10 Best Aquariums in the World
For many of us, aquariums offer our very first glimpse of what life looks like under the sea. Our oceans and fresh water bodies are teeming with marine life—a dazzling array of animals, plants, and organisms that shape our world, and a visit to an aquarium can be the first step in teaching children how to care for their planet.
There’s no shortage of aquariums, though. According to the MarineBio Conservation Society, there are more than 200 marine aquariums and ocean life centers around the world.
Need some help narrowing down your options? These 10 are Budget Travel’s list of the best aquariums across the globe.
1. Georgia Aquarium: Atlanta, GA
The largest aquarium in the U.S. has tens of thousands of animals swimming in over 10 million gallons of water. Located in Atlanta, the massive institution is home to some of the biggest fish in the world. Daredevils can even swim with the aquarium’s whale sharks. For kids, there’s a petting area where you dip your hands into a shallow pool filled with rays and baby sharks, including Bonnethead sharks, which have eyes in the back of their heads. Don’t miss the museum’s dolphin show, where trainers showcase the beauty, athleticism, and intelligence of bottlenose dolphins.
2. Chimelong Ocean Kingdom: Hengqin, Zhuhai, People's Republic of China
Want to explore the largest aquarium in the world? This aquarium in the People’s Republic of China boasts eight themed areas inside the park, each representing a different part of the ocean. Chimelong’s whale shark exhibit offers stunning views of one of the largest creatures in the world through its massive viewing window. The aquarium also has a dolphin’s island, otter’s den, and sea lions theater, where the animals show off acrobatic movements to the beat of tango, rock, and Brazilian samba music.
3. Marine Life Park: Sentosa island, Singapore
This Singapore aquarium is home to more than 100,000 marine animals of over 1,000 species from across 50 different habitats. The museum’s shark encounter lets guests swim inches away from some of the ocean's stealthiest predators, such as the hammerhead, silvertip and sandbar sharks. Visitors can also meet face to face with Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. When you’re done gawking at the sea life, check out the high-speed water slides and lazy river at Adventure Cove Waterpark, which is located next to the aquarium.
4. Dubai Mall Aquarium: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
One of the world’s second-largest shopping mall is also home to an aquarium with more than 33,000 aquatic animals and the largest collection of sand tiger sharks. Rising to the mall’s third floor, the museum is famous for its 48-meter tunnel, where people can watch the museum’s divers feed sharks and rays throughout the day. For a closer encounter, the aquarium offers a 30-minute tour of the museum’s back-of-house facilities, where you can feed shark babies and learn about the center’s shark breeding program.
5. Shedd Aquarium: Chicago, Illinois
Opened in 1930, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is one of the oldest aquariums in the world. Home to sea otters, lake sturgeons, giant river turtles, blacktip reef sharks, and other water animals, the museum specializes in providing learning experiences for visitors of all ages. Take advantage of the free audio guide, which provides detailed accounts of the aquarium’s most memorable species, including the incredible rescue story of green sea turtle Nickel. Penguin lovers can meet, touch, and feed Magellanic penguins while learning about penguin anatomy, nesting season, and the museum’s penguin conservation work in South Africa.
6. Oceanogràfic: Valencia, Spain
Located in the avant-garde architectural complex of Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències in Valencia, the Oceanogràfic aquarium offers a truly immersive experience. It has Europe’s longest underwater tunnel, where visitors get a front-seat view of more than 100 sharks of 21 different species. In addition, the aquarium features stunning sea life from the Mediterranean ocean, including barracudas, snakelocks anemones, and spiny lobsters. It also offers nighttime attractions, including live music and dolphin shows.
7. Oceanário de Lisboa: Lisbon, Portugal
This Lisbon aquarium showcases four marine habitats crossing the temperate, tropical, and cold waters of the different oceans of the planet. The museum’s permanent exhibition features a stunning array of jellyfish, rich algae, penguins, and amphibians such as dusky salamanders, European tree frogs, and rubber eel. Kids can enjoy an overnight stay at the museum where they learn more about sharks.
8. Monterey Bay Aquarium: Monterey, California
Another stateside aquarium well worth visiting is Monterey Bay’s. The museum’s ocean-view decks are a great vantage point for viewing local wildlife, from sea otters and seals to humpback whales and white sharks, which gather to feed in the bay after spending months offshore in waters as far west as Hawaii. Daily shows include sea otter feeding, penguin feeding, seabirds feeding, and “Luna: A Sea Otter's Story,” where guests learn about the threats facing California's sea otter population by following one sea otter’s journey.
9. Vancouver Aquarium: Vancouver, Canada
Opened in 1956, Canada’s largest aquarium houses around 300 species of fish, nearly 30,000 invertebrates, and more than 50 species of amphibians and reptiles. The museum offers a number of full-sensory experiences, including sea lion training, otter feedings, dolphin shows, and walrus encounters. It’s also the headquarters of Ocean Wise, a non-profit where scientists, educators, and conservation experts spearhead initiatives such as shore cleanup efforts and sustainable seafood practices.
10. Texas State Aquarium: Corpus Christi, TX
Dedicated to promoting the environmental conservation and rehabilitation of wildlife from the Gulf of Mexico, this Corpus Christi, TX aquarium offers a unique look at the animals that populate the rich habitats of this region. Kids will especially enjoy the museum’s slot meet-and-greet experience, where guests get a personal introduction to Xena or Chico, one of the Linneaus’s two-toed sloths. The aquarium’s wildlife rescue center helps rehabilitate marine mammals, sea turtles, raptors, and shorebirds who are injured in the wild.
Family Reunion: How to Plan the Perfect Trip
They can be the most heartwarming—or the most chilling—words in the English language: Family Reunion. If the thought of organizing your extended clan for a long weekend away sends a shiver down your spine, relax. If you start early, do your homework, and take advantage of digital tools, you can pull off a multigenerational jaunt that will delight everyone from one to 100. Here, our all-you-need-to-get-started guide to planning the party of the year. 1. START THE CONVERSATION At least nine months in advance, start talking to your extended family's "thought leaders"—the ones who typically make the decisions and do the heavy lifting at, say, Thanksgiving. Family-travel expert and former Family Vacations editor at About.com Teresa Plowright suggests that earlier is better when coordinating the schedules of many families. "People like to know 'Next June we're all getting together'—you just have so many work/vacation schedules for adults, seasonal jobs, sports programs for teens, etc." Especially if your family intends something ambitious, like an overseas trip, a popular resort, or a cruise, at least a year is advisable. For more casual affairs ("Let's rent a couple of beach houses!"), Plowright notes that a few months in advance might be fine. Before deciding on your reunion destination, it's best to put together three final options (including sample activities, meals, and a rough estimate of the cost) that the group can consider. (See "Pick the Perfect Destination," below.) 2. DELEGATE If you're the type who's reading this story and already taking notes, you're likely the one who is going to volunteer to do too much. Don't. As with any family get-together, a reunion will require delegating important tasks. Depending on the family dynamic, this might mean choosing a leader to coordinate the event while one person is the reservation-keeper, another is in charge of meal planning, another for activities. If all of this is starting to sound like work, well, it is. Like a well-run business, the reunion will require a staff that works independently and reports back to the group regularly. 3. MAKE RESERVATIONS These days, of course, reservations can all be made online, which is mostly a blessing. But a slew of paperless reservations (flights, hotels, rental cars, and restaurants) made by a team of far-flung relatives can sometimes spell confusion. Use a reliable app such as TripIt or Google docs to store and share all your important dates, times, and ticket info. In general, you should get a head count and make lodging reservations six to nine months prior to your reunion; buy plane tickets four to six months in advance; book activities at your destination about two months in advance; double-check your head count one month prior to travel; and re-confirm all your reservations and any airport transportation and car rentals one week in advance. 4. PICK THE PERFECT DESTINATION Family adventure If your clan is the type to hop out of bed every morning itching to climb, hike, bike, and explore, "Escorted tours with all details handled and excellent lodgings can be a good idea," suggests Plowright. A number of adventure-travel companies offer "family adventure" packages aimed at multigenerational groups. Adventures by Disney is, no surprise, a favorite choice of many families. Ski resort "I've seen many multigenerational vacationers at ski resorts," notes Plowright. "It can be pricey, but the good news is that even if some of the family doesn't want to ski or snowboard, there are more and more non-skiing activities to enjoy." Disney "Families with grandparents along seem to be everywhere at Disney World," says Plowright. The park offers a wide—and ever-widening—range of activities, even for those who aren't interested in the rides. All-inclusive resort "All-inclusive resorts offer plenty of activities during the day, plus kids' programs," suggests Plowright. "Families can decide to do some activities together and split up for other things and re-group at dinner." Whether you're a partier or just a fan of fine dining, swimming pools, and white-sand beaches, one of the most appealing aspects of the all-inclusive is that you can go for days without ever reaching for your wallet. Beach house "Rent a big vacation home, or a few that are near one another, for a relaxing reunion," says Plowright. But remember if your reunion is "self-catered," no one person should be stuck doing all the cooking. Delegate a different cook—or group—for each evening's dinner. Cruise "Think of a cruise as a floating all-inclusive resort," says Plowright, "with the same potential to be together or easily break off for separate activities." A cruise might just be the easiest reunion from a planner's point of view, with ample opportunities for age-appropriate activities, easy seating for meals, and special events such as private cocktail parties, photo sessions, and a fairly standard discount of one free passenger for every eight cabins. But because most cruises are not strictly all-inclusive, do keep an eye on extra costs—that glass of wine you raise to toast your grandparents may set you back $10. 5. DON'T FORGET THE SWAG Order personalized souvenirs Sending everyone back home with a family reunion T-shirt—or tote bag, baseball cap, or custom-made craft—can help keep the event alive in everyone's memory for a long time. Prepare a family tree No, you don't have to know exactly when your great-grandmother left Palermo, or what her father's name was, to cobble together a nice family tree to answer inevitable questions, like "Who is that dude and am I really related to him?" Bring photo albums Sure, you can—and should—trot out those dusty "analog" albums that everyone loves. But don't forget to collect and organize family photos digitally for future reference. Take a group photo Book a professional photo session through your hotel, resort, or cruise line. Pricey? It can be—but it's worth the quality of the photography, shot composition, and professional printing. Make a music video You may have to leave the tech to the teens, but it's way easier than you think to shoot and edit your own family's take on, say, "Uptown Funk." Trust us, the laughter will linger long after you've packed your bags and headed home. Ask the kids to make name tags or dinner-table place cards Pack craft paper and crayons and make the little ones feel like big shots by having them create name tags or place cards for themselves and the grownups. It's a colorful way to decorate your dinner table, and the sentimental value of those mini-masterpieces will only go up as the years go by.
6 Family-Friendly All-Inclusive Resorts We Love
Think of it as a one-stop shopping spree through paradise. All-inclusive resorts stay true to their name—throwing in food, drinks, entertainment, and activities for one price. Little wonder they’re such a popular choice with families. A simple way to help ease the burden of non-stop helicopter parenting, these resorts provide supervised care for younger children as well as daily activities and clubs for teens and tweens. And, because almost everything is built into the initial rate (spa treatments, high-end activities like wave runners, expensive bottles of wine, and other luxuries often come as add-ons) and there’s no tipping and no signing bills, you won’t give a second thought when your kids want to order extra sodas, ice creams, or smoothies. (Well, there is the calorie factor, but that’s a whole other story.) And let’s face it, more freedom for the kids equals more relaxation for you. The only downside? Because of the sweeping size and scale of most of these resorts, you likely won’t get the most personalized, customized experience. And exploring outside the property’s grounds may take a backseat to your already-purchased comfort. Most properties, however, offer excursion desks to help you plan at least one family adventure. But if you’re devoted to finding a laid-back way to enjoy family time, here are our choices for the best all-inclusive resorts to visit right now. 1. Reflect Krystal Grand Cancun, Mexico Reflect Kristal Grand Cancun, Mexico. (Courtesy of Reflect Kristal Grand Cancun) Just under a year old, the Krystal Grand Cancun resides on the southern tip of Punta Cancun, walking distance of downtown. Some of the nearly 400 rooms and suites provide kid-friendly features like bunk beds and step stools for sinks. Almost every room has ocean or partial-ocean views of Bavaro Beach, and the resort’s Unlimited-Luxury philosophy offers 24-hour room service and a constantly restocked minibar. There are four pools to choose from, including the adults-only infinity pool and a kids’ pool. If you’re restless, join in the daily beach volleyball and soccer games. Or check out any one of the number of classes, from cooking and mixology to Mayan history and astronomy. The supervised Explorer’s Club for kids between 3 and 12 affords you well-deserved “me time” and the Core Zone Teens Club, is equipped with a pool table, air hockey, foosball, and videogames. In addition to the six dining options on site, your rate offers inclusion (reservations needed) to the Hacienda El Mortera Mexican restaurant, which is a five-minute walk from the hotel and included in the hotel’s price. (reflectresorts.com/en_us/resorts/mexico/cancun.html) 2. Melia Caribe Beach Resort, Dominican Republic Melia Caribe Beach Resort, Dominican Republic A tropical paradise with access to Punta Cana’s Bavaro Beach, in addition to beachside and pool-facing rooms, this sweeping resort offers The Level suites with access to private spaces and upgraded services. The Caribe Tropical offers a vast assortment of activities for kids and adults, including eight tennis courts and an 18-hole golf course. Horseshoe tournaments, beach volleyball, and even candle workshops are among the mix of daily activities. Or take advantage of the resort’s beachside locale with kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing, and sailing. What makes this destination stand out, though, is its interactive waterpark, Splash Island and the children’s Adventure Park, The Kid’s Club offers supervised care for ages 8 months to 4 years old, 5 to 8 years old, and 9 to 13 years old, with each day culminating in family Olympics on the beach. Dining is auspicious, with two buffets and 11 a la carte restaurants to choose from. (meliatropicalcaribe.com) 3. Mohonk Mountain House, New York Mohonk Mountain House, Ulster County, NY. (Courtesy Mohonk Mountain House) This relaxing lakeside sanctuary sits in a secluded mountain preserve in the Hudson Valley. It’s just a two-hour car ride from Manhattan, but with its sweeping views of the Shawangunk Mountains and glacier-formed Lake Mohonk, it feels worlds away from urban life. More Victorian castle than rollicking resort, the rooms, suites, and small cottages—many with private balconies—are low-tech affairs designed for inner peace. But it’s the daily activities that make Mohonk stand out. To wit: archery, rock-climbing, biking, ice skating, fishing, cross-country skiing, tennis, snowshoeing and—for the brave—tomahawk throwing. That’s to say nothing of the 85-plus miles of the grounds’ hiking trails. There’s no shortage of water activities, too. Take a boat out on the lake, dip in the indoor pool, schedule a forest bathing session, or relax in the Spa’s eucalyptus steam room and dry rock saunas. (Treatments are not included in the all-inclusive price). A Kid’s Club, which has morning, afternoon, and evening sessions, accommodates children from 2 to 12 years old. The Teen Program includes guided rock scrambles, disc golf, tennis clinics, and hikes for kids aged 13 to 17. At night, the older kids can mingle in the Teen Lounge to play video games, watch movies or just hang out. Dining options are plentiful with a buffet available for all three meals. You can also picnic al fresco for lunch and make a reservation in the Lower Dining Room for the nightly three-course, farm-to-table dinner. (mohonk.com) 4. Club Med Sandpiper Bay, Florida The original all-inclusive resort, Club Med is still going strong after all these decades. Geared towards active families, it sits on the St. Lucie River, midway between Orlando and Miami—making it a perfect stop if you want to spend a few extra days in Disney or South Beach. Waterskiing and wakeboarding, paddle boarding, kayaking, and group boating lessons are just a few of the ocean activities. You can also sign up for surfing, tubing, and sea scooters on the river for an extra cost. Staying active on land is no problem here. Daily activities include volleyball, tennis, golf, and even trapeze school. When you’re ready for a break, there are three pools on the property, including one for adults only. There are programs for kids between the ages of four months to 17 years, though only the Mini Club and Cub Med Passworld,(ages 4 to 17), are included. The restaurants are limited to the pool-front Marketplace buffet and the Riverside Grill & BBQ, where reservations are suggested. (clubmed.us/r/Sandpiper-Bay/y) 5. Blue Waters Resort & Spa, Antigua Blue Waters Resort & Spa, Antigua. (Courtesy Blue Waters Resort Spa Antigua) This posh resort on Soldier’s Bay, situated in the northeast corner of Antigua, feels wonderfully secluded, but it’s only a short drive from St. John’s, the island’s capital. A family-run business for 25 years, it retains its storied elegance while projecting a youthful, modern enthusiasm for all types of families. The staff at the Blue Waters is especially noteworthy, many of whom have been at the resort for decades and make it feel extremely personable. The 17 acres of tropical gardens are enticing, but the beach, known for its powder-soft sand, is the star here. Nine different pools are scattered around the property, including one for adults only and a beachfront pool with views of the Caribbean. Four of the others each coincide with block of hotel rooms and suites. Water sports include snorkeling, windsurfing, and kayaking. And for landlubbers there’s tennis, a dedicated yoga pavilion for when you need to unplug, and a PGA-rated golf course. The Creche Kids Club is for children between 14 to 47 months and costs extra, but the Blue Waters Kids Club, for 4- to 12-year-olds, is complimentary and includes a line-up of daily activities. The Spa at Blue Waters offers high-end treatments for adults but also provides mini bathrobes and non-toxic manicures for little divas-in-training. The food is high-quality at the three restaurants with a more casual dining experience at the beach pool for lunch. (bluewaters.net/resort) 6. Beaches Turks & Caicos Miles of sandy white beaches and the third-largest barrier reef in the world, Turks & Caicos is better known for trendy luxury than family fun. The Beaches property on the island’s north shore, however, bridges this divide with a 75-acre resort featuring five different villages, each with their own unique accommodations. Not only can you swim and splash in the glimmering turquoise of Grace Bay, water sports like kayaking, windsurfing, hydrobiking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling are also included in the price. The resort houses six different pools, including one which is strictly for adults, but it’s the massive, 45,000 square-foot Pirate Island waterpark with swim-up smoothie bars, waterslides, and a surf simulator, that the kids will be talking about weeks after they get home. The youngest in your crew will also appreciate the Sesame Street partnership, which includes shows, parades, and treasure hunts. While the Kid’s Camp offers supervised child care from certified nannies, teens and tweens can duck into the well-stocked game room to play foosball, air hockey, and basketball. They can also dance the (early) night away at the under-21 Club Liquid, before it turns into an adults-only bar for late-night partying. There are a dizzying 21 different restaurants to choose from and 15 bars. With everything from pizza and burgers to pate and lobster on offer—not to mention food trucks parked at the waterpark—nobody will find any reason to complain. (beaches.com/resorts/turks-caicos/)
Harry Potter Fans: Here's Where You Should Travel Based on Your Hogwarts House
So you’re the ultimate Harry Potter fan but can’t decide where to take your next trip? First of all, true Potter fans should be aware of Pottermore.com: the official fansite where you can get sorted by the Sorting Hat into your Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry house. Your house is based on a variety of personality quirks and preferences, meaning you’ll fit in with the overall atmosphere of the house you’re sorted into. Once you know your Harry Potter Hogwarts house, you’re on the road to finding the perfect travel destination. Because let’s be honest, a gutsy Gryffindor may have very different travel goals from a humble Hufflepuff, and likewise a rational Ravenclaw’s travel bucket list might not overlap with a shrewd Slytherin’s vacation goals. Have no fear, Potter fans: read on to find out the perfect travel destination for your Hogwarts house. Best Destinations for Gryffindor: Utah or Nicaragua Being the house of Harry, Ron and Hermione themselves, Gryffindors are known as the brave, adventurous, daring and chivalrous of the Hogwarts lot. You have nerve and are very well-rounded, so only a very adventurous destination will do. Gryffindors are an active bunch, so we think you’ll love an outdoorsy travel destination like Utah. Hike through the otherworldly red-clay rock formations in Bryce Canyon, practice your rune-reading at an ancient petroglyph site in Moab or produce a patronus in Zion National Park. For a bit more adventure, Nicaragua is another great spot for a Gryffindor getaway. You can try out some exciting Muggle activities like volcano boarding down the active volcano Cerro Negro, swimming between wild islands or canoeing through jungles, where you might just spot some fantastic beasts. Best Destinations for Ravenclaw: Greece or Ethiopia Ravenclaw, you are the most intelligent members of the wizarding world. You have a thirst for knowledge, valuing brains and information over guts. To that end, we suggest a cultural travel destination for your house. Greece would make an ideal vacation for Ravenclaws. You can spend your time learning the (somewhat strange, we know) teachings of Muggle philosophers and perusing their ancient human sites, like the amazing Acropolis – Professor Binns would be proud. Ravenclaws are also deeply interested in diverse cultures and ancient history, so consider travelling to the cradle of Muggle civilization: Ethiopia, where some of the oldest human ancestors came from, a crossroads rich in culture and religion. Visiting cultures such as the Surmi, Mursi and Karo people offers a chance to see how local communities have preserved ancient traditions, while the 1600-year-old rock churches of Tigray show just how long the religious history is in Ethiopia. Best Destinations for Hufflepuff: Canada or Taiwan Dedicated and loyal, Hufflepuffs are the all-around nicest witches and wizards. They tend to be trusting, kind and value justice and fairness, and for that we think the best travel destination for a Hufflepuff is somewhere social and friendly with good nightlife. Canada would be the perfect travel destination for a Hufflepuff. Canadians are known the world over for being some of the friendliest Muggles, and they value equality and diversity. Travelling Hufflepuffs can enjoy the relaxed, peaceful pace of Vancouver; practice their bubblehead charms in the waters of Lake Ontario; or head to Newfoundland to pay homage to beloved Hufflepuff Cedric Diggory’s most famous spell, turning a rock into a labrador. Taiwan is another destination Hufflepuffs will love for its egalitarian and friendly attitude. And as the first country on the Muggle continent of Asia to legalise LGBT marriage, it is Dumbledore-approved. Night markets, such as Miaokou in northern Taiwan, are brimming with food and friendly locals, and a great place for Hufflepuffs to experience Taiwan’s welcoming attitude firsthand. Best Destinations for Slytherin: Tokyo or Fiji Okay, so Slytherins sometimes get a bad rap around the world due to one or two evil wizards who came through your house, but let’s not forget Harry Potter himself was one request away from Slytherin. You are a house of ambitious, determined and highly inventive witches and wizards. And you love what’s cool, unique and exclusive. We think a great travel destination for Slytherins is somewhere that values tradition as well as exclusivity, and where better for that than edgy Tokyo? Centuries-old shrines stand alongside sleek skyscrapers, and you can practise potions while sipping a cocktail with an amazing city view somewhere like Asahi Sky Room. Slytherins are also highly driven leaders who sometimes need a true escape from the wizarding world. In that case, Slytherins should visit a resort island like Fiji or the Seychelles, where they can just rest their wands for a while. Harry Potter Travel Destinations for All Wizards (and Muggles Too!) No matter which house you are sorted into, there are a few Harry Potter travel destinations that will appeal to everyone. You can’t go wrong with a trip to Great Britain, Harry’s homeland. There are numerous Harry Potter sights in Britain, but don’t miss a trip to the Warner Bros Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter, an absolute must for any Potterhead. This magical studio tour leads you through all of the sets used in the making of the Harry Potter films as well as an animatronic workshop where you can interact with multitudes of fantastic beasts, from a grindylow to Buckbeak himself. While you’re in England, don’t forget to swing through King’s Cross train station to visit Platform 9¾, where you can have your picture taken pushing your luggage cart through the brick wall and onto the Hogwarts Express platform. And head up to Edinburgh, Scotland, where J.K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter books. You can even book a stay in a Harry Potter-themed flat while you’re here. In Florida, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is another spellbinding experience. This theme park brings the magic of Harry Potter to life, with strange and wondrous experiences at every turn and plenty of rides that take you right into Hogwarts itself.
As a little boy visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park for the first time, I didn't need to know that this piece of Pennsylvania farmland was the site of the turning point of the Civil War, or how many people had died here over the course of three days in July 1863. On that first trip, historical facts and statistics were trumped by the words "Devil's Den." My father's gentle description of the firefight that had occurred amid the towering gray boulders there, where Union and Confederate soldiers had once crouched for cover, was enough to inspire a blend of fear, awe, and respect that I associate with the place to this day. As an adult, I've caught myself saying, "I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe in Gettysburg." Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is located just north of the Mason-Dixon line about an hour and 20 minute's drive from Baltimore and two hours and 20 minutes from Philadelphia. Here, in early July, 1863, General Robert E. Lee led his rebel Army of Northern Virginia across the Pennsylvania border in an attempt to seize Washington, D.C., and force a Union surrender. What happened here, with American fighting American, often hand-to-hand, changed the course of U.S. history, with Lee's army eventually forced to retreat. Each summer, as the battle anniversary nears, the museum, the cemetery where President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in November of 1863, and the winding trails of national parkland play host to armies of tourists and history buffs. And, yes, for better or for worse, children will be cajoled, bribed, or dragged into the action. But Gettysburg ain't Disney. How you introduce kids to a place like this can mean the difference between igniting a spark of historical curiosity and sending them screaming for the snack bar. Here, some expert advice on showing your little ones how to tread lightly on hallowed ground. PLAN YOUR VISIT IN ADVANCE I spoke with Barbara J. Sanders, education specialist at Gettysburg National Military Park, for her suggestions about the best way to introduce children to this historical site and the troubling chapter in American history that it represents. Sanders suggests visiting the park's website (nps.gov/gett) as well as the website of the park's partners, the Gettysburg Foundation. "By planning the trip together and allowing each member of the family to select an activity of interest, everyone will become involved and excited about their upcoming visit," Sanders suggests. She also recommends reading some age-appropriate books about the battle of Gettysburg, or about the Civil War, together prior to the visit. At Gettysburg, or What a Girl Saw & Heard of the Battle is an autobiographical account of the battle written by a woman who witnessed it as a young girl—appropriate for grades four and up. Jimmy at Gettysburg is the true story of Jimmy Bighams, who also experienced the battle first-hand as a boy—suitable for grades three and up. For parents who could use a little grounding in Civil War history, Ken Burns's documentary film The Civil War remains the gold standard for its clarity, elegance, and emotional wallop. For a deeper dive, Shelby Foote's trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative, reads like great fiction. The park's website also features a robust "For Teachers" section intended to help with planning class trips but easily adapted by parents who are wondering where to start, what elements to teach their children, and what they might want to leave out. ARE YOUR KIDS READY FOR GETTYSBURG? "There's something at Gettysburg for all ages," Sanders insists. She points out that even very young kids often shout "Abraham Lincoln!" when they see the president's statue in front of the park's visitors center, and even if that's their only touchstone here, they can see the spot at the Soldiers' National Cemetery where he delivered his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, and even stand in his footsteps at the train station where he arrived in town. Of course, for elementary and middle school kids, there are themes presented at Gettysburg that will require either preparation or explanation. A film, dramatic 360-degree painting, and museum all help to put the conflict, the issue of slavery, and the sheer loss of life that occurred here in their historical context. The National Park Service and the Gettysburg Foundation offer a variety of children's education programs in summer that allow young visitors to learn as much—or as little—as they feel is right for them. "The focus of the trip should be to connect to the place and the people, and ignite a spark of interest in the minds of the kids," says Sanders. CHILDREN'S PROGRAMS For a summertime visit to a place as big as Gettysburg (a typical auto tour covers 24 miles), a friendly guide and some kid-friendly activities may be as essential as sunscreen, insect repellent, and water. Sanders recommends that you consider booking a personalized tour of Gettysburg. You can book a Licensed Battlefield Guide in advance, or take your chances with a first-come-first-served sign-up each morning at 8 a.m. The guide can accompany you in your car on a two-hour battlefield tour—it's essentially like having a teacher along for the ride to lead you to the most important sites and answer your family's questions. Gettysburg also offers free summer ranger field programs—sign up first thing at the visitors center information desk as space is limited, and pick up Junior Ranger activity booklets. A GETTYSBURG ITINERARY The most common approach to Gettysburg National Military Park is to start at the visitors center and museum, then embark on the 24-mile self-guided auto tour (an annotated map shows you the route and points out the major battle sites along the way). While the museum is a must-see with an extensive collection and interactive education stations, and visitors should try to plant their feet on key spots around the park, such as the site of Pickett's Charge (the doomed Confederate attack that turned the tide of the three-day battle), there are other, better ways for kids to really experience Gettysburg. "My recommendation is for families to find a specific person, or a specific regiment that they are interested in learning more about," says Sanders. As many families have experienced when visiting a museum dedicated to, for instance, immigration, or tolerance, or slavery, sometimes tracking the progress of just one person through a difficult chapter of history is far more rewarding than trying to understand the bigger picture, especially for grade-school children. "For example, if a family is coming from Alabama, they could research the 15th Alabama Infantry and follow their path from July 2, 1863 as they launch repeated attacks on the end of the Union line, occupied by the 20th Maine Infantry," Sanders suggests. "Or if a family is interested more in the farmers and civilians, they could learn about the John Slyder family, and then visit their farm at the base of Big Round Top, or Abram Bryan, a free black farmer whose house and barn was located near the very center of the Union line on July 3." Got a dog? Tell your kids the story of Sallie, the canine mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Infantry, and a visit her monument near Oak Ridge. LET YOUR KIDS TAKE THE LEAD Give the little ones the elbow room to experience the place on their own terms—as Sanders suggests, and as my own parents did for me all those years ago. You may not entirely understand why your child is, say, fascinated by a particular field, or artifact, but be assured that they are processing this complex chapter in our history the very best they can. A visit to Gettysburg is not a time for lectures. Whether they come home with a solid sense of history's sweep or just the indelible memory of one soldier's few days on this rolling farmland, you'll have ignited a spark. HOW TO GET THERE Gettysburg National Military Park, Museum and Visitor Center entrance at 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg, Penn., visit nps.gov/gett.