It’s time to hit the road—and this time the fam is coming with.
Who else better to be your trip advisors than (614) readers who’ve vacationed with the kids without burning up the Family Truckster and their sanity in the process?
Here’s your best bets this spring, with options ranging near and far:
Chicago • Dave Burkey
Chicago. The city that I learned can be a prolific builder of “dad-bods.” America’s third-largest city has literally everything that a family on vacation could want. Great food, live entertainment, museums, art. And you can see it all relatively easily thanks to an easy-to-learn public transportation system. However, what I learned fairly quickly was that if you have a child who doesn’t walk well, a lot of that public transportation is NOT stroller friendly. Buses are crowded, subway entries lack a lot of access and generally if you’re taking up a lot of space, you may as well be that guy who might be on something who’s muttering to himself with the looks you’ll get. I also ran into a few Uber drivers who lied about carrying a car seat and suggested we just take a chance on their safe driving.
So before you take off, hit the gym and get those baby-carrying-biceps in shape to visit these places:
Wrigleyville (in-season). Unparalleled energy, even if you aren’t a sports fan.
Millennium Park. Like it or not, you go to Chicago, you are going to see that damn metal bean, “Cloud Gate.”
Museum Row. Every one of them is worth it. Shedd Aquarium is a sure thing for kids.
Maggie Daley Park. Amazingly clean and full of hours of fun for little ones.
Giordano’s deep dish pizza. Order your pizza before you go to the restaurant as it takes about 40 minutes to bake. We sat with an irritated toddler, learn from us!
Nashville • J.R. McMillan
When the path of totality fell just north of Nashville last August, we decided to make the weekend road trip an end-of-summer adventure. Avoiding the typical tourist traps made for memories as unique and enduring as the eclipse itself.
Tweens can be tough to impress, but ours were completely immersed. From a hands-on history lesson at Hatch Show Print creating letterpress postcards to DIY pancakes at The Pfunky Griddle, make sure your vacation includes time for individual expression and is more experience than spectacle.
If the line to squeeze into the Voice-O-Graph recording booth at Third Man Records is too long, stop by The Great Escape to flip through decades of LPs and stacks of 78s. Their collection of comics and vintage toys closes the gap between nerdy and nostalgic. Everyone gets to be the cool kid here.
Allergies and special diets don’t need to make dining mundane. Five Daughters Bakery offers unexpected paleo and vegan doughnuts like lemon raspberry and coconut cream pie in addition to their already epic menu of breakfast confections. Try the gluten-free hot chicken at Pinewood Social, a restaurant/bar/pool/bowling alley on the emerging edge of downtown—though afternoon hours are probably a better fit for families.
Musicians Corner at Centennial Park is a free summer mainstay with local artists, food trucks, and an interactive “Kidsville” anchored by the legendary live concert series featuring performers ranging from Emmylou Harris and Ralph Stanley to Son Volt and Langhorne Slim.
Yellow Springs • Jimmy Mak
Every year when it gets warm, my wife and I take our two girls to the grooviest little town in Ohio. Most of the time it’s a day trip, but, if we’re feeling extra adventurous, we camp out at and hike the trails at nearby John Bryan State Park. Downtown Yellow Springs has a totally infectious hippie vibe—full of weird, wild and wonderfully eclectic little shops and boutiques. Like books? (We do.) Then check out Dark Star Books. You can find about any book you want there, but they seem to celebrate nerd culture most of all. Plus, there’s usually a fat, friendly cat chilling in the corner that loves to be pet. Like wine? (My wife does.) Emporium Wines and Underdog Café is where we stop in to get a great cup of coffee and purchase tasty wines for later consumption. Like records? (I do.) The Toxic Beauty Records and Gallery has a great selection. Last time I was there I got a Fat Boys record. Don’t be jealous. Like toys? (My kids do.) Mr. Fub’s Party Toys & More has a truly diverse selection, many with an educational spin. Like beer? (Yes is the answer.) Stop in for one at Ye Olde Trail Tavern. Be sure to ask about its haunted nature. I believe we were told a story about a woman in a blue dress who appears from time to time. Like food? (Trick question – you need it to survive.) Be sure to stop in for a home cooked meal at the Clifton Mill. No lie, it’s a super-cool building and the food is great. There’s a ton more that you just need to experience for yourselves. This little oasis is only about an hour drive from Columbus. If you haven’t been, you seriously need to go. And say hello to Dave Chappelle for me. (Yes, he lives there.)
Pigeon Forge • Hanna Greer-Brown
Pigeon Forge offers so much for families to do, can be done on a budget and is a manageable 6-hour car ride from Columbus. We took our 4-year old and 6-year old boys and stayed a long weekend (Friday-Monday) in a small rustic cabin in the Smoky Mountains. In addition to being nestled into the woods, the cabin was stocked with board games, featured a small hot tub on the deck, and had a pool table in the basement.
Our daily routine included making breakfast and packing lunches in our day packs after which we’d head out for a late morning-into-afternoon hiking adventure. Our favorite trails included Porter’s Creek, which features a footbridge, and the very popular Cade’s Cove, a shorter hike which included great views of the Smokies and had historic remnants of a church and mill which the kids loved exploring and made for great resting spots. There were plenty of places to stop for a picnic style lunch during these hikes.
Our evenings were usually spent in downtown Pigeon Forge which offers a grand strip of shops and kid friendly activities. During our visit, we stopped into a gem mine and went sluicing for gold, shopped for geodes, rode go-karts and grabbed a BBQ dinner that even little (finicky!) eaters would like. Dollywood theme and water park is also nearby and offers a lot to do.
As a family, we go to Cincinnati once a year. It’s the perfect weekend getaway when you have two toddlers and a long drive is inconceivable. Aside from the beautiful architecture, there are many reasons that keep us coming back to the Paris of the Midwest. Here is a rundown of the places that are fun for the whole family! Stay at 21c Museum Hotel, and go for the family package. This includes four tickets to the Newport Aquarium (value of around $100), fresh cookies and milk delivery, teepee tent in the room, and an I-spy guide for the museum. We go for the corner suite—the bedroom is separated by a door from the living room and it’s plenty of space so we all aren’t on top of each other. There is also a two-bedroom suite option if you need a little more space than that. The hotel has one of the top restaurants in the city, Metropole, so if the kids aren’t up for going out we order room service, the kids adore it and we are able to have five-star dining while watching Wall-E for the 50th time. If you can make it out for some shopping there are a ton of family friendly spots around Over the Rhine, which is just a stroller ride away from the hotel. Make sure to stop by Reunion Clothiers for some great vintage finds for adults and kids. Piggy back the weekend with a City Flea experience, Reds game or a children’s program at Washington Park. On the way back home, hit up Findlay Market for lunch/groceries and stop by Rhinegeist for a growler.
Indianapolis • Meghan Hattaway
Indianapolis is an easy three-hour drive from Cbus, so it’s perfect for families: you’ll likely arrive before anyone asks, “Are we there yet?” Less time in the car means more time for fun at places like the world’s largest Children’s Museum, where your crew could ride on a historic carousel, explore dinosaur habitats, or slide down a chocolate river, depending on your mood. The Indianapolis Zoo is another highlight, particularly for the botanical displays of its White River Gardens and the hands-on experiences of its Family Nature Center. If you like your nature with a side of art, you can also head over to Newfields, which features both indoor galleries and a gorgeous outdoor campus (think fountains, flowers, even a beer garden). If the beer garden isn’t open, no worries: Sun King Brewing Co. locations are “all-ages,” so the whole family can head there to unwind (just pack some juice boxes for the kids). When your children inevitably wake you up early (even on vacation) head over to Milktooth, a funky diner-style spot that’s a treat for parents, but still satisfies little ones. Full service brunch (with booze) is served every day, featuring classics with an artisan twist. If there’s a wait, stay put: it’s worth it. Don’t make the mistake of over-scheduling: leave some free time to stroll Canal Walk, or have an impromptu public art hunt downtown, where you can discover 30-foot tall murals of Indy literary heroes Kurt Vonnegut and Mari Evans—what could be more ’grammable?
New York City • Olivera Bratich
NYC is one of my favorite places to visit, so the minute my son started to show an affection towards trains and subways, I started plotting to make NYC our family’s Disney World. The length of the car trip is definitely pushing it, but start early, stop often, and end the trip by parking in New Jersey and taking a train the rest of the way. Public transportation is super exciting for my four-year-old so his ideal itinerary would have been subway rides all day, every day. He loved it so much that we made an unplanned but highly enjoyable visit to the New York Transit Museum. We also fancied the Staten Island Ferry for its cheap, close view of the Statue of Liberty. If your kid is a city kid, NYC itself is a playground. But it’s also full of actual playgrounds. Sprinkle in stops to neighborhood parks for quick play or make a special trip to explore Central Park’s carousel and zoo. And when the city starts to be too much, an easy subway ride away is Coney Island! With classic amusement rides like the Wonder Wheel and a highly stroll-able boardwalk, it’s a place that feels nostalgic on your very first visit. Back in the city, take any opportunity to enjoy the unique skyline. Some of the best views are from the observation deck of Freedom Tower, but be sure to buy advance tickets to skip the long lines. Two stops we regrettably didn’t make are the American Museum of Natural History (dinosaurs!) and The Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum (airplanes!). But this gives us a head start on planning our next visit, which can’t happen soon enough for my tiny transportation buff.
Washington, D.C. • Aaron Sheldon
Washington, DC is actually a fantastic city to visit with kids! The hotels can get a little pricey, but if you plan your visit when Congress is out of session you can find great deals in some of the great, walkable neighborhoods of the District. Logan Circle, which is walkable to several metro stops, has a ton of great food nearby and an average UberX cost of $7-9 to the monuments and museums. For family friendly activities you have the amazing and free Smithsonian museums which all hold kid-friendly activities on a regular schedule, the National Botanical Garden (near the Capitol), and Eastern Market, which holds an outdoor market on weekends.
Other favorites of ours include: DC Waterfront: With locations like The Yards, The Wharf DC, and the Georgetown waterfront there are great hotels and restaurants and shopping, live music venues and splash pads for the kids all connected by water taxi. There is also a free shuttle connecting Wharf DC and other must visit spots around Southwest D.C.. The National Building Museum: Just a few minutes walk from the National Mall, the National Building Museum has the best kids play space I have yet to find anywhere called “Play Work Build”. Be prepared to stay the whole day!
One last thing: When visiting DC with kids do not be tempted to stay at a hotel outside the Beltway and take the metro in every day. Staying in a neighborhood like Logan Circle, Dupont Circle, Southwest or NOMA makes it easy to head back to the hotel if the kids need a rest and you spend more time doing things rather than waiting on a Metro train to show up.