7 Unique Places to Visit with Kids

When planning a family vacation, it’s tempting to fall back on destinations everyone already knows and loves. But if you are looking to switch things up, you can kindle the excitement that comes from experiencing something new.

Organizing a fresh trip that’s fun for all ages is easier than you might think. Find inspiration from what your kids love to do. With their interests guiding the process, you can tap into their sense of fun and adventure. Also, by including your kids in the planning, you’re helping them invest in the vacation.

Here are a few unique, kid-friendly vacation spots the whole family will love.

If your kid loves … marine life

Go to Monterey, California

The Monterey Bay Aquarium houses all manner of marine wonders. The Kelp Forest exhibit (28 feet tall) and the Open Sea exhibit (90 feet wide), in particular, provide expansive views of sharks, eels, tuna, sardines and sea turtles. Kids will be fascinated to learn that the aquarium inspired the underwater world in Pixar’s animated movie “Finding Dory.”

Once you’ve explored the aquarium inside, head to the outside deck to see sea otters, humpback whales and other marine creatures in the wild on Monterey Bay.

Afterward, continue exploring (and get some exercise) on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, 18 miles of paved path that hugs the coast near the aquarium, and Fort Ord Dunes State Park, about 10 miles north.

Getting there: For the shortest drive to the aquarium, fly into Monterey Regional Airport, about 5 miles southeast. The nearest major airport is Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 75 miles north.

Staying there: The Best Western Plus Victorian Inn is a half-mile from the aquarium and features family suites with separate living and sleeping areas. Plus, it offers discounted tickets to the aquarium.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium houses all manner of marine wonders. The Kelp Forest exhibit (28 feet tall) and the Open Sea exhibit (90 feet wide), in particular, provide expansive views of sharks, eels, tuna, sardines and sea turtles. Kids will be fascinated to learn that the aquarium inspired the underwater world in Pixar’s animated movie “Finding Dory.”

Once you’ve explored the aquarium inside, head to the outside deck to see sea otters, humpback whales and other marine creatures in the wild on Monterey Bay.

Afterward, continue exploring (and get some exercise) on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, 18 miles of paved path that hugs the coast near the aquarium, and Fort Ord Dunes State Park, about 10 miles north.

Getting there: For the shortest drive to the aquarium, fly into Monterey Regional Airport, about 5 miles southeast. The nearest major airport is Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 75 miles north.

Staying there: The Best Western Plus Victorian Inn is a half-mile from the aquarium and features family suites with separate living and sleeping areas. Plus, it offers discounted tickets to the aquarium.

If your kid loves … history

Go to New Orleans

 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium houses all manner of marine wonders. The Kelp Forest exhibit (28 feet tall) and the Open Sea exhibit (90 feet wide), in particular, provide expansive views of sharks, eels, tuna, sardines and sea turtles. Kids will be fascinated to learn that the aquarium inspired the underwater world in Pixar’s animated movie “Finding Dory.”

Once you’ve explored the aquarium inside, head to the outside deck to see sea otters, humpback whales and other marine creatures in the wild on Monterey Bay.

Afterward, continue exploring (and get some exercise) on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, 18 miles of paved path that hugs the coast near the aquarium, and Fort Ord Dunes State Park, about 10 miles north.

Getting there: For the shortest drive to the aquarium, fly into Monterey Regional Airport, about 5 miles southeast. The nearest major airport is Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 75 miles north.

Staying there: The Best Western Plus Victorian Inn is a half-mile from the aquarium and features family suites with separate living and sleeping areas. Plus, it offers discounted tickets to the aquarium.

If your kid loves … history

Go to New Orleans

 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium houses all manner of marine wonders. The Kelp Forest exhibit (28 feet tall) and the Open Sea exhibit (90 feet wide), in particular, provide expansive views of sharks, eels, tuna, sardines and sea turtles. Kids will be fascinated to learn that the aquarium inspired the underwater world in Pixar’s animated movie “Finding Dory.”

Once you’ve explored the aquarium inside, head to the outside deck to see sea otters, humpback whales and other marine creatures in the wild on Monterey Bay.

Afterward, continue exploring (and get some exercise) on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail, 18 miles of paved path that hugs the coast near the aquarium, and Fort Ord Dunes State Park, about 10 miles north.

Getting there: For the shortest drive to the aquarium, fly into Monterey Regional Airport, about 5 miles southeast. The nearest major airport is Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 75 miles north.

Staying there: The Best Western Plus Victorian Inn is a half-mile from the aquarium and features family suites with separate living and sleeping areas. Plus, it offers discounted tickets to the aquarium.

If your kid loves … history

Go to New Orleans

 

Monterey Bay Aquarium Open Sea exhibit The Open Sea exhibit is the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s largest, with a 90-foot wide window for viewing jellyfish, sharks, and schools of fish.

 

If your kid loves ... history

Go to New Orleans

New Orleans is teeming with history and is the perfect place to visit with kids who are history buffs. French Quartour Kids hosts history tours aimed at children of all ages. On the Creole Kids Tour, children ages 7 to 12 find out what life would have been like for them in the 1830s. The Teen Tour, for ages 11 to 18, explores the people and places that make the city unique. Another tour for teens teaches about New Orleans music.

At the renowned National WWII Museum, visitors can immerse themselves in the artifacts and personal stories that defined World War II. On select Saturdays, Kids Canteen opens for children to enjoy hands-on crafts and a kid-friendly WWII-themed movie (kids get in free, adult entry is $7).

If you’re in town on a Wednesday, don’t miss the Bayou St. John Walking Tour by the Louisiana Landmarks Society, which gives visitors a glimpse into 18th-century New Orleans, including a restored colonial country home and one of the city’s famed above-ground cemeteries.

Getting there: Fly into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport — named after one of the city’s famous native sons — pick up your rental car and drive about 15 miles to downtown.

Staying there: The Bourbon Orleans Hotel, which opened in 1819 and has lots of history in its halls, is situated in the vibrant French Quarter, close to many family-friendly activities.

The National WWII Museum includes exhibits like America Responds, which shows the efforts to encourage hometown support for the war. Photo by Olivier Bruchez

 

If your kid loves … to play

Go to St. Louis

City Museum is the centerpiece of any St. Louis vacation for kids. Located in a 10-story, 600,000-square-foot former warehouse, the museum is described as a “mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion and architectural marvel made out of found and repurposed objects.” Your kids can spend hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the space. In the warmer months and weather permitting, you can access the rooftop (for $5) and ride the Ferris wheel. When the tykes finally tire out, drive 1.5 miles to Crown Candy Kitchen, serving up malts, shakes, sundaes and (of course!) candy since 1913.

St. Louis is also perfect for families because of its many free and affordable activities, from the zoo to the science center.

Getting there: Fly into St. Louis Lambert International Airport, where most places are accessible by car in 20 to 30 minutes.

Staying there: The Courtyard St. Louis Downtown/Convention Center is a half-mile walk to the City Museum and less than a mile to other major attractions, such as the iconic Gateway Arch.

City Museum in St. Louis sprawls inside and outside a 10-story building. MonstroCity, a giant labyrinthine jungle gym including two planes, soars above the parking lot. Photo by H. Michael Miley

 

If your kid loves … to explore and hike

Go to McMinnville, Tennessee

Cumberland Caverns outside McMinnville, Tennessee, is more than 32 miles long and 333 feet underground, where it’s a cool 56 degrees year-round.

This national landmark has options to suit all adventure-seekers: Explore the cavern during a 90-minute self-guided walking tour, follow a private guide around and even stay overnight (reservations are required for the private guide and overnight). Some areas have steep stairs carved into the stone, so be sure your family is up for the challenge.

When planning your trip, be sure to check upcoming concerts in the Volcano Room, which boasts superior acoustics and unforgettable ambiance. For nearly a decade, the space was the site of the PBS show “Bluegrass Underground.”

More adventure in nature awaits at Fall Creek Falls State Park and Rock Island State Park, both within 35 miles of McMinnville. These parks feature many miles of trails for hiking and spots for swimming, fishing and bird-watching.

Getting there: Fly into Nashville International Airport, pick up your rental car and drive about 70 miles southeast to McMinnville.

Staying there: The Best Western Tree City Inn in McMinnville — winner of a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence in 2019 — provides the perfect base camp for exploring Cumberland Caverns and nearby state parks.

Explore the many miles of caves at Cumberland Caverns on a walking tour or an overnight adventure. Photo by Eli Christman

 

If your kid loves … solving mysteries

Go to Washington, D.C.

The International Spy Museum relocated to a new, $162 million facility in May 2019 and reimagined itself with more real-life examples of espionage and modern intelligence.

Listen to stories from real spies, examine the tools of the trade (such as a lipstick pistol used by secret Russian operatives during the Cold War) and get hands-on with interactive exhibits (play the role of U.S. president, for example, and make decisions based on intelligence reports you’re given). Beginning in 2020, the museum will reopen Operation Secret Sleepover, where kids ages 9 to 13 and their parents can stay overnight in the museum and go on special spy missions. (Check the official website for timing of the sleepover reopening.)

Just a couple streets away from the Smithsonian Institution’s many museums and the National Mall’s memorials, the area around the spy museum is rich with places to visit with kids. For more can’t-miss spots, check out this insider’s guide to visiting Washington, D.C.

Getting there: Choose from several airports: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is about 4 miles southwest; Washington Dulles International Airport is about 30 miles west; and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport is about 35 miles northeast.

Staying there: The Hilton Washington DC National Mall has an outdoor pool and couldn’t be more convenient to the spy museum next door.

The International Spy Museum has a futuristic building indicative of the interactive exhibits and examples of modern intelligence that visitors will find inside. Photo by Farragutful.

 

If your kid loves … animals

Go to San Diego

San Diego is excellent for animal-loving kids. The San Diego Zoo is home to 3,500 rare and endangered animals and has many ways for visitors to experience them, from traditional viewings to daily encounters — see a Tasmanian devil up close — and three themed play areas where kids can burn off excess energy. With your admission, you can access a guided bus tour, a hop-on-hop-off bus, an aerial tram and daily shows of the zoo’s animal “ambassadors.”

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 35 miles northeast of the zoo, is a walk-through sanctuary with wide-open field enclosures that exhibit animals in the most natural way possible. Daily scheduled animal shows provide up-close encounters with animals such as cheetahs and alligators. In the summer, the safari park is open late on select evenings and offers aboriginal wind instruments, steel drums and other special entertainment.

Getting there: Fly into San Diego International Airport and pick up your rental car. Many hotels and attractions are a short drive away.

Staying there: The Lafayette Hotel, Swim Club & Bungalows is an iconic spot that’s easy on the budget. Located less than 2 miles from the zoo, the boutique hotel features a pool that’s perfect for lounging and unwinding, designed by Johnny Weissmuller, a five-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming (he also played Tarzan in the film series of the ’30s and ’40s).

The San Diego Zoo simulates six African habitats, including the Ethiopian Highlands, where hamadryas baboons live. At 12:30 p.m. each day, keepers talk about these playful monkeys.

 

If your kid loves … planes and trains

Go to Chicago

If your kid is crazy about airplanes, go to Chicago — and make a point to visit in mid-August during the Air and Water Show, which features the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration squadrons in alternating years. The two-day waterfront show is free, though if you prefer a unique vantage with lighter crowds, you can pay to reserve a spot on board Odyssey Cruises or at a place along the lakefront, such as Caffè Oliva.

Continue your exploration of airplanes at the Museum of Science and Industry, which displays the fuselage of a Boeing 727 that visitors can climb through and has flight simulators available to ride (the simulators are for ages 10 and up and require a separate paid ticket).

The Museum of Science and Industry is also a train lover’s paradise, with The Great Train Story model train exhibit, the Pioneer Zephyr diesel-electric train that debuted in 1934 and a steam locomotive from 1893.

About 6 miles north of downtown, volunteer model railroaders in the Garfield-Clarendon Model Railroad Club run their trains along 1,400 feet of hand-laid track. The club is open to visitors most Fridays from 7 to 9 p.m. and two Sundays each year.

For more things to see and do in the city, check out this guide of how to tour Chicago like a local.

Getting there: Fly into one of two major airports: O’Hare International Airport is about 20 miles northwest of downtown; Midway International Airport is about 15 miles southwest.

Staying there: The Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park is in the center of the action and has a solid deal for those traveling with kids: From March to September, the Family Moments package provides a 50 percent discount on a second room for children younger than 18.

Demonstration squadrons soar above North Avenue Beach at the free summertime Chicago Air and Water Show.

 

Ideas for Involving the Kids in Vacation Planning

Kids can contribute to every stage of the vacation planning process — and when they are involved in putting it all together, they will be even more engaged during the trip. Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Watch videos together to decide where to go on vacation and what to do there.

  • Collaborate on a playlist of songs with a theme related to the destination (for example, blues for St. Louis and Chicago, country for McMinnville, jazz for New Orleans).

  • Designate a day or time during the trip when your kids pick the activities, and help them plan it.

  • Help them make travel snacks, like trail mix.

  • Give them a camera and a journal to document the trip.

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About the Author

Monique Curet is a former newspaper reporter and current freelance writer who lives in Chicago. She has traveled extensively with her 10-year-old son, who has given his personal seal of approval to several of these destinations.