Tell your kids you’re taking them to an educational destination and you’re likely to get a yawn, eyeroll, or “ugh,” depending on their preferred means of communication. But lots of places are educational and fun at the same time. We set out to find the 20 best fun places for learning in the United States. This is our list, divided by geography. We think these are places where any kid (or adult—sh!) can have a great time and learn something new along the way. (If you disagree or think we missed one, feel free to let us know in the comments section at the end.)
International Spy Museum
Why it’s cool: Well, spying is just plain cool. You’ll test your code-breaking skills and learn about the great double-crosses, secret agents, and ingenious deceptions that shaped history.
What you’ll learn: What it takes to be a spy, including more than 200 tools ranging from invisible ink to buttonhole cameras. How real spies do their jobs and stay incognito. How spying influenced the outcome of historical events from the Civil War to D-day to the Cold War and influenced figures such as Moses, George Washington, and Harriet Tubman.
Tips for your visit: The permanent exhibit is generally recommended for kids 12 and up. Strollers aren’t allowed, so bring a sling or backpack if you have young ones. Children age 12 and up can also participate in a one-hour Operation Spy program.
Cost: $18 adults 12 to 64; $15 children 5 to 11; $17 seniors
While you’re in D.C.: There are too many don’t-miss attractions to list, including that stately residence Sasha and Malia call home, but consider adding to your list the Newseum, where you can be a TV news reporter and explore all things news media in a highly interactive environment.
Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum
New York, N.Y.
Why it’s cool: Located on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, one of the most successful ships in U.S. history, the museum lets you experience sea, air, and space travel. You can ride in the A-6 cockpit simulator, participate in a virtual flight zone, and tour the inside of the Concorde, the fastest commercial airplane.
What you’ll learn: How the Intrepid served her country in World War II, in Vietnam, and during the Cold War. Historical recreations and interactive displays bring historical events to life. You’ll learn how American Mercury space capsules were designed to land in the ocean rather than on solid ground. Naval ships such as the Intrepid helped recover capsules and their astronauts in the 1960s.
Tips for your visit: To make your visit even more memorable, consider arriving by water taxi. Disembark at Pier 84 and walk one block north to the museum.
Cost: $24 adults; $20 college students; $19 children 7 to 17; $12 children 3 to 6
While you’re in New York City: The National September 11 Memorial and Museum is a powerful reminder of recent history. See a Broadway show and visit the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. Most important, eat! New York-style pizza cannot be replicated elsewhere...the secret is the municipal water. Have a black-and-white cookie for dessert.
Museum of Science
Why it’s cool: This mammoth destination includes a planetarium, full-motion simulator, 3-D digital cinema, and live demonstrations that change daily. Expect the unexpected, such as indoor lightning bolts. Exhibits change often and include glimpses into the natural world, technology, and of course dinosaurs and fossils. Most have interactive components. For example, in the Cahners ComputerPlace, you can train a robot dog to obey commands.
What you’ll learn: Depending on where you focus your attention, you’ll learn how bees create colonies and perform their jobs and how medical imaging technologies work. You’ll also meet Cliff, one of only four nearly complete triceratops on public display worldwide.
Tips for your visit: Because this museum is so vast, spend some time on the website what you want to see and do. The customized trip-planning feature can help. Arrive at 10 a.m. so you’ll be able to take advantage of as many exhibits as possible.
Cost: $21 adults and children 12 and up; $18 children 3 to 11; some attractions cost extra
While you’re in Boston: There’s no shortage of things to do in this historic city, such as whale-watching on a visit to the New England Aquarium or a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts. The Old North Church, where the lanterns were hung to send Paul Revere on his famous ride (“one if by land, two if by sea”), will make an impression on kids studying the American Revolution.
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Why it’s cool: Recently updated to be more kid-friendly, this museum isn’t just an homage to the game of baseball; it also explores the parallels between the sport and ancient Greece and emphasizes life lessons such as confronting enemies, helping friends, and reaching home safely.
What you’ll learn: A multimedia presentation sets the stage for the experience, which includes an interactive exhibit detailing the history of African-Americans in baseball. You’ll learn about the 202 former Major League Baseball players inducted into the Hall of Fame, as well as the history of the game and reasons for its widespread appeal.
Tips for your visit: Kids 12 and younger can participate in an educational scavenger hunt. Turn in your completed hunt at the bookstore and receive a commemorative pack of baseball cards.
Cost: $19.50 adults; $7 children 7 to 12
While you’re in Cooperstown: The open-air Farmers’ Museum features exhibitions and buildings from the 1840s as well as the Empire State Carousel, a merry-go-round based on the history and culture of New York state. Or sample some fresh-pressed apple cider and explore the grounds at the family-friendly Fly Creek Cider Mill and Orchard.
National Constitution Center
Why it’s cool: You can wear a Supreme Court justice’s robe, rule on cases, and take the presidential oath of office. Known for interactive features such as these, the Constitution Center uses theater, film, photography, sculpture, artifacts, and multimedia to engage visitors. Actors recreate the moment the delegates signed the Constitution.
What you’ll learn: The story of the Constitution and why the document has remained relevant through ever-changing times. The exhibits touch on civics, elections, and government and focus on the past as well the present.
Tips for your visit: If you bring your iPod, you can take an audio tour through the main exhibit hall.
Cost: $12 adults; $11 students (with ID); $8 children 4 to 12
While you’re in Philadelphia: Check out the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, and Independence Hall, all within close proximity. Dine at the City Tavern for an 18th century Colonial American culinary experience.
Center for Puppetry Arts
Why it’s cool: Puppet shows aren’t just for little kids. The center’s productions bring familiar fairy tales and new stories to life for kids of all ages. While you’re there, the kids can join an educational puppetmaking workshop. (For an adaptation of The Little Mermaid, participants made fish puppets and learned how sea animals are classified.) Even children bored by museums will get excited about scavenger hunts in the exhibits, which feature Muppets and hundreds of other puppets from around the world.
What you’ll learn: An appreciation for the arts while learning how puppets are made and how they’ve been used in different cultures. For each children’s production, the center’s website has downloadable study guides with learning activities by grade.
Tips for your visit: The center is closed on Mondays. Buy performance tickets in advance because many shows sell out.
Cost: $16 for most family puppet shows, which includes admission to a puppet-creation workshop and the museum; other costs vary by activity
While you’re in Atlanta: Zoo Atlanta is home to some adorable pandas and gorillas. The High Museum of Art is surprisingly engaging for children. The Georgia Aquarium is walking distance from the CNN Center, where you can take a studio tour, and is next to Centennial Olympic Park. Bring bathing suits so your kids can frolic in the park’s fountain.
Why it’s cool: This restored 18th century capital of Britain’s largest and wealthiest outpost in North America engages through its authenticity. Costumed interpreters tell the Williamsburg story with maniacal attention to detail. Kids wear traditional costumes, join the Colonial militia, act in a play, march with field musicians the Fifes and Drums, tend a colonial garden, and create works of art reflective of the time period.
What you’ll learn: The origins of the idea of the United States of America, conceived before the American Revolution. You’ll discover how diverse people with different and even conflicting ambitions evolved into a society based on liberty and equality.
Tips for your visit: If you’re traveling with a tween or teen, check out the special audio tour written and recorded by teenagers with youth-centered insight on art pieces at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Check the website for daily activities tied to your child’s interests.
Cost: $37.95 adults for a day pass (10% discount for seniors purchasing tickets on-site); $18.95 children 6 to 17; check the website for multiday packages and admission just to the Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
While you’re in Williamsburg: To immerse yourself in history, visit Historic Yorktown, the Jamestown Settlement, and the Yorktown Battlefield. For a change of pace, visit Busch Gardens or Water Country USA.
Kennedy Space Center
Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Why it’s cool: You’ll get to know NASA by visiting the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, which has interactive spaceflight simulators, and seeing a space shuttle launch pad. You can even have lunch with an astronaut. If you time your visit right, you might be able to view a launch.
What you’ll learn: Everything going on at NASA, past and present.
Tips for your visit: Check the website closely for launch dates, special programs, and pricing for different attractions. Reservations are strongly suggested because tour tickets routinely sell out. Kennedy Space Center is a working facility, so some portions of tours may be closed to the public.
Cost: $43 adults; $33 children 3 to 11; additional tours and attractions cost extra
Sandbox Interactive Children’s Museum
Hilton Head, S.C.
Why it’s cool: For the 8-and-younger set, this hand-on museum is just plain fun as well as educational. Kids prepare exotic meals in the International Bazaar. They play with magic sand in the Loggerhead Sandcastle. And they paint and play instruments in the Rhythm and Hues room. Aspiring pilots can fly mini planes complete with takeoff and landing sounds for an authentic experience.
What you’ll learn: That imaginative play is fun. That science is fun. That there’s time for learning even when you’re on a beach vacation with your family.
Tips for your visit: Hours vary by season, so check it out before you make plans.
Cost: $6 children and adults 2 and up
While you’re in Hilton Head: Hit the beach, of course. The Coastal Discovery Museum has indoor and outdoor exhibits to teach children about the local ecology. The red-and-white-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse offers an excellent view of the island.
U.S.S. Alabama Battleship Memorial Park
Why it’s cool: You’ll walk the flight line of a historic aircraft and experience life the way it was on one of America’s most decorated battleships. The park’s aircrafts include a Blackbird spy plane, a Kingfisher land and seaplane from World War II, and a Sabre jet plane.
What you’ll learn: The U.S.S. Alabama saw 37 months of active duty during World War II and is known as the “Mighty A.” A typical meal of beef stew for everyone on board required 1,000 pounds of beef.
Tips for your visit: The park has ample green space and is a great setting for a picnic.
Cost: $12 adults; $6 children 6 to 11
Art Institute of Chicago
Why it’s cool: The drop-in drawing program allows kids 6 and up to create their own masterpieces. Other family activities such as story time, interactive tours, and a “little studio” for kids 3 to 5 make this art museum engaging for everyone in your group.
COURTESY OF THE ART
What you’ll learn: Choose among themes ranging from architecture and design to Indian art of the Americas to photography. The Touch Gallery demonstrates how the visually impaired can enjoy art. Another exhibit features unique artworks that relate to size.
Tips for your visit: Check the calendar for family events that coincide with your plans. Start your day at the Ryan Education Center, a launch pad for everything a family needs to know—including tips for making the museum visit fun and interactive for your kids.
Cost: $18 adults; $12 children 14 and up, students, and seniors (free for children younger than 14)
While you’re in Chicago: This city will keep your family busy for days. With a whole exhibit devoted to the Harry Potter films, the Museum of Science and Industry is a must-see. Try to squeeze in a visit to Navy Pier, Millennium Park, and the Garfield Park Conservatory. For lunch, try Ed Debevic’s, a ’50s-style diner with sassy, comedic servers.
Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal
Why it’s cool: At the Museum of Natural History and Science, you can walk through a recreated glacier and explore an ice cave. A simulated limestone cave involves 500 feet of darkened passageways; the advanced trail includes a waterfall, underground stream, and bat colony.
What you’ll learn: At the Cincinnati History Museum, you’ll meet an early settlement woman struggling to live in a wilderness cabin and a steamboat captain on a recreated vessel. Kids can steer a canal boat through a 50-foot model of the Miami and Erie Canal.
Tips for your visit: This vast complex also includes the Duke Energy Children’s Museum in addition to the Museum of Natural History and Science and the Cincinnati History Museum. Plan your itinerary in advance so everyone in the family will get to do something they enjoy.
Cost: $12.50 adults; $8.50 children 3 to 12; $11.50 seniors for an all-museum pass
While you’re in Cincinnati: Try a cruise down the Ohio River on BB Riverboats. Visit the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, or walk across the “Purple People Bridge” to the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky.
Why it’s cool: Climb through the wildly imaginative Enchanted Caves, behold the giant wrought-iron springs and aircraft fuselages that make up MonstroCity, and explore, in one swoop, a tree house, and two-story waterfall and fish pond, and the belly of a whale in a fantastic ocean world. City Museum is a mesmerizing merger of science and artistic fantasy. There’s something for everyone, including a collection of vintage shoelaces, a toddler play area, giant rubber ball pits, a tiny railroad town, a circus exhibit, and a craft room where you can observe and participate.
What you’ll learn: That when science and art are intertwined, the result can be a revelation.
Tips for your visit: Wear sneakers! This is not the place for flip-flops, clogs, sandals, or any kind of heels.
Cost: $12 children and adults 3 and up; $10 after 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $6 additional for the aquarium contained within the museum
While you’re in St. Louis: Don’t be surprised by how much there is to do and see in this low-profile city. Some good choices are the St. Louis Science Center, wildlife preserve Grant’s Farm, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Gateway Arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
The Henry Ford
Why it’s cool: A multisensory experience shows you how cars are made, and you can see Ford F-150 pickup trucks as they’re assembled on the factory tour. In the museum, the “Rock Stars’ Cars & Guitars 2” exhibit runs through Sept. 7.
What you’ll learn: The scope of this huge museum goes far beyond the automobile. Yes, you’ll see the limos that transported American presidents, but you’ll also explore the evolution of freedom in the United States. In the agriculture exhibit, you’ll learn how improved farm equipment revolutionized food production.
Tips for your visit: This museum is sprawling, so it’s a good idea to plan your visit in advance using the website’s itinerary tool. If you’re interested in a comprehensive approach, plan to spend a few days exploring all the Henry Ford has to offer.
Cost: $15 adults; $11 children 5 to 12; $14 seniors
While you’re in Dearborn: If you’re this close to Detroit (only 10 or so miles away), you know you’re going to learn a lot about cars. The Automotive Hall of Fame and the Henry Ford Estate are must-sees for car lovers. Learn about the area’s large Arab-American population at the Arab American National Museum.
Why it’s cool: You’ll experience rural life in the 19th and early 20th centuries by preparing and sampling food from that era, washing clothes on a scrub board, and participating in other hands-on activities.
What you’ll learn: How people lived before iPods! The Great Black Swamp was once uninhabitable, but hardworking and creative people turned it into fertile farmland and a thriving community. The historic village includes a log schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, traditional bakery, and basket shop.
Tips for your visit: Attractions, activities, and operating hours change seasonally. Consider staying at the Sauder Village campground for a budget-friendly and comfortable camping experience. Bring your appetite, as yummy food was and still is a major part of village life.
Cost: $14.50 adults; $7.50 children 6 to 16; $13 seniors
While you’re in Archbold: Visit the Goll Woods State Nature Preserve and Harrison Lake State Park. If you’re headed to Toledo, plan to stop on the way at the Butterfly House, which features live specimens in an indoor garden.
Why it’s cool: This mammoth urban park has something for everyone, from the hands-on Reuben H. Fleet Science Center to the San Diego Air and Space Museum to the legendary San Diego Zoo. There are 19 museums as well as restaurants, gardens, and a historic carousel. You can catch a show at the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and view more than 80 historic cars at the San Diego Automotive Museum.
What you’ll learn: At the science center, you’ll learn through interactive activities about the formation of the solar system, how gravity works, and how energy is converted into electricity. You’ll ride a motion simulator that takes passengers into exciting realms. Meanwhile, at the San Diego Museum of Art, you’ll explore a vast sculpture garden.
Tips for your visit: Like other sprawling destinations, a visit to Balboa Park deserves some planning. Families may want to split up so kids can explore the activities that interest them most and are appropriate for their ages. This is a great place to balance educational attractions with just-for-fun activities.
Cost: Free admission to the park and most of the on-site gardens, and several free guided tours are also available; each museum and attraction has its own fee schedule.
While you’re in San Diego: Much of what San Diego has to offer is right here at Balboa Park. But there are plenty of other things to do such as hitting the beaches or taking a cruise. Kids will love SeaWorld San Diego, the San Diego Zoo’s separate Safari Park, and Legoland California.
Experience Music Project &
Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame
Why it’s cool: An entire exhibit is focused on guitars. Another explores the building blocks of science fiction. The unique exhibit “Them” focuses on outsiders such as aliens, robots, and other key sci-fi elements.
What you’ll learn: The roots of your favorite pastime, music, and your favorite literary genre, science fiction. Just about anyone will enjoy this unusual place, but it’s tailored for kids and adults who love tunes and extraterrestrials.
Tips for your visit: Family Day, the third Saturday of each month, includes a variety of activities such as art projects, live music, instrument workshops, and more. Check the website calendar for details.
Cost: $15 adults; $12 children 5 to 17, seniors, students, and military
While you’re in Seattle: Learn about the city’s history—with a twist—on an Underground Tour beneath the streets. Of course, you have to check out the Space Needle and ride the Monorail. You can also take a scenic tour around the Puget Sound and visit the waterfront Seattle Aquarium and the nation’s oldest farmer’s market, Pike Place Market.
Why it’s cool: This museum is all about learning by doing, with a focus on science, nature, art, and technology. You’ll experience total darkness in the Tactile Dome, where your sense of touch is all you have. At the Microscope Imaging Station, you’ll get an up-close look at the brain of a zebrafish.
What you’ll learn: How sound works, in an environment that promises not to overwhelm you with a cacophony of competing noises. What makes something seem cute, and other ways outside forces influence our perceptions. (Would you drink water from a toilet, even if it were fashioned like a fountain and had never been used?) The Poker Face attraction lets you test your lying abilities.
Tips for your visit: The museum is closed Mondays. Free admission on the first Wednesday of the month, but the inevitable crowds may make you think twice before going this frugal route.
Cost: $15 adults; $12 children 13 to 17; $10 children 4 to 12; admission to the tactile dome is $20 for all visitors but includes general admission to the museum
While you’re in San Francisco: Check out the Aquarium of the Bay, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and the Conservatory of Flowers at Golden Gate Park, just to name a few points of interest in this fascinating area. Your family will also enjoy riding in a cable car and dining and shopping in Chinatown.
National Steinbeck Center
Why it’s cool: If your child loved Of Mice and Men or The Grapes of Wrath, you can fuel her interest even more with a visit to John Steinbeck’s hometown. The exhibits draw on literature, art, and agriculture to tell the author’s history. It’s chock-full of interactive displays as well as artifacts that influenced the writer’s stories; you’ll see the original truck Steinbeck drove while writing Travels With Charley, for example. On the agricultural side, you can visit a produce market and design your own crate label.
What you’ll learn: The role of ethnic cultures in Steinbeck’s works, including Italian, Portuguese, Mexican, and Chinese.
Tips for your visit: This attraction is best for children old enough to read and enjoy John Steinbeck’s novels. If you’re planning a visit, consider reading one of his books as a family and catching up on others by watching DVDs together.
Cost: $10.95 adults; $7.95 children 13 to 17; $5.95 children 6 to 12; $8.95 seniors, students, and military
While you’re in Salinas: This city is a scenic 18 miles northeast of Monterey, 58 miles south of San Jose, and 106 miles south of San Francisco. A Steinbeck Center visit is a nice complement to the Monterey County wine country, 17-Mile Drive, Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, among other attractions.
Montana Dinosaur Expedition
Why it’s cool: You can participate in an actual archeological dig for dinosaur bones. No kidding! This program is not a tour; it’s a real-life dig conducted by the PaleoWorld Research Foundation. The price tag is high, but the experience is unique.
What you’ll learn: For starters, field techniques for collecting dinosaur fossils such as prospecting, excavating, and plaster jacketing, plus preparation techniques in a field lab and fossil identification. You’ll also learn a bit about the history of Hell Creek Formation, where the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton to date was discovered.
Tips for your visit: This trip requires planning and preregistration. Families may stay at base camp in mobile homes and campers or even in a tent, or at a nearby motel.
Cost: $135 adults; $70 children 15 and younger for a one-day dig
While you’re in Jordan: It may be a tiny town, but it’s rich with history, both prehistoric and more recent. The local Garfield County Museum has a fiberglass replica of a triceratops as well as quilts and other native artifacts on display. Lewis and Clark came right through this part of Montana on their journey West. For those interested in outdoor pursuits, the Jordan field station of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge offers a number of recreational and educational activities. The refuge’s 1.1 million acres also includes Hell Creek State Park, on Fort Peck Lake; fishing, camping, hiking and other activities are available, and the park has a launch point for boating in the Missouri Breaks.