16 Summer Vacation Ideas for an Unforgettable Family Experience
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The world is your oyster once again. For the first summer since 2019, you can travel to most destinations without jumping through a lot of extra hoops. But more choices and rising prices make it harder to commit: For instance, should you road-trip to a beach town, take the kids to the theme park they've been begging you to visit or immerse them in a new culture on their first international adventure? These are tough decisions.
Not to rush you, but spots are filling up. "Demand is still absolutely off the charts," says Amie O'Shaughnessy, CEO of Ciao Bambino, a travel agency that specializes in planning trips for families. "As early as last October, we booked a record number of trips for this summer."
To help narrow down the possibilities, the travel team at the Good Housekeeping Institute the legwork for you. We used research from our annual Family Travel Awards and talked with travel experts to come up with a list of 2023's best summer vacation ideas for traveling with children — young or grown. "Particularly in Europe, this is a year to consider wandering off the beaten path," says O'Shaughnessy.
Several spots on our list would make an awesome vacation with grandparents and other extended family. We also considered a range of price points so you'll have both budget and luxury vacation ideas. From our best family destinations, pick a place you've never been as a family and just book it. It'll feel so good to get away.
Big Island, Hawaiʻi
What's to Love: Not as crowded as Maui, stunning landscapes and nature activities galore
Keep in Mind: It's a long flight — more than 5 hours from the West Coast and 11 hours from the East Coast — so plan to stay at least a week.
You can't go wrong with any of the Hawaiian islands, but the Big Island (officially called the island of Hawaiʻi) will enthrall active families with school-age kids and older. Picture large black volcanic rocks alongside calm blue water teeming with tide pools, and you've envisioned the stretch of beach on the Kohala Coast.
It's simply perfect for low-key days spent splashing and snorkeling. Driving from the coast (where most resorts are located) to Hawaiʻi Volcanos National Park will be the coolest road trip ever: You'll pass through many different types of climates — including a rainforest — before reaching the park. Once inside, kids can explore caves, take short hikes on volcanic terrain and feel the warmth from a steaming bluff. Adventure outfitters also offer memorable hikes around other parts of the island, including some that allow your family to swim under a waterfall. Whoa!
Where to Stay: Nestled between lava fields, the white sand beach at the newly renovated Westin Hapuna Beach Resort is one of the most breathtaking (and family-friendly) on the island.
What's to Love: Fairytale vibes, colorful architecture and fewer tourists than Florence
Keep in Mind: Rates are lower in June and August than in July.
Surrounded by thick medieval walls, Lucca is mysterious, magnificent and far less crowded than nearby Florence. A 14th-century tower that has a garden on top, Gothic cathedrals, piazzas and cobblestone streets will make your kids feel like they're immersed in a fairytale. Because it's mostly flat (unlike so many towns on Italy's Amalfi Coast), kids won't tire out as quickly. And when they do need to rest their little legs, stop at one of the gelato shops. There's enough to do in Lucca for a weekend, and you can spend the rest of your vacay taking day trips to other places in the region.
Where to Stay: How about a hotel next to an antique carousel? Bordering the Piazza Napoleon, the stunning Grand Universe Lucca is a good value compared to the rates at upscale properties in well-known Italian cities. Plus, the hotel is part of Marriott's Autograph collection, so you can use (and earn) Marriott Bonvoy points.
Traverse City, Michigan
What's to Love: Lake beaches, cherry orchards and wineries
Keep in Mind: Even in summer, temperatures can drop into the 50s at night.
If there were a recipe for a perfect beach town, Traverse City supplies all the right ingredients — a variety of stunning public beaches, a fab food scene and a great home base for exploring the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, winner of a 2023 Good Housekeeping Family Travel Award. Come in July or early August, so you can pick sweet cherries at a nearby orchard. The town even hosts the National Cherry Festival from July 1 to 8.
Where to Stay: Opening this June, the Alexandra Inn has a private beach on Lake Michigan and a study filled with family board games.
What's to Love: Chocolate, theme park and gardens
Keep in Mind: Hersheypark is busiest in the afternoon, so hit the hotel pool after lunch and return to the park at night when it's cooler and less crowded.
With the smell of chocolate in the air and street lights shaped like Hershey Kisses, this town in central Pennsylvania lives up to its reputation as one of the sweetest places on Earth. Hersheypark, which dates back to 1906, is the main draw thanks to its fabulous lineup of both coasters and kiddie rides. A new coaster, its 15th, is expected to open this summer.
Next door, at the air-conditioned Hershey's Chocolate World, your crew can pack into a candy-themed vehicle to learn how chocolate bars are made and score a free sample at the end. Be sure to explore downtown, home of the Hershey Theatre (where Broadway touring shows often play) and MeltSpa by Hershey. The nearby Hershey Gardens, with a butterfly atrium and hands-on nature play for kids, is a great spot to relax.
Where to Stay: With indoor and outdoor pools, waterslides, a splash zone, an arcade and an ice cream shop, Hershey Lodge is almost as much of a kid magnet as the park. Everyone in your group scores a full-size Hershey bar at check-in.
What's to Love: Fantastic exchange rate, very walkable and great for a trip with extended family
Keep in Mind: Once you enter Quebec, all the street signs are in French so familiarize yourself with the words for stop, exit and so forth.
If a trip to Europe isn't in the budget this summer, Montreal may be the next best thing. "You get the European feel; the neighborhoods are enchanting," says Samantha Brown, a mom of two and host of the TV show Samantha Brown’s Places to Love. The city has the most surprisingly lovely "green alleyways," scenic car-free paths that may take you past kids' lemonade stands and artisans selling their wares, Brown says. Historic buildings, museums, parks and churches plus an array of festivals also add to the European vibe. Plus, kids may pick up a couple of French words or phrases. Magnifique!
Where To Stay: Try Sonder Maisonneuve in the downtown area. You can book a three-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and laundry for about the same price as a single upscale hotel room.
What's to Love: Legoland, beaches and flowers
Keep in Mind: The closest and (and most convenient) major airport is John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
Can't decide between a beach vacation and a theme park trip? Carlsbad, north of San Diego, offers the best of both worlds. It's home to Legoland California, an imaginative theme park designed especially for the under-12 crowd. Mini coasters, a driving school and fairytale-like boat rides especially wow the youngest visitors. Lines go by fast because kids can play at Lego tables while they wait. After one or two theme-park days, Carlsbad State Beach gives your family a chance to refresh by the water. Its picnic area, restrooms, lifeguards and a walking path along the coast help turn a good beach day into a great one.
Where to Stay: If you want to go all into the theme-park experience, Legoland California has its own hotel with themed rooms and the most fun elevator ever (no spoilers!). For a more low-key spot, try Westin Carlsbad Resort & Spa.
What's to Love: Cool historical attractions, nature activities and mini golf
Keep in Mind: It's best to explore the outdoor attractions in the morning when it's cooler.
Steeped in history, this former capital of Virginia is educational and entertaining. Colonial Williamsburg, an outdoor living history museum and winner of a 2023 Good Housekeeping Family Travel Award, immerses kids in 18th-century life. Hands-on activities as well as demonstrations from blacksmiths and other tradespeople dressed in the attire of the times ignite their curiosity. The historic settlements in Jamestown, operated by the National Park Service, are a short drive away. After sneakily educational days, families can unwind at one of the many ice cream shops and mini golf spots.
Where to Stay: Thanks to its multiple pools, playground, golf courses, marina and spa, Kingsmill Resort could be a vacation in itself. Condos with up to three bedrooms can accommodate large families and little kids' sleep schedules.
What's to Love: Lake activities, concerts and festivals and budget-friendly lodging
Keep in Mind: Stay downtown where you can hop on the free trolley to major attractions.
With a burgeoning music scene, Milwaukee hosts SummerFest, the world's largest music festival. In 2023, it's taking place over three long weekends — June 22-24, June 29-July 1 and July 6-8. One of the 12 festival stages is in Northwestern Mutual Community Park, which has a colorful playground, family restrooms and sensory rooms. Plan your trip over one of those weekends and spend a few extra days exploring the area's beaches. Located on Lake Michigan, Bradford Beach has received environmental certification from the nonprofit Clean Beaches Coalition.
Where to Stay: In the city's center, the six-floor Courtyard by Marriott Milwaukee Downtown boasts an indoor pool and modern rooms that sleep up to five and include a mini fridge and microwave.
What's to Love: Fantastic parks, top attractions and iconic food
Keep in Mind: Double-check the hours of the attractions you want to visit. The Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
If you usually avoid city vacations with kids, Chicago is the place that's most likely to change your mind. "Many families don't realize that the city has 12 miles of beaches in addition to phenomenal attractions," says Brown. In fact, the city's world-class aquarium, planetarium and natural-history museum are all next to each other on the waterfront. In the Lincoln Park neighborhood, there's a free zoo that's superior to its admission-charging counterparts. Visit on a Wednesday or Saturday when a farmers' market pops up in the area.
Where to Stay: Winner of a 2023 Good Housekeeping Family Travel Award, the Waldorf-Astoria Chicago provides exceptional service plus special amenities for babies and kids.
Greece is a hot ticket again this year, according to O'Shaughnessy, with limited availability and high rates. She suggests heading North to Croatia for a similar experience that's more budget-friendly with fewer crowds. One of the country's hidden gems is Cavtat, a town with a stunning waterfront promenade and 5 miles of beaches. It's just 10 minutes from the Dubrovnik airport that offers direct flights from NYC and other cities.
Where to Stay: Located in the charming historic center, the recently renovated Hotel Supetar Cavtat is divine and has a beautiful pool. Like most European hotels, families will need to book two rooms.
Santa Barbara, California
What's to Love: Family-friendly, glorious beaches and good weather
Keep in Mind: You can take a ferry to Channel Islands National Park, about 22 miles off the coast. The five-island chain has been called the “Galapagos of North America.”
If any place can deliver a vacation (and not just a trip) for families with young kids, it's Santa Barbara. It's all just so pretty and easygoing. With gentle waves, Leadbetter Beach is a great spot to introduce toddlers to the ocean. Outdoor showers, restrooms and a grassy area for picnics remove some of the hassles of a beach day with littles. Attractions are engaging but not massive: At the zoo, for instance, kids can get up to kangaroos and wallabies in a new exhibit. At the Museum of Natural History's Sea Center, touch tanks and windows at kid height give little ones a close-up look at the sea creatives native to Santa Barbara. The botanic garden has the sweetest adventure space with a fort building, a maze and obstacle courses.
Where to Stay: The recently renovated Kimpton Canary has the largest rooftop pool in the city, providing stunning mountain views. It also offers a variety of suite sizes to accommodate large families or three generations traveling together.
St. Augustine, Florida
What's to Love: Spanish colonial architecture, unspoiled beaches and wildlife
Keep in Mind: You'll probably want to rent a car to explore the area's beaches and get to and from the airport.
In the nation's oldest city, a good time will be had by all ages. A pirate-themed museum, lighthouse and an array of interesting historical sites entertain multiple generations. On top of that, the area boasts 42 miles of beaches, including one that has four ecosystems. The food scene is booming too. Our Family Travel Awards tester enjoyed AsadoLife, a newish waterfront restaurant that specializes in grilling.
Where to Stay: Ideal for families with older children, Casa Monica Resort & Spa is "in the perfect location to the downtown area and an easy walk to restaurants and attractions," said our tester. On days you want to play in the ocean, you'll have access to the resort's private club on Ponte Vedra Beach, about a 15-minute drive from the resort. The club also offers kids' activities plus a family pool that starts at just a few inches deep.
What's to Love: Fabulous beaches, thermal springs and an all-inclusive resort
Keep in Mind: There aren't direct flights from the U.S. You'll need a stopover in London, Dublin or another European city.
European families know how to vacation right — one of the most popular destinations is this sunny region in Southern Portugal. Dramatic cliffs, wildlife-filled lagoons, sea caves and long stretches of sand for building castles dot the coastline. Called the "California of Europe," this region is known for its fantastic food scene and mix of beaches and countryside.
Where to Stay: Situated in a protected nature park, the Martinhal Sagres Beach Family Resort is "completely family-driven," says O'Shaughnessy. Fun supervised clubs for kids ages 6 months through 17 give parents time to go stand-up paddleboarding, windsurfing or just chill at the beach. You can pre-book baby gear, so you don't have to haul your own. Restaurants have a kids' play area and the children's menu includes baby purees.
What's to Love: Nature activities, unique attractions and good value
Keep in Mind: Time your visit to line up with one of the city's fun music or food festivals.
Two hours southeast of Nashville, Chattanooga is an under-the-radar gem. "It's right on the river and surrounded by phenomenal cliffs," says Brown. Adventurous families will be in their element with all the opportunities for hiking, biking and rock climbing. "The city also has one of the best hang-gliding schools in the world," says Brown. You'll also want to add Ruby Falls to your must-do list. You'll descend 260 feet in a glass elevator to see some of the deepest underground cave waterfalls. The kids' minds will be blown.
Where to Stay: Near Ruby Falls, the Hampton Inn Chattanooga West/Lookout Mountain is a budget-friendly pick that has both indoor and outdoor pools. The hotel brand won a 2023 Good Housekeeping Family Travel Award.
What's to Love: Theme parks, shopping, fun restaurants
Keep in Mind: Afternoon thunderstorms are common, so keep ponchos with you.
Let's be real for a minute: Summer isn't the best time to go to Orlando. But if that's the only time you can go, do it! All the major theme parks have new attractions this summer. Walt Disney World recently opened its mega-fun TRON Lightcycle / Run coaster at Magic Kingdom. A new Minion-themed attraction and restaurant are expected to debut at Universal Studios Florida this summer. Over at SeaWorld, coaster fans will look forward to the launch of Pipeline: The Surf Coaster this spring.
Where to Stay: If you're planning on sticking mostly to Disney, opt for Disney's Yacht Club Resort, which is connected to the new Skyliner system that will whisk you to Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios. Planning on spending most of the vacay at Universal? The value-priced Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort has fun retro vibes, two massive pools and a bowling alley. For families who are splitting their time between parks or prefer a more chill atmosphere, try Grand Lakes Orlando, winner of a 2023 Good Housekeeping Family Travel Award.
What's to Love: Pristine beaches, biking and island vibes
Keep in Mind: Make ferry reservations to get to the island, as soon as you book your hotel.
This tiny island off Cape Cod feels like its own little world. The days are slow — in a good way. There's plenty of time to make sandcastles and splash in the ocean then grab ice cream from one of the many charming downtown shops. The island's three lighthouses look like they're straight out of a movie. You'll also enjoy some spectacular seafood — here's your chance to introduce kids to a lobster roll!
Where to Stay: The Nantucket Hotel & Resort embodies New England charm. It lets kids ride on an antique firetruck, hosts weekly clambakes and is within walking distance of a lighthouse and downtown.
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