Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Viator Travel Awards, an annual awards competition where we – along with our readers, travelers, and fans – select the top things to do and see in each of the major regions we serve, the top things to do in our most popular tour categories, and more.
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Welcome to the 2012 Viator Travel Awards: Family Edition! Traveling with kids is always an adventure. Seasoned parents know that staying flexible, going with the flow and always having snacks on hand are some key ways everyone remains happy on vacation. Plus, cool sightseeing and outdoor activities – no matter if your trip takes you to the city, the mountains or the beach – can help keep the entire family entertained and in good moods (until kid #2 drops his ice cream in the sand, but that’s another story).
Consider these top sightseeing trips and tours for your next family vacation. Heck, if you see an adventure that piques your interest, consider planning an entire trip around it!
The tours and activities highlighted are chosen based on traveler reviews, data from the millions of people who check out Viator.com during the year, and information on which tours travelers book most often. We think you’ll enjoy reading about the array of activities available and we also think this list is a great place to start if you’re planning a trip with your family.
You’ll find all kinds of activities listed below, including canopy tours and flight simulators, snorkeling tours and biking adventures, and even historical tours kids will actually enjoy! Join us for this tour of the Top 25 Best Family-Friendly Things to Do Around the World!
1. Go under the sea
Snorkeling is a wonderful way for active families to introduce kids to the underwater world in tropical vacation destinations. I suggest practicing at home in the bathtub with a basic snorkel set so kids can get a feel for the equipment. Then you’ll all be prepared to hop on such exciting trips as the Great Barrier Reef Diving and Snorkeling Cruise from Cairns. You’ll cruise to Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef chock full of colorful fish and unusual coral, for several hours of snorkeling. SCUBA diving is an option, too – even for first-time divers. Other cool underwater trips include Hanauma Bay Snorkeling Adventure Half-Day Tour on Oahu, Mexican Whale Shark Snorkel Adventure near Cancun (with hotel pick-up at many Riviera Maya locations) or Fissure Snorkeling in Lake Silfra in Thingvellir National Park, ultra-clear water between two continents!
2. Learn about marine life up-close
Treat your budding marine biologist to an experience of a lifetime – learning about sea creatures from experienced naturalists. The Dolphin Experience at the Miami Seaquarium gives children ages 5 and up the opportunity to interact with dolphins in shallow water: shaking hands, leaning in for a kids and trying out some training signals! Another cool option for children ages 10 and up: the Underwater Helmet-Diving Experience at the Miami Seaquarium, where you walk amid a tropical reef and don’t get your hair wet! Still more ideas: Eco-Safari at Forever Florida out of Orlando and Manta Ray Night Snorkel from Kona, Hawaii.
3. Let someone else do the driving
What better way to enjoy the sights than to let someone else navigate the roads? Even better, with the Rome Hop-on Hop-off Double Decker Bus Tour, you decide the pace of your sightseeing. The open-top bus (which gives you 360-degree views of this bustling city), stops at key points on a fixed route, so you can spend as much time as you like at such important landmarks as the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica. This flexible schedule is especially great for families with young children who might need to nap, rest or eat… right now! These convenient bus tours are also located in other worldwide cities; consider the Paris City Hop-on Hop-off Tour and The Original London Sightseeing Tour: Hop-on Hop-off.
4. Climb into the treetops
For adventurous families who aren’t afraid of heights — or who are willing to try to conquer those fears! — canopy tours are an exciting way to get a bird’s-eye view of a tree-filled environment, such as the temperate rainforest just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia. With a tour of Capilano Suspension Bridge Including the Treetops Adventure and Cliffwalk you not only walk across 450 feet of wobbly planks, 230 feet above the Capilano River, you can also brave the Cliffwalk, a 20-inch-wide platform set 300 feet above the ground and cantilevered on a sheer vertical rock wall.
5. Get close to active volcanoes
The Hawaiian Islands were created by volcanoes – and on some of the islands, those volcanoes are still technically active. Although active Haleakala on Maui isn’t presently erupting, scientists do monitor it for a potential eruption. But don’t worry, the Spectacular Haleakala Maui Sunrise Tour is totally safe – and totally cool. In fact, you’ll want to pack a sweater or fleece for this chilly trip to the top of the 10,023-foot crater in the middle of the night. The truly awe-inspiring sunrise is well worth the early morning trip! For stellar views of an erupting Kilauea Crater on Hawaii, the Big Island, book the awesome Fire and Falls Helicopter Adventure from Hilo.
6. Soar into the sky
It’s one thing to pretend to be a fighter pilot on a video game. It’s another to actually sit in an Airplane Flight Simulator, which authentically replicates what it would feel like to control an aerobatic aircraft in the sky. There’s no age minimum to try this cool activity in Las Vegas; children just need to weigh at least 80 lbs to get into the cockpit. If you’d really like to soar into the sky with an experienced pilot, check out the Grand Canyon All American Helicopter Tour or the Big Apple Helicopter Tour of New York.
7. Make history fun
History comes alive when children are actually touring the areas where historical events took place. Learning about history in a museum or a classroom can’t compare to actually seeing and touching landmarks up close, listening to witnesses of a significant world event via an audio tour, or going behind bars at an infamous prison. With the Small-Group Day Trip to Stonehenge, Glastonbury and Avebury from London visitors check out prehistoric stone markers; in Italy, families can ascend the Mt. Vesuvius crater on the Pompeii Day Trip from Rome. In the United States, you’ll cover a lot of ground with these day trips that visit multiple sights: USS Missouri, Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl Day Tour and Alcatraz Tour plus Muir Woods, Giant Redwoods and Sausalito Day Trip.
8. Explore the natural wonders of the world
The U.S. national parks are some of our country’s greatest treasures. Introduce children to the gorgeous landscapes, unusual rock formations, interesting ecosystems, fascinating wildlife and even active volcanoes at parks across the country. With the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam Day Trip from Las Vegas with Optional Skywalk, you can stand on a transparent platform and peer into the ultra-steep canyon below. Other national park tours include Big Island Day Trip: Volcanoes National Park from Oahu and Yosemite National Park and Giant Sequoias Trip.
9. Skip the line
Here’s one way to ensure a day of stress-free sightseeing with the kiddos: book a tour where you don’t have to wait in any lines! It’s VIP treatment at its finest with exclusive access, private tours and personalized commentary on the Skip the Line: Vatican Museums Walking Tour including Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Rooms and St Peter’s. Other options: Skip the Line: Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island Walking Tour with priority ferry boarding and Skip the Line: Catacombs of Paris Small-Group Walking Tour, which limits the group to just 19 participants.
10. Walk in the footsteps of their heroes
If your tweens or teens are fans of J.K. Rowling’s books, and especially if they’ve seen all of the Harry Potter films on the big screen, you’ll want to book one of two walking tours on your next trip to England. On the Harry Potter Walking Tour of London you’ll see several real-life locations used in the films, including Diagon Alley and the entrance to the Leaky Cauldron. Meanwhile, The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter gives you an up-close-and-personal look at some of the authentic sets, costumes and props that were actually used in the Harry Potter movies. Fans of Spiderman and Batman flicks might check out The Superhero Walking Tour of New York, to see key NYC landmarks used as backdrops in the films.
11. See a show the whole family will love
For me, no trip to the Big Apple is complete without taking in a live show on Broadway. Currently, there’s a plethora of great shows playing for families, even for those with young children in tow. Preschoolers know the story of The Lion King On Broadway and will likely sing along to the upbeat “Hakuna Matata” (“No Worries”) penned by Elton John. Kids of all ages – including adults – will be wowed by the colorful, artistic “half puppet and half human” characters. Other impressive shows include Wicked on Broadway, which tells the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch came to be, Spider-Man on Broadway, whose rock musical songs we written by Bono and The Edge of U2, and the beloved tale of everyone’s favorite nanny, Mary Poppins on Broadway.
12. Learn about traditional cultures
Vacationers flock to Hawaii for its sun, surf and sand, but equally compelling is its long and storied history and native culture. Even young children can appreciate the unique language – and can learn to say “aloha” and “mahalo” to locals. Better yet, visit Oahu’s Paradise Cove Luau, where you’ll not only eat a wonderful array of Hawaiian foods (including yummy Kalua pig!), but you can learn how to fish like ancient Hawaiians did, play Hawaiian lawn games and, of course, watch a fascinating show filled with songs, dances and other entertainment from across Polynesia. While on Oahu, you might also purchase Polynesian Cultural Center Tickets, to visit eight “villages,” where you can engage in hands-on activities to learn more about Hawaiian culture, as well as what daily life is like throughout the South Pacific. These tickets also include a live show, “Ha: Breath of Life” – with fire walkers and fire-knife dancers. Maui offers the traditional Old Lahaina Luau Maui.
13. Get a bird’s eye view
Especially if you’re new to a city, it’s fun to ascend a local landmark to get the lay of the land from above. Kids get a kick of towering over tiny cars that look like little toys and people who resemble ants. In Paris, you can get VIP access with Skip the Line: Eiffel Tower Tickets and Small-Group Tour, where you’re accompanied by an English-speaking guide and can speed to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower without having to wait in line (great for impatient children). Also consider Empire State Building Tickets – Observatory and Optional Skip the Line Tickets, where you’ll enjoy amazing views of Manhattan from the 86th-floor observatory; the Sydney BridgeClimb, where you’ll negotiate catwalks and ladders for spectacular vistas of Sydney Harbour and Opera House; and London Eye: Skip the Line Tickets, where you’ll be whisked on one of the capsules of this world-famous Ferris wheel.
14. Go by bike
Biking is one of my favorite family-vacation activities. We see the sights and enjoy some good outdoor exercise at the same time! In fact, exploring some cities and local landmarks is even better by bike, because you can cover more ground than you would if you were just strolling. For example, with the Versailles by Bike Day Tour you can tour the expansive gardens and also visit some attractions that other visitors don’t see such as Marie Antoinette’s country-style, rustic retreat. You can also see the sights of the Eternal City on the Rome City Bike Tour, cross the San Francisco Bay on the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge Bike Tour or cycle down an active crater on the Kilauea Volcano Bike Tour.
15. Make friends with the wild things
If your children adore their household pets – whether they’re dogs, cats, fish or ferrets – they’ll love a trip to Phillip Island: Penguins, Koalas and Kangaroos Day Tour from Melbourne. Here, they can get up close and personal with some of Australia’s most famous animals. Indeed, you’ll want to make sure you have your camera fully charged to snap photos of your kiddos petting and feeding little kangaroos. Of course, zoos worldwide offer similar experiences, including Sydney Taronga Zoo General Entry Ticket and Wild Australia Experience, Khao Yai National Park and Elephant Ride Day Trip from Bangkok and Singapore Zoo Morning Tour with optional Jungle Breakfast amongst Orangutans.
16. Indulge in cheese, chocolate, and other local treats
Food, glorious food! One of the best ways to enjoy the local culture is to eat – and I bet your kids wouldn’t say no to a tour that involved chocolate, cheese or pizza! When in Switzerland, consider the Day Trip to Gruyeres with Cheese and Chocolate Tastings, where you’ll learn all about Swiss culinary traditions and enjoy plenty of samples along the way. Still more opportunities to eat and sightsee at the same time: Paris Chocolate and Pastry Food Tour, New York Pizza Tour to Brooklyn and Coney Island and the New York City Chocolate and Dessert Tour.
17. Have the ultimate theme-park experience
With VIP treatment at your favorite U.S. theme parks, you can scoot right to the front of the line at the most popular attractions. Indeed, you’ll feel like a celebrity with the insider access to the best seats in the house at live shows, too, if you book the Skip the Line: Front of Line Pass at Universal Studios Hollywood. For even more behind-the-scenes privileges at this Los Angeles theme park, consider the VIP Experience at Universal Studios Hollywood. Disney fans in Florida should check out the cost savings with the Disney’s 7-Day Magic Your Way Ticket.
18. Zipline above the trees
Thrilling is one way to describe a zipline ride above jungle foliage. Other descriptors: exhilarating, breathtaking and fun – for the whole family! Children as young as five can sail through the Puerto Rican rainforest on the Zipline Canopy Eco-Adventure from San Juan. Test nine different ziplines and a couple of cool rappel stations. Mexico’s Cancun Extreme Zipline Canopy Tour and the St Kitts Zipline Canopy Tour are a couple of other great options for an adrenaline rush on vacation.
19. Segway your way around a city
Forget hoofing it around a city to check out the most important sights. Instead, book a Segway tour for easy cruising along sidewalks in some of the most-visited locales in the world. Tweens and teens will get a kick out of this unique self-balancing personal-transportation device (okay, you might look a little goofy, but the tours make for some great family photos). Small groups ensure personal attention during the Paris City Segway Tour, which passes by the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, among other landmarks. Then there’s the Rome Segway Tour, San Francisco Waterfront Segway Tour and San Francisco Crooked Street Advanced Segway Tour (ideal for experienced drivers!) and Chicago Segway Tour.
20. Go whale watching on either coast
Operators of whale-watching tours know exactly where to go in the ocean to view these magnificent creatures – so typically you’re guaranteed a whale sighting. And if you’re really lucky, you may even see one even breach and leap out of the water. On the Full-Day Whale Watching Cruise from Quebec, choose to cruise in a large, three-level boat or get close to the water in a Zodiac rafts. Another East Coast adventure is the Boston Whale Watching Cruise, and when you find yourself on the West Coast check out the Whale-Watching Tour from Vancouver or Whale Watching & Wildlife Eco Tour from San Francisco.
21. Ride the ducks
See the sights by land and water from an amphibious vehicle. Former WWII military “DUWKS” have been retrofitted for sightseeing – with bus-like seats and plenty of windows for great views of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, for example, on the London Duck Tour. And, yes, you’ll plunge into the Thames River for the “boat” portion of the entertaining tour. Amphibious trips in the U.S. include: Boston Duck Tour, San Francisco Duck Tour and Seattle Duck Tour. Prepare for some lively accompaniment: some tours hand out quack-quack duck whistles to the kids, which pint-sized participants aren’t afraid to use. Loudly.
22. Raft down a lazy (or not so lazy) river
River-rafting adventures can range from mild to wild: Older kids will whoop their way through the rapids on exciting whitewater trips, while younger children appreciate the mellow pace of a gentle float trip. The Grand Canyon Rafting Trip from Las Vegas is an exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime adventure that also includes a helicopter trip to the canyon rim. Other options: Colorado River Float Trip from Sedona amid towering red-rock canyon walls and Jamaica River Tubing Adventure on the Rio Bueno along tropical jungle scenery.
23. Swim with dolphins
Marine-animal enthusiasts will love the opportunity to swim with dolphins on your next tropical adventure. School-age children who are comfortable in the water can not only pet, kiss and interact with dolphins during the Cancun Dolphin Royal Swim, but they can hang onto a dolphin’s dorsal fin to be pulled around the water and then get a shove from the (strong) dolphin for the fun “foot-push” maneuver at high speeds across the water’s surface. Child age minimums vary, so be sure to check requirements before you book such adventures as the Ocho Rios Dolphin Encounter or Ocean World Dolphin Swim.
24. Hang ten
Even if you’ve never surfed before, experienced instructors will have you up and riding gentle waves that are ideal for beginners during introductory lessons. Though adults can usually handle group classes, I’d recommend private of semi-private instruction for your children. When my tween-age kids learned to surf in Hawaii, a patient instructor took turns giving them pushes when good waves came up behind them and shouted at them to stand up at the perfect moment. Success! With Oahu Surfing Lessons, you can choose to surf on traditional boards or try the newest craze, stand-up paddleboarding. Other tropical locations for sampling a new sport: Surfing Lessons on Sydney’s Bondi Beach, Maui Surf School Surfing Lessons and Puerto Rico Surf Lesson.
25. See locations from their favorite movies
It can be hard to get kids excited about yet another famous building or important landmark, but if the place holds some significance to them outside the history books, they may be more willing to check out iconic sights. Movie tours can be a great way for parents to see the famous sights they want to see, while the kids get to see places they recognize from TV and movies live and up close.
Major cities like NYC and Chicago have been the sets of dozens of films and TV shows over the years. Depending on the age of your kids, they might enjoy a Gossip Girl set tour of New York, or a Chicago film tour that visits locations used in Transformers 3 and the Dark Knight. In New Zealand, movie set tours can take kids and adults to their favorite locations from the Lord of the Rings movies and The Hobbit, while movie and TV tours in Hawaii will show them places they recognize from Jurassic Park (while parents may know them from shows like Lost).
- Viator Travel Team