observe unique animals and habitats. Pinnacle Mount State Park and Woolly Hollow State Park offer hiking, biking and picnicking surrounded by nature. Wild River Country and Magic Springs Theme Park have water slides, tidal pools, rapids and wave pools.
Where to Stay: The Capital is the Grande Dame of downtown Little Rock, close to the Arts Center, The Museum of Discovery and other attractions.
Where to Eat: The Pantry has two locations in Little Rock and serves amazing starters, salads, sandwiches, sausages, burgers and more. You can order a Family Style dinner with a 36-hour notice for 8-10 people.
Don’t Miss: Walk or bike along the Arkansas River Trail and enjoy scenic river views.
More vacation ideas: Things to Do in Denver and
Things to Do in Boulder This Weekend
Sebring, Florida, is home to the world-renowned Sebring International Raceway and offers a great base for exploring the surrounding lakes and attractions. Take a journey back in time with a walk through the Historic District, which dates back to the 1920s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Explore quaint boutiques and galleries that line the streets, where you will find clothing, décor, jewelry and gifts. Highlands Hammock State Park offers beautiful natural surroundings, winding paths and walkways. If your children are old enough, take them to one of the scenic golf courses in the area to play a round of family golf.
Where to Stay: Inn On The Lakes offers rooms and suites with views of Little Lake Jackson.
Where to Eat: Garden Cafe at McLane's Country Garden offers a diverse menu in a beautiful garden setting.
Don’t Miss: Childrens Museum of The Highlands was designed for children ages one through 12 and offers diverse exhibits, a water play area, climbing and a mini grocery store.
More Florida destinations: Sanibel Island, Cape Coral and St. Petersburg
» Montgomery, Alabama
Montgomery, Alabama is a historic town where you will have a chance to step back in time and learn about the Civil Rights movement at the Civil Rights Memorial Center and the Rosa Parks Library and Museum. Jasmine Hill Gardens and Outdoor Museum features 20 acres of gardens, Greek sculptures and a replica of the Temple of Hera.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival presents plays and shows such as The Importance of Being Earnest, As You Like It and King Lear. The Ice Palace at the Eastdale Mall offers hours of fun at the indoor ice rink, while the Mann Wildlife Learning Museum and Montgomery Zoo showcase exotic animals from around the world.
Where to Stay: The Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa has a rooftop pool, a spa and modern guest rooms.
Where to Eat: The Tipping Point serves great sandwiches, hot dogs and a fun kids menu.
Don’t Miss: Jump on board the Harriott II Riverboat, docked beside the Riverwalk and Amphitheater, for dinner, dancing and live entertainment, along with a variety of activities for children.
More day trips & weekend vacations: 10 Best Things to Do in Huntsville, Alabama with Kids and best lake vacations.
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»The Chautauqua Institution, New York
The Chautauqua Institution in New York offers family-friendly weekly themed events, lectures and entertainment during the summer season from the end of June through the end of August. Located on Chautauqua Lake, the 750-acre educational center was originally founded in 1874 as a United Methodist Sunday School camp and now attracts 100,000 visitors each year.
Younger guests can enroll in a variety of programs based on their age, which are both fun and educational. The beautiful 17-mile lake offers sandy beaches, fishing, sailing and swimming.
Where to Stay: Accommodation options include vacation rentals and the historic Athenaeum Hotel.
Where to Eat: Visitors can choose from a range of restaurants and cafes which serve delicious farm-to-table cuisine.
Don’t Miss: Watch a show in the open-air Amphitheater.
You may also like: 25 Best Weekend Getaways from New York City.
Photo: The Chautauqua Institution
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»Brookings, South Dakota
Brookings, South Dakota, is a beautiful university town offering a variety of things to see and do. The Children’s Museum of South Dakota is a hands-on learning experience with a variety of displays and exhibits, while the South Dakota State Art Museum houses many unique works of art which will interest older children. For outdoor fun, head to the Hillcrest Aquatic Center, where waterslides, sprays, fountains and pools offer endless entertainment.
Visit the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum to learn about the history of the state (admission is free). The Dakota Nature Park & Center’s lush green landscape and winding pathways make for excellent biking and hiking.
Where to Stay: Super 8 Brookings has an indoor pool, hot tub and rooms with flat screen HDTVs.
Where to Eat: Nick's Hamburgers serves some of the best hamburgers in the state and has been in business since 1929.
Don’t Miss: McCrory Gardens let children learn about gardening in a beautiful setting, surrounded by 25 acres of formal gardens.
You may also like: 20 Best Things to Do in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
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» Raleigh, North Carolina
Raleigh is a modern, energetic city which lets you combine cultural, historical and outdoor activities on your family getaway. You will have a choice of several great museums, including the North Carolina Museum of History, the Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural Sciences. For those who prefer to spend time outdoors, there is a selection of parks offering swimming, boating, biking and outdoor adventures.
Raleigh Farmers Market is a beautiful stop, open seven days a week, offering fresh produce, great ice cream and welcoming atmosphere. The beautifully restored historic carousel and train rides at Pullen Park will delight children of all ages.
Where to Stay: Sheraton Raleigh Hotel has an indoor pool and is located close to downtown shops and restaurants.
Where to Eat: Fiction Kitchen is a vegetarian restaurant serving locally sourced cuisine.
Don’t Miss: Marbles Kids Museum is a fun place to spend an afternoon with children under 10, offering themed exhibits, IMAX films and play-based learning.
Vacation ideas: Berlin, Williamsburg, Sicily, Cuba, Ho Chi Minh City, Bermuda
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Nestled on the shores of Lake Pepin on the Mississippi River, Stockholm, Wisconsin, is a charming village that provides a quiet escape from the city and offers a wonderful array of outdoor activities and things to see and do for the whole family. Visit the small Stockholm Museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Stockholm area and see a performance at the WideSpot Performing Arts Center located in the former 100-year-old Opera Hall.
Stockholm Pie & General Store sells a selection of cheeses, Wisconsin beer, jam, jellies, local preserve foods, local chocolates and other treats. In the fall, Maiden Rock Winery & Cidery offers wagon rides, picnics and orchard tours during which you can pick your own apples in the barn.
Where to Stay: Cabin at Riverside is a scenic hideaway on the shores of Lake Pepin.
Don’t Miss: Bogus Creek Cafe & Bakery for espresso and ice cream.
Midwestern USA Weekend Getaways: Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, from Chicago, from Minneapolis, North Dakota, Nebraska and Missouri.
Photo: Stockholm, Wisconsin
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Family Vacation Ideas: Best Under-the-Radar Destinations in the U.S.
- Grand Marais, Minnesota, Photo: Courtesy of Rikk Flohr - Fotolia.com
- Leavenworth, Washington State, Photo: Leavenworth
- Lake Charles, Louisiana , Photo: Courtesy of travelview - Fotolia.com
- Cincinnati, Ohio, Photo: Courtesy of Paul Lemke - Fotolia.com
- Athens, Georgia, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Madison, Wisconsin , Photo: Courtesy of Maryna - Fotolia.com
- San Jose, California , Photo: Courtesy of porqueno - Fotolia.com
- Little Rock, Arkansas, Photo: Courtesy of Katherine - Fotolia.com
- Sebring, Florida, Photo: Courtesy of Wirepec - Fotolia.com
- Montgomery, Alabama, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- The Chautauqua Institution, New York, Photo: The Chautauqua Institution
- Brookings, South Dakota, Photo: Brookings
- Raleigh, North Carolina, Photo: Courtesy of SeanPavonePhoto - Fotolia.com
- Stockholm, Wisconsin, Photo: Stockholm, Wisconsin
- Cover Photo: Grand Marais
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