Not all cities are created equal when it comes to choosing a destination for a family vacation. While many cities around the country have plenty to do for families, not all are budget-friendly. Here is a list of five cities that my family has found provide various opportunities to see, experience, eat, and explore within a reasonable budget.
Washington, DC is a great option for families who are on a budget but are not willing to compromise on experience. The clear reason: A visit to the eleven Smithsonian Museums and Memorials around the National Mall are completely free—something you can’t find in most cities! These world-class museums are teaching experiences for the whole family and they’re within walking distance of each other.
When visiting with kids make sure to hit the National Air and Space Museum and the Museum of Natural History—the children section of each museum offers interactive exhibits perfect for curious minds. For those looking for something else besides history, the National Zoo is also free!
As for getting around the city? My family found the metro easy and cost-effective. The train is accessible from the airport and has multiple stations around the major sights, hotels, and restaurants. To save more money, stay just outside the center of it all, but close to a Metro stop. That way, you are only minutes away from all the attractions at a fraction of the cost.
Philadelphia has many low-cost options for families looking to mix a little history with fun. The famed Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are completely free to visit, along with the interactive exhibits and ranger-led tours. Since these are popular attractions, be sure to get there early as the lines form right at opening.
Hit the (free) self-guided tour at the United States Mint to watch the coin making process. This facility produces nearly one million coins every thirty minutes! And on the first Sunday and every Wednesday night of each month, the Philadelphia Art Museum is “pay what you’d like.” Our kids enjoyed running up the Art Museum’s “Rocky steps.” The winner earned bragging rights! And don’t forget to take a picture with the Rocky statue.
Another great area to take a walk through is the eclectic neighborhood on South Street. There are many low cost options here, but I’d highly recommend grabbing a classic Philly cheesesteak. If you have older kids or teens, try Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (a unique art exhibit maze) and tour the Eastern State Penitentiary (a famed prison now in ruins) for under $15 a person.
Located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains is Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. A short drive from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which has no entrance fees!) this city makes our list. Hike, picnic, or take a scenic drive through the forest. Some of our favorite spots are Cades Cove, Laurel Falls Trail, and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. If you happen to be visiting in the summer, even more activities open up. The Little Pigeon River, which was popular among my family, offers tube rentals for floating down the river and the paved Riverwalk Greenway is great for a scenic stroll.
Once you’re done exploring the national park, head back into the city for some kid-friendly activities. Mini-golf, anyone? Between arcades, go-karts, and museums there are plenty of things to do that won’t break the bank. And if your kids love animals, be sure to hit the Dolly Parton Stampede dinner show.
Staying in a cabin can also be a highlight for kids, and oftentimes, if you are staying for a week, it can be cheaper than a hotel. At the end of our trip, our kids didn’t want to leave the cabin or the views of the mountains from our porch…
Located on the northern coast of Florida, St. Augustine is a great spot for a family weekend getaway. Founded in 1565, it’s considered the oldest city in the United States and it’s filled with colonial Spanish architecture everywhere you turn.
My family enjoyed walking the cobblestone streets in the historic, quaint downtown. Not only did we feel like we were traveling back in time, my husband and I also enjoyed the city for the many exterior sights—which, bonus, are free. If you do choose to enter the attractions, the majority are under $20 a person. Among the best are the Castillo de San Marcos (the oldest masonry fort in the country), the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, the Pirate & Treasure Museum, and the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. Get around with the Old Town Trolley, which provides a great overview of the city.
When it comes down to food, the cuisine is a blend of Spanish, Caribbean, and Southern flair. Some of our favorite restaurants located downtown were Mojo BBQ, the Floridian, Columbia Restaurant, and Kilwins for dessert. St. Augustine has many charming hotels and bed and breakfasts located downtown, but those can be pricey. We stayed just outside the main corridor near a trolley stop to save on accommodations.
Many people would not necessarily think that New Orleans is a city to be visited with children; however, this unique city is filled with character, charm, and culture which the whole family will appreciate. A stroll through Jackson Square is a great place to start during a family trip. Street performers play music and dance, and you’ll frequently find mimes, artists, and unicyclists all performing a variety of acts for the gathering crowds.
The iconic St. Louis Cathedral makes for a perfect backdrop, plus the inside of the church is stunning. But no visit to New Orleans is complete without a walk through the French Quarter and historic cemeteries. If you’re looking for something just outside the main tourist area, for $1.25 a person, families can take a ride on a streetcar through the Garden District. For about $20 per person, visit the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium.
Since the city blends French, Creole, Spanish, and African influence, the entire ambiance reflects the mix of these cultures. Be sure to point out the unique architectural elements not found in many American cities; your kids will feel like they are walking through a European city right here in the U.S. And don’t forget to indulge in some Nola cuisine like beignets from Cafe Du Monde, pralines, muffuletta sandwiches, fried oysters, po’boys, gumbo, and jambalaya. You can find these classic dishes at many restaurants in the area and most of them are huge portions, so they are easy to split and share.