Sometimes it’s the unexpected destinations that make for the most memorable family getaways. Maybe it's the lack of preconceived ideas or expectations that frees us to seek adventure. At these up-and-coming cities, kids can zipline between towering abandoned grain elevators, clamber through a warehouse filled with giant tubes and ladders and explore a historic cruise ship, in addition to visiting world-class aquariums, riding historic trains and having good old-fashioned family fun. Read on for the best underrated cities for your next family getaway.
Nowhere does the term “rustbelt revival” apply more accurately than in Buffalo, once among the richest cities in America before it fell on hard times with the decline of the steel industry. In fact, “rustbelt renaissance” might be more like it, with creativity, playfulness, and arts of all stripes on display throughout the city. Take Explore and More: The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Children’s Museum, which just opened last month in a new downtown location. Aimed primarily at toddlers and school-age kids, the 43,000-square foot museum is divided into seven areas themed according to aspects of Buffalo’s history. Kids can stick their hands in a 30-foot waterfall, power up a life-size water wheel, and navigate boats through locks to learn about the importance of the Erie Canal and Niagara Falls, or they can dress up and play house in a series of homes designed to reflect Buffalo’s multicultural heritage of welcoming immigrants, very much alive today. Around the museum, the Canalside revitalization project has transformed the city’s once-industrial waterfront into a walkable promenade with paddle boats and kayaks on hand to rent. Stop by one of the many convenient Reddy Bikeshare kiosks and take a ride down to the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, where three decommissioned warships – including a submarine - welcome visitors.
Just across the river, Buffalo Riverworks has transformed a cluster of the city’s abandoned grain solos into an adventure course complete with zipline, swinging rope bridge, and climbing walls up to 50 feet tall, and offers an Escape Room as well. Speaking of silos, teens will beg to join Explore Buffalo’s Silo City Vertical tour, which includes climbing to the top of one of the eerie abandoned towers. Half an hour east of the city, family-owned Kelkenberg Farm offers hay rides, pony rides, and a chance to pet baby lambs and milk a goat. Buffalo also boasts the excellent Buffalo Zoo, and Buffalo Museum of Science, and everyone in the family will want to follow the Buffalo Wing Trail, experiencing the many varieties of this famous Buffalo dish.
While Denver is the city that first comes to mind when you think of Colorado, nearby Boulder has become a hotspot of family friendliness, anchored by a wealth of outdoor parks that make it the perfect vacation spot for nature-loving families. Boulder’s crown jewel, Chautauqua, was founded in the 19th-century as a family retreat and today the park features 40 acres of hiking trails, expansive lawns, and stunning views of the Flatiron Mountains framed against the sky. The onsite Ranger Cottage has excellent wildlife displays and the staff will help you pick the perfect hike for your family’s level of interest. And don’t leave without stopping for ice cream at the Chautauqua General Store, housed in one of the historic retreat cottages.
Along with the University of Colorado with its Fiske Planetarium and Museum of Natural History, Boulder is home to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where kid-friendly exhibits include an e enormous animated globe, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where kids will relish the chance to create their own tornado and touch a cloud. In the center of town, the pedestrian boulevard of Pearl Street bustles with musicians and street performers while cafes serve hot chocolate and other treats. Biking is big, big, big in Boulder, so join the fun by renting bikes from University Bicycles or taking an e-bike tour with Boulder Tour Company, which features electric-assist cruisers that ease your way up Boulder’s steep slopes.
It all starts with trains in California’s capitol city, where the California State Railroad Museum is home to 19 steam locomotives dating back to 1862, including a sleeper car that feels like its rocking you to sleep. On weekends, the Excursion Train departs the depot in Old Sacramento for a 45-minute ride along the Sacramento River, with special seasonal rides including the Spookomotive in October and the Polar Express in December – and there’s a Thomas the Tank Engine play area for the smaller set. Serious train enthusiasts can also head over to Railtown 1897 in nearby Jamestown to see the historic roundhouse and steam trains, including Sierra No. 3, star of more than 100 movies, including Back to the Future III. Old Town Sacramento has plenty more to do, including the Tower Bridge – a vertical lift bridge that rises up to admit boats - the River City Shooting Gallery and a restored historic schoolhouse. There’s plenty here for younger kids too, from quirky Fairy Tale Town with its vintage 1950s storybook exhibits to Funderland, an old-timey amusement park that’s free except for the cost of rids.
Less than an hour up into the foothills, the South Fork of the American River is one of California’s most popular areas for whitewater rafting; join the experienced guides at OARS and experience the thrill of navigating Class III rapids with names like Troublemaker and Meatgrinder. Closer to town also on the American River is the Effie Yeaw Nature Center with interactive wildlife exhibits.
There’s nowhere in the world like St. Louis’ City Museum, a vast, multi-story warehouse transformed into a warren of mazes, tunnels, bridges, slides, climbing structures – even a ferris wheel – all constructed from repurposed building materials scavenged from the city’s derelict factories. Crafted by a battalion of visionary artists over a span of more than 12 years, the museum still considers itself “under construction,” with new areas opening all the time. The acrobats and jugglers of Circus Harmony perform daily.
A more conventional children’s museum, The Magic House, has room after room of play areas, interactive construction zones, and arts and crafts areas. Next on the list of must-dos is the Gateway Arch, prime symbol of the city’s role as the gateway to westward expansion. Ride to the top on an unusual tram that follows the curved span to its 630-foot peak, affording views 30 miles in all directions. Sports fans will want to cheer on the Cardinals from Busch Stadium.
How may cities have a museum of firefighting? Phoenix does, and the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting is a lot of fun, with fire-fighting wagons dating back to 1725 and the chance to dress up, climb a pole and operate a fire hose. Phoenix is rich in such small, specific museums - the Phoenix Police Museum gives kids the rare opportunity to put on a uniform and see a police car, helicopter and chopper up close while the Musical Instrument Museum has more than 7000 instruments from around the world. The family-run amusement park Castles and Coasters features a water flume ride, go-karts, and ropes course in addition to the classic rides.
The Desert Botanical Garden, one of Phoenix’ biggest draws, is fun for the entire family; while parents admire the exquisite landscapes, kids will marvel at the towering cacti and everyone will enjoy a nighttime flashlight tour. Don’t leaving without experiencing Arizona’s cowboy culture, still very much alive, by going on a ride with Corral West Horse Adventures.
The first zoo in the country to be accredited as an aquarium and botanic garden as well as a zoo, the Indianapolis Zoo incorporates four biomes, providing natural forest, desert, plains, and ocean habitats for animals, plants and birds from all over the world. More distinctions go to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the largest such museum in the world, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame, which houses many of the innovative racecars that have won – or come close to winning - the Indy 500. And then of course there’s the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself, where you can take a narrated tour of the 2.5-mile track and hear about the history of this legendary place.
Two hours north of the city, Pokagon State Park is worth the trip for an all-weather refrigerated Toboggan Run thrill ride that operates November to March with vertical drops so steep that speeds can reach 40 mph. Tube slides like the Raging Rapides make the Caribbean Cove Water Park and Hotel the perfect place to cool off.
A visit to Iowa’s state capitol can start with experiencing the grandeur of the 1886 State House and finish with watching elk and bison graze in In between, the Des Moines Art Center is a repository of groundbreaking modern art where the PappaJohn Sculpture Park will have the kids laughing over some of the more unusual pieces. The downtown farmer’s market, which takes place on Saturdays through October, is enormous
Less than an hour away in Story City, which boasts a picturesque downtown straight out of the movies, the hand-carved chickens, pigs, dogs and horses of the Story City Carousel have been beautifully restored to their original state, and rides are accompanied by an antique Wurlitzer organ dating to 1936. The kids won’t let you skip an afternoon at Adventureland, an old-school amusement park, or Living History Farms, where Percheron draft horses still pull ploughs and costumed guides demonstrate the tools and trades of pioneer living.
Don’t let the reputation of Fort Collins as a college town and mecca of craft beer and artisanal food fool you – that just adds a bit of parental fun to a visit to this high plains city just south of the Wyoming border. What you’ll find here is the classic all-American downtown – so classic, in fact, that it was the model upon which Walt Disney based Disneyland’s Main Street. On selected weekends, take a ride around Old Town on Birney Car 21, a perfectly preserved 1919 streetcar, or see it parked in lush, green City Park.
Venture to the upper reaches of the Cache La Poudre River for whitewater rafting, or stay lower down to enjoy its world-class fly fishing. Don’t miss the dinosaur exhibits at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery or the chance to watch a movie in its Digital Dome, which projects images overhead as well as on the circular walls. Fort Collins is proud of its festive traditions, which include numerous music festivals and monthly gallery and foodie walks that bring locals and visitors together in the festive Old Town Square. Speaking of food, Ginger & Baker occupies the historic Northern Colorado Feeders Supply building with a market, restaurant, café and bakery featuring pies in combinations like jumbleberry and cookies and cream.
Pittsburgh welcomes families with such enthusiasm that its visitors’ bureau has coined the term “Kidsburgh” for its numerous family-friendly attractions, which include riverboat rides, the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum with its many historic streetcars, and the complex of museums and historic buildings known as The Frick for its founder, industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick. Among these, kids will love the Car and Carriage Museum and touring the restored 19th-century mansion to see how the wealthy lived in the late 19th century.
The Carnegie name is all over Pittsburgh, nowhere with better results than the Carnegie Science Center and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, both of which wow with spare-no-expense exhibits. At the Science Center, SpacePlace lets kids experience working in a space station, BodyWorks displays detailed anatomical models including preserved organs, and yes, the visiting exhibit Explore Mummies of the World, opening October 5th and continuing until April 19, 2020, features the real deal. And the natural history museum’s Bone Hunters Quarry lets kids search for fossils, chisel in hand.
Where else can you tour one of America’s most iconic cruise ships, The Queen Mary, in the morning, then spend the afternoon wandering a world-class aquarium right next door? This is Long Beach, California, once a somewhat grungy industrial port south of Los Angeles, now a waterfront destination with family attractions that far outstrip those of its more elegant Southern California neighbors. Visit with the Magellan penguins at Aquarium of the Pacific, where you can also touch a shark, feed a manta ray, and feel as if you’re swimming with giant schools of fish in cleverly designed tanks.
Outside, the Lorikeet Forest is an outdoor aviary where kids can hand-feed the colorful birds. Take a 45-minute boat trip with Harbor Breeze Cruises to view the city’s waterfront from the water, or venture further out on a whale-watching trip to see humpbacks, grays and dolphins.
By Melanie Haiken