Eighteen summers. It seems like a long time, especially when you’re a parent in the thick of raising a family. Some days, just getting out of the house is a major accomplishment. Getting on a plane — well, you might as well be moving mountains. Traveling, with or without kids, isn’t easy, but we do it again and again because seeing the world comes with knowledge that’s hard to master any other way.
Eighteen years packed with school, sports games, Halloween costumes, dances and even driving lessons will go by in an instant, so making every summer count doesn’t start when your children are school-age or teenagers; it starts the day they are born. In that spirit, we’ve come up with 18 bucket-list trips to enjoy with kids. Some are better to take with tweens and teens, others are universal, but whether it’s waking up to a rainbow in Kauai or seeing that first giraffe on safari, all are priceless family memory makers.
Best Summer Vacations with Kids: 18 Bucket-List Ideas
U.S. National Parks
For the U.S. National Park System, 2016 was a big year. The yearlong 100th birthday party celebrating all 412 national parks served as a festive reminder to families to get outside. Summer tends to be peak park season, but some, such as Yosemite, are equally stunning in winter, spring and fall. At Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, you can walk through a 500-year-old lava tube or explore a petroglyph field, and be sure to visit after dark for the nighttime “Glow Show” at the Jaggar Museum & Overlook. The lava fume cloud, from an active vent located in the Halema’uma’u Crater, is wow-worthy.
And that’s only two national parks. Imagine what’s waiting at the other 410.
Whether it’s watching the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, following in the footsteps of Harry Potter or chasing the Loch Ness Monster, the United Kingdom wins the hearts of all ages. Major cities such as London and Edinburgh are lively in every season; fairytale castles and idyllic farms reward families who venture into the countryside. A bonus: With no language barrier, the U.K. is ideal for getting kids’ feet wet on a first trip to Europe.
There’s no place quite like Hawaii. Its six main islands offer distinctly different family vacations, and regardless of which island you choose, it’s hard to go wrong. Oahu has bustling Waikiki, and a visit to Pearl Harbor teaches an important history lesson. Kauai, the oldest island, is home to Waimea Canyon (often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific) and the towering cliffs of the Na Pali Coast. It’s a good fit for a family who likes to spend time outdoors.
See the sunrise at the summit of Maui’s Haleakala National Park, then spend the day on Ka’anapali beach, swimming with turtles at Black Rock, parasailing or jet skiing. Larger than all the other islands combined, Hawaii Island — aka the Big Island — is home to Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Make the drive from Kona to Hilo, munch on malasadas (Portugese doughnuts) and be sure to stop and see a waterfall or two along the way.
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Nature is at its absolute best on the Galapagos Islands, where animals have no fear of humans. Interactions with sea lions, giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies can change the way kids look at and treat the world around them. Any time of year is a good time to visit, making scheduling a trip around school holidays a bit more doable. A small-ship cruise is the easiest way to navigate the region; Ciao Bambino maintains a vetted list of family-friendly cruises that our Family Vacation Advisors can book.
With so many kid-friendly things to see and do, from the Smithsonian Institution to the famous monuments and memorials, the hardest part about visiting Washington, D.C. is fitting it all in. To maximize a trip here, advance planning and reservations are key, especially in gaining access to places like the White House (the closest thing the United States has to a castle), the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
Japan is a great place to introduce kids to a new culture without compromising the modern amenities they are accustomed to at home. Kyoto boasts 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, meaning that wandering will always deliver beautiful surprises and, often, history lessons. Make the trip to bustling Tokyo on the Shinkansen (bullet train) in less than three hours. Tokyo is large and spread out, so don’t bite off more than you can chew — prioritize sightseeing by neighborhood. The world famous Tsukiji Fish Market, the Imperial Palace East Garden and Tokyo Disney are on most families’ must-see lists.
There’s a good reason Italy is Ciao Bambino’s most-requested destination for families: You could spend every summer here and still find reasons to come back for more. Well-known-and-loved destinations like Rome, Florence and Venice are surefire hits, but you’ll find old-world charm, local color and incredible gelato throughout the entire country. Italy’s outdoor spaces are phenomenal (and perfect for kids to work out their wiggles), from the piazzas of Rome to the streets of Pompeii and the beaches of the Amalfi Coast. And since Italians adore kids of all ages, it’s a perfect place to take babies and toddlers.
Beaches and the blue Aegean Sea are a given when planning a trip to Greece with kids in tow, but they’ll be blown away by the history and distinctive culture as well. Crete’s biggest city, Heraklion, lends itself to wandering, meeting fishermen along the way selling baskets of freshly caught sponges and shiny abalone shells. Bike- and pedestrian-friendly Athens offers modern neighborhoods sprinkled amid ancient sights with name recognition, like the Acropolis and the Parthenon.
Australia – Great Barrier Reef and Uluru
When most folks think of Australia, koalas and kangaroos come to mind, but even the cuddliest of critters have a tough time competing with the Great Barrier Reef. You don’t have to be a diver to soak it all in — snorkeling will do the trick. While the outer reef may be more photographed, consider a sailing trip to Low Isles. It’s still the Great Barrier Reef, just a shallower, gentler version on the Inner Edge, complete with a sandy beach for breaks in the sun.
Both Cairns (pronounced cans) and Port Douglas serve as gateways to the reef. Port Douglas has a homey feel that parents with young kids will appreciate, while the more city-like Cairns moves to a beat that suits tweens and teens. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory, home to the iconic red monolith Uluru (Ayers Rock), is another must-see with the kids.
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Peru – Machu Picchu
Although some may ask why parents would consider taking their kids to Machu Picchu, at Ciao Bambino we ask, why not? With the breathtaking Incan ruins plus so much else to do in Peru, deciding where to begin can be overwhelming. You can never see it all in one trip, but with planning, seeing a great amount is possible and enjoyable. If you have the time, combining Machu Picchu with the Galapagos (below) will not disappoint.
The 2008 Olympics in Beijing turned the thought of travel to China into a reality for many Americans. It’s impossible to cover more than a small slice of this huge and diverse country in one trip. Beijing has the Summer Palace, complete with dragon boat ride; Badaling, just 50 miles away, is the most popular stretch of The Great Wall. Families also can cruise the Li River, see the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xian and spend some time with pudgy pandas at the Chongqing Zoo.
Exotic and unique, with a fantasy landscape and incredible energy in cities like Marrakech, Morocco makes for a great first visit to Africa with kids. This is one place where working with a family-focused tour operator can mean the difference between a good trip and the trip of a lifetime. Experiencing a camel trek in the Erg Chebbi dunes and seeing the UNESCO-protected Ait Ben Haddou are requests that the right on-the-ground team can and will gladly make happen. Reach out to us to be connected with our preferred Morocco travel partner.
Southeast Asia – Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand
Stunning and full of mystique, Southeast Asia truly immerses kids in a new and unfamiliar culture. Take a bath with an elephant at a sanctuary in Thailand, or relax on the country’s beautiful beaches. Hike through the Cambodian jungle, then go scuba diving on Koh Rong Island off the southern coast. For American families visiting Vietnam, the historical connection is strong. Kids will enjoy the endless number of cooking classes available there, and might even be inspired to spend more time with you in the kitchen at home.
If your family likes adventure and nature, Iceland should be on your must-see list. Chase waterfalls, trek along on the backs of Icelandic ponies and marvel at spectacular glaciers and black-sand beaches. Activities like off-road buggy tours and dogsledding are a hit with older kids, and be sure to save at least a few hours to float in the famous Blue Lagoon. The country’s infrastructure is still catching up with its status as a family tourism hot spot — our easy, book-and-go Iceland vacation packages simplify the logistics.
Safari in Africa
An African safari is a once-in-a-lifetime trip — the memories you’ll take home are limitless. Family-focused tour operators help parents and kids navigate the terrain and local culture, and specialize in unforgettable experiences like having breakfast with giraffes or hot-air ballooning over the Maasai Mara. Lions, hippos and zebras, the menagerie of childhood dreams, represent just a few of the interactions with nature.
Barge Trip in Europe
Finding the right boat is the key to planning a barge trip down Europe’s waterways. Time spent on board can and should be as unique as the destinations a family visits, so selecting a ship that knows what kids want is essential. Everything from amazing food to private tours and guides can make a barge cruise feel like a floating home away from home.
Fans of Heidi, the classic story about a girl from the Alps, may feel a happy sense of deja vu when visiting scenic Switzerland. Take advantage of the country’s excellent train system to visit lakes, mountains and storybook Swiss villages in the Berner Oberland and beyond. For families who enjoy skiing, a visit to Zermatt — to hit the slopes and play in the shadow of the famous Matterhorn — is a must. Zermatt and many other mountain hamlets also are car-free, meaning they’re not only eco-friendly but charming.