Family Vacation Ideas

Summer Vacation Brainstorm

beach in cape cod ma

Summer on “The Cape” in Massachusetts

I don’t have my summer plans booked yet. April’s here — it’s time to get serious about the holiday schedule. During the brainstorming part of vacation planning, I like to think about things in terms of the kind of experience I’ll have in a destination: Mountains, Seaside/Beach, City, Countryside, and Lake (we categorize our hotel reviews on CB the same way).

Here are our top picks for 2011 family summer vacation ideas. Note, given that flying is expensive these days, I’ve mixed in a variety of US and International destinations, as well as ideas for a variety of budgets.


I’m going to start with my favorite summer venue — mountains!  I love a quintessential alpine experience over the summer months. If you can make wild flower season — the end of June through early July in most places — even better, but mountain scenery and activities are fantastic all summer long.

If you want to keep costs down, camping is be least expensive way to enjoy a mountain trip. It takes work — be sure and read my camping with kids tips to help with planning. Reservations are a must over weekends and holidays at many popular campgrounds. Dana wrote a great Yosemite with kids guide should that be on your list (a must-see National Park if you’ve never been there).

hiking to lunch in zermatt switzerland

Hiking to a hot lunch (and cold beer) in Zermatt, Switzerland

Hope Valley, CA

Where is Hope Valley you ask?  =That’s the point.  This is a lesser-known part of the California Sierra Mountains located South of Lake Tahoe; it’s one of my all-time favorite alpine destinations with dramatic peaks, granite lakes, and wildflowers galore. Kirkwood is the best known resort in the area.

There’s miles of hiking trails through spectacular scenery with trails available for all ages. If you aren’t camping, Sorensen’s Resort is a terrific place to stay. It’s small and simple, but the setting is pretty and they have cabins that work for families and an excellent onsite restaurant. Note, there are very limited shops and restaurants here, the downside, but there’s far less people than on Lake Tahoe, the upside!

Zermatt, Switzerland

We visited Zermatt 10 years ago over the summer months (pre-kids) and since then it’s always on the top of my list as a hiking mecca. When I start ranting about how much I love Zermatt people always go into deep question mode … isn’t it touristy? What’s the big deal about one mountain?

Yes, it’s touristy and this is unfortunate as the town can be unpleasantly crowded. The reason for that, however, is that this one mountain — the Matterhorn — is so breathtaking that you never get tired of looking at it. Although the hikes here can be challenging, the beauty with kids is that you are able to use the extensive network of gondolas to shorten a hike and/or gain elevation. And you’re always hiking by a restaurant serving hot lunch, cold beer, and ice cream. Excellent motivation for all. (See our growing list of Switzerland family hotels for place to stay).

forte dei marmi tuscany beach club

Forte dei Marmi beach club by James and Vilija on Flickr


Cape Cod, MA

For Californians like me, Cape Cod might as well be in a different country. We hear families love it yet we don’t contemplate flying to the East Coast just to go there (unless you grew up on in the East). Although, the close proximity to Boston means it’s easy get to (traffic aside). If you can find great airfare to Boston, why not try The Cape?

Nancy spends every summer there and wrote a great post on finding Cape Cod family-friendly vacation lodging. The ever-entertaining Paul Eisenberg from Shermans Travel highlights top things to do with kids on the CB blog.

Forte dei Marmi, Tuscany

Honestly, unless you are traveling in June, I’d skip the best known of the European beach areas over the summer months like Spain and the Cote d’Azur. It’s just too crowded. The same rule applies to many Italian beaches, but there’s one place that I’ll make the exception for and that’s Forte dei Marmi in Tuscany.

Located just 30 minutes from Lucca and 1.5 hours from Florence, you can combine a few days of beach time with a typical Tuscan inland itinerary. The beach scene here is just fantastic — very Italian, relaxed, and resorty. Play on a flat sand beach during the day (perfect for young kids), bike on the promenade, have a fabulous meal in town … you’ll be hooked.

It can be very challenging to book rooms for just a few days in July and August, but those willing to go last minute may be able to snag unclaimed rooms. We like California Park Hotel for the family-focused atmosphere (although it’s not right on the beach). Hotel Albergo Villa Casanova is new to CB and works too (30-minute drive in a spectacular setting above Lucca).

amsterdam canal view

Wandering on Amersterdam’s canals


Cities can be tough in the summer with hot weather and grumpy locals. By the same token, it’s nice to wander through a city without schlepping heavy coats and it’s much easier to appreciate outdoor sights without frigid conditions.

Washington DC

My top US city pick is Washington DC. Nancy just uncovered a pile of great things to do with kids in Washington DC. If you are going to stay urban, you might as well choose an place that has oodles and oodles of activities, noting many of them are free. We have a trio of outstanding kid-friendly hotels in our portfolio.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

I was just in Amsterdam visiting the Keukenhof and was reminded how wonderful this city is!  I got a sunny day and everyone was out strolling, biking, and boating on the canals — I love the fantastic summer vibe in this European city. Eclectic, hip, and traditional at the same time, Amsterdam is fascinating to explore.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the best things to do with kids by Monique Rubin (writes for CB and has lived in The Hague with two kids for 12 years).  In the meantime, I got the chance to stay at Hotel Vondel and I’m giving it a thumbs up for families with an appealing location right next to massive park; the hotel offers connecting rooms, suites, and apartments.

hiking the lavaux wine trail lake geneva switzerland

Hiking the Lavaux wine trail on Lake Geneva


Mackinac Island, MI

My top pick for a US lake experience is Mackinac Island, Michigan. I’ve never been there but Midwestern families covet this area over the summer months. A friend of mine grew up going and gave me the skinny on places to stay; we don’t have reviews of this area on Ciao Bambino.

“The Grand Hotel is the signature resort in the Midwest. It’s stunningly beautiful, historically significant, and has great amenities and character.”

The Homestead Resort is a great place with lots to do. It’s on Lake Michigan along the bluffs and dunes of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.”

Inn at Bay Harbor is on Lake Michigan and the Petoskey/Harbor Springs in the summertime is about as beautiful as it gets.”

It sounds fabulous, clearly, we have some work to do.

Lake Geneva, Switzerland

Because I live on Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) and have the pleasure of looking at this gorgeous body of water every day, it must be on my 2011 list. The summer months transform Lake Geneva into a stunning resort area with boating, beaches, and an array of events and festivities. Cheese, chocolate, wine — there’s a food treat for everyone and once you’ve consumed all those calories, you’ll be ready to hike, bike, and wander — all are in abundant supply here.

The perfect lakeside hotel is Angleterre & Residence on the waterfront in Lausanne. Be warned, if you’re on a budget, Switzerland is a challenging place, particularly on the lake.

buffalo in masai mara kenya

Herd of water buffalo in Masai Mara National Reserve


Wisconsin Dells, WI

Kristi goes to the Dells with her family every year so I asked her to give her perspective on what makes it great with kids …

Wisconsin Dells is located on the Wisconsin River an hour from Madison and 3 to 4  hours from Chicago. It’s surrounded by beautiful countryside and farms. The town itself is synonymous with family vacations and tourism. This is a kid’s paradise with every kind of indoor and outdoor waterpark, miniature golf course, go-kart track and large chain restaurant you can imagine. An outlet mall provides shopping and a change of pace for the adults.

There’s an abundance of family accommodations ranging from value-oriented hotel rooms to upscale condo units. The original Dells attractions are still here too – the Tommy Bartlett water ski show and the famous amphibious Ducks that transport tourists on land and down the scenic Wisconsin River with its towering sandstone cliffs.

Masai Mara, Kenya

If you’ve been following the blog you know I just got back from a life-changing trip to East Africa. We loved every minute of our experience there. Guess what, peak season is actually summer from July-September during the great migration of the wildebeest. My only regret during our trip was that every time our guide described the absolute sea of animals during this period and I started calculating exactly when we could return. Not good for appreciating the moment!

The best way learn about our experience is to follow our Africa blog page.  At this point, your probably thinking Amie, get real! I know, Africa trips aren’t something you can plan last minute. Put it on the summer wish list for 2012.

Start a Discussion

  • Giggling cuz our summer plans have been booked before Xmas!
    Mountains: Yellowstone National Park & Jackson, WY
    Lake: Lake Winnipesaukee in NH & Lake Powell, AZ

  • Thanks for these great travel ideas! I just want to add that if you want to have nice travel you should think about travel safety. Learn your travel places and find various dangers that may affect you during travel. When your list of potential travel dangers will be complete you can prepare for your travel taking into account above mentioned dangers. Be prepared and enjoy your travel!

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