12 Essential Experiences for a Southern Family Vacation

Boys in back of car
Photo: Getty Images / Chris Stein

There's no easing into summer in the South . By the time the final school bell rings, it's already blazing hot outside and the kids are itching for adventure. Don't let the opportunity for togetherness slip away: Pack up your crew, and make some memories with a trip to one of the many family-friendly spots across the South. Although the beach is the obvious hot-weather destination (and we have one of those on this list!), there are plenty of other places that will spark your kiddos' imaginations, whether they want to learn, relax, or explore—or all three.

To compile this list of quintessential Southern experiences, we surveyed our staff's travel experts; drove from Texas to Florida to Maryland; and gleaned tips from teens, moms, and dads. You'll enjoy taking your little music lovers to Memphis and New Orleans or seeing your budding history buffs hit their stride in Williamsburg, Virginia , or Montgomery, Alabama. Or even tackling Disney World. Wherever you land for your family vacation, we guarantee the time together—yes, even the long car ride—will be worth the planning.

01 of 13

Do Disney the Right Way

'Happily Ever After' at Magic Kingdom Park

Orlando, Florida

Even if you're not inclined toward crowds, don't dismiss Walt Disney World Resort outright. With four parks to explore, there's no shortage of options for family fun, which, of course, can be both wonderful and overwhelming. Some tips to make the most of your trip: First, wait until your children are at least six years old to visit, and before you go, use the Disney Genie (part of the My Disney Adventure app) to plan your attack on the parks. Make sure to book character meals in advance; you can do so up to two months before your first day.

1375 E. Buena Vista Drive, Orlando, FL 32830, disneyworld.disney.go.com

02 of 13

Soak in Sun Studio

Memphis Sun Studio

Memphis, Tennessee

Sidle up to the microphone where U2's Bono recorded vocals on Rattle and Hum . At least that's how you sell Sun Studio to your kids. The truth? You're aching to introduce them to the roots of Southern music. C'mon, this is where the King got his start! While in town, swing by Graceland and check out Elvis and Priscilla's over-the-top wardrobes. Less than a mile away from Sun Studio is the legendary Peabody Hotel , where you can enjoy a historic stay and watch the resident ducks waddle through the lobby twice a day.

706 Union Avenue, Memphis, TN 38103, sunstudio.com

03 of 13

Visit an Authentic Crab Shack

little boy enjoying fresh maryland blue crabs at an authentic crab house

Annapolis, Maryland

Fresh blue crabs are an iconic Southern food, right up there with barbecue and sweet tea. For the freshest, head to Maryland. We like Cantler's Riverside Inn in Annapolis, which has been around for more than 40 years and offers fresh catch all year. If you don't mind a two-hour diversion, make your way to Crisfield, Maryland, where you can race crabs during the National Hard Crab Derby over Labor Day weekend.

458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis, MD 21409, cantlers.com

04 of 13

Ride an Old-Timey Streetcar

New Orleans Bright Red Streetcar Traveling Amid Palms and Flags
Getty Images / drnadig

New Orleans, Louisiana

If a minivan is your normal mode of transportation, the New Orleans streetcar will leave your little ones enthralled. (Stops are scattered throughout downtown.) Take one of the old-fashioned cars to the zoo and aquarium, or just hitch a ride to enjoy the views from one of the four routes (including a trip through the French Quarter). You'll love the chance to see the historic homes, and your kids will love the Komodo dragons at the zoo and the white alligator at the aquarium. Fun fact: These cars are the inspiration behind A Streetcar Named Desire.

05 of 13

Take a Colorful River Cruise

San Antonio River Walk Boat Cruise
Wynn Myers

San Antonio, Texas

Sure, you know about the River Walk in San Antonio. But walking isn't necessarily the best way to appreciate the city. Take in the Spanish-inspired architecture by water with a boat tour. Your kids will thrill at the brightly colored boats (which look straight out of Encanto); you'll enjoy one of the 35-minute narrated tours, led by a San Antonio local.

Ticket booths: 706, 731, or 809 River Walk, San Antonio, TX 78205, goriocruises.com

06 of 13

Ride a Horse on the Beach

horseback riding on jekyll island beach
Art Meripol

Jekyll Island, Georgia

Kids love horses. They also love the beach. So why not combine both? On a trip to Georgia's Jekyll Island, arrange a horseback outing with Golden Isles Carriage and Trails at Three Oaks Farm. When the Spanish moss-draped forests open up to reveal the beach and the vast Atlantic blue against the horizon, you'll hear only one word from your kid: "Wow!" Only in the South can you ride horses on a pristine beach that's been home to English settlers, French landowners, and turn-of-the-century American elite.

2 Clam Creek Road, Jekyll Island, GA 31527, threeoaksfarm.org

07 of 13

See Rock City

fat man's squeeze
Mary Margaret Chambliss

Lookout Mountain, Georgia

If you've been anywhere in the Southeast, you've seen the words painted on barns and birdhouses: See Rock City. Heed the advice. This kitschy attraction atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee , exemplifies our region's quirky sense of humor. (Where else would anybody think to name a narrow cave Fat Man's Squeeze and charge admission?) But it also showcases its breathtaking beauty. Your kids can see seven states, stand under a waterfall, and take a walk through a cavern full of glowing gnome statues. There's nothing high-def or virtual reality about it. Rock City is just pure, simple fun.

1400 Patten Road, Lookout Mountain, GA 30750, seerockcity.com

08 of 13

Watch the Blue Angels Soar

Blue Angels Air Show
Getty Images / Yiming Chen

Pensacola, Florida

The U.S. Navy's flight demonstration squadron, better known as the Blue Angels, performs unforgettable practice air shows in Pensacola on most Tuesdays and Wednesdays from June through November. Seeing these jets twist, turn, and roll with the synchronicity of a dance troupe is mind-boggling at any age. Following the Wednesday practices, request pilots' autographs at the National Naval Aviation Museum , which shares a home with the Angels. To attend the 55-minute practices, someone in your party must have a Department of Defense I.D. card.

1750 Radford Boulevard, Pensacola, FL 32508, blueangels.navy.mil

09 of 13

Conduct a Museum Scavenger Hunt

teenage girl at international spy museum

Washington, D.C.

Our nation's capital also happens to be a cultural mecca. Turn sightseeing into a scavenger hunt with three prime stops: First, head to Washington National Cathedral , and instruct your kids to find the carved Darth Vader grotesque, added in the 1980s. (Hint: It's in the building's northwest corner.) Then tell them to touch a piece of the moon at the National Air and Space Museum . The last item: the Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz , now at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History . The first one to find all three wins a souvenir from mom and dad from our favorite kids' museum in the city: the International Spy Museum .

Cathedral starting point: 3101 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, D.C. 20016

10 of 13

Travel to the Colonial Era

Colonial Williamsburg
Getty Images / L. Toshio Kishiyama

Williamsburg, Virginia

At Colonial Williamsburg, your kids can see every key player in 18th-century Southern society, and they can get in on the act, too. Here, educational experiences are masked as interactive entertainment as your kiddos try their hand at historic trades, from bookbinding and bricklaying to carpentry and engraving. Conclude your visit with a carriage ride through the historic downtown.

101 Visitor Center Drive, Williamsburg, VA 23185, colonialwilliamsburg.org

11 of 13

Learn About Civil Rights

children at civil rights museum exhibit, birmingham, al

Montgomery, Alabama

As the seat of the Civil Rights movement, Montgomery will always be remembered for the work of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Pass that history onto the next generation with a visit to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Civil Rights Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. Inside the museum, take a journey through the Civil Rights Movement and show your kids what it took to bring about lasting change in our country.

400 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, AL 36104, splcenter.org

12 of 13

Take to Space

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL
Robbie Caponetto

Huntsville, Alabama

Let your kids' imaginations run wild at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville (which we have named the South's best museum ). They can explore the outer bounds of the universe via interactive exhibits that put them in the shoes of astronauts. And they'll love the rush of simulators like the Multi-Axis Trainer, which mimics the feeling of swirling through space, as well as the G-Force Accelerator and Moon Shoot, which recreate the feeling of a rocket launch. Don't forget to introduce them to freeze-dried ice cream.

One Tranquility Base, Huntsville, AL 35805, rocketcenter.com

13 of 13

The Age-Appropriate Travel Guide

mickey mouse parade at disney

At what age should you take your kids to New Orleans? Or Disney World? Here are our recommendations.

Ages 3-5: New Orleans streetcar, Blue Angels, River Walk
Ages 6-8: Walt Disney World Resort, Rock City, Colonial Williamsburg
Ages 9-12: Horseback riding, Sun Studio, D.C.'s museums, U.S. Space & Rocket Center
Ages 13-15: Blue crabs, Civil Rights Memorial Center

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