Ditch the same-old vacation spots for these charming towns and underrated cities that offer big-time vacation fun. While other more popular cities might first come to mind, these underrated travel destinations are top-notch and have as much (or more!) to offer families than their well-known counterparts. Hit the refresh button on your next family vacation and make 2022 your best travel year yet.
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You’ll get a gorgeous Pacific Northwest coastline, vibrant brewery scene, energetic downtown and loads of outdoor adventures when you visit Bellingham, WA. Located in Whatcom County just south of the Canadian border, Bellingham is the ideal family destination for those looking to explore the mountains on a hike, head out on the water for a whale watching tour or see what treasures can be found at all the local antique malls and kitschy shops. It’s just an hour and a half north of Seattle and you can even fly into their small airport to avoid the downtown traffic if you prefer. Check out our itinerary of all the places to see and food to eat when you visit Bellingham.
Families who visit Casper, WY find that it is full of history and outdoor adventures. Little paleontologists will be amazed from the minute they walk into the Tate Geological Museum and spot Dee the Mammoth (discovered nearby in 2006). You’ll love the quaint feel of downtown Casper and all the small shops like Donnells Candies and Mustard Seed where you can find unique gifts and treats to bring home with you. A visit to the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center brings you information about the Oregon, California, Mormon and Pony Express Trails that brought over 400,000 pioneers west from 1841-1868. Kids will especially love the interactive exhibit where they can test their strength at pulling a covered wagon to see how they’d fare as pioneers. Our guide to Casper, WY is full of other nearby adventures.
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville’s farm-to-table food scene has been shining a light on this creative city with restaurants like Edison at the iconic Omni Grove Park Inn, Foothills Butcher Bar and Posana (where even the kid’s menu is legendary). And while you’ll want to come with an appetite, this picturesque city in the Blue Ridge Mountains is also a dream for families. Start the day with a hearty breakfast at Biscuit Head or lodge-inspired Sawhorse and then head to the Asheville Adventure Center for the nation’s first zipline designed for kids. Or take a guided family hike to Catawba Falls with Blue Ridge Hiking Company.
The young and young-at-heart will love the beautifully renovated Asheville Art Museum, Pinball Museum and the small but mighty synthesizer museum, the Moogseum. Settle in for lunch and a choice of over 600 games at Well Played, an innovative board game cafe. And a trip to Asheville isn’t complete without exploring the 8,000-acre castle-like grounds of the breathtaking Biltmore Estate, which provides a peek into the life of the Vanderbilt family during the Gilded Age.
St. Augustine, Florida
History is alive in the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine. With a commanding view over the bay and 16th-century cannons on display, parents and kids will love visiting the city’s famed fortress, Castillo de San Marcos. Next, dive into pirate culture and see real-life treasure and shipwreck artifacts at the Pirate and Treasure Museum. Charming cobblestone streets and stunning historic architecture give this seaside city a stately European feel. Stay at one of the many B&B’s, like the family-suite at the St. Francis Inn where guests savor daily homemade breakfast and complimentary evening sweets. Take the Colonial Quarter tour for an interactive experience on what life was like in the early settlement days. Or, get up-close and personal to the native animals at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
As the name suggests, the main attractions in this underrated city are the therapeutic waters of the natural hot springs. Experience them first hand at Hot Springs National Park, dubbed “The American Spa” and home to 47 natural hot springs and miles of family-friendly hiking trails. Stroll Bathhouse Row for a view of the historic bathhouses and when you’re ready for a dip, step back in time at the historic Buckstaff Bathhouse for a no-frills soak in the therapeutic waters. However, hot springs are not the only game in town. Kids will love the 1.5-acre Evans Children’s Adventure Garden at the Garvan Woodland Gardens. The interactive garden rocks (3,200 tons of them!) encourage little travelers to explore and play in the natural environment. Or spend an afternoon exploring the fantastic Mid-America Science Museum, which is as fun for adults as it is for kids. Spark curiosity through thoughtful hands-on activities, the Tesla Coil live presentation and the award-winning Science Skywalk and DinoTrek.
Pittsburgh has undergone a renaissance in the last few years and this steel-mill river town has a lot to offer families. Discover kindness along the Fred Roger Trail, visit amazing museums like the Heinz History Center and the Warhol Museum, catch a game along the water (both the Steelers and the Pirates have waterfront ballparks) and choose from an array of affordable, stylish hotels. With more bridges than any other US city, breathtaking views from Mt. Washington and friendly folks wherever you go, you’ll fall in love with this unique city in no time.
Dubbed the ‘Switzerland of the America’s,’ Ouray feels like a quaint Swiss village minus the jet lag. Stroll the darling Main Street lined with family-friendly shops and restaurants like Colorado Boy Brewery and O’Toys. The whole family with love soaking and splashing in Ouray’s natural thermal hot springs in the center of town. Enjoy five separate geothermal, heated pools and an activity pool with an obstacle course and climbing wall, all surrounded by giant mountain peaks. When it’s time to hit the slopes, epic skiing is just an hour away at its famous neighbor, Telluride. When the snow melts, jaw-dropping hiking, camping and seasonal waterfalls in the surrounding mountains make for a trip to remember.
Foodies have been flocking to Portland in recent years for its amazing culinary scene, but this picturesque city is also a haven for families. When the weather permits, stroll the picturesque cobblestone streets of the Old Port, grab some live lobsters on the pier at Harbor Fish or nosh on wood-fired pizza at Flatbread Company. Head across the bridge to Willard Beach and search the tide pools for sea creatures. For an afternoon of indoor fun, check out the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine with locally-inspired exhibits, sea life touch tank and children’s theatre. To see this port city from the bay, take the Casco Bay Ferry to one of the many scenic islands off the coast.
Baltimore is one of those cities that sometimes gets a bad rap but we’re here to sing its praises. From world-class museums to historic sites a-plenty, this affordable, liveable city isn’t called Charm City for nothing. If you want to teach your kids about resilience, guts, and determination, visit Baltimore! We love the Inner Harbor for the proximity to the historic ships, National Aquarium, and the Port Discovery Children’s Museum. Plus find hidden gems like the Babe Ruth museum, Edgar Allan Poe’s gravesite and the Frederick Douglass Museum.
While this desert paradise is well-known to heat seekers, the greater Phoenix area is also a wealth of fun for families. Explore downtown and hit one of the best children’s museums in the nation, the Children’s Museum of Phoenix. Kids will love climbing, creating and exploring this imaginative museum. Or, get up close with giraffes and swing through the Monkey Village at one of the nation’s largest non-profit zoos, the Phoenix Zoo. Little engineers will flip for the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in nearby Scottsdale. Ride a locomotive around the park, walk through real-life train cars, and get ready for some little trains and big fun in the 10,000 square foot model railroad building. With year-round sunshine, Phoenix is a great place to get outside for a family hike or a leisurely stroll through the kid-friendly Desert Botanical Gardens with daily events and tours.
On the shores of beautiful Lake Superior, Duluth offers indoor and outdoor activities for the whole family. Start your Minnesota adventure at the Great Lakes Aquarium, home to sharks, stingrays and interactive exhibits highlighting the local ecosystem. Kids will also love the eco-friendly Duluth Children’s Museum where they can channel their inner paleontologist and dig for dinosaur bones or take the spotlight on the play stage. Or, hop a ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad with special themed tours like princess tea time and Thomas the Train. When it’s time to hit the road, opt for the scenic North Shore of Superior which earned a national designation as an “All-American Road.”
The stunning red-rock vistas surrounding Moab enchants visitors from the get-go. Adventurous families will love Moab’s many hiking and biking trails. But whether you hike or drive, a trip through the jaw-dropping Arches National Park is a must. When you’ve worked up an appetite stop by Moab Garage Company for lunch and made-to-order nitro ice cream. Pop in next door to Moab Made for locally-inspired goods and LEGO postcards. Kids will love Swanny City Park with ample space to run and play, a skate park and seasonal outdoor performances. The whole family will have a blast at the adjacent Moab Recreation and Aquatic Center with indoor pool and slide and outdoor lazy river and waterpark.
Palm Desert, California
While Palm Springs’ reputation as a sought-after resort destination is well-known, neighboring city Palm Desert is a family-friendly paradise worth a visit all on its own. Start your getaway admiring the giraffes, native animals and impressive model train display at the Living Desert Zoo. In the midday sun, head nearby to the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert, full of interactive fun where kids can take a turn building and racing a race car. Capture modern vibes and desert luxury at Hotel Paseo, located steps from Palm Desert’s upscale shopping and dining street, El Paseo. To soak in the resort lifestyle, stay at JW Marriott Desert Springs Resort & Spa, a 450-acre property of lush grounds, lagoons and outdoor pools. Here, you’ll find a range of wonderful dining options on-site and the whole family will love taking the Venetian-style gondola to dinner. Our Palm Springs guide is full of other nearby adventures.
San Luis Obispo, California
Nestled on California’s Central Coast, San Luis Obispo is a year-round outdoor paradise. Start the day hiking one of the many family-friendly hiking trails with sweeping vistas from city to the sea. Try the Lemon Grove Loop on Cerro San Luis Mountain near downtown. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to local-favorite Lincoln Market & Deli for pinball and gourmet sandwiches. Get crafty, and your sticker-fix, at the brick and mortar HQ of Pipsticks. This colorful shop is a rainbow dream come true for sticker-lovers of all ages. Stay at The Kinney SLO with year-round heated pool and arcade games or chic newcomer Hotel San Luis Obispo. Every Thursday Higuera Street comes alive at the Downtown SLO Farmer’s Market with local goods and performers. While you’re there, enjoy Novo Restaurant and Lounge’s coveted creekside patio or snag their famous ahi tuna nachos street-side. With beautiful beaches and family-friendly wine tasting nearby, San Luis Obispo is an under-the-radar city you might just fall in love with.
Savannah’s historical charm and southern hospitality make this underrated city a perfect vacation spot for families. Start the day with hands-on art and culture at one of the city’s museums. Check out the Jepson Center which houses a children’s museum space where kids can transform 2D shapes into 3D objects. Or head to the Savannah Children’s Museum located in Tricentennial Park. The museum was once the Central of Georgia Railway Carpentry Shop and is entirely outdoors. To refuel follow the map to the Pirate’s House restaurant. Kids will love the “Treasure Island” theme of this storied restaurant established in 1753. When the weather heats up head to nearby Tybee Island with almost five miles of beautiful beaches.
Buffalo, New York
Buffalo has transformed itself in the last few decades creating a buzz around New York’s second-largest city. Start your family adventure at the Explore & More Children’s Museum located on Buffalo’s waterfront. This new 43,000 square foot museum has seven play zones to engage kids and highlight the region with locally-connected exhibits. History buffs young and old can tour a World War II-era cruiser, destroyer and submarine at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, the nation’s largest inland naval park. To really enjoy the water views, hop aboard the Spirit of Buffalo schooner for a pirate-themed sailing complete with a treasure hunt, face painting and pirate stories.
––Kate Loweth & Kerry Cushman