Hit the Road

May 2019 View more

Our exploration guide to five great Midwest cities that families can get to in five hours or less

Summer vacation planning starts… now! If you’re looking for a warm-weather adventure with your kiddos without spending a full day in the car, a long weekend trip to one of these five neighboring states could be just the ticket. For each destination, we’ve zeroed in on our favorite family-friendly attractions—think museums, zoos, and child-friendly fests—and even mapped out a halfway point to stop for a bathroom break.
It’s time to fill up the gas tank, grab some snacks, and go!



The capital of Iowa, Des Moines (catchdesmoines.com) lies in the center of the state, with its namesake river flowing through downtown. There’s plenty of architecture to feast your eyes on, from the dramatically columned Iowa State Capitol to the glass geodesic dome of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden (909 Robert D. Ray Dr., 515.323.6290, dmbotanicalgarden.com).

Distance: 308 miles, 4.75 hours west via I-88 and I-80

Pit stop: On the border of Illinois and Iowa along the Mississippi River, the Quad Cities (visitquadcities.com) is a prime spot to stretch your legs. At Schwiebert Riverfront Park (101 17th St., Rock Island), the kids can traverse the playground and interactive fountain while parents take in stunning views of the waterfront, picturesque bridges, and Arsenal Island.

John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park

Sights: In downtown Des Moines, the 4.4-acre John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park (1330 Grand Ave., desmoinesartcenter.org) offers Instagram-worthy photo opps. The Science Center of Iowa (401 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Pkwy., 515.274.6868, sciowa.org, $9–$13/person) features a planetarium for stargazers, a native Iowa habitat exhibit for nature-lovers, and a Small Discoveries space for itty-bitty museumgoers. The free State Historical Museum of Iowa (600 E. Locust St., 515.281.5111, iowaculture.gov) impresses with a woolly mammoth skeleton replica, a six-foot-wide hand-painted Rand McNally globe, and three vintage airplanes suspended in flight. And adrenaline junkies of all sizes will love riding the coasters, bumper cars, and water slides at Adventureland (3200 Adventureland Drive, 515.266.2121, adventurelandresort.com, $40–$45/person), just northeast of Des Moines in nearby Altoona.

Science Center of Iowa

Events: The Iowa State Fair (3000 E. Grand Ave., 800.545.FAIR, iowastatefair.org, $4–8/person) draws more than a million people over its 11-day span (August 8–18) with carnival rides, agricultural demos, and grandstand concerts. This year’s musical acts include the Chainsmokers, Hootie & the Blowfish, Pentatonix, and Zac Brown Band.


Tree Runner Adventure Park

About 45 minutes due west of Detroit, near the base of Michigan’s thumb, Ann Arbor (visitannarbor.org) is home to the University of Michigan campus and a lively downtown district lined with boutiques, antique shops, breweries, and restaurants. While in town, don’t miss the legendary Zingerman’s enterprises, which include a café, deli, creamery, and bakery (zingermansdeli.com), and keep your eyes peeled for miniature fairy doors (urban-fairies.com), a whimsical public art project of sorts by “fairyologist” Jonathan B. Wright.

Distance: 264 miles, 4 hours east via I-94

Pit stop: You’ll happen upon the quaint lakefront town of New Buffalo (newbuffaloexplored.com), which is a little short of halfway through the trip. Stop for a bite to eat and play a few games in the arcade at retro burger joint Redamak’s (616 E. Buffalo St., 269.469.4522, redamaks.com)

Sights: Curious kiddos will dig the Ann Arbor Hands-on Museum (220 E. Ann St., 734.995.5439, aahom.org, $12.50/person) for its interactive STEM exhibits that show how things work, from the internet to tornadoes to the human body. The brand-new Museum of Natural History (1105 N. University Ave., 734.764.0478, lsa.umich.edu/ummnh, free) opened in mid-April on the campus of University of Michigan, where exhibits about fossils, DNA, and planet formation share space with working research labs in the Biological Sciences Building. At the Yankee Air Museum in nearby Belleville (47884 D St., 734.483.4030, yankeeairmuseum.org, $8–10/person), visitors can sit in a KC-135 cockpit, design their own airplane art, and scope out a variety of aircraft flown in WWII and the Vietnam War. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, book a flight on planes such as a B-25 Yankee Warrior or Waco Biplane ($95–$450/person). Also nearby in West Bloomfield, tweens and teens can traverse zip lines and aerial rope courses at Tree Runner Adventure Park (6600 W. Maple Rd., 248.419.1550, treerunnerwestbloomfield.com, $1.19–$43/person), and there’s also a junior park ($21/child) for ages 4 to 7.

Events: The Ann Arbor Summer Festival (a2sf.org) celebrates arts and entertainment in June and July via ticketed indoor performances and free outdoor concerts, movies, and kid-friendly activities.


St. Louis Cardinals

Located on the western bank of the Mississippi River, St. Louis (explorestlouis.com) is Missouri’s second-biggest city, next to Kansas City. Though first-timers to the city must not miss the iconic Gateway Arch (11 N. 4th St., 877.982.1410, gatewayarch.com, $8–16/person), there’s plenty more to do while in town, from eating tasty St. Louis–style barbecue to seeing a classic St. Louis Cardinals game (mlb.com/cardinals).

Distance: 274 miles, 4 hours southwest via I-55

Circus Flora

Pit stop: Hop off the highway in Bloomington-Normal (visitbn.org) for a walk along Lake Bloomington’s (lakebloomington.com) 18.5-mile shoreline or a round of mini golf at Miller Park (1020 S. Morris Ave., 309.434.2651, bloomingtonparks.org, $5/person).

The Magic House

Sights: If your kiddos love animals, spend some time at Grant’s Farm (10501 Gravois Rd., 314.843.1700, grantsfarm.com, free admission, $15/car for parking), an animal refuge built on the former Busch family estate. You can meet the famous Budweiser Clydesdales, bottle-feed a baby goat ($1.50), and ride a camel ($6) or the carousel ($2). At St. Louis’ children’s museum the Magic House (516 S. Kirkwood Rd., 314.822.8900, magichouse.org, $12/person), visitors can watch model trains, make gigantic bubbles, pretend to be construction workers, or climb a three-story-tall beanstalk. Claims to fame at the Saint Louis Zoo (Government Dr., 314.781.0900, stlzoo.org, free admission, $2–$8/person for attractions) include a sea lion show, safari tours, stingray cove, and a railroad, reopening this spring after renovations. This season’s lineup at the Muny (1 Theatre Dr., 314.361.1900, muny.org, $15–$105/person)—the biggest, oldest, outdoor musical theater in the country—includes Cinderella (July 8–16) and Matilda (August 5–11).

Grant’s Farm

Events: See St. Louis favorite Circus Flora (3401 Washington Blvd., 314.827.3830, circusflora.org, $10–$60) perform a one-ring circus show June 6–30 under its signature bright red big-top tent. The Whitaker Music Festival hosts free outdoor concerts at the Missouri Botanical Garden (4344 Shaw Blvd., 314.577.5100, missouribotanicalgarden.com, $5–14/person) on Wednesday evenings all summer long; arrive early to wander the Children’s Garden before the music starts.


Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Indiana’s capital city (visitindy.com) is located smack dab in the middle of the state, about halfway between Chicago and Louisville. In addition to hosting the hallowed Indianapolis 500 race, it is also home to some lovely attractions, including the largest children’s museum in the world.

Distance: 204 miles, 3.5 hours southeast via I-65

Pit stop: In plain sight from the highway, a stop at Fair Oaks Farms (856 N 600 E Fair Oaks, Fair Oaks, 877.536.1194, fofarms.com) won’t take you far off course. Grab a quick snack from the counter-service café, or commit to a variety of ticketed farm experiences to visit the calf birthing barn (where 80 to 100 calves are born daily), climb a 22-foot-tall milk carton, and explore the pollinator garden, among many other educational exhibits ($15–$30/person).

Trader’s Point Creamery

Sights: At the 250-acre White River State Park (801 W. Washington St., 317.233.2434, whiteriverstatepark.org) you can cruise the city’s Central Canal—via kayak, paddleboat, or gondola ride—or explore one of seven museums situated along the waterfront, including the NCAA Hall of Champions (ncaahallofchampions.org) or the Indianapolis Zoo (indianapoliszoo.com). The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (3000 N. Meridian St., 317.334. 4000, childrensmuseum.org, $10.50–$32.50/person) is the world’s largest, with indoor exhibits ranging from an international space station to a Paw Patrol–themed play area (through July 28). Outdoor activities include a pedal car racetrack, mini golf course, fitness path, and handicap-accessible treehouse. At Trader’s Point Creamery (9101 Moore Road, 317.733. 1700, traderspointcreamery.com) in nearby Zionsville, take a tour of the working dairy farm and finish with a meal at the Loft restaurant or an ice cream cone from the outdoor Dairy Bar.

Indianapolis Zoo

Events: Legions of fans descend on the city each spring for the Indy 500 (indianapolismotorspeedway.com, $60–$200); this year’s race is scheduled for May 26. The monthlong 500 Festival (500festival.com) starts May 1, leading up to race day with a half marathon and 5K (May 4), a rookie run for kids (May 11), and a parade (May 25, $10–$40/person).


National Railroad Museum

If you can put your feelings about football aside, Green Bay (greenbay.com)—located on Wisconsin’s eastern shore—offers ample fun for families with young children, from a nationally recognized train museum to an old-school amusement park.

Distance: 219 miles, 3.5 hours north via I-94 and I-43

Pit stop: Milwaukee (visitmilwaukee.org) is the logical halfway point, so why not stop at Sprecher Brewery Co. (701 Glendale Ave., Glendale, 414.964.2739, sprecherbrewery.com) to try its famous root beer on tap?

Sights: At the Green Bay Botanical Garden (2600 Larsen Rd., 920.490.9457, gbbg.org, $5–$10/person), explore the whimsical Stumpf Hobbit House; a new butterfly exhibit (June 1–August 31); and the children’s area, featuring a vine maze, tree house, and sensory garden. First opened in 1892, Bay Beach Amusement Park (1313 Bay Beach Rd., greenbaywi.gov, free admission, rides $0.25–$1.00) offers classic carnival-style rides such as a Ferris wheel, Tilt-A-Whirl and bumper cars, plus the Zippin Pippin, a wooden coaster. The National Railroad Museum (2285 S. Broadway, 920.437.7623, nationalrrmuseum.org, $7.50–$10/person) is a must for train fans who can scope out the 1955 Aerotrain, the 1932 GG-1 electric locomotive, and the Union Pacific 4017 Big Boy—the biggest steam locomotive in the world. It’s worth the $2 ticket upgrade to take a 25-minute tour of the museum aboard a full-sized diesel-powered train.

Events: The city’s annual summer arts festival, Artstreet (mosaicartsinc.org/artstreet), runs August 23–25 and features live music and hands-on projects for kids. Or visit during Green Bay Restaurant Week (gbrestaurantweek.com) July 11–18 to take advantage of lunch and dinner specials at participating restaurants around town.