Best Midwest Family Vacations

Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
Photo: Randall L. Schieber

Head for a sparkling lake, explore big-city science and nature museums, or enjoy hiking and biking in state parks. The Midwest delivers great family getaways in destinations like Branson, Missouri; Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota; the Black Hills of South Dakota; Traverse City, Michigan; Indianapolis and more. Check out two dozen of our top picks for family vacation destinations.

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Children's Museum of Indianapolis
Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

A top-notch children's museum, zoo, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and other kid-friendly destinations will keep your family busy during a getaway in Indianapolis. The Children's Museum of Indianapolis—the world's largest children's museum—recently added even more fun with a $38.5 million sports-theme addition. Kids also love the interactive features at Indy's Rhythm! Discovery Center, as well as experiences like a hot-air balloon ride and pioneer interpreters at Conner Prairie, a living-history museum about 25 miles northeast of downtown.

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Black Hills, South Dakota

American bison on road at Custer State Park
Ryan Donnell

With patriotic charm, Old West adventure, sweeping history lessons, stunning scenery, caves and paleontology, and wildlife galore, South Dakota's Black Hills is one of America's greatest family destinations. Ride the 1880 Train, let the kids earn a Junior Ranger badge at Mount Rushmore, go on a horseback ride or Jeep tour at Custer State Park, and tap your inner paleontologist at The Mammoth Site.

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Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
Randall L. Schieber

Grown-ups don't need any excuse to visit the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Reds Hall of Fame or the Newport Aquarium on their own, but bringing the kids makes sense on a Midwest weekend getaway in Cincinnati. Besides those attractions, be sure to see the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, the second-oldest zoo in the country; wander the maze and other attractions at Smale Riverfront Park; stop at a Graeter's Ice Cream for a scoop of deliciousness; and head northeast of the city for a day at Kings Island amusement park.

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Branson, Missouri

Branson Landing - 100 Branson Landing Blvd - Branson, MO
Branson Landing

Thrill rides, musical shows and artisan demonstrations captivate all ages at Ozarks-themed Silver Dollar City. Add in attractions like the Branson Scenic Railway, the Titanic Museum, Branson Zipline at Wolfe Mountain and family-friendly shows at venues like Sight and Sound Theatres, and you've got plenty to entertain the kids for days. A stay at Big Cedar Lodge adds even more family activities.

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Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota

Nisswa turtle races

The laid-back lakeside life of the Brainerd Lakes region has drawn families for generations. Choose your style from dozens of lodgings—a quiet lakeside getaway with family cabins or a full-service resort with kids' programs all day. The family can also have fun exploring Paul Bunyan Land, trying the weekly Turtle Races in Nisswa and biking at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area.

Read more about things to do in Brainerd Lakes.

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Traverse City, Michigan

Traverse City
Clinch Park Beach. Tony Demin

Traverse City's stunning beaches, arts, culture, parks and kid-friendly restaurants make this northern Michigan town a destination the whole family can enjoy. Sun and swim at Clinch Park Beach, head out on the water with the Traverse Tall Ship Company, try all things cherry at Grand Traverse Pie Company or see a classic kids' flick at Cherry Bowl Drive-in Theatre.

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Columbus, Ohio

Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Ryan Donnell

Riding a high-wire unicycle, splashing in a massive fountain and feeding giraffes highlight a family weekend in Columbus, Ohio. The Center of Science and Industry is a must-stop, with interactive exhibits covering themes like space, energy and the oceans. Make sure, too, to see the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, where herb gardens, a canopy walk, play structures and a Hocking Hills-inspired splash area—waterfall and all—cover the 2-acre Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation Children's Garden.

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Fontanelle Forest Omaha Nebraska
Courtesy of Fontanelle Forest

Planning a getaway to Omaha with the kids? A family adventure should start with a day at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, one of the nation's top-ranked zoos, where immersive habitats allow visitors get close to species like red pandas, sharks and gorillas. The Omaha Children's Museum entertains with interactive art and science stations, while the Durham Museum—once Omaha's main train station—lets kids explore restored train cars and stop by an old-fashioned soda fountain. On the Missouri River south of downtown, Fontenelle Forest provides a green space for hiking and ziplining.

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Shedd Aquarium, Chicago
Kevin J. Miyazaki/Redux

Chicago's family fun options are nonstop—just like your kids. Top picks in and around Chicago for families include museums, historical sites and Lake Michigan beaches. You could spend a day or more just at world-class sites like the Shedd Aquarium, Adler Planetarium and the Field Museum of Natural History, but you'll also want to go a little wild at the Brookfield Zoo and let the kids roam at Millennium Park and along the lakefront.

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Dubuque, Iowa

Fenelon Place Elevator. Ackerman + Gruber

Baseball fields, caves and the mighty Mississippi River provide a fun backdrop for a family-friendly Midwest weekend getaway to Dubuque. Check out The National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium, the Fields of Dreams Movie Site, and Fenelon Place Elevator—the world's shortest, steepest scenic railway.

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Southwest Michigan Shore

White sailboat by red lighthouse in lake at Holland State Park
Holland State Park. Blaine Moats

With more than 140 miles of soft sand, almost every beach is the right beach along Michigan's southwest shore. But in the towns like St. Joseph, Holland, South Haven, Grand Haven and Ludington, travelers find distinct flavors catering to a variety of tastes. Kids will love experiences like exploring the Curious Kids' Museum in St. Joseph, seeing Windmill Island Gardens in Holland, and sailing on Friends Good Will out of South Haven.

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Medora, North Dakota

Medora Musical

Tiny Medora (population: 132) makes a good base to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Learn about Roosevelt's legacy at activities in town, then head out—by bike, foot, car or horse—to explore the stark beauty of the badlands. The Medora Musical brings singing, dancing and boot-scootin' tunes to the Burning Hills Amphitheatre; celebrate cowboy culture at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.

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Wichita, Kansas

Botanica. Rick McPherson

Cowboys pushing cattle across the Kansas prairie longed for a view of Wichita on the horizon. Today, the city of almost 400,000 still makes a great destination. Families will enjoy the themed gardens at Botanica; at the Downing Children's Garden, even adults can't resist plunking away on unconventional instruments. Exploration Place offers interactive activities like designing an airline seat and testing landing gear; at Field Station: Dinosaurs, more than 40 life-size animatronic dinosaurs roar in a dreamland for budding paleontologists (in Derby, 11 miles south of Wichita). More great stops for the family: Kansas Aviation Museum, Old Cowtown Museum and Sedgwick County Zoo.

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St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minnesota Twins at Target Field
Courtesy of Meet Minneapolis

The Twin Cities embrace the outdoors with family-friendly attractions such as Valleyfair amusement park, beaches (really!), Twins baseball and the Minnesota Zoo, but there's plenty inside to keep kids busy when the weather's too hot, cold or wet. The Minnesota Children's Museum, the Science Museum of Minnesota and Mill City Museum are just a few of the Twin Cities' attractions that will keep the kids—and their parents—entertained.

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Hayward, Wisconsin

Hayward KOA campground - Hayward, Wisconsintubing down the Namakegon River
Hayward KOA. Nate Luke Photography

In northwest Wisconsin, days bring hiking in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and paddling the Namekagon River; nights bring campfires, cozy cabins and starry skies. The kids will love going to Scheer's Lumberjack Show, snapping a photo in front of the half-city-block-long leaping musky at the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and getting giant scoops of ice cream at West's Hayward Dairy and Ice Cream Café.

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Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bob Stefko

Museums, parks, science centers and outdoor adventures—Cleveland rocks your Midwest weekend getaway with tons of fun stuff to do with the family. Play mad scientist at the Great Lakes Science Center, across the street from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Relive the cult classic A Christmas Story at A Christmas Story House and Museum, or explore dinosaurs at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Read more about top things to do with kids in Cleveland.

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Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri

Lake of the Ozarks
Lake of the Ozarks. Nate Luke

Settle in at your choice of Lake of the Ozarks resorts, cabins or hotels, then spend your days exploring the vast lake or the towns like Osage Beach that surround it. Taste fudge or dine in a family-friendly restaurant along the Bagnell Dam Strip; explore Bridal Cave or Ha Ha Tonka State Park; or just relax by the pool or floating on the lake at lodgings such as The Lodge of Four Seasons or Point Randall Resort.

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Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford, Dearborn
Andrew Maguire

Museums, a zoo, baseball, cars, waterfront attractions, pizza ... a Midwest weekend getaway to Detroit is enough to make anyone feel like a kid again. Try hands-on experiments at the Michigan Science Center or spend the day immersed in history at The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. The Detroit International Riverfront gives kids plenty of room to run, and the Outdoor Adventure Center delivers ways to try a variety of adventures.

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Madison, Wisconsin

Henry Vilas Zoo. Focal Flame Photography

Madison—the capital of Wisconsin and the home of the University of Wisconsin Badgers—is often billed as an active, athletic town. It's also a great place to bring your family. Whether you've got preschoolers, tweens or teens in tow, there's plenty to see and do, including the Madison Children's Museum, Henry Vilas Zoo, Olbrich Botanical Gardens and the National Mustard Museum.

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Kansas City, Missouri

Worlds of Fun
Worlds of Fun. Courtesy of Visit KC

With the combined Oceans of Fun and Worlds of Fun parks, Legoland, the Kansas City Zoo and more, families will find plenty to fill a Midwest weekend getaway to Kansas City, Missouri. Enjoy interactive exhibits at the College Basketball Experience, explore underwater creatures at the Sea Life Aquarium and pop over the border to Kansas to experience the Moon Marble Company.

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Hocking Hills, Ohio

Hocking Hills
Hocking Hills. Courtesy of

Drive 50 miles southeast of Columbus and you'll feel like you've entered another world—one of lush forests dotted with caves, gorges and waterfalls. The whole family will love exploring Hocking Hills State Park, and be sure to take the kids to adventures such as ziplining at Hocking Hills Canopy Tours, horseback riding at Spotted Horse Ranch and canoeing or playing miniature golf at Hocking Hills Adventures.

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Springfield, Illinois

Old State Capitol, Springfield
Old State Capitol, Springfield. Ryan Donnell

Springfield delivers both serious history lessons and light-hearted slices of Americana. But the city where Lincoln lived is known for informative sites that put a relatable face on a larger-than-life figure. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum provides a good intro to the 16th president; the Lincoln Home National Historic Site and Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site (near Petersburg, 20 miles northwest of Springfield) will also intrigue young history lovers. Kids and parents will both enjoy the Route 66 memorabilia—and a corn dog—at Springfield's Cozy Dog Drive In.

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Des Moines

Des Moines, Iowa
Pappajohn Sculpture Park.

There's much to do in Iowa's state capitol. At Adventureland Resort, the Bernie's Barnyard kids area recently joined 100-plus rides and attractions. Head for thrills on the $9 million Monster steel roller coaster or cool off at Iowa's longest lazy river. Elsewhere in the metro, catch a seal show at the Blank Park Zoo, try hands-on science at the Science Center of Iowa, wander among world-class sculptures at the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, and explore three eras of farms at Living History Farms.

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Discovery World
Discovery World. Courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

Weekend getaways to Milwaukee keep kids busy and feed their imaginations with family-friendly museums, a zoo and science center. At Discovery World, 18 exhibits encourage exploring science and technology at a waterfront museum. The Harley-Davidson Museum is a must-see for its hands-on exhibits and nine Harleys to "ride." Kids can even get in on a little of the city's brewing action at Sprecher Brewery, which makes soda pop as well as the adult stuff.

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