9 Family-Pleasing Vacation Destinations
America is a big, beautiful country waiting to be explored. From bustling urban cities to awe-inspiring mountaintops and breathtaking beaches, there’s a destination for every interest and desire.
Step back in time to relive a famous event in American history, go skydiving without a plane, splash through cooling Olympic park waters or tour the most famous residence in the U.S. We’ve got the scoop on these memorable activities and more in this roundup of nine family-friendly U.S. destinations.
UP IN THE SKY
TIP: Managing children in a confined space for an extended period of time is no easy task — especially when you’re flying through the air. Load up digital devices with new games for in-flight entertainment. Pack plenty of snacks and extra clothes for mishaps. Eliminating potential crankiness will help ensure a smoother, saner flight for all.
Flight time from the Triangle: About 5 hours
Known as the live music capital of the world, Austin boasts 100-plus live music venues, beautiful art and outdoor spaces. The Colorado River runs through downtown, but residents call it Lady Bird Lake.
Spend a day at Zilker Metropolitan Park, a 350-acre oasis beloved by locals and ideal for families. Take a ride on the Zilker Zephyr, an open-top miniature train for a 25-minute tour alongside Barton Creek and Lady Bird Lake. Austin Nature & Science Center, also located in the park, features exhibits of live animals that have been injured or orphaned. Kids can go on an archeological dig by uncovering castings of actual dinosaur bones that have been found in Texas.
Before you leave the park, cool off at Barton Springs Pool, a 3-acre natural limestone pool fed by underground springs. All activities are wallet-friendly since many are free and others cost just a few dollars per person.
Head over to iFly Austin Indoor Skydiving to experience skydiving without a plane. A wind tunnel and powerful fans create a true free fall effect during which participants are completely disconnected and don’t even need a parachute. Participants from ages 3 to 103 have flown here.
Take another adrenaline-pumping adventure by flying across breathtaking canyons and Lake Travis on the longest and fastest zip line in Texas at Lake Travis Zipline Adventures. After your high-flying ride, relax on the half-mile beach. Lounge in a hammock, play a game of horseshoes or cool off in the lake. Loaded picnic baskets are recommended.
End your day in Austin with a spectacular view of 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that live beneath the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge and take flight in a mass exodus each night at dusk. It’s free, but courage is required.
For more ideas, visit to austintexas.org.
Flight time from the Triangle: Less than 2 hours
One of the oldest cities in America, Boston is awash in historical significance and claims many firsts — the first lighthouse, subway, library, university and public school in America, for example. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the very first telephone call from his Boston machine shop. You can explore these and many other well-preserved historic sites Boston has to offer.
Join actors in period costumes to relive the Boston Tea Party by dumping tea overboard one of the authentically restored tea ships at Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. Lace up your sneakers and walk The Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile red path that leads to 16 American Revolution sites, including the Paul Revere House, USS Constitution and Bunker Hill Monument. Follow costumed guides representing the 18th Century on a 90-minute tour or venture out on your own. Download The Freedom Trail Official App for more guidance.
Boston Children’s Museum features high-tech, hands-on art, culture and science experiences. Kids can ride a Bobcat in the Construction Zone or scale a three-story structure made of flowing, curved platforms at New Balance Climb. Kids can also sit in musical chairs, dance on a lighted dance floor and play a gigantic chess game at The Common.
Situated alongside the Charles River, the Museum of Science houses hundreds of interactive exhibits along with shows in the Charles Hayden Planetarium and IMAX movies in the Mugar Omni Theater. Budding architects and engineers can design, build and test a prototype, and young biologists will enjoy The Hall of Human Life.
For more ideas, visit bostonusa.com.
Flight time from the Triangle: Just over 2 hours
The third largest city in the U.S., Chicago is known for its beautiful downtown, 26 miles of lakefront and friendly Midwestern vibe that attracts over 40 million visitors each year.
Experience the iconic Navy Pier, a landmark extending nearly 1 mile into Lake Michigan, where visitors can ride on a 150-foot Ferris wheel and enjoy restaurants, shops and fireworks extravaganzas.
Adjacent to the Navy Pier, explore the Chicago Children’s Museum. Build a skyscraper, tinker with real tools or climb on a rope-suspended schooner. Visit Museum Campus to explore The Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.
Enjoy incredible views of the city at Skydeck Chicago where you can step onto The Ledge, a glass balcony extending 4 feet outside the 103rd floor, if you dare. Take in a 360-degree view of four states at the John Hancock Observatory.
Be sure to stop by Millennium Park, a gathering spot in the heart of downtown Chicago. Have your photograph made in front of The Bean, an outdoor sculpture resembling an enormous metal bean. In the summer, kids can splash around in Crown Fountain, an interactive work of public art.
Take Chicago’s First Lady Cruise to learn about 50 famous Chicago buildings. You can also choose from other cruise outings such as fireworks cruises, nighttime tours and dinner cruises.
Calling all animal lovers! Lincoln Park Zoo, the country’s oldest public zoo, is also one of the world’s last free admission zoos — and it’s open every day of the year.
A slice of deep-dish pizza is a must-have when visiting Chicago. Try three legendary pizzerias: Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, Giordano’s Pizza and Gino’s East of Chicago.
For more ideas, visit choosechicago.com.
RIDE THE RAILS
TIP: Taking a train is safe, comfortable and affordable. When the journey is part of the experience, kids are entertained by watching the world go by. Prevent restlessness by roaming around the train to explore and burn off energy. Bring a carry-on bag packed with entertainment and snacks to curb boredom and hunger.
Train travel time from the Triangle: Just over 6 hours
Famous for peaches, peanuts, the Atlanta Braves and President Jimmy Carter, Atlanta bustles with activities for the entire family.
Centennial Olympic Park, built for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, offers plenty of outdoor space for walking and playing. Kids can cool off at the Fountain of Rings on hot summer days. Right next door, Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest, offers 9½ acres and 8 million gallons of undersea exhibits. Don’t miss the beluga whales, whale sharks and manta rays.
Quench your thirst at World of Coca-Cola, a museum and interactive experience in one. Try over 100 Coke flavors from around the world, watch a short film titled Moments of Happiness, view the world’s largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia and learn about the legend of the secret Coca-Cola formula in the Coca-Cola 4-D theater. Be sure to stop by the Coca-Cola Store for a souvenir.
Purchase an Atlanta CityPASS at worldofcoca-cola.com/purchase-tickets/special-ticket-offers/city-pass to access the World of Coca-Cola, CNN Studio Tour, Fernbank Museum of Natural History or High Museum of Art, and Zoo Atlanta or the Atlanta History Center and Margaret Mitchell House.
Visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site to learn about the life and legacy of this iconic civil rights leader. You’ll see his birth home, the church where he preached and the memorial site where he is buried. Admission and parking are free.
For heart-pounding thrills, Six Flags Over Georgia features high-action family fun. The largest theme park in the Southeast offers rides for guests of all ages. Bring your swimsuit so you can enjoy waterpark rides to beat the heat on hot days.
Explore 3,200 acres of preserved land at Stone Mountain Park. Take the Summit Skyride to the top of this 825-foot granite wonder for an up-close look at the mountain’s Confederate Memorial carving. Ride a train or take a paddlewheel riverboat cruise for a 360-degree view of the mountain.
No trip to Atlanta is complete without a meal at the largest drive-in fast-food restaurant in the world, The Varsity, famous for its chili cheese dog and fried pie.
For more ideas, visit atlanta.net.
Williamsburg and Virginia Beach
Train travel time from the Triangle: About 3.5 hours to Williamsburg, then another hour to Virginia Beach
Take a trip to Williamsburg and Virginia Beach for the best of both worlds — a historic experience and beach vacation. Since these cities are only an hour apart, you can blast into America’s past and enjoy the waves.
Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history museum in the U.S. This beautifully restored 18th-century town features costumed actors who recreate the American Revolution time period. Tickets are required to enter and provide access to historic sites, museums and programs.
Visit the Jamestown Settlement to experience America’s 17th-century Colonial beginnings and board replicas of the three ships that brought America’s first permanent English colonists to Virginia. Interact with costumed Native Americans in the Powhatan Village through live demonstrations of cooking and toolmaking. In James Fort, watch tradespeople show off their skills.
Take a Tavern Ghost Walk to learn about ghosts who still haunt Colonial Williamsburg’s taverns and historic buildings. This early-evening activity is suitable for all ages.
A European-themed adventure park with 17th-century charm, Busch Gardens Williamsburg offers 100 acres of family fun. Roller coasters and gentle rides for the little ones make this a fun destination for the entire family.
Beat the heat at Water Country USA, the mid-Atlantic’s largest water park, where a 1950-60s surf theme entertains all ages. Get wet on waterslides, falls and water cannons.
Need more soaking? Virginia Beach offers beautiful beaches, a lively boardwalk, a historic lighthouse and outdoor activities. Hike or bike around First Landing State Park to discover cypress swamps and nesting grounds for a variety of birds.
For more ideas, go to visitvirginiabeach.com and visitwilliamsburg.com.
Train travel time: Just over 6 hours
Service provided by: Amtrak
Touring The White House, strolling along the National Mall and gazing at national treasures will leave a lasting impression on children and adults. This budget-friendly destination offers more than 100 free attractions.
The most famous address in the U.S. is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., where the U.S. president resides. White House tours take visitors through the East Wing; State Dining Room; and Red, Blue and Green Rooms. Visit whitehouse.gov to find out how to book a tour.
Watch millions of dollars being printed at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing as you overlook the production floor during this free, 40-minute tour.
The National Mall is a 2-mile green space spanning the banks of the Potomac River, from the U.S. Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial. View the Washington Monument, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial while walking along this pedestrian-friendly boulevard.
Often called America’s treasure chest, the Smithsonian consists of 17 separate museums. The most popular museum in the world, based on attendance numbers, is the Air and Space Museum. Other popular Smithsonian museums include the American History Museum, the Museum of Natural Sciences and the National Zoo, where baby panda Bao Bao and her parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, are the zoo’s most popular attractions. Admission is free.
Take the Metro rail system to reach locations around the city quickly and provide some fun for the kids.
Rent a paddleboat on the Tidal Basin for a great view of the Jefferson Memorial when you need a break from touring.
For more ideas, visit washington.org.
ON THE ROAD
TIP: Minimize how many times you hear, “Are we there yet?” by using roadtrippers.com. Just upload your destinations and interesting places pop up on the site’s map to make your road trip more entertaining. Choose from a variety of offbeat attractions, scenic points or historic monuments.
Travel time from the Triangle: Just under 4 hours
Tucked in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this lively mountain city offers an active outdoor community and a bustling art and music scene. Thanks to Art Deco skyscrapers, buzzing cafes and eclectic bistros, Asheville has been dubbed “Paris of the South.” Not only does it possess a cosmopolitan flair, it also reflects a laid-back mountain vibe that lures visitors from far and wide.
A must-see is America’s largest home: Biltmore Estate, a French Renaissance-style mansion with 250 rooms. Marvel at the two-story library, gilded elevator, indoor swimming pool and bowling alley. Children can pet baby animals in the estate’s farmyard or drive across obstacles on the Land Rover Kid’s Adventure Course. (Photo at right of Biltmore Estate is courtesy of exploreasheville.com.)
Go Bellayaking, a new way to travel down a river that was created in Asheville, by paddling while on your stomach using webbed gloves. This provides a great way for beginners to explore the French Broad River. Riders advance to their knees, then feet.
Experience a unique aerial obstacle course at Asheville Treetops Adventure Park.
Kayaking through the trees or snowboarding on open air are just two of the 50 unique challenges offered, which range from beginner to advanced skill levels. Kids as young as age 7 have taken the challenges
In Pisgah National Forest, take a slide down Sliding Rock. This 60-foot natural waterslide has delighted young and old for years and offers a great way to cool off on a hot summer afternoon. There is a nominal $1 parking fee.
Animals and plants native to the Southern Appalachian region can be seen at Western North Carolina Nature Center. You’ll find 60 species of animals including river otters, bobcats, cougars and red and gray wolves. Children can also snuggle up to farm animals and hop on a red tractor.
For more ideas, visit exploreasheville.com.
Travel time from the Triangle: Just over 4 hours
For many years, Charleston has maintained a high ranking on many travel surveys as a top U.S. destination. This Southern city’s rich history, elegant architecture and coastal landscapes draw nearly 5 million visitors each year, according to Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
Clippity-clop down cobblestone streets atop a carriage ride offered by one of the many carriage tour businesses in Charleston to learn about the city’s history and culture. You’ll pass breathtaking antebellum mansions, historic churches and enchanting side streets.
Explore the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, where George Washington was entertained and American patriots and pirates were imprisoned. A period costumed guide leads small groups on a 30-minute tour through the dungeon.
Visit the South Carolina Aquarium on historic Charleston Harbor, home to loggerhead sea turtles, alligators, great blue herons, jellyfish and sharks. The aquarium’s largest exhibit, The Great Ocean Tank, extends from the first to the third floor.
Stroll through the Historic Charleston City Market, where individual vendors sell products in open-air buildings. Browse art, clothing, food products and sweet grass creations.
Grab a swing and enjoy the view from Waterfront Park. Walk to the end of the pier to take in the shores of the Cooper River. On hot days, kids can play under the streaming water at Splash Fountain.
Just a few blocks south of Waterfront Park you’ll find Hazel Parker Playground, which offers a fenced-in area for little ones and an open area for older kids.
Go on a treetop adventure at Wild Blue Ropes, Charleston’s first open-air ropes course, where families can challenge their athletic abilities, enjoy the outdoors and have fun.
For more ideas, visit charlestoncvb.com.
Crystal Coast, N.C.
Travel time from the Triangle: About 3 hours
The Crystal Coast stretches from Emerald Isle to Beaufort and Cape Lookout. Pristine beaches, laid-back towns and a welcoming atmosphere make this stretch of beach a favorite summertime destination for families. Due to countless shipwrecks along the shore, including a World War II German U-boat sunk by the Coast Guard in 1942, the region has garnered the nickname, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
See wild horses and go shelling with Port City Tour Company. After a 15-minute ferry ride to Shackleford Banks on the Cape Lookout National Seashore, visitors are guided to see wild horses, then given an opportunity to go shelling on one of North Carolina’s best shelling beaches.
Located on Bogue Banks, Fort Macon is home to a pentagon-shaped Civil War fort.
Surrounded on three sides by water — the Atlantic Ocean, Beaufort Inlet and Bogue Sound — Fort Macon is free and offers nature trails, opportunities for surf fishing and a protected swim area.
Climb to the top of the 150-year-old Cape Lookout Lighthouse to enjoy the endless ocean views. Nicknamed “The Diamond Lady,” it’s one of North Carolina’s most iconic lighthouses.
The infamous pirate Blackbeard lost his flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, when it ran aground in Beaufort Inlet. View artifacts from the ship and experience interactive exhibits to learn about Blackbeard at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort.
Get up close and personal with marine life at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. While you’re there, check out the 300,000-gallon tank featuring a replica of a sunken World War II German U-boat and a variety of sea life.
No seaside vacation is complete without getting out onto the water. Experience a variety of sailing and fishing excursions available throughout the area for aqua adventures, such as dolphin cruises, sunset sails, moonlight cruises and sport-fishing daytrips.
For more ideas, visit crystalcoastnc.org.
Not-So-Plain Plane Travel With Kids
Planning a plane trip in the next few months? Traveling with children can be exhilarating and exhausting. Here are tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to help make your family’s travel safe and stress-free.
- Allow extra time to get through security.
- Have children wear shoes and outer clothing that are easy to remove for screening. (Children under age 12 are no longer required to remove their shoes for routine screenings.)
- Bring strollers through security to be gate-checked before boarding.
- Talk to your children about the security screening process in advance. Let them know backpacks and stuffed toys must go through the X-ray machine, but will be returned.
- Take along your own car seat or arrange for one at your destination. Airlines may allow families to bring a car seat as extra luggage at no additional charge.
- Children under 40 pounds are best protected when properly restrained in an Federal Aviation Administration-approved car seat on the plane that is appropriate for the child’s age, weight and height.
- Ensure that each child has his or her own seat. Although the FAA allows children under age 2 to sit on an adult’s lap, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that families try to ensure that each child has his or her own seat. If it is not feasible to purchase a ticket for a small child, try to select a flight that is likely to have empty seats.
- Pack toys and snacks to keep your child occupied during the flight.
- Encourage your infant to nurse of suck on a bottle to decrease ear pain on ascent and descent. Older children can chew gum or drink liquids with a straw.
Please note: Travel times are estimates and do not account for possible layovers.
updated May 6, 2014