With summer fast approaching, it’s time to start planning our vacations. Planning an enriching vacation for a family can be challenging with so many options and so many peoples’ interests to consider. Cities are popular destinations, but profound discoveries and adventures while traveling need not be tethered to bucket-list destinations. If you’re looking to bring the whole family along on a trip to a city rich with art, history, science and outdoor fun, we’ve taken a deep dive into some of the most unexpected and underrated family-friendly cities.
Whether you’re East or West Coast or anything in between, the U.S. has a seemingly endless list of destinations that kids will love. Here, we have taken a look at six less conventional choices for summer vacations and revealed distinct opportunities for family travel, some of which also translate to financial savings. Sit back, relax and get your credit card ready — you’re going to want to book one of these vacations ASAP.
Arizona is probably the last place you’d consider visiting in the summer, but Sedona and neighboring Flagstaff are both well above sea level, and temperate, comfortable weather is common in the summer. Swim at Grasshopper Point, where a waterfall stream collects in a 50-foot-wide pool, and Slide Rock State Park, where quick currents mimic a waterpark. Drive the 7.5-mile Red Rock Scenic Byway and explore Red Rock State Park, the Coconino National Forest, Cathedral Rock and the Verde Valley Wine Trail (in the Verde Valley Canyon, canoe or kayak and tour ruins left by early inhabitants).
There are also more than 80 art galleries in Sedona, with a great range of creative work, including jewelry, pottery, weavings, sculpture, paintings and photography.
Where to stay: Of the many spas and resorts in the area, L’Auberge de Sedona is by far the most gorgeous resort in the area. It’s nestled in Oak Creek Canyon and features views of Sedona’s famous red rocks and the tranquil Oak Creek.
San Jose, California
:San Jose, California
In Silicon Valley, several museums, among them the Intel Museum and The Children’s Discovery Museum, reflect the region’s identity as a vanguard in terms of technology. The Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose currently includes Tilt Brush as part of its “Reboot Reality” exhibit; HTC Vive Virtual Reality headsets allow visitors to create 3-D paintings and sculptures from a 360-degree perspective, and Birdly simulates “the closest thing to bird flight possible.” Visitors can also program robots and tour the systems of the human body through augmented reality.
Visit the San Jose Museum of Art and the San Pedro Square Market, which are within blocks of the Tech Museum.
San Jose is also a short distance from some of the oldest coastal redwoods in the country at Big Basin Redwoods State Park (some of their redwoods predate the Roman empire), the scenic Santa Cruz Mountains and wineries that benefit from the same 19th-century vines as those in Napa and Sonoma.
Where to stay: The Dolce Hayes Mansion is a 100-year-old estate with exemplary sustainability standards and stunning views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Along with the AC Hotel and The Fairmont, the Dolce Hayes has a lovely outdoor pool. Hotel rates are lower in San Jose than in San Francisco, and as it’s a business hub, are lower on the weekends compared to weekdays.
Durham, North Carolina
:Durham, North Carolina
Durham is a short 20-minute drive from Raleigh-Durham International Airport and a versatile destination. The revitalized American Tobacco Company campus is now home to the Durham Bulls AAA baseball team and the Durham Performing Arts Center. At nearby Duke University, you will find the sharply manicured Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the Duke Lemur Center — home to nearly 240 primates across 17 species — and contemporary art at the Nasher Art Museum.
For outdoor adventure, Eno River State Park, a short 15-minute drive from downtown, stretches 30 miles and is ideal for canoeing, kayaking and swimming. NCTripping, published by Durham locals Carl Hedinger and Christina Riley, is a great resource for statewide travel tips.
Where to stay: The Durham Hotel’s mid-century modern design was created by the LA-based firm Commune; the rooftop restaurant, The Durham, is helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing.
Kansas City, Missouri
:Kansas City, Missouri
The City of Fountains (only Rome has more) is flush with delights for young travelers — Legoland and Duplo Village, The Puppetry Arts Institute, Schlitterbahn Waterpark, the Crown Center Kaleidoscope, Worlds of Fun amusement park and the Kansas City Zoo — as well as cultural enrichment for all. In addition to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, visit the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art — the latter is home to Shuttlecocks by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen and sculptures by Henry Spencer Moore, Alexander Calder and Robert Morris alongside an extensive permanent collection. Both art museums are a five-minute drive from the Country Club Plaza (known locally as The Plaza), where many of the aforementioned fountains accent a pretty Spanish-style shopping and dining promenade.
For an evening out, also consider the Power and Light District, 10 minutes north. Kansas City barbecue is distinct for its tomato-based sauce (the sweet version incorporates molasses), and burnt ends are a staple. Some of the region’s best barbecue is at Fiorella’s Jack Stack, Oklahoma Joe’s, Gates and Arthur Bryant’s. Distilleries are also prolific in Kansas City. Some date back to the 19th century, like J. Rieger & Co. and Holladay Distillery.
Where to stay: IHG’s InterContinental at the Plaza will situate you nicely if you prefer a more luxurious accommodation. If you’re looking for something more budget-friendly, there are several other corporate hotel chains nearby that are family-friendly and conveniently located.
Aspen is a vibrant home for the arts and a springboard for the outdoor enthusiast. The Maroon Bells, 14,000-foot-high peaks that are reputed to be the most-photographed mountains in North America, are accessible via bus from the Aspen Highlands Visitor Center. Hiking trails and cycling paths for all skill levels are abundant there (in the White River National Forest) and along the Roaring Fork River, which flows in part through downtown Aspen; a popular and accessible path from downtown is the Rio Grande Trail.
Ride the Silver Queen Gondola up to Aspen Mountain — during the summer, yoga classes are offered at the top, where there is also a weekend concert series. For live performances, check the calendars for Jazz Aspen Snowmass, The Aspen Music Festival & School, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Theatre Aspen, the Wheeler Opera House and Belly Up. The Aspen Recreation Center and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies have robust programming for all ages, and the John Denver Sanctuary offers a morning meditation series.
Where to stay: The Aspen Square Condominium Hotel, a spacious downtown property, is often listed at a compelling price point via Expedia, Hotels.com and other online travel agencies.
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
:Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
While the Outer Banks is an iconic summer destination, the very southern reaches are further distinguished for preserving the history of piracy during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Goods making their way to settlers in the new colonies enticed pirates (British sailors, businessmen and former privateers in the British Navy) from their efforts in the Caribbean. As a barrier island, Ocracoke presented adequate shelter for vessels poised to attack. The most infamous pirate to camp on Ocracoke is Edward Teach, also known as the pirate Blackbeard. To immerse yourself in this history, visit the Ocracoke Preservation Museum, Teach’s Hole and Museum (Teach’s Hole is where Blackbeard met his demise) and the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. Springer’s Point, once the site of Blackbeard’s raucous parties, is now a serene nature preserve — look for migratory birds (more than 400 species have been spotted), as well as sea turtles and dolphins.
Where to stay: Blackbeard’s Lodge is near the village center as well as the coastline, which is part of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Proprietor Stanley ”Chip” Stevens descends from William Howard, who purchased Ocracoke Island from King George III in 1742. Amenities include a pool deck surrounded by cedar trees, bicycle and golf cart rental and free shuttle service to and from the airport.
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