Road trips are a quintessential American pastime, especially during the summer. Fortunately, when those long stretches of highway become a little monotonous and backseat squabbling gets a little too heated, there are plenty of (quirky and amazing) roadside attractions to break up the trip. Here, a few of our favorites (and no, the world’s second-largest ball of twine did not make the list. Sorry, Clark Griswold.)
Circus World Museum
Why We Like It: When the atmosphere inside the car starts to feel like a circus, the outdoor extravaganza of acrobats, aerialists, magic tricks, and animal performances that is Circus World Museum puts things in perspective. Located on the winter grounds of the original Ringling Bros. Circus, the attraction features 10 performances daily, rain or shine, through Sept. 3, so you’re almost guaranteed to catch a show.
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Where to Eat: Forgo cotton candy and hamburgers onsite and head for the cheerful Little Village Cafe in nearby Baraboo. This cozy, memorabilia-packed spot features a menu full of healthy options, from blackened salmon Caesar salad to angel hair pasta tossed with fresh veggies.
Where to Stay: Just two miles away is scenic Devil’s Lake State Park, with hundreds of sites for camping and lodge-style accommodations, plus B&Bs and vacation home rentals. Plus, the park has areas for swimming, hiking, and biking—the perfect antidote for hours in the car.
Why We Like It: A pilgrimage to Graceland, the home of music legend Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, is just the remedy when the whole family is feeling all shook up from too much time in the car. Presley’s 14-acre estate is now a museum, with several tour options through his home, including the famous Jungle Room, and even onto his private planes. Don’t have time for a full tour? Check out the Meditation Garden, where Elvis is laid to rest. It’s the only part of the estate that doesn’t require a ticket, so stop by between 7:30 and 8:30 am for a free walk-up visit.
Where to Eat: Memphis isn’t just famous as an epicenter of all things Elvis: Its legendary barbeque has just as many fans. Dig into some of the city’s best at The Bar-B-Q Shop, a no-frills joint that serves up mouthwatering heaps of both wet and dry versions.
Where to Stay: For Presley fans, there’s no better place to kick off those blue suede shoes than at the stylish Heartbreak Hotel, right across the street from Graceland. The 128-room hotel features Presley memorabilia, 50s-style décor and spacious suites ideal for relaxing after a long day on the road. There are also nearby camping sites.
Historic Route 66 Town
Why We Like It: Bursting with Americana, this charming town along Arizona’s Route 66 was the inspiration for the fictional Radiator Springs from Disney/Pixar’s Cars. Even if you haven’t seen the wildly popular flick, you’ll get a kick out of the sleepy main street, much of which remains unchanged after decades, complete with motels, a barber shop, and shops brimming with Route 66 memorabilia.
Where to Eat: Stop in for a scrumptious milkshake at the delightfully kitschy Sno Cap Drive-In. The mischievous streak of the original owner, the late Juan Delgadillo (who along with his brother, Angel, initiated the movement for the Historic Route 66), is still alive—the menu offers a "cheeseburger with cheese" and "dead chicken."
Where to Stay: Rooms at the Canyon Lodge are quaint, clean, and cheap, each with a distinct theme honoring American entertainment legends like John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe.
Why We Like It: The Biosphere 2 is a sprawling, self-contained mini-world that became a laughingstock in science circles in the early 1990s, when a two-year experiment with human "Biospherians" was suspended. Today, however, the three-acre property, now managed by the University of Arizona, makes for a fascinating pit stop. Visitors can tour futuristic-looking buildings, several climatic zones, and even an ocean and rainforest. To help offset the $20/person entry fee, check out online coupons and AAA discounts.
Where to Eat: About 30 miles away in Tucson is the cheery Cafe Poca Cosa, where the heavily Mexica-influenced menu changes twice daily. Stop in for dinner, and road-weary parents can wind down with the restaurant’s exquisite margaritas.
Where to Stay: Splurge for a night at the Arizona Inn, where well-appointed casitas are spread over 14 tranquil acres. Kids will love the pool and free ice cream bar every night, while adults will savor the serenity after a long day of driving.
McDonald’s #1 Store Museum
Des Plaines, Illinois
Why We Like It: Since no road trip is complete without the greasy goodness of fast food, a visit to the first location of the McDonald’s franchise—the spot that supersized our collective palate for burgers, fries and shakes—will stir not only nostalgia but stomach rumblings. Vintage golden arches, complete with an unimaginable 15¢ sign, soar over the building, which follows the original blueprints (there were only drive-thrus back then). The replica restaurant/museum keeps irregular hours during the summer. Try to arrange a tour, or just peek through the windows at the eerie mannequin employees, wearing original uniforms from 1955.
Where to Eat: The location serves only as a museum/attraction, but once your taste buds are primed for a Big Mac, head across the street to (where else?) McDonald’s.
Where to Stay: In nearby Chicago, Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park is another nod to timeless American pop culture. The park offers campsites and log cabins, as well as two heated pools and even a hot tub.
Wigwam Village #2
Cave Village, Kentucky
Why We Like It: The first of seven original wigwam hotels built around the country in the late 1930s, the quirky Wigwam Village #2 is one of just three teepee-style accommodations that remain today. Eighteen concrete teepees—the highest, which serves as the gift shop, soars to 52 feet—surround a children’s play area, and a new misting deck offers a refreshing , post-journey pick-me-up.
Where to Eat: Kentucky might not seem like a hotspot for Mexican cuisine, but El Mazatlan is a hit among locals and visitors, with freshly prepared favorites such as fajitas and burritos, in a bright, upbeat environment.
Where to Stay: In one of the 14 wigwams, of course. When else will you be able to say you tucked into bed in a teepee? Wigwams can accommodate between two and four people each, and they all come with air conditioning and private bathroom. The price is right, too, starting at $40 per night during the week, which has more availability during the summer.
Wall Drug Store
Wall, South Dakota
Why We Like It: After three-quarters of a century, coffee at the iconic Wall Drug Store, also known as Wall Drug, still costs a nickel, ice water (the original lure for travelers to stop here) is still free, and the tourists are still stopping. But the place has exploded in size and scope, with a 76,000-square-foot building filled with art and Western tchotchkes galore that pulls in millions of visitors every year, thanks to billboards peppering Interstate 90 and advertisements all over the world.
Where to Eat: This is meat-and-potatoes country, and you can’t go wrong with a juicy steak at most of the family-friendly establishments in and around Wall. One to try is Red Rock Restaurant (no official website), which has consistently good food (though sometimes slow service).
Where to Stay: Bed down for the night at Cedar Point Lodge, the only property located in the breathtaking environs of Badlands National Park. Try to book one of the newer cabins, which are significantly better appointed and fresher than some of the older ones.
Pee Wee Golf and Arcade
Why We Like It: This 35-hole course, which was built circa 1950, boasts a delightfully kitschy contrast to the upscale vibe of nearby wine country. Colorful concrete creatures, from a giant T-Rex to a spider to an Aztec sun god, anchor Pee Wee Golf and Arcade, which is usually deluged in the spring with flooding from the nearby Russian River. As an offbeat way to stretch the legs after a long day in the car, it’s a hole-in-one. (no website; 707-869-9321).
Where to Eat: Grab a gourmet picnic lunch from the well-stocked deli at the majestic Korbel Champagne Cellars. For road-weary parents craving a relaxing sip of bubbly, tastings of the winery’s well-known sparkling (and still) varietals are free.
Where to Stay: Sleep under the soaring redwoods of Sonoma County at the Schoolhouse Canyon, nestled in a beautiful spot with 30 acres of riverfront property. Outdoor activities abound, from hiking to biking to kayaking.
Photo Credits: Circus World Museum: Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society; Graceland: Living Room at Graceland by Scott GulbransenAttribution License; Historic Route 66 Town: Historic Rout 66 town via Shutterstock.com; Biosphere 2: spirit of america / Shutterstock.com; McDonald’s #1 Store Museum: McDonald’s #1 Store Museum, Des Plaines, Ill. by Jerry HuddlestonAttribution License; Wigwam Village #2: The whole tribe by Richard ElzeyAttribution License; Wall Drug Store: Ffooter / Shutterstock.com; Pee Wee Golf & Arcade: Mini Golf via Shutterstock.com