Summer vacation is a time the entire family treasures. The kids are off school, parents take time off work, and the weather is perfect. It’s prime time for getting together as a family and creating memories the kids will talk about long after returning to school in September.
The question becomes, where to go? This is a topic of discussion that can begin as early as spring break when the days begin getting warmer.
The kids want to visit exciting places that offer fun, cool activities. Parents want something cost-effective.
Everybody wins with these 11 U.S. summer vacation spots.
As one of the biggest cities in the country, you can expect to find something special in Chicago. The Illinois city on Lake Michigan is known for its larger-than-life skyscrapers and monumentally awesome architecture.
It’s also the home of the Chicago deep-dish pizza. You might have had deep dish before, but never the real deal unless you’ve visited Chi-Town before.
You also can’t miss sinking your teeth into a Chicago dog made with celery salt, sport peppers, pickle, tomato, onion, relish, and mustard.
What better way to see Chicago than from the 360 Chicago Observation Deck? It’s 94 floors up the iconic John Hancock Center, 1,000 feet above the city. The panoramic views of the city and the surrounding Lake Michigan will astound you. Better have your phone ready to take photos!
As you continue your tour of iconic Chicago, consider seeing a game at historic Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. You also can’t miss the Cloud Gate sculpture, lovingly nicknamed The Bean, in Millennium Park.
Navy Pier is another must-visit spot on your summer family vacation. The food here is a cornucopia of the best in Chicago dining, from hot dogs to flavored popcorn, mile-high ice cream, pizza slices as big as your head, juicy burgers, and more.
The rides and games are designed for all ages, from tame carousels and Ferris wheels to thrilling dark rides and spinning swings.
The Chicago Riverwalk is a low-cost way to spend the day, as you can stroll its scenic paths for free. You’ll see beautiful views of the Chicago River and connecting water systems. The Riverwalk contains public art installations and a children’s playscape from the Design Museum. Dining is also available.
Kids won’t want to miss Shedd Aquarium and its collection of creatures such as penguins, belugas, sea otters, turtles, and sharks. The aquarium is also an advocate for animal conservation.
See more creatures at the famous Lincoln Park Zoo. The kids will marvel over the 200 animal species on display but take some time to see the 800+ plant species across this 50-acre park. Some of the oak trees are more than 100 years old!
If you’re planning an extended stay in Chicago, the zoo’s camps, the LEAP program for kids two to four, and overnight campouts are unique experiences the children will never forget.
2. Cape Cod
The Massachusetts peninsula of Cape Cod is where families flock when the weather gets warm enough in the summertime.
Between its lighthouses, beaches and bays, museums, and adorable villages, there’s so much to do here that you can easily spend a week or two.
The succulent seafood is divine, as it’s freshly caught. Even if you regularly dine on seafood at home, rarely will you have more delightful meals than in Cape Cod.
Make a beeline for the Cape Cod National Seashore, the most popular spot in the area. This historic beach has more than sun and surf. It also features hiking trails, boating, cycling, fishing, and paddling.
Do you need to beat the heat? The Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor Center provides information on the area and has a small museum.
If the Cape Cod National Seashore is too crowded for you, you can always venture over to nearby Nickerson State Park in Brewster. This Cape Cod park is nearly 2,000 acres and features another beach. It also has 400 campsites, ponds, and wooded hiking trails.
When you dry off, why not take a lighthouse tour? The Nauset Light was originally built in 1923 from a tower constructed in 1877. It’s since been restored.
The Nobska Lighthouse between Vineyard Sound, Nantucket Sound, and Buzzards Bay is all the way on Cape Cod’s southwestern tip.
The museums here are anything but run-of-the-mill. The Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum is an ode to Pilgrim history in Cape Cod.
The Puget Sound looks especially alluring in the summertime, a sight your family should personally experience by visiting Seattle.
This isn’t your average summer vacation, as you’ll surround yourself with deep green forests, mountains, and bodies of water in addition to the beach (although Seattle also has those).
The seafood here is also divine due to the city’s proximity to the water. Seattle is also known for its coffee, as it was the founding home of everyone’s favorite coffee chain, Starbucks.
Take the kids for a trip to Pike Place Market to do some shopping at the Public Market Center. Vendors of all types set up their wares here, including florists, small businesses, craftspeople, and farmers. Buskers and restaurants round out this unique strolling experience.
You and the family cannot miss the Space Needle, Seattle’s most recognizable sight. It’s open all year, day and night. Your purchase includes a professionally-taken welcome photo and a Skyhigh Selfie to commemorate this one-of-a-kind experience.
Although you won’t get as high, a spin on The Great Seattle Wheel, a Ferris wheel, still offers charming city views. At night, the Ferris wheel glows against the water with more than 500,000 bright LEDs.
When you come back down to earth, why not check out some art or museums? Seattle has plenty of them, including Olympic Sculpture Park, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Museum of Pop Culture.
The Seattle Aquarium will delight younger and older children alike. The daily activities calendar consistently changes, with presentations each day on engaging, fun topics. Kids can even feed marine mammals like harbor seals or sea otters.
Follow up your fun aquarium day with a visit to the Woodland Park Zoo. This award-winning zoo has over 200 animal species available to view in exhibit areas like Tropical Asia, Trail of Adaptations, Living Northwest Trail, Temperate Forest, and the Butterfly Garden.
Some creatures are critically endangered, so you can have a conversation with the kids about animal conservation.
4. San Francisco
Northern California’s most illustrious city, San Francisco, attracts families for many reasons. It has picture-perfect beaches, warm weather that never ends, and varied attractions and entertainment.
For instance, you can take the kids on a historical visit to Alcatraz Island, only reachable by ferry.
You can’t miss San Fran’s most recognizable sight, the Golden Gate Bridge, which links the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay.
The Golden Gate Bridge brings in more than 10 million visitors per year, and who can blame them? It’s an ode to American history. Walking across the bridge will take you to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area with vista points and trails.
Follow that up with an afternoon at Golden Gate Park since you’ll be in the vicinity. The perfect place to spend a summer day, the park has playgrounds, an archery field, a basketball court, athletic fields, golf, and disc golf courses, racquetball and handball courts, fields, a pavilion, and a skate park.
Dining is available at Golden Gate Park, including casual eats like hot dogs and a lovely Japanese tea garden.
PIER 39 is the place to be for summertime fun for the whole family. This tourist attraction features a marina with sea lions, virtual 3D rides and other attractions, its own aquarium, performances, games, shopping, and dining.
Spread out in the sunshine at Mission Dolores Park, enjoying the sports courts, a children’s playground, a dog play area, athletic fields, and a picnic space.
Take a break from the sun to explore San Francisco’s captivating art galleries and museums, including the breathtakingly exquisite Palace of Fine Arts, the imaginative Exploratorium, the physical history of the California Academy of Sciences, and the beloved San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
You could take a Hawaiian getaway to Honolulu almost any time of the year, and it will be ultra-special, but there’s something about visiting in the summer that makes it the ultimate family vacation.
The peerless beaches, tropical atmosphere, and deep culture will make you feel like you’ve traveled somewhere exotic that requires a passport, but nope! You’re right here on American soil.
Now is a wonderful opportunity to sample Honolulu’s unique island cuisine consisting of acai bowls, katsu, poi donuts, kona coffee, poke, spam musubi, manapua, and loco moco.
Sure, many of these dishes have migrated to the rest of the country, but you can eat (and drink!) them authentically here.
You will be tempted to spend all day on the beach, but leave some room in your vacation itinerary for exploring. Honolulu offers many rewards for travelers eager to see something unique on their trip.
For instance, you can venture out to the Diamond Head State Monument near Waikiki, a volcano. You can also explore the Battleship Missouri Memorial to learn about the unique history of this part of the US.
Take a hike on the Koko Crater Tramway to reach Kokohead Lookout. This trail within Koko Crater Regional Park isn’t shaded and rather steep, so your family should be experienced hikers before attempting it.
The walk is worth it, as once you reach the top, you can enjoy views of Moloka’i, Hanauma Bay, and eastern Honolulu.
Once you’ve conquered the Koko Crater Tramway trail, why not continue to the Makapu’u Point Lighthouse Trail and hike there? This trail on the Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline provides perfect views of Koko Crater.
The trail is two miles round-trip, so it’s far less arduous. It includes dry, moderate slopes with a max elevation gain of 500 feet.
6. Las Vegas
Las Vegas might be littered with casinos and adult establishments, but you can find plenty of family-friendly activities if you know where to look.
The Vegas Hershey’s Chocolate World has sweets as far as the eye can see, but you can do more than shop and eat. Take a Hershey’s Chocolate Tour to learn how the candy is made. The Great Candy Exhibition is a cinematic train-themed interactive adventure where your vote determines how the event plays out!
Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay within the resort is worth popping into even if you’re not staying. This aquarium has 2,000 animals on display, with overhead glass exhibits that immerse you in the sea while keeping you dry.
Allow the kids to explore to the fullest at DISCOVERY Children’s Museum Las Vegas. The Discovery Lab is a maker space exhibit, the Fantasy Festival is the home of the Riseman Family Theatre, and Toddler Town has toys and engaging activities for young ones.
It’s time to raise the stakes and the adrenaline! Vegas Indoor Skydiving lets kids over 40 pounds take to the sky in a supervised, indoor environment. A motor runs on 1,000 horsepower to generate enough juice to keep you suspended in the air, while wind blasts make you feel like you’re amongst the clouds.
The Adventuredome at Circus Circus Las Vegas has rides and attractions galore. The Xtreme Zone is an indoor rock-climbing course, the Bank Heist Laser Challenge: Crack the Code is a challenging laser game, the Classic Arcade has fun games for all-day play, and the VR room has 10 games.
Drivers, start your engines! The Las Vegas Mini Grand Prix is a family fun center where kids and parents can strap into go-karts and race to the finish line.
When you’ve revved up your appetite, snack on sandwiches, chicken tenders, pizza, wings, burgers, fries, and yummy cupcakes and desserts.
The Pinball Hall of Fame might be lower-octane but is just as fun, so add it to your trip itinerary ASAP.
7. New York City
The City of Dreams, The Big Apple, The City That Never Sleeps. New York is a beloved part of our country woven into the very fabric of its being. It’s a cultural melting pot full of diversification.
The streets are lined with shops, restaurants, and entertainment options on every corner. It’s the home of its own takes on food, such as New York cheesecake, New York pizza, and the classic bagels with lox and cream cheese.
New York City has warm, bright weather in the summer, and even when the sun sets on this lively city, the effervescent streetlights and nonstop activity keep it as bright as daylight.
A visit to the American Museum of Natural History will make your NYC family vacation unforgettable. You can get away from the heat and spend all day in a cool environment (literally and figuratively), seeing exhibits like giant T. Rex fossils and the gargantuan suspended whale.
SPYSCAPE is technically a museum, but that moniker doesn’t feel like doing it justice. This exhibit, created by M16 professionals, inserts you into real spy situations to gauge how you’d handle them. Do you think you have what it takes?
New York City is far more than merely Manhattan. Venturing over to the Bronx means an opportunity to visit the Bronx Zoo, one of the state’s most loved zoos. Besides touring the exhibits, you can also partake in animal feedings for an additional fee.
Hop over to Brooklyn and take a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Or visit the famed Coney Island, a boardwalk with fun, games, sea, surf, and prizes. Luna Park on Coney Island is the only place to ride the family-friendly Tony’s Express and the Coney Island Cyclone.
When you’ve gotten your bearings after stepping off the ride, play classic carnival games like whack-a-mole or smash some buttons at the arcade to win tickets. Fill your tummy with boardwalk staples like pizza, funnel cake, and ice cream.
The New York Aquarium invites you to explore the PlayQuarium, a kid-centered exhibit showcasing coral reefs, kelp, and the creatures that live amongst them. The children can touch some of these aquatic creatures!
You can’t leave New York City without touring the Statue of Liberty, the icon of America. You can’t reach the tippy-top on tours anymore, but it will still be a satisfying, memorable experience for the entire family.
8. San Diego
A Cali vacation doesn’t exclusively have to be in San Francisco. You can also venture over to San Diego, sampling California pizza, fish tacos, oysters, and other fresh, fulfilling eats.
The beaches here are incredible, offering among the whitest sand and the clearest waves in the country. You and the kids will have a ball building sandcastles and laying out in beach chairs while you close your eyes and listen to the crashing ocean.
» MORE: Best Family Beaches in San Diego
Continue your tour of San Diego’s most alluring natural sights by planning an afternoon at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a cliffside area of 1,500 acres featuring land untouched by man. The lagoons, beaches, pines, and chaparral are all as nature intended.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park offers another glimpse into unspoiled California, albeit on a smaller scale. This park is over 600 acres, including an extensive hillside section and a linear section of the park.
Among the most famed parks in the city is Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre delight with musicals, theatre, museums, art, landmarks, guided tours, and exhibitions. It’s not your average greenspace, and something fun and inviting is always happening here.
Now, for a different kind of park families love: amusement parks. Belmont Park is worth spending an entire day, as it features rides, attractions, and a beachfront boardwalk. The rides here range from extreme roller coasters and drop rides to tamer kiddie rides like spinning cars or a carousel.
Continue park-hopping as you visit SeaWorld San Diego, one of Cali’s biggest amusement parks. The rides, slides, thrills, and spills are as enjoyable as ever, and don’t miss the built-in aquarium. This is a SeaWorld, after all!
Anticipate seeing sharks, walruses, penguins, beluga whales, harbor seals, flamingos, rays, dolphins, orcas, eels, turtles, sea lions, and otters.
9. Lake Tahoe
Situated on the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe between Nevada and California is a vacation destination all its own. Prepare for an outdoorsy vacation in perfect summer weather!
Start your vacation at Emerald Bay State Park, which features the Vikingsholm mansion from the late 1920s. You can tour this 38-room California castle and witness its beautiful Scandinavian design.
There is plenty more to do when enjoying Emerald Bay State Park, including picnicking, fishing, hiking, swimming at the beach, viewing wildlife and nature, geocaching, touring the museum, snorkeling, and scuba diving.
Sand Harbor within Lake Tahoe, Nevada State Park, is an elegant beach with clear, warm waters (at least in the summertime). Pope Beach near South Lake Tahoe is another great place to stake a beach umbrella and lounge.
It’s also worth returning to Lake Tahoe in the winter, as the ski resorts here are among the best in the country.
Come to the biggest city in Oregon this summer and prepare for a family vacation you won’t soon forget.
Portland has so many kid-friendly activities that you might have a hard time getting the kids to agree to leave!
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, or OMSI, is certainly a family favorite. The museum makes learning fun with kid-catered exhibits on animals, local history, and science.
On a clear day, Oaks Amusement Park will certainly entertain. It features a Roller Rink for ice skating, its own mini golf course, carnival games with prizes, and rides galore. The range of rides includes kiddie, family, and thrill rides. There is certainly something for everyone.
The fun train will continue rolling when you visit Electric Castle’s Wunderland, an indoor attraction with movies, dark rides, VR, go-karts, mini golf, game rooms, escape rooms, and laser tag.
The Oregon Zoo is another must-visit. Children can witness an exotic array of species, everything from tortoises to gators, monkeys, bears, elephants, lizards, otters, lions, tigers, and lemurs. Some species are vulnerable, others endangered, and a few more are threatened.
The conservation efforts at the zoo are valiant and open up an opportunity to discuss its importance with your kids.
Don’t leave Oregon without wandering through the Portland Japanese Garden, a captivating, unwinding time after days of coasters and arcades. This beautiful garden features art exhibitions, an Umami Café, and a Cultural Village amongst the greenery.
The harborside city of Baltimore was once one of Maryland’s most important seaports. These days, it’s a major tourist attraction, offering up the freshest seafood this side of the East Coast and plenty of Civil War remnants worth touring, even if you aren’t a history buff.
The Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine will imbue in you a healthy dose of respect for this historic American city.
The National Aquarium on the waterfront is always a crowd-pleaser. This aquarium has award-winning exhibits showcasing aquatic creatures from anemones to frogs, puffins, crabs, dolphins, fish, stingrays, sharks, jellyfish, and turtles.
Take a family tour and gain early access, go behind the scenes to see how the sharks are kept, or train a dolphin by signing up for the aquarium’s additional experiences.
The Maryland Zoo promises roarin’ fun. See animals of the aquatic and non-aquatic varieties, learning about vulnerable, threatened, and critically endangered species along the way.
The Inner Harbor is calling your name! Here is where everything happens in Baltimore, including boat tours, dining, live performances, and shops.