Ah, the great Midwest. It’s maybe not the most idyllic part of the country for a vacation because it lacks a traditional tropical atmosphere or ski resorts for snow bunnies, but personally, that’s what I love about it!
As an unconventional vacation area, you can experience fewer crowds and overpriced tourist traps.
Unconventional doesn’t mean boring. Anything but! These 13 Midwest vacation destinations prove that fun is always around the corner, even if the beach is miles away.
1. Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Few places in the Midwest are as focused on family fun as Wisconsin Dells. Great Wolf Lodge originates here, which is today one of the best indoor water parks in the country (and in Canada!).
Besides the indoor slides and rides, kids can spend the day playing at an arcade, enjoying delicious dining with yummy treats, building stuffed friends at Build-A-Bear Workshop, or being mesmerized by the flashing lights and sounds at the Northern Lights Arcade.
Kalahari Resorts & Conventions is another excellent indoor water park to explore, with 125,000 square feet of wet, watery fun and a newly renovated resort with 230 hillside suites.
Your stay includes admission to the Timbavati Wildlife Park, the closest you can get to a safari experience while in the United States.
You can only find Tom Foolery’s Adventure Park in Kalahari, an indoor amusement park with bowling, a lounge, rides, games, an arcade, and kid-friendly food. The selection of rides here includes a carousel, Ferris wheel, laser tag, and go-karts, among others.
Noah’s Ark Waterpark has the distinction of being the largest in the area. However, since it’s an outdoor water park, it’s only open seasonally. Plan your visit to Wisconsin Dells in the summer to ride the four-person Chameleon, the bowl ride Time Warp, and the Flash Flood.
When your family is through with the best water slides in town, dry off and head to the Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, the premier science attraction in Wisconsin Dells. The hands-on exhibits make learning about science fun.
Follow that up with a visit to the Rick Wilcox Magic Theater for some dazzling entertainment you must see to believe.
After expanding your mind, you’re ready for Wizard Quest, a unique Wisconsin Dells attraction where families must find hidden wizards. It’s a great way to challenge yourselves and work together as a unit.
Wisconsin Dells is known for its golf, including adventure golf at Pirate’s Cove and the Wilderness Resort, which has some of the best golfing in the state. The Wilderness Resort also has eight water parks on its grounds, including four outdoor and four indoor.
They are Cubby’s Cove Indoor Waterpark, the 70,000-square-foot Wild West Waterpark, the Wild Waterdome Water Park, and the 65,000-square-foot Klondike Kavern Waterpark.
Bounce and play all day at Knuckleheads, a trampoline park with an arcade, mini golf, bowling, a ropes course, bumper cars and go-karts, and dark rides. Bigfoot Zipline Tours has some ziplines open year-round, such as the ZipZilla.
2. Branson, Missouri
Although it might seem somewhat off the beaten path, Branson is one of the best places to visit in the Midwest for family excitement and togetherness. Actually, make that one of the best places to visit in the country.
I don’t say that lightly! If your family is into amusements, don’t miss Silver Dollar City in the Ozark Mountains, which TripAdvisor declared its number one theme park in the country. Between the food, the entertainment, and the attractions, the kids will already be in heaven.
Then there are the rides. Each is unique, from roller coasters to plunging water rides, spinning swings, mini coasters for kiddos, and a carousel. Silver Dollar City also has an award-winning outdoor water park open in the summer.
The Track is another amusement park with a location in Branson. It’s known for its looping, twisting go-kart track, but the park also features a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, bumper boats, laser tag, batting cages, laser mazes, mini golf, and an arcade.
Take a ride of a different sort on the Branson Scenic Railway, a daytime train ride with dining. It’s available to ride between March and November.
I highly recommend Talking Rocks Cavern, a daily cave tour open all year regardless of the weather. This guided walking tour takes you through a breathtakingly wondrous cave. You’ll learn all about its history as you wander through.
The Butterfly Palace features 1,000 butterflies in exotic, eye-catching colors flitting about. They’re sourced from all over the world. You can do more than watch them – you can also feed them! The Critter Center houses exotic reptiles, and the kids will love the Mirror Maze and Banyan Tree Maze.
The museums in Branson are fascinating, especially the World’s Largest Toy Museum. What kid wouldn’t love that?
3. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The fun never stops in Milwaukee! Although it’s mostly known for its bubbling brewery scene, the kid-friendly entertainment here is way plentiful, making it worth your time to bounce over after exhausting your options in Wisconsin Dells.
Incorporate some history into your Wisconsin stay at Wisconsin’s Natural History Museum. This public museum will teach your little ones about zoology, history, geology, botany, and anthropology.
Another great way to learn about zoology is by seeing animals up close and personal, achievable at the Milwaukee County Zoo. This is one of the best zoos in the country, because, besides its huge selection of animals, it has rides!
The Sky Safari is a gondola ride that takes visitors high into the sky. The Sky Adventure Zip Line and Rope Course is as fun as it is challenging, while a ride on the Safari Train or carousel is just fun. Kids can also get around on ScooterPals, a rentable animal-themed scooter service with four fun animal options.
The Mitchell Park Domes are a horticultural conservatory featuring a Tropical Dome, Desert Dome, and Floral Show Dome. These enclosed areas keep the temperatures just right to showcase amazing flora and fauna.
Make it a cultural experience at the Discovery World Science and Technology Museum Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Harley-Davidson Museum (yes, like the motorcycles), and the East Troy Railroad Museum.
The seasonal Bay Beach Amusement Park in nearby Green Bay overlooks the shining Fox River. Its array of rides features a heart-pumping roller coaster, and events occur all the time at the pavilion, including movies and dances.
4. Chicago, Illinois
The Windy City is one of the premier Midwest family vacations. As one of the biggest cities in the entire country, you and your family will be able to find something to do, no doubt about that.
If you’re looking for other unique activities, I’ve got plenty. Chicago Children’s Museum has exhibits for exploration. Kids Town and Treehouse Trails are two permanent exhibits for babies and toddlers curious about the world around them. Both feature crawler and infant play areas.
Older kids will appreciate exhibits like the larger-than-life Storyland, the sky-high Cloud Buster, the crafty Art Studio, the exciting Pritzker Playscape, the Dinosaur Expedition, and Tinkering Lab, where kids can test out their engineering and architectural abilities.
Skydeck Chicago at Willis Tower is a glass-enclosed attraction for witnessing the very best of Chicago’s skyscrapers from their vantage point! Rooftop dining is available if you can’t get enough of the view.
Back on ground level, the Brookfield Zoo maybe doesn’t get the lion’s share of visitors (I’m sure you saw what I did there), but it’s still popular. Kids can see animals A through Z and learn from staff about conservation efforts for preserving the world’s most amazing creatures.
Let the good times roll at WhirlyBall, the home of the famous whirlyball game. You play with a scoop like wiffleball. You can also enjoy laser tag, bowling, pop-up games, and yummy eats like burgers and pizza.
Chill out at the Adler Planetarium, which runs shows and events centered around our great universe and the other planets in the solar system.
Of course, no visit to Chicago is complete without going to Millennium Park, the home of Cloud Gate, aka The Bean.
5. Traverse City, Michigan
Michigan’s Traverse City is the biggest city in Northern Michigan and an idyllic place of calm and tranquility.
Beyond its many vineyards are stretches of greenspace that will make you happy you left the video games and smartphones behind. Mt. Holiday is the top ski resort in the area and an inviting spot for a winter getaway.
You can do more than ski here if that’s not your style. Snow tubing, snowboarding, and ziplining are also available for heart-pounding thrills. Replenish your energy at T-Bar & Grill when you exit the slopes.
In the summer, Keith J. Charters Traverse City State Park is 75 acres, including a quarter-mile beach with a beach house. The other features are mini cabins, a lodge, a campground, and trails.
I also recommend spending a day at the Great Lakes Children’s Museum. This museum gets busy, so make your reservations ahead of your visit. Then your children can enjoy the exhibits.
Skill Builder Stations, the Great Lakes Watershed, Water Cycle, and The Hatchery are exhibits for kids between one and three.
Older kids between five and eight shouldn’t miss the exhibits Guardians of the Great Lakes, Shore Prints, Building Bridges, Up Periscope, Lilliputian Puppet Theater, and Waves of Gravity.
6. Hocking Hills State Park
This park is 2,300+ acres and has more than 20 miles of hiking trails, which are open all year long. You’ll want to wear your hiking boots to see all seven parts of the park: Hemlock Bridge Trail (which leads to Whispering Cave), Rock House, Old Man’s Cave, the nature preserve Conkle’s Hollow, Cedar Falls, Cantwell Cliffs, and Ash Cave.
When you complete the trails, spend your days picnicking, mountain biking, fishing, boating, or rock climbing. There’s a visitors center at Old Man’s Cave with exhibits and a gift shop.
Stay for a while at the Hocking Hills State Park Campground for RVs and trailers. You can also plan a stay at the Hocking Hills State Park Lodge, which has 81 rooms, a veranda, a Jacuzzi, an outdoor and indoor pool, a barroom, and a restaurant.
7. Lake Geneva
The enchanting Lake Geneva is yet another Wisconsin vacation destination for families to strongly consider. It’s a resort city with charming lakeside elegance.
Excitement awaits! The Grand Geneva Resort offers mountaintop skiing in the frozen winter months. When the snows thaw, it’s time to go horseback riding, play golf, ride a bike, or take an invigorating hike here.
Crazy Coyote’s Cave Arcade features fun games like Down the Clown, Connect 4 Hoops, Milk Jug Toss, Fishbowl Frenzy, Water Gun Fun, and Monster Drop Extreme. Many games print out tickets if you win that you can exchange for fabulous prizes.
Get sky-high at Lake Geneva Ziplines & Adventures, a TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice 2023 award recipient. The tree-lined property you’ll play at is 100 expansive acres, which is how it has the space for nine ziplines of varying heights and a suspended jungle gym with 17 obstacles.
The kids will have a blast conquering the Climbing Tower, which features a vertical obstacle course and three walls. You can take 12 unique ways up!
The Safari Lake Geneva presented by “Jungle” Jay Christie is a drive-through animal experience. Stay in your car, follow the course, and get ready for free-roaming animals like giraffes, zebras, camels, and goats. Let them come up to your window and feed them a bowl of grain, which the park provides to each car.
Timber Ridge Lodge & Waterpark proves that Wisconsin has all the best indoor water parks around. This resort’s water park is an immense 50,000 square feet with outdoor and indoor attractions.
The indoor temperature is always 86 degrees Fahrenheit, and some of the slides here ascend beyond 30 feet. The lazy river is 500 feet long, so the ride feels fresh from start to finish.
After playing at the park, explore the resort’s other activities, such as bowling, an arcade, and mini golf. Some activities are only available seasonally.
8. Mackinac Island
Michigan’s Mackinac Island is a dream vacation for many families. It’s situated on Lake Huron, with serene views that beckon and call. You’ll naturally relax your pace when vacationing here, taking the time to breathe in the smells and sights of the island.
The starring attraction here is Mackinac Island State Park, the first state park in Michigan, created in 1895. For over a century and a half, the park has remained a focal point of the island. It helps that the park comprises more than 80 percent of the island, which makes spending time here a given.
The glaciers and seas have changed in level for more than 10,000 years, and all its history is preserved here. Far more history comes alive at Mackinac Island State Park, as you can explore Michigan’s fascinating history at landmarks and sites.
Some that you should prioritize seeing are Mission Church in the historic downtown area, the Bark Chapel in honor of the Jesuits from the 1650s, the British Landing Nature Center (open seasonally between May and August), Fort Holmes from the 1810s, the Michigan Governor’s Summer Residence from the early 1900s, and the Scout Barracks.
How about some hiking? Mackinac Island State Park has more than 70 miles of trails and interpreted roads. Not all are paved, so they’re favored by people walking on foot, riding a bike, or taking a horse.
The park runs annual British Landing Nature Programs, with alluring options like the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail on the Arch Rock Bicycle Trail, the Native American Cultural History Trail, a Nature Discovery Walk on the British Land Nature Trial, and Mackinac’s Natural Wonders.
9. Badlands National Park
Discover the Land of Stone and Light at South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. A phenomenal spot for a spring or summer family vacation, Badlands is 224,000 acres, so you can easily make a week or two out of visiting and only then possibly see everything.
Watch the prairies carefully, as you might see a black-footed ferret, prairie dog, bighorn sheep, or bison pop out. Even if you don’t, the lovely prairies are still great to gaze upon.
You’ll do a lot more than looking during your stay at Badlands National Park. The kids can become Badlands Junior Rangers, receiving their own shiny badge for the program completion.
It’s worth waking up early for the serene sunrises over the red mountains. At the very least, consider staying out to see the sunset. Alternatively, you can hop in the car and take Highway 240, also known as the Badlands Loop Road, for a two-hour scenic drive, or drive the Sage Creek Rim Road, a dusty trail.
The Fossil Preparation Lab is a must-see for the kiddos. Paleontologists work here and will gladly show your young ones the fossils they’ve recently unearthed. Keep in mind the Fossil Preparation Lab is only available for tours in the summer.
The White River Visitor Center and Ben Reifel Visitor Center are open across all seasons and include exhibits.
Camp out under the stars in a tent or RV, or book a cabin in Cedar Pass Lodge ahead of your stay.
10. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
The four presidents memorialized in the stone at South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore National Memorial are worth seeing in person instead of in photos, but I recommend this park for more than that. After all, you can see the statues in an hour and be on your merry way.
The memorial is a hiker’s dream, so if you’re an active type of family, it’s a great place to get outside and experience the South Dakota sunshine. The Presidential Trail, which takes between 20 and 45 minutes to hike, has views of stone outcrops and lush pines.
The main view on this trail is that of Mount Rushmore. You’ll be glad you took the time to hike this trail, as the sights are unbelievable.
The Sculptor’s Studio is an awesome learning opportunity to study Gutzon Borglum, who created the statues adorning Mount Rushmore. This is a nice break from hiking and should take less than an hour.
The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center is another great place for a reprieve. It features museum exhibits and has a 14-minute short movie about how Mount Rushmore came to be, including the carving techniques Borglum utilized.
The Blackberry Trail is a longer one for kids three and up that takes at least an hour to hike. The ranger programs for kiddos will ensconce them in the Mount Rushmore lifestyle, so don’t miss it!
11. Duluth, Minnesota
Take a trip to the port city of Duluth, which overlooks the glass-like, serene Lake Superior. It’s one of the most popular tourist spots in the Midwest for its myriad attractions and entertainment.
The Great Lakes Aquarium has the distinction of being the only aquarium in the nation that uses all freshwater for its exhibits. That does limit the range of creatures you can see, but it makes the Great Lakes Aquarium unlike any other.
Discover your wild side at the Lake Superior Zoo. Kids can see them all, from invertebrates to amphibians and reptiles, birds, and mammals. Animal feedings are sometimes available, elevating this experience. A café and gift shop are also on the grounds.
Immerse yourselves in the locomotive history of Minnesota at the Lake Superior Railroad Museum or by taking a ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad. This inexpensive ride spans 28 miles across the Lakefront Line, including Two Harbors and Duluth.
In the summer, a visit to Park Point is the perfect way to spend the day here. This spot, also known as Minnesota Point, is a sand spit that stretches along Canal Park, dividing the Duluth Harbor Basin, Superior Bay, and Lake Superior.
Park Point has lifeguards in the summer for swimming, volleyball, hiking trails, pavilions, picnic tables, bird watching, boat launches, BBQ grills, and a community center.
Another great public park to add to your itinerary is Bayfront Festival Park. Overlooking Lake Superior’s shores, this park has a long calendar of activities and events, including food, art, entertainment, and music.
The park doesn’t become a ghost zone in the winter. You can scope out the holiday light displays and go ice skating.
12. Bayfield, Wisconsin
The serene Bayfield, Wisconsin, is another sterling Midwest destination for a family vacation. It’s tiny, having the fewest residents in the state, but that’s part of its charm!
Stroll its quaint streets, popping into stores like the Apostle Islands Booksellers or the Bayfield Artists Guild. Breathe in the smells of the sea when you reach the peak of the Big Ravine on the West Rim Trail.
Explore the Bayfield Maritime Museum to learn of this city’s fascinating nautical past. You can even book a boat tour by day if you’re eager to ride the seas with a guide.
The starring attraction here is Apostles Island National Lakeshore, which has dreamy views of Lake Superior. Unsurprisingly, it’s a hub for aquatic activities, from fishing to boating, kayaking, and scuba diving.
The well-maintained trails here stretch on for more than 50 miles, giving you incredible vantage points of the island on your adventures. The campsites are secluded and quiet, perfect for a night of stargazing, roasting marshmallows, and telling spooky ghost stories.
13. Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland rocks, and you and your family will find that out firsthand! This Midwest wonder on Lake Erie is the only place to see the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which will surely be one of the first destinations you visit during your vacation.
Visitors also flock to the house from A Christmas Story, lovingly maintained to look just the way you remember it on the big screen. This spot gets especially busy during the holidays, but you might have better luck visiting during other times of the year.
Experience Cleveland culture by touring the vendors at the West Side Market. You can stock up on beef, desserts, produce, wine, baked goods, herbs, pasta, nuts, maple syrup, and everything in between.
A visit to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is a must. Get lost in areas of the zoo like The RainForest, the African Savanna, the Wilderness Trek, or the Australian Adventure, seeing animals like cheetahs, lions, gorillas, Asian turtles, and Andean bears.
Continue the fun with an up-close giraffe encounter, African elephant crossing, 4D theater, ziplining on the Eagle Zip Adventure, or riding the Boomerang Line antique train or the Circle of Wildlife carousel.