Real talk: Vacationing with kids can be stressful. We can’t help you stick to nap time (sorry), but we’ve got you covered on the “things to do” front. While a museum visit is likely to result in snooze-fest or temper tantrum territory, a trip to the aquarium is a guaranteed win. Here, seven top picks around the country that kids of all ages will love. And helpful guides, interactive exhibits and conservation efforts mean that little ones will learn something, too. Entertainment and education in one fell swoop plunge. Dive in.
NATIONAL AQUARIUM: BALTIMORE, MARYLAND
With close to 20,000 creatures, this aquarium has plenty on offer to enthrall animal lovers of all ages. Don’t miss the tropical rainforest display, complete with hanging sloths and scampering tamarin monkeys. Shark Week fans will love the ring-shaped “Shark Alley” exhibit that lets you get up close and personal with these toothy predators. (But maybe don’t watch Jaws before you go.)
GEORGIA AQUARIUM: ATLANTA, GEORGIA
Come face-to-face with beluga whales, sea dragons, manta rays (Georgia is the only U.S. aquarium that has them) and more at this giant fishbowl that was once the biggest aquarium in the world. It also offers a special treat for toddlers—the chance to wade in a pool with slippery sea creatures and enjoy story time, crafts and costumed characters.
MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM: MONTEREY BAY, CALIFORNIA
Located on historic Cannery Row, this education and conservation superstar is home to more than 500 different species of marine life. Kids will love checking out the highly interactive “Splash Zone,” where they can play on a waterbed, discover an enchanted kelp forest and watch penguins being fed. (OK, you’ll love it, too.)
NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM: BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS
This giant marine center on the Boston harbor offers interactive exhibits (the shark and ray touch tank is a must-see) and a top-notch IMAX theater that houses the biggest screen in New England. Tip: Combine your visit with a Boston Harbor Cruise whale-watching expedition that leaves from the docks located right outside the museum.
OREGON COAST AQUARIUM: NEWPORT, OREGON
Discover the mysteries of underwater archaeology in “Secret of Shipwrecks,” watch sea lions and harbor seals twirl through water or see if you can spot the elusive giant Pacific octopus. Young visitors will love the Passages of the Deep exhibit, which stretches for 200 feet and allows little ones to be surrounded by mesmerizing marine life.
SHEDD AQUARIUM: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
The tropical exhibits at this Windy City institution are worth the trip alone, but there are actually some pretty cool local creatures on display, too. “At Home on the Great Lakes” highlights some of the region’s most notorious animals, even giving you the chance to touch a sturgeon (a scale-free fish that has been around since the days of the dinosaurs) and see tooth-ringed sea lamprey (Google it if you dare) up close.
AUDUBON AQUARIUM OF THE AMERICAS: NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
This Big Easy favorite shows off its Southern roots with fascinating marine life exhibits from the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. There’s even a Geaux fish display that showcases Louisiana’s fishing industry. The submerged Mayan city is a must-see for kids, while parents might enjoy the “Seahorse Gallery.” (Side note: Did you know the males are actually the ones who give birth? Oh, to be a seahorse.)