Attractions Worthy of a Family Road Trip in Vermont

Nov 28, 2018

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Think Vermont, and fall foliage, maple syrup and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream might come to mind — and rightly so. But there’s much more to discover in this compact state on New England’s western edge. Its endless outdoor recreation, interactive museums, fun factory tours and agriculture (yes, Vermont really does have the most cows per capita in the country), make it a great choice for a family road trip.

The beauty of vacationing in my home state is that you can drive from north to south in four hours or across in three, which means plenty of fun can be packed into a short trip. While you could hit most of the major attractions in a week, why hurry when there are so many places to linger that your kids will absolutely love? And, if you’re a remote employee thinking about moving, the state will pay you $10k to move to Vermont.

Vermont road trip (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Vermont road trip (Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Getting to Vermont

If piling the kids into the car to drive to Vermont will elicit too many wails of, “Are we there yet?,” an alternative solution is to fly into the Burlington Airport and rent a car. Most of the national rental agencies have reservation counters at the airport, which makes it easy to use points for car rental bookings. During peak times, especially fall foliage season in October, be sure to reserve well in advance as rental vehicles may be in short supply given the heavy demand by out-of-state visitors.

The same applies to accommodations as autumn, better known as leaf-peeping season, brings thousands of travelers to Vermont. But no matter which season you decide to visit, consider booking your lodging with your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. You’ll earn 10x miles for reservations booked through Hotels.com (ends Jan. 31, 2020) and right now the card has an offer of 50,000 miles after $3,000 spent within the first 3 months.

American, Delta, Jet Blue and United all fly into the Burlington Airport (BTV). Porter Airlines offers flights from 10 Canadian cities while Frontier Airlines has a limited number of flights, most originating in western US cities.

The Queen City

With a population hovering around 40,000, Burlington is the state’s largest city, yet has more of a small town vibe. At its heart is its pedestrian-friendly Church Street Marketplace is a four-block bricked promenade with a number of farm-to-fork restaurants and shops, many independently owned.

Church Street Marketplace, Burlington
Church Street Marketplace (Photo by Education Images/UIG / Getty Images)

In the warmer months, it’s chockablock with pushcart vendors, buskers and open-air dining. Burlington is where Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream got its start, so be sure to stop by the Church Street scoop shop for a cup or cone. Phish Food or Chunky Monkey, anyone?

If you decide to stay right in Burlington, you have plenty of affordable points-friendly hotels to choose from, including the Hilton Garden Inn Burlington Downtown and DoubleTree by Hilton Burlington Vermont for 50,000+ Hilton points per night, Courtyard Burlington Harbor (from 35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night), Holiday Inn Burlington (from 35,000 IHG Rewards Club points) and Best Western Plus Windjammer Inn & Conference Center (10,000 points). If you don’t have enough hotel points, you can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to Marriott or IHG.

Just Add Water

Next, head down the hill toward Lake Champlain to Waterfront Park, home to the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. Your kids can explore the ecology, culture and history of Vermont and its largest lake through interactive exhibits, aquariums, touch tanks, live animal presentations and science and nature activities. Throughout the day, 3D nature and science films are shown in the theater. 

ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center
ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center (Photo courtesy of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing)

After visiting ECHO, your crew will be eager to get out on the water, so hop aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen III, which departs from here for scenic cruises in summer and fall. You can also rent a sailboat, paddle-boards, canoes or kayaks at the Community Sailing Center, just north of the park. 

Prefer to experience the lake by land? The Burlington Bike Path hugs the lakeshore for much of its route and allows easy access to Burlington’s North Beach and Leddy Park, two great spots for a picnic or swim.

Lake Champlain beach
Enjoying a day at the beach (Photo by Lisa Halvorsen)

Bicycles can be rented at Local Motion near the King Street Ferry Dock, where ferries depart seasonally for Port Kent, New York. Request a free copy of the Cycle the City map, a 10-mile route that travels through historic neighborhoods, the University of Vermont campus and the Intervale with its working farms, community gardens, walking trails and the original 1787 homestead of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen (open for tours).

A Museum for All Ages

When your kids have had their fill of the Queen City, head south on US 7 to Shelburne, where you can stop at the Shelburne Country Store on the Village Green for penny candy, homemade fudge and Vermont-made products before visiting the Shelburne Museum.

This museum of early Americana includes more than 30 historic buildings on 45 acres with displays of everything from quilts and weather vanes to old tools, carriages and duck decoys. It’s like the American Pickers show come to life. Watch the blacksmiths and printers at work or participate in a lesson at the one-room schoolhouse. Webby’s Art Studio and the Art on the Go Carts feature art activities for all ages, inspired by the exhibits, so be sure to check those out.

Shelburne Museum entrance
The Shelburne Museum (Photo by Lisa Halvorsen)

Your entire family will love stepping back in time on the 220-foot Ticonderoga with its majestic carved woodwork, gilded ceilings and grand staircase, evoking the elegance of steamboat travel circa 1923. This restored steamboat once plied the waters of Lake Champlain as a tourist boat and was hauled over land in 1955 to the museum grounds for permanent display. Although all four decks are open for a self-guided tour, for a more in-depth look at the ship’s mechanics and history, join one of the free guided tours offered daily from May through October.

Ticonderoga steamboat
The Ticonderoga at the Shelburne Museum (Photo courtesy of the Shelburne Museum)

Another attraction sure to please every family member is the horseshoe-shaped circus building with its hand-carved miniature figures, hand-painted carousel animals, circus posters and an operating antique carousel. And, don’t miss the Toy Shop with its mind-boggling collection of vintage dolls, 19th- and 20th-century dollhouses, automata (large mechanical figures) and toy carriages and fire trucks. There’s also an operating American Flyer toy train.

It’s next-to-impossible to see everything in a day, so don’t worry if you need a break. Your admission ticket is good for two consecutive days.

Of Bears and Boats

Just down the road at the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, a Bear Ambassador will provide a fun behind-the-scenes look at how bears are born at the Bear Hospital, where their bears are repaired free of charge thanks to a lifetime warranty. Your kids can design and stuff their very own bear. Although tours are offered daily, if you want to watch craftspeople create the bears, you’ll need to go on a weekday. It’s a good idea to arrive early as tours are first-come, first-served and fill up fast, especially in summer and fall foliage season.

Further south just off US 7 in Vergennes, it’s all about boats at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum. Lots and lots of boats — from vintage wooden boats and canoes to an ice yacht and a replica of the 1776 gunboat Philadelphia II, which is docked at the lakefront for museum guests to board. Exhibits focus on Lake Champlain and its history, including its exploration by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, its steamboats and the lake’s more than 300 shipwrecks.

You can visit the Conservation Laboratory to chat with the nautical archaeologists and learn how they preserve artifacts pulled from the bottom of the lake. The museum is only open from late May through mid-October, so plan accordingly if you want to visit.

We All Scream for Ice Cream

Who doesn’t like ice cream? Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream on VT 100 in Waterbury offers a fun tour of the production line (with free samples), starting with a video in the Cow Over the Moon Theater. While you can’t make reservations, there’s plenty to do while waiting for your tour time. Check out the Ben & Jerry’s merchandise in the gift shop, order your favorite at the scoop shop or pay your respects at the Flavor Graveyard, where discontinued flavors like Dastardly Mash, Sugar Plum and Cow Power are laid to rest — or as Ben & Jerry’s will tell you, the dearly “de-pinted.”

Ben & Jerry's
Everyone loves Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. (Photo courtesy of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream)

Birds, Butterflies and More

To see a cool collection of stuffed animals and birds, head to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom to St. Johnsbury, home to the fascinating Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium, founded in the late 19th century. Both the museum and the building are on the National Register of Historic Places.

It’s considered the finest natural history museum north of Boston, and once you visit, you’ll understand why. The crux of the museum’s collection is the well-traveled Franklin Fairbanks’  “cabinet of curiosities” with seemingly every imaginable bird and animal on display along with everything from geologic specimens and wildflowers to oddities from Africa and the South Pacific. Check out the “bug art,” a collection of mosaics created in the 1800s by a British artist who carefully positioned parts of thousands of butterflies, moths and beetles to create unique and colorful works of art.

Fairbanks Museum
Stuffed Polar Bear in Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium (Photo by Visions of America/UIG / Getty Images)

At the Exploration Station, kids can learn about science, technology and the natural world through hands-on experiments involving heat, weather, aerodynamics and electricity. In the Butterfly House, open from late May to late September, they can observe butterflies in all stages of development from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. The planetarium shows are well-worth the price of admission.

A Trio of Southern Vermont Museums

From St. J, as the locals call it, you have a choice. I-91 south will take you to your next destination, the ever-popular Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, but if you have time — and you really should find the time — meander south along VT 5, past farms and villages, for a taste of the real Vermont.

The Montshire Museum is a gem, with its network of nature trails and more than 150 hands-on exhibits on technology, ecology and the physical sciences designed to challenge and enchant, including a seasonal outdoor science park with interactive water-based exhibits. Older kids can participate in investigative sessions at the Science Discovery Lab led by museum staff, while preschoolers have an area just for them with an aquarium, bear’s den and games, puzzles and experiments on light, sound, color and basic science concepts.

Montshire Museum
Bubbles: Science in Soap exhibit at the Montshire Museum of Science (Photo courtesy of the Montshire Museum of Science)

The Vermont Institute of Natural Science, in nearby Quechee, features live raptor and reptile programs and a chance to observe rescued eagles, owls and other birds of prey up close. There are also a couple of songbird aviaries. You can explore the natural forest and the evolution of birds from dinosaurs through interactive and immersive exhibits and activities.

Now about those cows. The Billings Farm & Museum, a farm life museum and working dairy farm on the outskirts of Woodstock, is the perfect place to observe a herd of friendly Jerseys and learn about rural life by visiting the barns, the 1890s farmhouse and creamery. Check the daily schedule for a list of programs where your kids can meet the chickens, sheep or cows; learn how to churn butter; or watch cows being milked.

Billings Farm and Museum
Billings Farm and Museum (Photo courtesy of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing)

Bottom Line

Whether traveling with toddlers or teens, you won’t be disappointed in all that Vermont has to offer families, from its museums and attractions to its postcard-pretty scenery and opportunities to embrace the outdoors. Don’t be surprised if you start planning your next trip to the Green Mountain State before this one even ends.

Featured image by Tom Narwid / Getty Images

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