Vacationing with the family is rewarding, but can also be stressful if you don’t plan ahead. Before picking a destination, doing your due diligence with a little vacation research goes a long way.
If you’re planning a vacation in the Midwest with your family, there are a variety of locations to choose from. Here, you’ll see a collection of the best and most family-friendly places from North Dakota to Ohio and back.
From theme parks to kid-friendly eateries, here are the top places to visit. To find more inspiration on things to do in these spots, why not check out our guide to the best Midwest zoos.
Branson is located in the Ozark Mountains and was named for postmaster Reuben Branson in the 1880s. With a rich American history, there’s plenty to see and do in this Missouri city, including visiting Dolly Parton’s Stampede for a dinner show you won’t soon forget. Other activities in Branson include:
- Silver Dollar City Amusement Park: Rides for all ages, plenty of snack food, and excitement around every corner. All themed toward the 1880s!
- Promised Land Zoo: A wildlife park complete with a walkthrough safari. Promised Land Zoo includes must-see animals like sloths, lemurs, owls, and more.
- Ripley’s Believe it or Not: Creepy, kitschy and extremely fun.
- Downtown Branson Ferris Wheel: Take part in a city-wide tradition at the Branson Ferris Wheel. Ride the go-karts, bumper boats, or take in a game of golf. There’s something for everyone.
- Titanic Museum: For something educational and eventful, the Branson Titanic Museum is history at its finest. Learn about the fateful 1912 wreckage, and grab a souvenir at the gift shop.
- Wonder Works Branson: Zany and fun, Wonder Works is full of rides, activities, and learning experiences for all ages.
After all the fun and games, check out the Farmhouse restaurant on Main Street, for their famous all-day breakfast. Need a place to stay? Try the Grand Country Resort for a bed, breakfast, and on-site theme park the kids will love.
The state capital of Ohio is more than meets the eye. Overflowing with family fun, it’s impossible to run out of things to do in Ohio. From the huge interactive Scioto fountain at Bicentennial Park, to visiting Butters D. Cow at the Ohio State Fair, you can find fun for everyone in your group. Some activities of note include:
- Columbus Zoo and Aquarium: Come watch the penguins and manatee splash at the aquarium, or head into the jungle to see lions, elephants, and grizzly bears.
- Ohio History Center: If you want some learning experiences on your trip, check out the Ohio History Center. See the Armstrong Air and Space Museum, Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor, and visit Zoar Village.
- Columbus Museum of Art: From author talks to famous artwork, the Columbus Museum of Art has lots to do and see. If you’re visiting around a holiday, the museum also puts on special themed events.
- COSI (Center of Science and Industry): COSI has a wide range of activities for young and old alike, including the planetarium, giant screen theater, big science park, and dinosaur exhibits.
Looking for somewhere fun to stay and eat in Columbus? Check out German Village! This collection of shops, restaurants, and attractions began in the mid-1800s with German settlers in Columbus. Visit Schmidt’s Restaurant and Sausage Haus and the German Village Guest House for a real taste of German Village.
Sometimes referred to as Indy, Indianapolis is the capital of Indiana and home to the Indianapolis 500. Apart from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Speedway Museum, there are plenty of things to do in town for families with children of all ages. Some of the top attractions in the city include:
- Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Take a spin on the carousel, visit an 1890’s railroad replica, or watch a show at Lilly Theater. Whatever your interests, you’ll find some fun at this museum curated specifically for kids.
- Indianapolis Zoo: Feed some flamingos, ride the Skyline cars, or take a train around the zoo. Indianapolis zoo is home to many animals, such as Alaskan brown bears, Amur tigers, and crocodiles.
- Newfields: Newfields includes a selection of activities, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Miller House and Garden, and Fairbanks Park. Take it all in with one pass when you visit Newfields.
- The Garage Food Hall: From the Bottleworks Hotel to a lineup of Indy-inspired food vendors, there’s grub and activities for you and your little ones at The Garage Food Hall.
For a taste of Indiana look no further than The Cake Bake Shop (perfect for your picky eaters as they serve sandwiches with the crusts already cut off!) or 3 Sisters Cafe, which features a kid’s menu complete with bear-shaped pancakes sporting banana smiles.
Bowling Green, Kentucky
Bowling Green is a southern city in Kentucky state known for caves, nature, and corvettes. If you have a family of explorers, who love nature and history, Bowling Green is the place to see.
The city rests atop a massive natural cave system, built by sinkholes and waterways. Visit the Lost River Cave System with your family, and take the kids on a boat ride they’ll not soon forget through the watery underground caverns. Other attractions in Bowling Green include:
- Baker Arboretum and Downing Museum: 115 acres of foliage and nature grace the outside of Baker Arboretum, while inside your family will take in local art and a variety of museum exhibits.
- Shanty Hollow Lake: For an outdoor adventure, head to Shanty Hollow Lake for hiking, fishing, and biking. There are also a collection of beautiful waterfalls to be seen along the trails here.
- National Corvette Museum: Got a few car enthusiasts in the family? The National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green is the perfect outing. “Home of America’s Sportscar”, boasts ongoing car exhibits, car shows, and a kids zone.
- Beech Bend: An amusement park, campground, and raceway, Beech Bend gives you a place to stay, eat, and play rolled into one. Perfect for all ages.
Kentucky is a food lover’s paradise, so there are some must-see places to visit if you’ve got foodies in the family. While in Bowling Green check out Earl G’s Dumplin’s, famous for their chuckwagon sandwich.
Just at the edge of the Mississippi River sits the city of Dubuque in Iowa. The city is famous for its cultural center, complete with historical homes, churches, and other architectural wonders. One of the main attractions in Dubuque is Mathias Ham Historic Site. The mansion offers year-round tours and special events. Other local attractions are:
- National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium: A 14-acre campus complete with bearded dragons, barn owls, Cownose rays, Epaulette sharks, giant Pacific octopus, and more.
- Fenelon Place Elevator Co.: Ride the world’s shortest and steepest railway at Fenelon. Take a one-way or round trip on the train. Children under 5 ride free!
- Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Garden: From hosta shades to peonies to roses, the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Garden is perfect for sightseeing, family photos, and memory-making. Take a tour, hike the grounds, and don’t forget to visit the children’s play area.
- Mines of Spain: A recreation and interpretive nature center, Mines of Spain offers picnics, cross country skiing, watchable wildlife and more.
For a unique and cultural overnight experience, visit Hotel Julien Dubuque. The hotel is known for Caroline’s Restaurant and the Riverboat Lounge. For family dinners, try Your Pie Pizza (the Hot Honey Pepperoni is particularly good), or Sunshine Family Restaurant.
Medora, North Dakota
Medora is a small city in Billing’s County, North Dakota. While the population remains low (around 129), there’s plenty to do and see. The small-town feel of this micro-city creates a wonderful ambiance for families hoping to take on the midwest and explore all the rich history and culture it has to offer. Looking for some things to do in Medora? How about:
- North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame: Established in 1995, the Cowboy Hall of Fame puts Medora on the map for country lovers far and wide. From roundup events to historical tours, including education on ranching and Native American culture, the hall has plenty to do and see.
- Medora Riding Stables: Let the kids experience the wild west first hand at the Medora Riding Stables. The stables are a great spot to bring the entire family for a ride through the hills. No matter your riding level, you’ll be in good hands.
- Medora Musical: Come see the, “Greatest show in the west!” Medora Musical combines boot-scootin’ tunes with classic cowboy midwest music and a live show. Take in the singing and dancing, watch the fireworks, and stay to meet the cast.
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park: For a mix of history and nature, visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named for the 26th president of the United States of America. There are plenty of activities for youth, and your family can walk to the elkhorn ranch.
For a place to stay with style and history, consider the Rough Riders Hotel. A historic inn with 76 guest rooms, your kids will be excited to learn that Teddy Roosevelt once stayed at the Rough Riders Hotel. The hotel restaurant, Theodore’s Dining Room was named for the president.
Settled in south-central Kansas is the city of Wichita. While the city is known as, “The air capital of the world”, and the location of the first-ever Pizza Hut, it’s also famous for plenty of family-friendly events. If you visit Wichita with your loved ones, be sure to visit:
- Sedgwick County Zoo: A visit to the Sedgwick County Zoo is a totally interactive experience your family will love. Feed the animals, from the playful river otters to the friendly horses. There are also tram and boat rides in the summer season.
- Starlite Drive-In: Get hit with a blast from the past at the Starlite Drive-In. Take the entire family for a movie and snacks, all in the safety of your vehicle. Want a little something to prove you made a stop at the drive-in? Visit the gift store for a unique Starlite bumper sticker.
- Exploration Place: Science museums are growing in popularity and it’s not difficult to see why. There are many fun activities to interact with, including the lava challenge and the survival center. Check the official site before you visit to see what exciting new special events are underway.
- The Arcade: The name says it all. Pinball, Donkey Kong, Mortal Kombat, and more childhood favorites are all under one roof. Take the kids, or revisit your inner kid, with a trip to The Arcade on North Mead Street.
Need some grub on the go? The Old Spaghetti Factory is a family favorite, especially if you and your little ones are into pasta. Not into spaghetti? Take a trip down to East Kellogg Street and check out Doo-Dah Diner. They have the greatest compilation of traditional diner eats in a kid-friendly setting. For some rest and relaxation after dinner, check out Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview on West Douglas Avenue.
Just over from the Namekagon River is Hayward, a mid-sized city in Sawyer County, Wisconsin. This is a great place to bring the family if you want to get back to nature, do some hiking, catch dinner on the open water, and swim in the summer. Hayward is known as a fishing town, and there’s plenty to do here if you’re keen on a rod and reel. Some of the attractions in town, include:
- Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum: People come from far and wide to read the record book, apply for freshwater fishing world records, and of course, see the giant fish. Get a photo of your family in the landmark, “Shrine to Anglers” display, which allows up to 20 people to stand in the mouth of a concrete, steel, and fiberglass replica of a jumping fish.
- Runamuk Rides: Whether fishing or snowmobiling, Runamuk Rides provides family activities by renting out ATVs, boats and more. Depending on the ages of your family members, you may be limited to the rentals you can choose, but there’s something for everyone at Runamuk.
- Wilderness Walk Zoo: See a moose, red stag, and bison, up close and in person. Wilderness Walk Zoo brings together natural Wisconsin in an up-close and personal way you can’t get on your own in the woods. The kids will love taking photos of the animals, and there are plenty of treats to be had on the way.
- Scheer’s Lumberjack Show: Ever wanted to see lumberjacks in action? Scheer’s is the place to do it. Logrolling, power sawing, pole climbing, and children’s activities – there are plenty of ways to stay entertained and build new memories.
Want a memorable place to stop and grab a snack? Take the family to Tremblay’s Sweet Shop on Main Street. The shop is famous for its fudge, but offers a wide assortment of tantalizing treats for those with a sugar tooth. If you’re interested in something on the savory side, check out Angler’s Haven Resort on Country Road.
Kansas City, Missouri
Not to be confused with the state of Kansas, Kansas city is on the western side of Missouri, just at the border of Kansas. The city is famous for jazz music, great barbeque and some truly unique fountains. Kansas City has a lot of fun activities for adults and children of all ages, including:
- LegoLand: What kid doesn’t love Lego? But, did you know LegoLand has lots for adults to do and see as well? Visit the “Ultimate indoor Lego playground” and experience amusement park rides, 4D cinema, and plenty of creative workshops. Build, buy, and play with Lego to your heart’s content.
- Kaleidoscope: The Hallmark Kaleidoscope center is a free place for kids to get creative. Partnered with Crayola, Kaleidoscope has lots of artistic endeavors for your children to undertake. Get crafty together for some family fun on Grand Street.
- American Jazz Museum: For something a little more grown-up, but still family-friendly, check out the American Jazz Museum. If you’re a music enthusiast, this is something you don’t want to miss. View the current exhibits and learn about the local jazz academy.
- Union Station: More of a collection of activities than a single destination, Union Station is home to the City Stage Live Theater, Science City, Planetarium, and Regnier Movie Theater.
If you get hungry while visiting Kansas City, rest assured there is something for every eater. Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que is a local hotspot, with some of the best pulled pork, brisket, and beef ribs you’ll ever taste. Not looking for so much meat? Kansas City also has some great vegetarian eateries, such as Cafe Gratitude. The kids menu is outstanding, with comfort food you can feel good about feeding your little ones.
Des Moines, Iowa
The capital of Iowa, and a cultural hub of the state, Des Moines has an abundance of family fun for residents and tourists alike. The city is known for the assortment of sculpture parks and gardens, offering plenty to see while you stroll through the city. Families looking for activities to embark on together should check out attractions such as:
- Adventureland Resort: With thrill rides, family rides, kiddie rides, and adventure bay to explore, you’re not likely to run out of things to do. Adventureland also offers accommodations through Adventureland Inn and the Adventureland Campground. Whether you want to rough it over a campfire or rest easy in a cushy splash park bungalow, they will help you get settled near the action.
- Living History Farms: Bring your family to a place where they can see and experience history firsthand. The Living History Farms offers a glimpse at 30 years of farming history, including historic cooking classes, interacting with the animals, and watching demonstrations of old-timey activities.
- Blank Park Zoo: For more fun with animals, Blank Park Zoo is home to giraffes, penguins, sea lions, pandas, flamingos, and more. Visit the animals, take the train around the park, ride the carousel, and check out the Kiddie Kingdom Feed Cup to feed some of the animals.
- Des Moines Art Center: Complete your Des Moines cultural experience with a visit to the Des Moines Art Center. Tour the gallery and exhibits, or take a class. The art center offers a great indoor option on rainy days, and if you happen to be in Des Moines in the summer, they also provide summer camps.
For a bite to eat with some fun on the side try Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl & Grill. The eatery is known for its family dining, especially the “Tasty Burger”. When you’re done with dinner, knock down some pins at the adjoining bowling alley. If you’ve got a strong stomach and a taste for adventure, you and your family might also enjoy a visit to Zombie Burger & Drink Lab.
For accommodations, Des Moines tourists turn to the Butler House on Grand for a B&B experience like no other. The old English Tudor style home is more than 100-years old, and provides suites and butler concierge service.
Wrapping Up Your Midwest Travels
Hopefully, this guide has provided some tips on which states and cities to visit, and where to look for family fun while you’re on the road. There are plenty of hot spots across the Midwest; too many to name. Some fun locations that didn’t make the list but you should check out on your travels include:
- Door County, Wisconsin
- Traverse City, Michigan
- Cleveland, Ohio
- Springfield, Illinois
- Brainerd Lakes, Minnesota
- Rapid City, South Dakota
- Omaha, Nebraska
As you plan your Midwest travels, consider making a list of the types of activities you’d like to enjoy. Door County, Wisconsin, for example, is a great location for sun tanning and swimming holidays, while Omaha, Nebraska is a hub of cultural and historical activities including a top-notch museum and art gallery.
It’s also a good idea to check on seasonal activities at the venues you’re considering. There’s nothing worse than making a trek out to see an attraction and finding it’s closed for the season. Wherever your trip takes you, happy travels!
More about our TFVG Author
A seasoned traveller, Dad, and avid sports tourist, James foundered The Family Vacation Guide to share his expert vacation experiences- especially when it comes to being a travelling family man.
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