Cheap Vacation Ideas for Families: The Best Cities in the U.S. and Canada
St. Louis’ Gateway Arch is a true icon. In Gateway Arch National Park, the reimagined Museum at The Arch’s interactive exhibits detail how the riverfront port came to be the departure point for western expansion. What’s less well-known: St. Louis is the U.S. city with the second-highest number of free attractions. (Washington, D.C., is the first). You could spend all day in Forest Park biking, walking, and exploring its four free and worthwhile museums. Learn about the city’s saga and its famous native sons, such as Scott Joplin and Chuck Berry, at the Missouri History Museum. At the Saint Louis Science Center, kids can build a robotic rover to explore Mars, use forensic science to solve a crime, and learn about virtual reality through computer games. At the St. Louis Zoo, kids meet grizzly bears, penguins, and Sumatran orangutans. The St. Louis Art Museum presents a diverse collection of paintings, photographs, textiles, and prints, and there, docents lead free family tours and workshops every Sunday. Two additional kid-oriented facilities are worth their admission fees: St. Louis’ children’s museum, called The Magic House, is known for hands-on exhibits that interest babies through grade-schoolers. In the City Museum, recycled mouse cages, mosaic tiles, tubes, and other stuff people throw out reappear as slides, labyrinths, caves, and other settings. Don’t miss the rooftop (pictured) with splash pond, school bus, giant bug and more surprises.
San Antonio’s jewel is the River Walk (pictured), 15 miles of walkways alongside the San Antonio River. The 5 miles that cut through downtown create a lively gathering spot lined with restaurants and shops, while boat tours fill you in on the area’s wild past and reveals of the murals under the bridges. The river also winds through Brackenridge Park, home to the San Antonio Zoo and the Witte Museum, a science and culture museum with a Texas focus. In the dinosaur gallery, skeletons of creatures that inhabited the region 110 million years ago tower over visitors and inspire imaginations. San Antonio: The Saga, a free light-and-sound show projected onto the façade of the San Fernando Cathedral, delivers history that dazzles kids with kaleidoscopic colors, morphing images, and music. Hemisfair Park’s splashpads and playgrounds gift children with a place for free fun. Both Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld San Antonio and its water slide park, Aquatica, up the thrills with rides, animal shows, and encounters led by marine life experts. You can’t forget the Alamo, where patriots fought for Texas independence. The grounds are free, but guided tours cost extra.
World-class museums, Southwestern culture, and the Sonoran Desert draw families to Phoenix, but it’s surprisingly strong in the creative arts, too. Its Musical Instrument Museum is touted as the world’s only such facility to feature a comprehensive global collection. The videos of native musicians performing on the horns, harps, flutes, marimbas, gongs, and other displayed instruments make the music come alive and open kids' minds to new methods of self-expression. The Heard Museum’s baskets, beadwork, jewelry, and sculpture may be your kids' first exposure to traditional and contemporary Native American art. In the Desert Botanical Garden (pictured), mesquite thickets, cacti, and feathery paloverde trees—more things that are propbably new to your children—thrive. You can also explore the desert for free by visiting city parks. The diverse trails in the 16,000-acre South Mountain Park and Preserve range from difficult climbs to ancient petroglyphs to stroller- and wheelchair-friendly paths through the native brush. For non-hikers and little kids, drive Summit Road to Dobbins Lookout for panoramic views. Papago Park’s paths wind past red-rock buttes to Hole-in-the-Rock, a formation used by the ancient Hohokam people to track the path of the sun.
Two new museums and enhanced parks and attractions add to Columbus’ family-friendly appeal. At the Legoland Discovery Center, which debuted September 2018, kids can create and race cars, construct buildings, and get tips from a master builder. A full-size T. rex dominates COSI’s (Center of Science and Industry) dinosaur gallery. Exhibits detail fossilization, feathered but flightless dinos, and provide possible explanations for the creatures’ demise at the new gallery, which opened November 2018 in partnership with New York's American Museum of Natural History. COSI also installed hundreds of hands-on exhibits (pictured) and the largest planetarium in Ohio. Dorrian Green, the park next door, has its own play spaces and gardens. The National Veterans Memorial and Museum, also new, pays tribute to veterans in all services in a fantastical building with a swooping roof. It’s a place that’s likely to inspire kids and teens to have a conversation with family and friends in the military. Consider doing that on stroll of nearby Scioto Audubon Metro Park.
Québec City, overlooking the historic St. Lawrence River, comes with French flair and Canadian currency—that’s a good thing for U.S. travelers given the exchange rate. The only fortified city north of Mexico, Old Québec (officially the Upper City, Haute-Ville), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Terrasse Dufferin (pictured), just outside the palatial hotel Château Frontenac, comes with river views and toboggan rides in winter or street jugglers and musicians in summer. At the Musée de la Civilisation (Museum of Civilization), learn about Québec’s history as well as its crafts and indigenous peoples. Parc des Champs-de-Bataille (Battlefield Park), with 267 acres of gardens and greenery, is a center for free outdoor fun for every season: snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and ice skating in winter, and in other seasons, strolling, biking, and inline skating. In winter Valcartier Vacation Village, 21 miles northwest of Québec in Saint-Gabriel-de-Valcartier, builds snow tube runs suitable to kids from tots to teenagers, and in summer, it fills its water slides and pools. Québec City is also brimming with hidden romantic activities for the parents; click here for the full story on those.
Albuquerque’s is an intriguing blend of Native American, Latino, and Anglo cultures, which makes it a rich opportunity to expose kids to the unique flavors of the Southwestern U.S. At its Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Native Americans perform traditional dances of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos in a swirl of silver bells and turquoise sashes. Petroglyph National Monument's trails wind past some of the thousands of drawings carved into the rocks by prehistoric residents, and except for parking, a visit costs nothing. The National Hispanic Cultural Center is no inert institution; it keeps its days vibrant with dance performances, art shows, and films. Amid the adobe buildings and galleries of Old Town, where Spanish families originally settled in 1706, you could see strolling mariachi bands—adults might find it touristy, but the tchotchke shops please grade-schoolers and teens in search of souvenirs. At ¡Explora!, kids push, pull, twist, and turn things to build contraptions and test hypotheses, while at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, kids meet Stan, a 12-foot-tall dinosaur whose skeleton is an assembly of room-high ribs and vertebrae the size of bricks. Other exhibits detail billions of years of New Mexico’s past, from before history books to the current day. The Zoo, Botanic Garden, Aquarium, and Tingley Beach comprise Albuquerque BioPark (pictured), a haven for family outings where nature-loving kids get into the animals, flowers, sea creatures, and sharks.
Many families come to Richmond for its Civil War stories, but once they’re there, they discover the city’s museums and parks. The American Civil War Museum (pictured) interprets the conflict from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers as well as free and enslaved African Americans. Richmond National Battlefield Park commemorates Union sieges at 13 sites within an 80-mile drive—one of them, the former weapons factory of the Tredegar Iron Works leaves a particular impression on young minds. Pamplin Historical Park & National Museum of the Civil War Soldier, about 30 miles south of Richmond in Petersburg, engages grade-schoolers by presenting the life of the common soldier through high-tech gadgetry and good, old-fashioned storytelling; kids experience thunderous cannon fire and feel bullets whizz by them in a 4D exhibit. Back in town, jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs, works by Van Gogh and Picasso, and a sculpture garden are highlights of the free Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The 100 acres around the 19th-century mansion Maymont bloom with gardens and exotic trees, and in season, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden pops with tulips, roses, daffodils, and a hands-on children’s garden. For energetic bikers, a 52-mile paved trail winds from Richmond to Williamsburg, where families will find one of the most famous historical attractions in the world.
Surrounded by Pacific Ocean inlets on three sides, Vancouver combines spectacular natural beauty with urban sophistication and the appeal of the U.S. dollar getting 25% more versus the Canadian dollar. In Stanley Park, a 1000-acre rainforest, everyone can hike, bike, and stroll. Paths lead along the water, through thickets of tall hemlock and cedar trees, and to a totem pole grouping (pictured). Allow several hours to explore the top-rated Vancouver Aquarium for its sea otters, walruses, sea lions, and jellyfish. Hundreds of hands-on exhibits at Science World TELUS World of Science help kids learn about topics as diverse as genetics, biology, illusions, and engineering. Getting out on the water is a must: Take the ferry to Granville Island, a rejuvenated industrial area with craft studios, shops, a food-and-flower market, and often, talented street performers. You can smell the cedar forest as you walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge, a gently swaying platform 230 feet above the Capilano River, which is 8 miles north of downtown. In the winter, kids can try skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing at Grouse Mountain, 9 miles north of Vancouver, and in summer, they can go there to mountain bike, hike, and tackle a ropes course.
Visit Wilmington, Delaware, and the Brandywine Valley, which spans both Delaware and Pennsylvania, and you easily access both city finds and country landscapes for one low hotel rate. Once run-down, Wilmington’s Riverfront now thrives with restaurants, rising hotels, and river grasses, all set among the tall cranes from the area’s 1940s shipbuilding days. The Kalmar Nyckel (pictured), a re-creation of the 17th-century Dutch ship that brought the first Swedes to the region, sails around the port and mounts pirate adventures for youngsters. At the Delaware Children’s Museum, imaginative play includes painting, treehouse climbing, and creating toy roller coasters out of tubes. From the free DuPont Environmental Education Center, enjoy views of freshwater tidal marshes and free nature tours to spot turtles, frogs, snowy egrets, osprey, and other Chesapeake wildlife. Out at Longwood Gardens, in Pennsylvania's Kennett Square, kids romp through 1000 acres of woodlands, flowers, and meadows laced with ponds and fountains, while in a similarly bucolic setting, the Brandywine River Museum, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is a rare spot where you'll find work by three generations of Wyeth Family artists. Older kids are likely to recognize N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations for Kidnapped and Treasure Island and appreciate Andrew Wyeth’s classic American painting Christina’s World. Younger kids might like searching the paintings for weathered barns, pigs, and other animals. Allow time to stroll the museum’s peaceful riverside trail.
Being able to spend days—even a week—exploring and not having to open your wallet for anything other than food more than makes up for the slightly higher hotel prices. No other U.S. city has so many free, world-class attractions as Washington, D.C. To begin with, none of the 17 Smithsonian Institution museums require an admission fee. Highlights of what you can do in those for free: Touch a moon rock at the National Air and Space Museum; learn about segregation and African American triumphs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture; watch pandas at the National Zoo; ogle the 45.5-carat Hope Diamond and a dinosaur exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History; and see the original Star-Spangled Banner at the National Museum of American History. Also for free, view the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives; and admire masterpieces at the National Gallery of Art. All the monuments and memorials are free, as are the White House and Capitol tours (make advance reservations for those last two). Take in the river views from the Georgetown Waterfront, the District Wharf, and Yards Park as well as stroll the National Mall and bike or walk through Rock Creek Park. There's a lot more to do besides all that, so pick up our latest guide book edition for the full menu of cheap family activities.