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Journeys to Learn: Regional Favorites for Students

You don’t have to take students far to give them an epic adventure.

There are a handful of cities around the country that get lots of love from student groups. But they’re not the only destinations worth exploring.

If you’re looking for exciting student experiences a bit closer to home, here are cities in each region of the country that should be on your radar.

Great Lakes: Cleveland

On the banks of Lake Erie in northeast Ohio, Cleveland is a vibrant city with an illustrious past and a variety of world-class attractions to keep student groups entertained and engaged for several days.

Signature Draw: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is perhaps the most popular music museum in the country. Housed in a large glass pyramid on the lakeshore, the museum has three floors of interactive exhibits featuring instruments, costumes and other memorabilia from musicians past and present. After perusing the exhibits, young rockers will enjoy a visit to the Garage, where they can join others in playing popular songs with real instruments.

Learning Opportunities: The Great Lakes Science Center sits right next to the rock hall on the lakefront. Other high-profile museums nearby include the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of History.

Just for Fun: Departing from the Flats district, the Nautica Queen offers fun and entertaining dinner cruises on the scenic Cuyahoga River.

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Heartland: Louisville, Kentucky

Kentucky’s largest city, Louisville is a charming destination with a strong regional draw. Though it’s known as a bourbon destination, its wide variety of attractions offer plenty of opportunities for students as well.

Signature Draw: A stretch of historic Main Street has become the cultural hub of Louisville and is now referred to locally as Museum Row. Among the most iconic sites is the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, with its 120-foot-tall model baseball bat. Right across the street, the Frazier History Museum offers a wonderful introduction to all things Kentucky

Learning Opportunities: The city’s Unfiltered Truth Collection offers tour groups moving first-person accounts of Black history-makers throughout Louisville’s past.

Just for Fun: At Louisville Mega Caverns, a former limestone mine beneath a portion of the city, students can go zip lining in the dark and enjoy numerous other underground activities.

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Northeast: Rhode Island

As the smallest state in the country, Rhode Island has a number of famous destinations, including Providence and Newport, that can easily be combined into a multiday student trip packed with quintessential New England experiences.

Signature Draw: On a bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, 11 Gilded Age homes are collectively known as the Newport Mansions. Built between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, these opulent homes served as “summer cottages” for some of the wealthiest industrialists from the Northeast. Now managed by the Preservation Society of Newport County, the mansions are open for tours, allowing students to learn about the history, architecture, art and horticulture that make the mansions special.

Learning Opportunities: In Providence, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is one of the country’s most prestigious art and design colleges. The on-campus RISD Museum offers an expansive collection of artwork from around the world.

Just for Fun: In Providence’s Federal Hill, a historic Italian neighborhood, groups can take guided culinary tours to sample delicious cookies, cured meats and fresh pasta.

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Mountain West: South Dakota’s Black Hills

There’s gorgeous scenery around every turn in the Black Hills, a region that surrounds Rapid City in western South Dakota. But beyond the beautiful views, the area offers abundant historic and cultural attractions for students to explore.

Signature Draw: At over 60 feet high, the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are immortalized in the granite of Mount Rushmore. Since it was completed in 1941, the mountain carving has been one of the most iconic images of the American West. Visiting students can learn about the four presidents, the carving process and the Black Hills ecology.

Learning Opportunities: About 18 miles from Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial is an even larger mountain carving, and the on-site visitors center and museum make a great introduction to Lakota Sioux culture.

Just for Fun: The Fort Hayes Chuckwagon Dinner and Show near Rapid City features traditional Western fare and entertainment.

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Gulf Coast: Mobile, Alabama

Like other, more crowded Gulf Coast destinations, Mobile, Alabama, is a historic city with a rich blend of English, French, Spanish and African cultures. Students will enjoy its moderate weather, historic charm and distinctive attractions.

Signature Draw: The USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park gives young travelers the opportunity to step aboard a historic naval vessel and imagine what it was like to live and work aboard during World War II. A crew of 2,500 sailors took the vessel to the South Pacific during the war, and visitors can see the areas where they ate, slept and manned their battle stations. There’s also a second historic ship at the park, as well as an aircraft pavilion.

Learning Opportunities: The Bellingrath Gardens and Home is a large attraction with beautiful horticultural displays and a historic home to explore. Students should also make some time for a guided tour of Mobile’s historic district.

Just for Fun: Plan your visit around Fat Tuesday to enjoy Mobile’s family-friendly Mardi Gras, or catch a bit of its flavor year-round at the Mobile Carnival Museum.

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South Central: Oklahoma City

A metropolitan destination surrounded by the heritage of the old West, Oklahoma City blends elements of city and country with first-class attractions and abundant options for fun.

Signature Draw: The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum will introduce travelers to the art, history and heritage of the American West. The museum features more than 28,000 Western and American Indian artifacts and artworks. Young visitors will especially enjoy Prosperity Junction, a 14,000-square-foot re-creation of a Western prairie town at the turn of the 20th century, complete with historic facades. A variety of events, programs and performances and the museum complement the experience.

Learning Opportunities: The Oklahoma City National Memorial pays homage to the lives lost during the 1995 bombing of a federal building downtown, as well as the first responders and community members who rallied in the aftermath of the attack.

Just for Fun: Turn your travelers loose in Bricktown, a downtown district featuring lots of shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and canal boat rides.

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Southwest: Phoenix

Surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix is a growing metropolis and cultural melting pot. Visiting student groups can immerse themselves in Hispanic and Native American heritage and explore some of the country’s most impressive natural areas.

Signature Draw: With nearly constant sunshine and stunning desert landscapes, the outdoors is Phoenix’s greatest asset. Camelback Mountain is a popular urban hiking destination, offering views of the city and surrounding mountains from 1,200 feet above. Many groups also enjoy visits to the red rock buttes of Papago Park, home to the Desert Botanical Garden and the Phoenix Zoo.

Learning Opportunities: The Heard Museum introduces visitors to the art, culture and traditions of 22 Native American tribes around the country. Outside the city, Taliesin West showcases the work of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Just for Fun: Phoenix has a host of amusement attractions, including Legoland Discovery Center, the Crayola Experience and iFly Indoor Skydiving.

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Pacific Northwest: Tacoma, Washington

Tacoma’s aesthetic is defined by two major geographical features: the Puget Sound and nearby Mount Rainier. The city sits just south of Seattle but has enough of its own appeal to make a memorable student group trip.

Signature Draw: Epic outdoor experiences are the cornerstone of most group itineraries in Tacoma. Mount Rainier National Park preserves the area around Mount Rainier, a 14,410-foot peak that is the highest point in Washington. There are year-round activities for students in the park, including winter skiing, summer flowers and a variety of guided hikes.

Learning Opportunities: Tacoma was at the center of the studio glass-art movement that began in the 20th century, and the Museum of Glass introduces visitors to the art form through exhibits and a working hot shop. It is connected to downtown Tacoma by the 500-foot Chihuly Bridge of Glass.

Just for Fun: Tinkertopia is an innovative arts studio that focuses on reusing found materials to help young visitors bring their creative visions to life.

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Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.