When you reminisce about your happiest childhood memories, you probably recall the time you spent with your family — the camping trips, the new cities or countries you explored, the animal encounters, the beaches and lakes you swam in, and the people you met along the way. Traveling together gives us wonderful opportunities to engage with each other and bond over new experiences. Plus, you’ll have plenty of great photographs to spark storytelling, even after your children leave the nest. For inspiration, here are 18 places to visit — near and far — before your child turns 18.
1. Explore a National Park
One of America’s best ideas was creating our national parks. The National Park Service takes care of 419 national sites, battlefields, monuments, memorials, and parks. In total, there are 60 designated national parks. Whether you tackle one park at a time or take a long road trip and see several parks, you’ll never regret spending time in our country’s most beautiful landscapes.
Visit Alaska and see seven national parks or drive in and out of California’s eight parks; hike rim to rim in Grand Canyon National Park; trek through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park or Haleakala National Park in Maui; gasp at tall peaks in Montana at Glacier National Park — pop through the charming town of Whitefishwhen you go; and camp in Utah’s Arches National Park. Kids can collect adventurer patches as they go for a really cool keepsake.
2. Take a Beach Break
The perfect time to hit a warm and sunny beach destination is over winter break when everyone could use a little vitamin D.
Turks and Caicos, located south of the Bahama Islands and north of the Dominican Republic, are lovely any time of year, but it’s a bonus to travel during a festival or special celebration. Caribbean Food & Wine Festival, Conch Festival, and Island Fish Fry are a few of our favorites. If you’re visiting January-March, be sure to witness the humpback whale migration.
Check out horseback riding with Provo Ponies, have lunch at Solana Restaurant at Ocean Club Resorts, enjoy the view on Sun Charter’s Atabeyra, visit the Caribbean’s largest above-ground caves, and leave lots of time for swimming in the bath-warm water.
Family friendly accommodations abound, even for those large multigenerational families — The Palms Hotel, Grace Bay Club, The Shore Club, Seven Stars Resort, Bianca Sands on Grace Bay, and Amanyara Hotel are all great choices.
3. Cultural Studies in Japan
Your kids will learn so much in Japan, a country that is steeped in tradition, religion, technology, nature, and interesting cuisine. You’ll notice that Tokyo, a city with nearly 14 million people, is extremely clean and organized — public transportation is fast, easy, and pristine.
Everyone will learn how to respect the culture by: taking shoes off when entering a home, ryokan, or indoor temple or shrine; bowing in kind; using chopsticks; standing on one side of the escalator to allow others to pass; being quiet in public spaces (even the trains are super quiet and peaceful); and being thankful for nature, a prepared meal, or an act of kindness.
Tokyo highlights include: Shibuya Crossing, the busiest crossing in the world as well as the location of the two busiest train stations in the world; Osaka Castle; a traditional tea in Hama Rikyu Gardens; Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden; Sensoji Temple; Tsukiji Fish Market; Meiji Shrine; Harajuku (eat large crepes and food on a stick — cotton candy, potatoes, fried goodies — and visit hedgehog and cat cafes here); and Imperial Palace. Take a Wadaiko Japanese drumming lesson in Asakusa with Abercrombie & Kent — your family will learn about the culture surrounding this lively tradition. Hotel Gracery Shinjuku (home to a large Godzilla head on the roof) and Hotel Gracery Ginza are both affordable and well-located options in Tokyo.
Of course, you’ll want to see other places while in Japan. Kyoto is a stunning city, full of gardens, temples, and shrines. Stay at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto, where you’ll marvel at the ancient ponds and surrounding gardens, enjoy traditional tea prepared in the tea house, take pictures of your kids wearing yukatas or kimonos, indulge in spa treatments or matcha-flavored croissants, and be within accessible distance to beautiful sites and shopping: Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kiyomizudera Temple, Daimaru, Arashiyama Monkey Park, Gion, Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion, and Fushimi Inari Shrine.
4. The Mile-High City
Denver (not Florida or California) has 300 days of sunshine per year and the city is thriving with fun things to do, see, and eat. Denverites love their sports (eight professional sports teams play here), breweries (Coors Brewery is the world’s largest), green spaces and parks, museums, and festivals (Denver Arts Week, Denver Film Festival, National Western Stock Show, Cherry Creek Arts Festival, and Denver Oktoberfest). Plus, fun fact, the Mile-High City really is exactly one mile high.
Kids will love exploring Dinosaur Ridge and hiking on Trading Post Trail at Red Rocks Park. Also, take the family on a city sightseeing tour, soak in a natural hot spring, visit the U.S. Mint, see an exhibit at Denver Art Museum, learn about bears and their habitat at Wild Animal Sanctuary, and experience all of the wonderful things that Denver and the surrounding areas offer to families.
5. Lake Love
Consider a digital detox vacation — leave those iPads and laptops at home — and rent a cabin on Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, or Green Bay. You can spend your days lounging around a comfy Airbnb, playing board games and swimming in the nearby lake, and then relax at night by singing around a campfire and watching stars dance across the night sky.
If a remote rustic cabin isn’t your idea of fun, and you’d like something a little more urban, look into a stay at The Edgewater, located on Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin. You’ll be in the heart of downtown, near Capital Square, with lots of dining and shopping options as well as fun activities like Madison Children Museum, Dane County Farmers Market, UW-Madison Arboretum, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, and the Wisconsin Science Museum.
6. Discover Urban Art
Houston, Texas is bursting at the seams with art — from well-curated sculpture and painting studios and large museums to street talent.
Houston’s Art Week hosts more than 100 artists from all over the world and HUE Mural Festival is one of the coolest public displays of graffiti art that your family will ever witness.
Visit The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; Houston Museum of African American Culture; The Jung Center; and any one of the other 15 museums in the Houston Museum District.
Seeing these visual representations of diverse culture is incredibly inspiring and thought provoking — art has a brilliant way of showcasing our humanity and connecting us as sentient beings.
7. Indoor Waterparks
When winter seems to stretch on and on, and the skies are gray and dull, brighten up your weekend with a little getaway to an indoor waterpark.
Wisconsin Dells, the waterpark capital of the world with the largest concentration of indoor and outdoor waterparks, offers many options for families with kids of all ages. One of the best resorts is Great Wolf Lodge, with locations in not only Wisconsin Dells and Gurnee, but also all over the nation, from Arizona to Massachusetts. Kids will love the character appearances, dance parties, story time, mini golf, climbing wall, bowling, arcade, and ropes course. Gamers will love the MagiQuest, which is an interactive game that gets kids moving all over the resort for special quests and points.
8. Bright Lights, Big City
Nobody would dispute that New York City is one of the best and brightest cities in the world, full of art, culture, dining, and family thrills. It’s here that you can visit world-class museums like the American Museum of Natural History, Museum of Modern Art, and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum; take an interactive theatrical (and hysterical) bus tour around Manhattan with The Ride; and learn about the deep sea with the National Geographic Encounter in Times Square.
Visit Central Park and Bryant Park, pay your respects at World Trade Center, and explore China Town, Little Italy, SoHo, NoHo, Washington Square, Union Square, and, of course, Times Square. Walk the High Line in the meatpacking district/Chelsea for a unique elevated experience.
Stay at the New York Marriott Marquis or the Sheraton Times Square and take advantage of the breakfast and evening drinks and snacks in the concierge lounge. Or, check out the trendy, stunning-in-every-way Aliz Hotel.
9. European Vacation
If it’s good enough for the Griswolds, it’s good enough for your family. Keep an eye out for discounted fares and last-minute flight perks and spend a week or two in Europe. The Eurorail is a great way to see a few countries and reduced fares are usually available for children.
For a real outdoor adventure, visit Switzerland (Lucerne and Engelberg are stunning) and go hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter. The Swiss Travel Pass affords travelers unlimited travel in Switzerland and free access for children under 16 years of age. You’ll have a good jumping-off point for your European vacation, as Switzerland borders Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein. Plus, your kids can practice their foreign language because there are four national languages in Switzerland: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (English is widely spoken, especially in the cities).
Visit a northern European country to see the Aurora Borealis, bright and colorful lights that appear at night when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland are all great places to visit to witness this natural phenomenon.
10. Swim with Whale Sharks
Visiting Quintana Roo offers much more than striking sandy beaches, blue skies, and all-inclusive luxury resorts. It’s here, 20 miles off of the island Isla Mujeres in the Gulf of Mexico, that you can swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. Whale sharks are not predatory; they’re filter feeders. You’ll jump off a boat and swim alongside one of these gentle giants — they can grow up to 40 feet and weigh up to 20.6 tons.
If swimming with large fish isn’t your thing, or if you have really young kids in tow, you can enjoy live mariachis on human-powered trajineras at Xoximilco, go shopping down the streets of Isla Mujeres, snorkel and kayak in the sea, and play in the sand at The Grand at Moon Palace Cancun.
11. Adventure Travel
If you’re an intrepid family, with a thirst for real heart-pumping adventure, then look no further than REI Adventures, the leaders in global adventure travel. All trips, from Africa to Wyoming, are rated by activity difficulty level so you can choose the trip that works best for your family.
Cruise around Tanzania’s wildlife parks, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti; interact with locals at a Maasai village; and hike to the Rift Valley Escarpment with traditional warriors on the Tanzania Family Adventure and Safari trip. Take photographs of your kids kayaking, ziplining, and touring Bangkok and Chiang Mai on the Thailand Family Adventure. Travel from Naples to the Amalfi Coast, hiking the Path of the Gods and visit the Isle of Capri and Pompeii on the Italy Family Adventure — Amalfi Coast and Islands tour.
If you want an adventure a little closer to home, REI Adventures has you covered, with family trips in cool places like Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Olympic, and Yosemite national parks, and more.
12. All Aboard: Train Trek
Coast through the Canadian Rockies while weaving through snow-capped mountain passes, clinging alongside steep canyons, and spotting wildlife grazing in untamed wilderness aboard the stunning Rocky Mountaineer, the largest privately-owned luxury tourist train company worldwide. See areas inaccessible by foot or car and choose from one of 65 spectacular vacation packages and four inimitable rail routes through British Columbia, Alberta, and the lovely Pacific Northwest for a trip your family will never forget. Consider bringing the grandparents and sharing the adventure.
Add on an Alaskan cruise through Rocky Mountaineer, before or after your train journey, and visit destinations like Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan aboard Holland America’s MS Nieuw Amsterdam.
13. Chicago Staycation
Take advantage of living in or near a vibrant and bustling metropolis and have a little staycation with your family in the Windy City. Visit one of Chicago’s top 10 museums: Shedd Aquarium, Museum of Science and Industry, The Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, National Museum of Mexican Art, Adler Planetarium, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, Field Museum, and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
Stay at the well-located, contemporary Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park, which has recently refreshed its guestrooms. Families can take advantage of great dining options (kids five years old and under eat free and older kids under age 11 eat for half price), a lovely lifestyle spa — mySpa — and connecting rooms and suites to suit any sized family.
14. Walt Disney World, Of Course
Of course, a Disney World vacation is a must for most families — kids and teens of any age, as well as adults, will love this adventure full of famous mouse sightings. With four theme parks — Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom — two water parks — Disney’s Typhoon Lagoonand Disney’s Blizzard Beach — and the Disney Springs entertainment, dining, and shopping complex, you’ll never run out of things to do.
For convenience and the most immersive experience, nothing beats staying on property. For a truly memorable family vacation, consider a stay in one of Walt Disney World’s most unique accommodations, ranging from tropical bungalows to rustic-yet-luxurious waterfront cabins.
Before you go, be sure to consult our packing list for Disney trips with kids.
15. River Cruises Around the Globe
Older and more mature teens will have a quality experience with their parents or grandparents aboard the luxury river cruise line AmaWaterways, which travels along the waterways of Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Explore the Christmas markets along the Danube river in Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia. See the bright fields of tulips as you cruise down the Dutch and Belgian waterways. Learn about the culture as you cruise from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap in the Mekong river. Or, explore the Chobe river in Botswana, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe.
Your family will learn about the world we live in through different cultural perspectives while enjoying a beautiful cruise with well-planned and thoughtful excursions.
16. Cabo for Families
Cabo has a reputation for being the place to go for spring breakers, party-goers, and the college crowd — which can be true in the downtown areas. However, if you visit outside of spring break, this warm-weathered Mexican city is quite lovely. If traveling during whale-watching season, keep your peepers out for whales: gray, humpback, blue, and sperm. You can also see a variety of dolphins: bottlenose, spinner, and spotted.
Stay at the colorful and family-friendly Hacienda Encantada, where kids will love the golf cart rides around the property as well as the playground, splash pad, and trampoline. Parents will appreciate the dining selections, swim-up bar, and family suites with kitchenettes. Luxury villas are also available, and these accommodations are private and quiet — you can even have a private chef if you desire. Whether you need a studio space or a four-bedroom unit to accommodate multigenerational families, Hacienda Encantada will take care of you.
Theme nights for families, with fire and water shows and a circus night, are available. Go horseback riding, fly down a trail on an ATV, breath in the salty air on a sailing trip, and take advantage of the newly launched bicycle tour and a new Kid’s Club with age-appropriate activities. Another perk is that the hotel offers Mexican cooking classes, Spanish lessons, and on-site sports tournaments between families. Take a shuttle to the sister property, Marina Fiesta, and enjoy different dining options and nightlife along the Cabo Marina.
17. Go RVing
For a truly unique bonding experience, rent an RV and take a cross-country road trip that your kids will talk about for years to come. Imagine how cool it will be when your kids meet other friends at an RV park, or when you have the freedom to stay along the coastline or in an old-growth forest, or when you don’t have to pitch a tent or unpack and repack gear at your campsite.
A fantastic resource that will make your RV dreams come to life can be found at Outdoorsy, a sort of Airbnb-for-RVs aggregator with insurance and roadside assistance. Choose from vintage silver Airstreams and VW buses to little pulled tear drops and massive fifth wheelers and motor homes.
18. One Just for the Moms
Parenting is tough. It’s a full-time, good-time, life-time adventure, which calls for a retreat now and then, even for just a couple of days. Consider a weekend with REI Outessa, designed for women, by women. New moms or moms that have been parenting for 18 years will be renewed by time spent in the outdoors, learning how to rock climb, kayak, mountain bike, or trail run while making new friendships along the way. Perhaps you’re a mom that wants to learn about wilderness First Aid and compass navigating or maybe you would benefit from daily yoga classes and girl-talk around a nightly campfire.
No matter which activities you decide to take advantage of, you’ll come away from the experience as a refreshed mother, ready to tackle whatever challenges your children — or husband — throw at you.
Wendy Altschuler is a seasoned travel and lifestyle writer with more than a decade of clips in various publications: MSN, Delta Sky, Modern Luxury, Sun-Times Media, Tribune Brand Copy, Parents Magazine, Yoga Magazine, The Daily Meal, Spafinder, Red Tricycle, Eluxe Magazine, and many more. She is happiest when out exploring and adventuring or on a trail with her family and pup. Follow her on social @wendyaltschuler or visit her website: wendyaltschuler.com.