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The Great Lakes Welcomes the Young and Young at Heart

The Great Lakes were made for multigenerational trips.

In sun or snow, Great Lakes destinations will tempt group travelers with their signature Midwest kindness. Whether you’re looking for big-city attractions in Chicago or Duluth, Wisconsin; smaller-town feels in Sandusky, Ohio; rural rejuvenation in Door County, Wisconsin; or a variety show in Michigan’s Petoskey area, these shoreline destinations will bring a smile to travelers young and young at heart all year long. 

Door County, Wisconsin

For a breath of fresh air  — and a taste of fresh cherries — take on Door County. Jokingly referred to as the thumb of the state for its geographic similarity to the digit on a mittened hand, Door County is a long and mostly rural peninsula. 

With 300 miles of shoreline on Green Bay, Wisconsin, to the west and Lake Michigan to the east, groups can explore inland, shoreline and on-the-water history and natural landscapes.

Family groups can start with a hike through any of the county’s numerous state parks and natural areas. The county is packed with short and long trails of varying levels of accessibility, and small kids will be drawn to the Ridges Sanctuary’s new interactive nature center.

For live entertainment in the great outdoors, get tickets to a Northern Sky Theater show at Peninsula State Park. These family-friendly comedies involve the audience and leave everyone in stitches. “It’s a wonderful group evening,” Door County’s Laura Bradley said. 

When the weather’s fine, explore the waters surrounding the peninsula on a guided scenic boat tour. Plus, what better way is there to learn about Wisconsin’s maritime history than on a glass-bottom kayak viewing underwater shipwrecks? 

On the county’s west side, the Baileys Harbor lighthouse is one of the county’s 11 breathtaking historic lighthouses. Here, groups can tour the living quarters. Or they can traverse the county to explore the Maritime Tower in Sturgeon Bay, where sweeping vistas of the water and the city await. Downtown Sturgeon Bay has become walkable, and visitors can familiarize themselves on foot and enjoy crossing its three bridges. 

And the cherry on top of any trip to Door County is the one you pick yourself. Cherries thrive in Door County thanks to its location and soil quality. Cherry-picking season runs from the end of July to early August.

Sandusky, Ohio

Buckle up for a thrilling ride in Sandusky, Ohio, home of exhilarating theme parks, attractions for all ages and a historic downtown waterfront.

Sandusky is synonymous with world-renowned Cedar Point, the nation’s second-oldest amusement park. Water surrounds the park and vacation resort on three sides, so riders are treated to 360-degree views of Lake Erie as they brave roller coasters like Steel Vengeance and Millennium Force. Many multigenerational groups also spend time at the Kalahari Resort, which holds the title of largest indoor water park resort in the Midwest, or the Great Wolf Lodge, which is geared especially toward families with small children.

Groups can spend some time exploring away from the resorts by hopping on a ferry to explore South Bass Island or Kelleys Island, two distinctive Ohio islands in Lake Erie. And although some ferries can transport cars, most people opt to zip around exploring via golf cart. 

South Bass Island is home to Put-in-Bay and is packed with quaint mom-and-pop hotels, restaurants, family attractions and a national park aspect: Perry’s Monument. If you’re unfamiliar with the Battle of Lake Erie, make Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial your first stop. 

Kelleys Island, by contrast, is larger and less developed. Outdoor pursuits and natural history draw visitors to this Sandusky island. That’s because it’s home to the largest example of glacial grooves in the country. Kayaking, watercrafting and fishing are the most attractive pursuits on Kelleys Island.

Back in Sandusky proper, the beautifully refurbished, revitalized and remade downtown welcomes visitors. The Jackson Street pier is the waterfront gathering area, where groups enjoy the sunset, taste ice cream and enjoy refreshments. The indoor shopping area The Marketplace features arcades, axe throwing, a craft beer bar and a free children’s museum based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Maritime Museum features hands-on displays of Lake Erie history from boat building to pirates to ice harvesting. And the Merry-Go-Round Museum is a nostalgia-inducing downtown fixture. The working carousel horses from theme parks all over often make visitors say, “I remember that from the park when I was a child.”

Petoskey Area, Michigan

“Right here, I found one!”

 One of the first things people want to do in Petoskey, Michigan, is hunt for a local treasure: Petoskey stones. For little kids, searching for the fossilized coral is akin to participating in an “I Spy” book. Visitors spend hours walking the beach, navigating the rocks and searching for the stones. This simple yet satisfying entertainment is available and attractive all year long, unless the beach is snow-covered and frozen, according to Diane Dakins of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau.

Petoskey is nestled in Little Traverse Bay, an inlet of Lake Michigan, on the northern end of the state. Dakins described resort community Petoskey as a hub-and-spokes destination. 

“Petoskey is a great place to stay and do a weeklong vacation and have something different to experience every day,” she said. “View the elk, check out the castle in Charlevoix, see Earl Young homes or visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes.”

Opposite Petoskey is Harbor Bay. Recently, the Little Traverse Bay Ferry began servicing trips between the two. Groups can enjoy breakfast locally in Petoskey; take the ferry to Harbor Springs for shopping, lunch and a trip to the Harbor Springs Museum; then head back to Bay Harbor for splendid views of the water and Petoskey.

On another day, families can take the ferry to Mackinac Island, a cherished Michigan state park, where visitors get around by foot, horse or snowmobile.

Alternatively, head into the state from Petoskey to Walloon Lake, a pretty natural area between Petoskey and Boyne City, and where Ernest Hemingway spent his first 22 years. Groups can enjoy guided ghost and Hemingway tours around the lake.

Duluth, Minnesota

Dubbed “San Francisco of the North,” Duluth, Minnesota, is extremely walkable, celebrates life on the water and embraces its famous frozen winters. The city is famous for its livability, more than 100 green spaces and architecturally breathtaking downtown.

The Great Lakes city’s foremost attraction is the Lake Walk. Many groups start at Canal Park, Duluth’s playground, where visitors can enjoy locally brewed beers, watch tall ships in the harbor and witness the 1905 Aerial Lift Bridge, a defining feature of the city’s skyline and the oldest functioning lift bridge and port in the nation. 

Once you’ve had your fill watching picturesque boats pass under the Aerial Lift Bridge, head to the Great Lakes Aquarium, which focuses on freshwater species, children’s touch tanks and interactive activities. Just across from the aquarium is the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, with magnificent displays of historic locomotives and themed events and activities all year long. Duluth is impressively compact, bordered on all sides by green spaces: state natural wildlife areas, state parks and, of course, Lake Superior. 

For those seeking outdoor adventure, waterfalls, hiking and cross-country skiing are all available at a moment’s notice. 

“You can walk out the door, and in just a few blocks, you can be on a connected trail,” Sue Mageau of Visit Duluth said. “The green spaces are connected all through town.” And while many destinations around the Great Lakes close for the harsher winter months, not so in Duluth; the town embraces winter. One of the only ski hills in the state is Steer Mountain in Spirit Mountain Recreation Area. Right on the shore of Lake Superior, 15 minutes from downtown, the area is a great destination for groups, with attractions like mini golf and an alpine coaster in the summer and skiing and snowboarding in the winter.


Just exploring the Windy City on foot is enough to satisfy, if not exhaust, most visitors, with its unique architecture, historic markers and enthralling, entertaining public art installments, parks, and waterfront spaces sprinkled throughout. But Chicago is especially tempting for multigenerational trips, as there is something for everyone just around each corner. Attractions are close to each other, allowing families to efficiently use their time and energy, according to Naomi Hattori of Choose Chicago.

Groups can start on a high by hiking up to one of the city’s famous observatories. 360 Chicago or Skydeck Chicago will help you get your bearings and provide an excellent group picture with the skyline in the background. Aside from the major must-dos in downtown, like visiting “the Bean,” Millennium Park’s famous reflective art installment, try exploring some of the hidden gems in one of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods, such as Old Town.

For history buffs and city buffs alike, a trip to the Chicago History Museum will impress. Plus, the museum is within walking distance of the Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the only free zoos in a major city. Weather permitting, a trip to Chicago is unfinished without a visit to North Avenue Beach. Grab drinks and snacks at Castaways, a cruise ship seemingly buried in the sand, to rest your feet and enjoy taking in the views of Lake Michigan.