Not many people are aware of what bold attractions and hidden gems await travelers to the Midwest. There are thousands of Midwest attractions worth seeing, but we’ve rounded up family-friendly destinations and experiences to add to your bucket list. The best of the Midwest includes National Parks, hot air balloons, historic sites, incredible museums and more – there’s something for everyone here!
The Field Museum– Chicago, Illinois
Why we Love it? Chicago has so many places to visit with kids that are not only entertaining but unique. Among these is The Field Museum. There are dozens of exhibits at the Field Museum that are aimed at providing kids with hands-on educational fun, making this one of the coolest museums in existence.
Best time of year to go? This is a great place to visit year-round.
Best thing to do with kids: Kids love the Underground Adventure exhibit that focuses on bugs. The exhibit demonstrates what life is like from a bug’s perspective. The Field Museum also has an incredible exhibit surrounding the evolution of our planet (complete with huge displays of full dinosaur fossils). Their Egyptian mummy exhibit is second to none, allowing visitors to venture inside a mummy tomb.
The Morton Arboretum – Lisle, Illinois
Why we Love it? Just 30 miles West of Chicago, The Morton Arboretum is focused on bringing nature to children and making learning about the natural world fun and interactive. It allows their imagination to go wild.
Best time of year to go? Late spring- early fall, as there are a lot of water play elements in the park for children to play in although there are holiday events to check out as well.
Best thing to do with kids: The Arboretum has two fantastic gardens geared just to children: Adventure Woods and Backyard Discovery Gardens. These gardens encourage children to learn about plants and the living world through play. Natural playground equipment, treehouses, suspension bridges, and lookout await eager little nature explorers.
Hidden within the arboretum grounds are 6 enormous trolls made from reclaimed wood – a temporary exhibit lasting through 2019. Armed with a copy of the Troll Hunters handbook, children have a marvelous time walking around, hunting for these giant woodland protectors. These gigantic trolls are as whimsical as they are educational. Their purpose is to teach young troll hunters about the importance of conservation to the environment.
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National Balloon Classic – Indianola, Iowa
Why we Love it? This is an amazing opportunity to take a hot air balloon ride with your family. Morning and evening rides are available throughout the festival. These rides are popular and fill up quickly, advanced reservations are required. If you would rather keep your feet on the ground, this event is still a once in a lifetime impressive sight, seeing a hundred hot air balloons take to the sky.
Best time of year to go? This festival usually happens the last week in July.
Best thing to do with kids: While there are a variety of mass balloon launches during this festival, kids really love the Nite Glow Extravaganza, for an up-close view of the balloons at night when they are lit up.
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Oz Museum – Wamego, Kansas
Why We Love it? Appropriately situated in a small Kansas town, The OZ Museum brings kids back to this magical land of magic and adventure! The Museum has an extensive collection of everything Wizard of Oz – from artifacts from the original book by L. Frank Baum through the classic Judy Garland movie. There are also exhibits featuring items from other versions of the story that have graced the screen including “The Wiz”, featuring Michael Jackson. The museum boasts of having over 2,000 artifacts, such as masks from characters in the original movie, windows, and doors from the munchkin house from the Muppets version of the story and ruby slippers made from real Swarovski crystals.
Best time of year to go? The museum is open year-round with the exception of Christmas Day, Thanksgiving Day and Easter Sunday.
Best thing to do with kids: Kids will love seeing some of their favorite scenes from the films replicated throughout this iconic museum with artifacts from the movie sets too. There are also fantastical Oz themed events throughout the year for you and your kids to experience the magic of Oz.
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The City Museum – St Louis, Missouri
Why We Love it? St. Louis is a fabulous family destination and the City Museum – built entirely from St. Louis’s architectural and industrial castoffs, from the slide made out of assembly-line rollers to the rooftop 1940s-era Ferris Wheel – should be on every imaginative and adventurous family’s bucket list! Children can climb, play and explore the structures by crawling through underground tunnels and climbing up to pathways in the ceiling.
Best time of year to go? Open year-round, although to really appreciate the outdoor exhibits, such as the Outdoor Play Garden and Nature Play, you want to visit during the warmer months (Late April – Early October).
Best thing to do with kids: Everything! The giant treehouse gives kids plenty of opportunities to immerse themselves in fiberglass leaves, old tree trunks, and tubes; there are aquarium tanks throughout the area, slides and climbing structures around every turn. Outside is a 7-story jungle gym called MonstroCity — all safely engineered for children’s exploration – though we’d stay close to young kids as some of the climbing and exploration can be scary.
Lauren Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum – Mansfield, Missouri
Why we Love it? Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder and The Little House book series, or those just interested in what life was like in Missouri during the 1800’s, are in for a treat as this Rocky Ridge Farm captures a portion of the life of the famous American author. It was here that she penned her acclaimed book series about her life on the Midwest frontier.
Best time of year to go? The museum is open from March 1st- November 1st. There are special events year round including a special Christmas program during the month of December called Christmas at Laura’s where you can enjoy a festive day on Laura’s farm, taste her special holiday dishes and meet Santa.
Best thing to do with kids: Families do not want to miss Wilder Day in September. Visitors are allowed access to part of the farm and house that are not usually open to the public. The farm comes alive during this celebration with vendors and special events to make it a one of a kind festival.
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park – Medora, North Dakota
Why we Love it? Aside from the rustically beautiful landscape, Theodore Roosevelt National Park has an abundance of wildlife that visitors will frequently encounter such as bison, mule deer, and elk.
Best time of year to go? The park is open year-round, however in September (generally the second weekend after Labor Day) will allow visitors to participate in the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival which includes stargazing events, rocket building, and launching.
Best thing to do with kids: If your children have never participated in the Junior Ranger Program, it is an educational program for children that helps them get a little something extra out of their visit to the park. Children are given a field guide to the park with activities to complete. Once they have completed the field guide, they can turn it into a park ranger and receive a Junior Ranger Badge from the park. Through the Junior Ranger Program, Kids can collect badges from different National Parks all across the country. Kids can also pick up a Family Fun Pack at either of the visitor centers in the park when they are signing up for the Junior Ranger Program. The pack contains binoculars, field guides, hand lenses and activities to complete. These packs are free to borrow for up to 24 hours and will make exploring the park even more enjoyable.
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Badlands National Park – Interior, South Dakota
Why we Love it? To many visitors, the rough terrain with its landscape of rock spires and canyons looks like something from another planet, both beautiful and alien. The rustic beauty is truly something out of this world.
Best time of year to go? This park experiences severe weather in both the winter with extremely cold temperatures and heavy snowfall in the summer where the temperature can reach into the high 90’s and low 100’s. Spring and fall seem to have the most temperate weather.
Best thing to do with kids: Stop in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and head to the Fossil Preparation Lab where kids can see the fossil that a 10-year-old girl discovered in 2010 near the Visitor Center. From the second week in June through the third week in September watch paleontologists at work in the lab.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Keystone, South Dakota
Why we Love it? Mount Rushmore is without a doubt one of the most recognizable national monuments. The sheer size and artful beauty of the monument make it a wonder to behold.
Best time of year to go? Although the park gets quite crowded in the summertime, due to the severity of the winter weather, spring through fall is the best time to visit.
Best thing to do with kids: Viewing such a vast sculpture carved into the mountainside is sure to impress anyone, especially children who are learning American history. When night falls, the imposing sculpture is lit up for the Mount Rushmore Illumination, at which time guests are asked to stand for the singing of the national anthem.
Custer State Park – Custer, South Dakota
Why we Love it? Beyond being a beautiful place to visit, this state park is incredibly family oriented with lots of educational programs that will enrich your visit and captivate your children. Offering everything from wildlife education to how to fish and cook your catch from kayaking to biking adventures, Custer State Park is a family favorite.
Best time of year to go? The best time to appreciate this park is between Memorial Day and Labor Day when their programs are in full swing. Late in September, the park has a Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival.
Best thing to do with kids: The Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival in late September is a once in a lifetime experience for kids and adults. Beginning with a morning pancake feed, families can observe nearly 1,300 bison rounded up to maintain a strong and healthy herd and then enjoy Western and Native American entertainment and local vendors throughout the weekend.
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Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium – Omaha, Nebraska
Why we Love it? The Henry Doorly Zoo is considered to be one of the best zoos in the country. This zoo has many one of a kind animal habitats such as the world’s largest indoor desert exhibit. The zoo has spent the last 8 years and almost $175 million dollars updating and renovating the habitats and exhibits.
Best time of year to go? Spring through fall is the best time to visit as most of this zoo is outdoor.
Best thing to do with kids: The Omaha Zoo has lots of affordably priced animal experiences such as stingray beach where kids can touch, feed and interact with some of the zoo’s most friendly residents. The Aquarium Children’s Adventure Trails are an interactive exhibit where kids can run, play, learn and blow off some of that extra energy.
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Apostle Islands National Lakeshore – Bayfield, Wisconsin
Why we Love it? Called the Jewels of Lake Superior, this landmark is made up of 21 islands, has lots of activities for families who enjoy the outdoors and water. The pristine beaches and crystal clear waters make this a great family getaway.
Best time of year to go? There are some interesting features that can only be seen in the winter, such as the ice caves, however, to really enjoy the park, it is best to visit when it’s warm enough to enjoy the water and beaches on the islands. Be sure to pack some bug spray, as the mosquitos can be fierce.
Best thing to do with kids: The National Park Service runs fully narrated tour boats that travel around the islands, stopping at specific islands so visitors can explore. The tour also takes visitors to the historic lighthouse.
Door County – Sister Bay, Wisconsin
Why we Love it? This scenic area is often referred to as the Cape Cod of the Midwest. The islands that surround the peninsula of Lake Michigan are quite possibly some of the most beautiful parts of Door County. Visitors can take a ferry to some of these Islands, such as Rock Island. Be warned, no vehicles are allowed on this particular island, which accounts for its wild and untamed beauty.
Best time of year to go? Although summer is the prime season due to the warm weather, Spring and Fall are also quite lovely in Door County. Fall is a great time to check out the change in the autumn leaves which is very impressive. Cold weather doesn’t stop the fun in this part of the world: enjoy a free ice fishing weekend in January and the annual Fish Creek Winter Festival in early February. Wintertime offers families a lot of seasonal activities such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, as well.
Best thing to do with kids: The Farm is a living history museum in the heart of scenic Door County that the whole family will love. It offers families an opportunity to see what farming and rural life was like in Wisconsin in the mid-1800’s. The farm is both educational and fun. Kids love baby animals and this farm has them in abundance. Children can bottle feed some of the baby animals and hand feed older animals as well. End your days in Door County by indulging in local ice cream at Door County Ice-cream Factory and catching a stunning sunset in Ellison Bay.
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The Henry Ford – Dearborn, Michigan
Why we Love it? If you are visiting Detroit, this is a must-see attraction. The Henry Ford is an exceptional and world-renowned museum that is divided into three sections, the Henry Ford Museum of Innovations, The Greenfield Village, and The Ford Rogue Factory Tour. The Henry Ford Museum of Innovation has many fascinating and historically significant artifacts such as the presidential cars, a replica of the Wright Brothers plane and George Washington’s bed from his encampments during the Revolutionary War.
Best time of year to go? Open daily except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. The museum has lots of events for visitors to experience throughout the year, but as the Greenfield Village is mostly outdoors, it is best to visit Spring through Fall to make the walk from building to building more comfortable.
Best thing to do with kids: It’s hard to say what kids will enjoy more, the Henry Ford Museum of Innovations, where they can spark their own imagination through interactive exhibits or the Greenfield Village, a living history museum that covers over the 300 years of American history.
Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore – Empire, Michigan
Why we Love it? Sleeping Bear Dunes is a nature lovers paradise. This national lakeshore consists of sandy beaches, lakes, rivers, towering bluffs and forests. Outdoors enthusiast will be nothing short of astounded by this beautiful destination.
Best time of year to go? There isn’t a bad time of year to visit. There are year-round activities that families can participate in. Everything from swimming, camping, kayaking, tubing, skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, hiking, fishing (including ice fishing) snowmobiling and scuba diving (yes! You read that correctly, scuba diving).
Best thing to do with kids: Kids will be blown away by this park. It might just come down to a tug of war between climbing the sand dunes and rolling back down or tubing down a lazy river. Might as well get there early and do both. The park also has an interactive program called Heroes of the Storm that reenacts the rescue of a turn of the century shipwreck. This program has lots of opportunities for kids to participate in the fun.
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Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens – Cincinnati, Ohio
Why we Love it? Cincinnati has so many exciting places to visit and one of the best is the Cincinnati Zoo, which is the second oldest zoo in the country. This zoo has some incredible animals that you won’t find at just any zoo such as white lions, servals (wild cats), Malayan tigers, hippos and Andean bears. This zoo is also world renown for its breeding program.
Best time of year to go? The zoo is open year-round, but for the most comfortable experience, it is best to visit between Spring and Fall. However, a visit around Christmas time is a magical experience. The zoo is transformed into a winter wonderland with over 3 million LED lights during the PNC Festival of Lights.
Best thing to do with kids: The Cincinnati Zoo has a Twiga African Tent Camp Overnight where families can tent camp on the edge of the Zoo’s giraffe exhibit. Guests sleep in safari tents and participate in African animal encounters, as well as behind the scene tours. Camping adventures are held on select dates in August and September.
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Indiana Dune State Park – Chesterton, Indiana
Why we Love it? About 50 miles from downtown Chicago, the gorgeous Indiana Dunes are an incredible way to spend the day on Lake Michigan with kids. The sands on the Indiana Dunes are what is known as singing sands because they create a whistling sound caused by the way the wind blows over.
Best time of year to go? Late spring through early fall, when visitors can truly appreciate the sands, sun and warm waters of Lake Michigan.
Best thing to do with kids: In addition to swimming and observing the famous “whistling sands,” family’s should hike and explore the Bailly Homestead, Chellberg Farm, and Little Calumet Trail System for the ultimate Indiana Dunes outdoor adventure.
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Chili Dogs Sled Dog Trips – Ely, Minnesota
Why we Love it? Chili Dogs specializes in creating memorable family dog sledding trips that vary in time increments. They will teach you how to guide your own dog team and then control your own sled for your family’s adventure.
Best time of year to go? Wintertime, when there is snow.
Best thing to do with kids: Kids will love the sled ride almost as much as they will enjoy meeting and getting to know the dogs pulling it before their ride begins.
Mall of America – Bloomington, Minnesota
Why we Love it? This is beyond shopping, the Mall of America takes entertainment to a whole new level. With over 520 stores, there is a little something for everyone. This mall has the largest indoor amusement park in the United States, Nickelodeon Universe, which has roller coasters, thrill rides, and miniature golf courses to entertain all mall-goers.
Best time of year to go? Open year-round, visitors can take advantage of the indoor amusement park and enjoy thrill rides during the winter when most amusement parks are closed for the season.
Best thing to do with kids: There are loads of entertaining activities to do with kids at Mall of America. Most notable are the Crayola Experience and FlyOver America. In addition to learning how Crayola crayons are made, the Crayola Experience has many hands-on and personalized activities that children can participate in such creating personalized coloring pages, and crayon wrappers. Kids can also recycle old crayons by melting them into molds to create crayon animals, figures, or even rings.
FlyOver America allows your family to embark on a magical journey as you glide over some of America’s most iconic landmarks and most beautiful scenery on this unbelievable flight simulator. This 15-minute ride will have your children mesmerized and perched on the edge of their seat.
Boundary Waters – Duluth, Minnesota
Why we Love it? It is hard not to be in awe of the majestic beauty of this natural wilderness area. This takes “getting away from it all” to a whole new level. The Boundary Waters features over 1200 miles of canoe trails as well as over 2000 campsites. Families can get back to nature in within the primitive backcountry.
Best time of year to go? Late Spring through early fall. For safety reasons, it is best to wait to engage in boating activities until the waters have warmed up.
Best thing to do with kids: Taking your kids on a canoe trip through these crystal clear waters is something that your family will fondly remember for years to come. The vast amount of wildlife that you may encounter here is truly awe-inspiring, such as Timberwolves, moose, black bears, lynx, otter, beavers, and bobcats.
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The Midwest is an underrated vacation spot that has so much to offer families. A well-planned trip to our bucket list destinations will give your family memories that will last a lifetime.