Family travel doesn’t always have to include passports or carry-on bags filled with snacks and tablets — sometimes it’s as easy as carving out a few hours of your day and piling into the car. Or a bus. Or even on bikes.
No matter where you live, there is unexplored territory around you. Everywhere. And whether you call it a “day trip,” a “staycation” or simply getting out of the house, it’s truly fun (and affordable!) to discover new places in your community.
And remember, it’s often not where you go, but how you experience it. Do a little research before going somewhere so you can share with your kids’ interesting tidbits about the destination or make exploring it into a game. If you’re at the art museum and you ask kids to identify their favorite pieces or to pick out purple images or food-related art or … You get the idea.
So here are six suggestions to help you become a traveler regardless of where you live. And because we are located in Milwaukee, we also added specific adventures for those who want to wander around more in our fine city.
- Make a list of public places you have not gone — museums, zoos, public markets, parks, nature preserves, sporting events — and then create an itinerary for the day, or even an entire weekend. Try not to schedule any other events, including chores, so it really feels like a “getaway” experience.
Milwaukee examples: Of course classics like the Milwaukee Public Museum and Milwaukee Art Museum are always a solid choice, but we also recommend the Schlitz Audubon Center, the Downtown Library, the Dinosaur Museum in Kenosha and Bookworm Gardens in Sheboygan during the summer.
- Visit places in your city or town with historical significance or destinations that reflect what your city is “known” for.
Milwaukee examples: Milwaukee is called “Brew City” for a reason: we have a strong history of brewing beer. Hence, the MillerCoors tour is worth checking out and surprisingly kid-friendly because it involves a short film, a fair share of walking around indoors and out and the chance to explore the “Miller Caves.” It’s also free. Possible added bonus: parents can sample products at the end of the tour if they choose.
The Sprecher Brewery offers a soda tour that explains how they make their delicious root beer – and other flavors of pop. Plus, there’s unlimited sampling at the end so prepare for a super sugar buzz finish.
Milwaukee is also the birthplace and headquarters of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. The Harley-Davidson Museum is extremely interactive – including the chance to ride about a dozen different stationary motorcycles, dress up in moto-clothing and more.
Bowling is a longtime tradition in Milwaukee, and we still have two vintage bowling alleys with human pinsetters. The Holler House is the oldest bowling alley in the country and worth checking out, but we recommend Koz’s Mini Bowl. The duck-pin bowling features very light balls and short lanes so kids of any age can successfully bowl – and without bumpers. Call ahead to reserve a lane or two.
Ending a Milwaukee event with a cone or dish of custard is, well, the cherry on top of the excursion. Frozen custard is a Wisconsin tradition and available at favorite spots like Leon’s, Kopp’s and Culvers.
- Eat at an ethnic restaurant.
Try something different and adventuresome. If your city has an Ethiopian restaurant, give it a try. Ethiopians do not use utensils to consume food, instead, they tear off pieces with a pancake bread called injera and use it to scoop vegetables and meat into their mouths. Basically, it’s a green light to eat with your hands. Or go to a Chinese restaurant and challenge each other to use chopsticks for at least part of the meal. For older kids, purchasing “starter chopsticks” prior to the meal might be a good idea. Always ask servers if they can teach you how to say “thank you” or other basic words in the language of the cuisine’s home culture.
Milwaukee examples: We have two Ethiopian restaurants, Ethiopian Cottage and Alem Ethiopian Village, both of which offer good deals on Groupon. We also have some great Mexican food options, so don’t hit the same taco spots every time: try something new. We recommend Cielito Lindo or Conejito’s because they are particularly kiddo friendly.
For unique and immersive dining experiences we also suggest the Safe House, one of two spy-themed / James Bond restaurants in the country where you need to say the password to enter; Hamburger Mary’s, featuring delightful and positive LGBTQ culture (as well as great burgers) and Organ Piper Pizza with a live organist who takes requests. (Be sure to ask for the theme to “Star Wars.”)
- Take public transportation.
Instead of your car, pick a destination in your city and then get there via bus, train, Uber/Lyft or bicycle rental. Getting to a fun place can be half the fun!
Milwaukee example: If your kids are older and know how to ride a bike, try Bublr Bikes. They’re conveniently located all over the city and are easy-to-ride machines. Just be sure to bring your own bike helmets for the safest possible experience.
- Stay in a historic hotel.
Consider a historic hotel if there is one within a couple hours from home. If not, a chain with a pool works, too.
Milwaukee example: Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel welcomes families – including dogs – and is a treasure trove of history, art, and sightseeing from inside the structure. Talk to the concierge for fascinating stories about celebrities who have stayed in the hotel, go to the top floor for snacks and drinks and to see the best view of Milwaukee in the city or wander around and take in the world-renowned art collection. We recommend looking for “heart shapes” in the paintings on the 7th floor. Trust us, there are many.
- Take a walk in your neighborhood or another neighborhood in your town/city and take photos of interesting buildings, trees, public art, fountains and more. You can also talk about the similarities between building styles and follow-up – or begin – by Googling info on the architecture and history of the neighborhood.
Milwaukee examples: Downtown is a great and obvious choice, but Port Washington, a town that’s just a 15-minute drive to the north, has small-town charm, cute shops, and cafes and is located on the shore of Lake Michigan. Try Newport Shores for kid-friendly food and a view.
We also suggest these neighborhoods to explore and, possibly, photograph:
- Historic Mitchell Street for Mexican American culture meets American culture.
- Greenfield Avenue in West Allis for a vintage, “is it still the 70s?” feel.
- Historic Concordia and Brewers Hill Neighborhoods — so many vintage, colorful homes to gaze at and photograph. Ask your child, “if you could paint your house any color, what would you choose?”
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