Twenty-five smaller and/or lesser-known cities in the United States recommended for family vacations by travel writers.
When planning a family vacation in a U.S. city, the first destinations that are likely to come to mind are large cities such as New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. These are all fabulous destinations with long lists of family-friendly attractions and activities but they can also be quite expensive to visit. If you’re willing to think outside the box though you might find that a smaller city has everything you are looking for in a family vacation and will be easier on the budget too.
I asked a group of family travel writers to recommend their favourite smaller and/or lesser known U.S. cities and we came up with this list of 25 cities that are great for family vacations.
Tallahassee might not be the first place that comes to mind when planning a family vacation in Florida but the city has a lot to offer and is easier on the travel budget than many other areas of the state. Spending 2-3 days here en route to Orlando or combining a city break in Tallahassee with a beach vacation elsewhere in the state are both great choices for families. One of the best attractions for families is Tallahassee Museum which has a challenging Tree to Tree Adventures course with ziplines and obstacles, a living history museum with costumed interpreters and hands on demonstrations, and elevated nature trails where visitors can observe Florida’s native wildlife. Other must-see attractions include Mission San Luis, a National Historic Landmark where visitors can explore Florida’s Hispanic and Native American roots and experience life as it was in the 17th century and Wakulla Springs State Park, a 6,000 acre wildlife sanctuary where visitors can take a guided boat tour on the Wakulla River to see resident and migratory birds, turtles, alligators of all sizes and possibly manatees up close in their natural habitat as the boat glides among cypress trees dripping with Spanish Moss. Don’t leave Tallahassee without taking the family to Lofty Pursuits where they can enjoy a delicious ice cream at an old-fashioned soda fountain, watch employees demonstrate the making of folded hard candy and shop an eclectic selection of toys and other items.
Contributed by Lisa Goodmurphy, Editor – Gone with the Family
Portland, Oregon has emerged as a trending, trendy city appealing to equal parts hipster, outdoorsman, and foodie. It’s a great place to spend a long weekend if you’re hoping to hike through a forest in the morning, visit dining hot spots with locally-sourced ingredients in the afternoon, and sleep in a boutique hotel serving craft cocktails at night. And lest you think Portland is all about the young, urban hipster and not about families, there’s hikes to waterfalls in temperate rainforests, one of the best zoos on the west coast, a children’s museum with indoor and outdoor exhibits, and fun sporting teams to root for.
Contributed by Amy Whitley, Pitstops for Kids
Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City, the Cherry Capitol of the World, is one of the coolest, artsiest, best foodie towns I know – and it is also one of the most family-friendly, as well. Kids are welcomed everywhere, from gourmet restaurants and hamburger joints (kiss the moose at Sleder’s!) to the ice arena and ski slopes (it is year-round sports country, after all). You’ll also find a hands-on discovery center at Dennos Museum Center (as well as kids’ programs), a butterfly house and bug zoo in summer, an observatory, the Great Lakes Children’s Museum, an adventure park, a Children’s Theatre, tall ships and lake cruises, artistic activities galore, a whole shop devoted to popcorn (!), and countless seasonal activities. Up here, the outdoors is the star, including a plethora of great family-friendly beaches on Lake Michigan (Traverse City was named in the top 10 of America’s Beach Towns by AOL), watersports of every ilk, including diving shipwrecks and stand up paddleboarding, and the most beautiful place in America, Sleeping Bear Dunes, where you can hike, climb enormous dunes, and earn a Junior Ranger Badge – it’s a National Lakeshore!
Contributed by Dr. Jessie Voigts, Wandering Educators
Consistently rated as one of the safest cities in the United States, Irvine in Orange County in California is a great destination in itself as well as being close to other family-friendly destinations. For example, Disneyland is only 20 minutes away as well as the beachside resort of Laguna Beach. Los Angeles is technically only 40 miles away but the traffic can make it much longer than the estimated 1 hour drive. Irvine itself has plenty of activities to keep you busy though. A planned city which is only about 50 years old, Irvine has put lots of thought into maintaining an outdoorsy lifestyle for its citizens. For example, the city planners have built in 50,000 acres of open space into the historic Irvine ranch land. There are hundreds of miles of cycling lanes, both off-road and on-road, for cyclists and hikers. In Great Park, you can find The Orange Balloon which is fun for its cheap helium balloon ride, play areas and farmers’ market. It’s also the headquarters of California cult classic, In-N-Out Burger, so you know you could have a great burger and shake any time!
Contributed by Shobha George, Just Go Places
Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota
When I tell people I used to live in Minnesota, they often make comments about farms and cows. As a city girl, I didn’t see many cows. I lived in the Twin Cities, a bustling metropolitan area comprised of Minneapolis and St. Paul. You’ve probably heard that the beloved Purple Rain-singing pop star Prince used to play in downtown Minneapolis. This city is still rocking out with live entertainment venues, many of which are family-friendly. Kids will especially like the Children’s Theater Company, which puts on its productions for families within the same beautiful building as the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In summer, listen to live tunes or watch a flick for free at the Lake Harriet Bandshell with views of one of the city’s four main lakes. Rent bicycles to ride around the lakes, or get a canoe to paddle through them. Stroll over to Sebastian Joe’s Ice Cream Cafe in Uptown Minneapolis for a handmade scoop of chocolatey “Nicollet Avenue Pothole” or refreshing “White Orangina.” Wander through the Walker Art Center to get your kids’ take on modern art. Re-opening in June 2017 is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, whose Spoonbridge and Cherry has become a symbol of the city.
Contributed by Colleen Lanin, Travel Mamas
You may know Pasadena for the Rose Bowl but this often overlooked city is a perfect family destination. Located just 20-minutes outside of the bustling Los Angeles (and 45-minutes from LAX) you can enjoy the proximity to major attractions like Universal Studios Hollywood and downtown LA without the traffic and cost of being in a large urban centre. Pasadena also offers families a taste of nature with easily accessible kid-friendly hikes in Eaton Canyon or by way of the Griffith Observatory to get a closer peek at the famous Hollywood sign. The strong arts influence and historic architecture make Pasadena a vibrant city during the day and night. You’ll find alley shops for hand packed ice cream, family owned hole in the wall cafes celebrating cultural delights and an even a restaurant that’s transformed the city’s train station.
Contributed by Carrie Anne Badov, Everythingmom.com
Kansas City, Missouri
This Midwestern town sits near the center of the US – making it an easy destination to reach by plane, train, or automobile. As you begin to explore you’ll quickly learn why Kansas City has been dubbed the city of fountains – it is said that the only city with more is Rome, Italy. Hundreds of family-friendly spots can be found throughout Kansas City and her suburbs, but two that draw the most visitors are Crown Center and Country Club Plaza.
Crown Center is an 85 acre complex that is home to Hallmark Cards, Inc. Inside the interconnected buildings you’ll find shops, theaters, restaurants, the Hallmark Visitors Center and Kaleidoscope, a free creative space for kids, SeaLife Aquarium, LEGO Discovery Center, and a multi-use terrace (which hosts free movies, festivals, and ice skating, depending on the season). The surrounding area, known as The District, is home to historic Union Station, which houses Science City, the KC Rail Experience, and touring exhibitions, the National World War I Museum and memorial, and The Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
Just a few short miles away is Country Club Plaza, a 15 block district designed to mirror the architecture of Seville, Spain. Though this is, at its heart, a shopping district, the public art is a big draw for families. Sculptures, tile mosaics, murals, and grand fountains are found throughout the area. When the buildings are lit at night while horse-drawn carriages clop through the streets or the gondoliers float along Brush Creek you could be forgiven if you think you’re in Europe.
Contributed by Jody Halsted, JodyHalsted.com
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville, North Carolina is an amazing family travel destination! There are a ton of hiking trails that are perfect for kids since they are not long and end with a waterfall or stream to play in or an amazing view. Our favorite was Slide Rock which is a natural waterslide! In the downtown area of Asheville you will find family friendly breweries – some serve root beer on tap, a pinball museum where you can play unlimited pinball, the Biltmore Estate, an adventures rope course and zip-line, chocolate boutique, and an overall relaxed atmosphere. A week would not be enough time to experience everything that Asheville and the surrounding area has to offer!
Contributed by Bryanna Royal, Crazy Family Adventure
The capital of California, Sacramento, is a family friendly city with a large variety of activities and places to visit. Located in California’s central valley, the weather is cooperative most of the year but on the hot side in the summer. With attractions like the Sacramento Zoo, Fairytale Town, Funderland Amusement Park, California State Railroad Museum, Old Town Sacramento, The California State Capitol Building, Sutter’s Fort, Raging Waters Water Park, Sacramento River Cats Baseball, NBA basketball team The Sacramento Kings, rafting and fishing on the American River, and the Crocker Art Museum you’re sure to find something to entertain everyone. You’ll find wonderful shopping in and around Sacramento as well as many wonderful cafes and restaurants. With so much to offer, Sacramento can serve as your complete vacation or as a small part of a greater California trip.
Contributed by Ashley Jorgenson, See Ash Blog
Perched along Lake Michigan with lighthouses along the shore, Kenosha, Wisconsin’s easy to navigate layout with attractions in close proximity makes a visit a delight for families. We were impressed by the number of museums clustered together providing various activities without too much fuss. Saturdays in the warmer months offer the lively Harbor Market featuring local farmers and craftsmen. The winter market moves inside with fewer vendors yet still maintaining local flavor. Kenosha’s historic electric streetcars each painted to represent a different city piqued our interest during our visit and provided a fun way to explore downtown. During our day trip, we quickly learned that Kenosha is a city worthy of exploration and we look forward to future visits and discoveries!
Contributed by Melissa Schwartz, A Little Time and a Keyboard
Eugene is the second-largest city in the state of Oregon, but you’d never guess over 150,000 people call the Emerald Valley their home. Nestled between the Cascade Mountains and the Coastal Range, Eugene is totally green. A community that values nature and the environment, visitors can expect a wide variety of outdoor activities from hiking and biking to kayaking and rafting down the Willamette and McKenzie Rivers. Home to the University of Oregon, sports, education, arts, and culture are also high on the city’s to-do list.
Contributed by Julie Henning, Road Trips for Families
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is a city you visit to admire the charming streets and soak in the genteel Southern vibe rather than to check off a long list of must-see tourist sights. We loved eating there because tourists mix with locals in most restaurants and you can eat very well in places that are casual and kid friendly. We loved Jestine’s for classic southern dishes in a diner setting, Pearlz Oyster Bar for an early more stylish dinner and Hominy Grill, where just about everything is house-made. The Merrion Square Farmers market on Saturday morning offered lots of samples (boiled peanuts, sweet potato pie), produce that was new to us, like giant muscat grapes, and hot food vendors, too. With a 2-year-old along we spent a lot of time exploring the waterfront park and Mount Pleasant Memorial Park across the river, which has a cool playground and a pier with great city and river views. You can manage a short horse-drawn carriage tour even with a very young child and it’s worth it to get some local history. Kids old enough to be learning history will like Fort Sumter, the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, and some of the plantations outside the city (do your research; some are more kid friendly than others). With tweens and teens take a walking tour, which is the absolute best way to find out all that has gone behind all those lovely townhouse doors.
Contributed by Eileen Gunn, FamiliesGo!
Huntsville, Alabama, home to the US Space and Rocket Center, is a wonderfully international city perfect for family vacations. German rocket scientists relocated here after WWII and influenced the city’s growth, especially the symphony, food and architecture. But there’s more to Huntsville than rockets. Families can explore the city’s rich history at one of the many hands-on museums. Adventurers can enjoy the many parks and trails throughout the city or nearby Burritt Mountain. Most everything is within a 15 minute drive of downtown, making it an easy place to explore! Whether blasting off to space or walking the footsteps of the past, a Huntsville vacation is one families are sure to remember for years.
Contributed by Karen Dawkins, Family Travels on a Budget
Missoula, Montana might be a little mountain town in the northern Rocky Mountains, however it’s anything but sleepy. Missoula is a funky family-friendly town with numerous coffee shops, specialty restaurants, and a thriving art and music scene. What is so appealing are the abundance of affordable activities year-round geared towards all ages. Hike the ‘M’ for the best views of the valley. Rent a bike to explore the city via a large network of bike-friendly paths suitable even for the little ones. Stroll along the Clark Fork River and stop to watch the surfers and kayakers take on Brennan’s Wave. Spend the day plunging down a large water-slide at Splash Montana, a popular community water park. And finally, enjoy a beautiful morning sampling local organic foods at the weekend farmers market. Missoula strives to make healthy living a priority and provides on a regular basis a wealth of activities such as free bus transportation, open space for outdoor recreation, concerts, museums and community events. In fact, in 2009 Missoula was honored with being named one of the most Playful Cities in the nation! Missoula has so many wonderful and unique qualities, but its greatest asset is the strong sense of community which anchors the town with its generosity, sincerity and acceptance. It’s Uniquely Missoula.
Contributed by Lara Dorman, 2 Moms Travel
Sedona, Arizona is best known for its picturesque red rocks and art scene but, we also found many family-friendly attractions and activities. My kids’ favorite activity was the bumpy, 4×4 off-road adventure on a converted jeep. There are plenty of jeep tours with various themes from sightseeing, sunsets to finding the paranormal. We loved the many hiking and biking trails with incredible backdrops. ATV and horseback riding tours are also available. If you’re visiting during the summer, Slide Rock State Park is an ideal place to visit with various swimming areas and an 80-foot natural water slide on red sandstone. Sedona is also a great base to explore nearby National Parks and for the kids to earn Junior Ranger badges. Montezuma Castle National Monument is a short drive and the Grand Canyon is two hours away.
Contributed by Mary Solio, The World is a Book
The popularity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park makes East Tennessee an attractive vacation option for American families. If heading that way, I recommend paying a visit to Knoxville, Tennessee. Only 45 minutes from the Smokies, Knoxville has all the charm of a small town with all the luxuries of a big city. Parks and greenways abound in Knoxville, along with public art displays, kid-friendly museums, and historical sites. Sports fans will appreciate attractions such as the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and Knoxville Holstons Vintage Base Ball, while the music lovers in the family will relish in Knoxville’s role in Tennessee’s rich musical heritage.
Contributed by Francesca Mazurkiewicz, The Working Mom’s Travels
Anacortes is a quaint town on the I20 (about 20 minutes off the I5 in Western Washington) and physically lies on Fidalgo Island. Although a short bridge connects it to land, it features some unique geography and plants, such as the beautiful arbutus trees, which thrive on rocky terrain. It has cute character and offers beautiful ocean views from many vantage points, on the steep hills around the town. Anacortes is a port city, and its largest industry is oil refining. Its economy is also based on shipbuilding and tourism. Anacortes is situated in what is known as the Olympic Mountain Rain Shadow, and it only gets about half as much rain as Seattle, which is less than 50 miles to the south.
Contributed by Lindsay Nieminen, Carpe Diem Our Way Family Travel Blog
Your family-friendly visit to Golden begins with a “Howdy Folks” welcome sign stretched across its Main Street celebrating its Old West roots. Located just 20 miles west of Denver, this Colorado mountain town embraces its Rocky Mountain backdrop with biking and hiking trails. Enjoy free admission to the Geology Museum at the Colorado School of Mines and Foothills Art Center. Take a drive up to Lookout Mountain for a monumental view of Golden and Denver, as well as an opportunity to get in touch with nature at the Lookout Mountain Nature Center and Preserve.
Contributed by Diana Rowe, Traveling in Heels and Contributor/Editor at Traveling Mom
Set on the eastern shores of Lake Champlain you will find Burlington. It is Vermont’s largest city. With just over 42,000 residents this vibrant town is the perfect blend of chic boutiques, farm-to-table food and a bustling art scene. It is the birthplace of Ben & Jerry’s, Phish and Grace Potter. Church Street Marketplace anchors the town with a pedestrian only, open air mall. It draws people from near and far to enjoy year-round festivals, museums, shopping and dining. Outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the Burlington’s close proximity to the bike path, sailing center and beaches. There are plenty of spots to rent kayaks, paddleboards, and boats so that you can get out on the lake. There is no shortage of things to do with kids. Right on the waterfront you will find the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. It has 70 species of live animals, over 100 interactive exhibits, and daily activities. Not too far away is Shelburne Farms, a 1,400-acre working farm and National Historic Landmark. Hike the trails, visit the animals or see how their famous cheese is made. It is also worth a visit to the nearby Shelburne Museum. Here kids will love exploring the steamboat Ticonderoga, riding the carousel and exploring the Circus Building. Burlington truly has something for everyone.
Contributed by Dana Freeman, Dana Freeman Travels
Newport, Rhode Island
Newport, Rhode Island, is a small seaside city with large offering for visiting families. Gilded Age Mansions-Museums (be sure to ask for children’s self-guides), the world-renowned Ocean Cliff Walk, summer music festivals, shallow entrance white sand ocean beaches – all make great choices for a perfect day or weekend trip for families. On our recent day trips to Newport (we live about an hour away in a suburb of Boston), we went on a sail in Newport Harbor and on a trolley tour through the center of town and along the Ocean drive.
Contributed by Victoria Burdman, Celebrate the Weekend
Temecula is a gorgeous family friendly destination midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. Best known for its up & coming wine country but as the locals know… Temecula is actually a hidden gem for families too. Explore the history of Old Town, check out the children’s museums, go hot air ballooning or explore the Santa Rosa Plateau. Whether your family enjoys the outdoors or watching a Broadway style play, Temecula has you covered with everything from geocaching, to golf lessons for kids, a water park, trampolining, rock climbing, roller skating, horse back riding & more! Temecula also has some fabulous events throughout the year including the Balloon & Wine Festival, Pechanga’s Annual Pow Wow & my favorite Winterfest featuring a gorgeous outdoor ice skating rink in the center of Old Town lit up in holiday style.
Contributed by Amber Mamian, Global Munchkins
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Virginia Beach, VA is one of those small beach towns that comes alive in the summer, but still stays fun on the off season. Families flock to this part of Virginia year after year when they discover that there are so many things to do in Virginia Beach with kids The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center is the perfect spot on a rainy day for families who want to meet the creatures below the sea, but when the sun is out you will want to hit the beach, hop on a boat for a dolphin cruise, or head inland to pick a few pints of fresh blueberries. Nighttimes come alive when Virginia Beach brings in local and national acts to play their pier pavilions, and street artists entertain along Atlantic Avenue. Virginia Beach is safe enough for parents to let their teens wander with their friends, while parents with babies and toddlers will always enjoy a memorable food and art scene. Don’t fret over crowds and high prices. This beach destination is well priced for the number of amenities you get in the area, and if you want to escape the beach crowds stay at one of the hotels north of the boardwalk where most of the action takes place.
Contributed by Keryn Means, Walking On Travels
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Better known for the college vibe and football fever, Ann Arbor is also a fantastic place for families. There are plenty of kid-friendly fairs and festivals throughout the year where music, dance and food abound and art projects for the kids fill the sidewalks (check Ann Arbor with Kids for current events). Don’t miss the Hands-on Museum, a visit to the Cherry Republic to celebrate the spirit of northern Michigan and taste their cherry food creations and, of course, the famous Zingerman’s Deli for Obama-approved sandwiches and Zingerman’s Roadhouse for a laid back meal.
Contributed by Patty Monahan, Our Whole Village
Located just north of California’s Big Sur coastline, Monterey is known for its world-class aquarium, top-rated golf, burgeoning winery scene, and immense natural beauty. Where else can you go behind the scenes with marine biologists at a sea otter feeding and training session at an aquarium and then kayak alongside a flotilla of those adorable creatures all on the same day? The Monterey region is known for its ever-dramatic, often fog-shrouded coastline and is perhaps at its best Point Lobos State Marine Reserve – a meeting of turquoise waters, craggy cliffs, and sculptural cypress trees. After a full day of exploring (be sure to make time for the kids to enjoy the city’s massive Dennis the Menace playground), cozy up with a steamy bread bowl of clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf and watch the sea lions frolic as daylight disappears.
Contributed by Sharlene Earnshaw, Trekaroo
Which one of these cities would your family choose to spend their next vacation? Let us know in the comments below.