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Things to do in Norfolk VA

10+ Unexpected Things to do in Norfolk, VA

Time to get out.  It was beyond time to get out of my house. The kids had been in school for a little over two months. After school activities were in full swing and the holidays were coming up fast.

I needed a break, if only for a few days. I called a friend; she was game to escape.

We were going to the city of Norfolk, VA on the Chesapeake Bay for food, shopping and art museums. Nothing too stressful.

Naturally, we would return with a whole lot more.

Things to do in Norfolk VA

What to do in Norfolk, VA

South on I-95 out of Washington, DC, then jogging southeast on Route 64 past Williamsburg, you run into Norfolk, VA. Surprisingly, this military town isn’t the largest city on the water in the area, despite being home to the largest naval station in the United States. Nope, that honor belongs to Virginia Beach just down the way on the Atlantic Ocean.

While the population may be well under a million (just shy of 250,000 in fact), Norfolk, Virginia is rich in architectural history, naval pride, artistic riches, an incredible coffee culture, more food and cocktails than you could devour in a weekend, and a whole lot of boutique shopping. 

Things to do in Norfolk VA

Pop into a Taiwanese Pagoda for French Macarons

One of the more unique things you will find in Norfolk is the Taiwanese Pagoda that separates the Freemason District from Downtown Norfolk. Situated on Freemason Harbor, it is the center point of the Oriental Garden. More importantly, it is also home to Hummingbird Macarons.

Things to do in Norfolk VA

Pop inside to experience a bite of one of Norfolk’s most delicious treats. Each little cookie sandwich is bursting with subtle flavors, from the complex hummingbird cake to simple favorites like vanilla or salted caramel.

The décor and brush work on each macaron, as well as the vibrant colors of the cookie are what make this the perfect treat to bring back home. You know, if you were like us and you left your husband at home with the kids all weekend, which is exactly what we did. 

Things to do in Norfolk VA

Drink coffee with the CURE

Here’s the thing about coffee. Starbucks is everywhere. You know what you are getting when you walk in. Most cities have one (or 30). When I go to a new city, I want the local coffee. If they are roasting their own beans, or sourcing from a local roaster, all the better. When they are doing fun flavors (yes, I like flavored, packed-with-sugar lattes) my morning just got better. If I can see myself working for hours, tucked in a corner of the shop, I’ve found my new home away from home.

That’s exactly what I found when we walked into the Cure Coffeehouse in the Freemason District of Norfolk.

Big windows brought naturally light into the front, loads of little tables were scattered throughout three separate areas, with plenty of spots for single sippers with laptops to set up for the day. And outlets? Yup, almost every table had access to power.

Best of all, the coffee selection was the perfect size. Cold brew, Nitro, Chai, Hot Cocoa, Teas, Beet Root Latte, Americano, Black Eye, Red Eye, you name it. Oh, and 20+ latte flavors, many I’ve never seen anywhere else– crazelnut, honey cinnamon, candied orange, lavender, vanilla thyme, mixi mocha, churro.

And this doesn’t even dive into their breakfast menu with avocado toasts (yes, plural), granola parfaits and one of the best Lox and Cream Cheese bagels I’ve had in ages. Lunch gets you even more freshly made sandwiches, salads and Elvis toast (peanut butter with bananas and berries, also on the breakfast menu).  

Things to do in Norfolk VA Elizabeth River

Stroll along the Elizabeth River Trail

Now that you have grabbed a coffee, it’s time to step outside. Cure Coffeehouse is just off the Elizabeth River Trail, a walking trail that connects you from downtown Norfolk, through the Freemason District and a little past Historic Ghent. Yes, you can bike it, but we like to use this walking trail as our guide through the city when we need a little inspiration.

Keep in mind that this is not a paved path along the Elizabeth River. There are some surface streets you will have to cut down in order to stay on the trail.

We suggest you use the trail as a guide when exploring the city, not as your definitive road map. For example, you can follow the trail into the Freemason District, but hop off to cross a bridge into Ghent to get to the Chrysler Museum of Art. Continue with your day by having lunch in Ghent and exploring the shops in the neighborhood.

Break something at The Perry Glass Studio

Ok, so you won’t be breaking anything (we hope), but during a demo at The Perry Glass Studio, they will be breaking quite a bit of glass. It’s very exciting, no matter how old you are when you visit.

I’ve been to my fair share of glass making demos. They are pretty routine– Here’s hot glass. We’ll pretend we aren’t spinning a vase or a plate. Surprise! It’s a vase/plate. Ok, you are done. Please go buy something from our shop.

Not so at The Perry Glass Studio across from the Chrysler Museum of Art.

This was the first demo I have ever been to where they go into the properties and history of glassmaking. It’s not boring either. I mean, how can it be boring when they are breaking wafer thin glass every other second.

Things to do in Norfolk VA The Glass Studio

Several kids were in the audience leaning forward in their seats. Those of us in the front row had to wear safety goggles (don’t worry parents, no glass ever hit us. It is just a precaution).

We learned about fiber optic glass, how one artist I would later find in the museum, was using tiny strands of glass to build bowls and vases, bit by bit. And why some glass is clear, while other has color; what metals make which colors and why boiling hot sand is orange.

Not only is this demo educational, but it is fun too. The people giving the demo are whitty, sarcastic and fun, chatting the entire time, as well as taking questions. They don’t seem to be too worried about getting burnt either, or so they would have you think.

Best of all, demos are FREE. That’s right. Tuesday through Sunday at noon you can pop in to watch a free glassblowing demo.

Not interested in watching? Join a class! There are several glass making classes and workshops offered throughout the year. Check out the latest on the The Perry Glass Studio website. 

Things to do in Norfolk VA Chrysler Museum of Art

Do NOT break anything (except Legos) at the Chrysler Museum of Art

Just across the street from The Glass Studio, you can pop into the halls of the Chrysler Museum of Art to discover one of the largest glass art collections in the world. Just remember, hands in your pockets kids. These pieces are priceless.

Almost 100 galleries with more than 30,000 works of art could take all day to peruse if you like to linger, or you can find your favorites and just sit for a spell. Best of all, this museum is always FREE. You never have to rush and you can always come back. Parking is also free.

Things to do in Norfolk VA Chrysler Museum of Art

My favorite piece? The Tiffany stain glass windows. You always see Tiffany glass lamp shades, but Tiffany Studios did so much more than just light up rooms in the early 1900s (and still today for that matter). The depth of color and light that could be captured in just a single sheet of glass is magnificent, telling stories in one or more panels at a time.

Another piece I still think about after my visit is called “Reclining Dress impression” by Karen LaMonte. It is reminiscent of Italian Neoclassical sculptor Canova’s work, but with a more modern day twist. The figure is dressed in a modest early 1900s dressed, but in a pose you would often see in a Roman-style marble sculpture of a woman with just a drape of fabric to cover her more “intimate” bits. It’s scandalous in its own way for the time it is supposed to be set… and made entirely out of glass. The miracle of this piece being created out of frosted glass if stunning, just as Canova’s work being so realistic and made of marble was in his time.

Things to do in Norfolk VA Ghent Neighborhood

Try Not to Shop Til You Drop in Ghent

Just northwest of the Chrysler Museum, you will find a shoppers haven in the Ghent neighborhood. This cute, historic area is bursting with little shops that are packed with great finds from makers across Virginia and beyond. My friend and I had to go back twice just to wander through all of the shops collections. And this neighborhood is not huge! The shops are just that good.

A. Dodson’s

A. Dodson’s required multiple visits just to dig through the entire store. Part fashion boutique, part home décor and knickknack shop, this store had it all. It being the holidays and all, we were extra overwhelmed by seasonal goodies we just had to have in our homes. I scored a killer moto jacket, while my friend loaded up on Christmas décor for her new house.

Things to do in Norfolk VA Ghent Neighborhood

Kitsch

Kitsch was another favorite, with loads of local artists being featured. Virginia-themed artwork and prints were in front, with mugs, small baby blankets, lovies and toys in the back. Jewelry hugged the sides, along with some of the cutest and most bizarre figurines I’d ever seen. I laughed out load when I saw a series of clothespins that had been painted like characters from books and popular films. Naturally, I had to grab a set of Harry, Hermione and Ron character clothespins from the Harry Potter books.

More Ghent shops not to miss

Grab all things French inspired at La Marche, more jewelry, gifts and clothing at Texture, and some coffee to keep you going at Town Center Cold Press Coffee. Not only is this coffee extra strong, but they also serve up incredible coffee-inspired cocktails at night.

 Norfolk VA restaurants

Find comfort and cocktails in the most random places

Now that you have shopped, you really can’t have a weekend away in a new town without sampling some of the local nibbles. And no one eats her way through a town quite like me. I’ve actually had friends marvel at how much I can eat while on the road.

One thing you do have to remember is that I usually have at least one person eating with me. We order a lot and share. I also don’t always finish my meal. Leftovers are always welcome in my hotel room.

While touring the Norfolk restaurant scene, we got just a small sampling of the amazing food this coastal town has to offer. They are very into their oysters. Sadly, I am not a raw oyster girl. I love charbroiled oysters, but the raw oyster still doesn’t float my boat.

No matter, there were plenty of places to eat from the super fancy to the late night bowl of pulled-pork and grits (yes, it is even more amazing than it sounds).

Toast

After a longer than expected drive down to Norfolk thanks to DC traffic and a whole lot of wandering around the city, we thought we wanted fancy food. Why? I don’t know. After grabbing drinks at a swanky bar, we realized we just wanted some comfort food in our bellies. This is why Toast is so important to know about.

The vibe is super casual. If the weather is nice, you can hang outside on the patio. When the weather is cold, you go inside and hang at a booth or at the bar. If you need a pick me up, you head into the girls’ bathroom to watch the disco ball twirl around. And then you order your food.

For me, there is nothing better than pulled pork. Add some salsa, guac and cheesy grits and you should probably have my bed close by. I’m not sure my friend and I talked as she dove into her nachos with pulled pork and I dove into my bowl. Comfort food doesn’t begin to describe what these savory, warm dishes did for our spirits.

There is actual toast on the menu, and a huge slice of buttered toast came on the side of my bowl. I’ve been told the toast is just as good as the bowls. All I know is that heaven was in that bowl our first night, as my tired body inhaled all of the flavors. I sat back, sipped on my whiskey beverage, and took a deep breath. This was the best way to start the day in Norfolk. Belly full, heart happy after a day of exploring, and the knowledge that more was to come the next day.

St. Germaine

Where did I get that fancy drink you ask? St. Germaine on Granby Street of course. Peruse the menu, but know that you won’t understand half of it unless you are a cocktail connoisseur.

If you are particular about your craft cocktails, do read the ingredients carefully and ask questions. The last thing you will want is a too sweet cocktail when you are sitting in a dusky blue room filled with chandeliers and a deer head looking over your shoulder, judging you for ordering that drink you didn’t’ know a thing about (yes, the animals do judge you). The bartender can be your best friend if you want to know more, as will your waitress if you sit at a table.

Feel free to get dressed up before you pop in, but jeans and a cute top are also OK.

Norfolk VA restaurants

Crudo Nudo

A secret spot in the Ghent neighborhood that locals know about, but visitors are still discovering has got to be Crudo Nudo. Not only is the interior more photo ready than any space we have seen in a long time (chair swings at the front table next to plantation chairs at a table set for two plus a bold mural over the booths), but the chef and bartender really know how to treat a girl right.

We were hungry and had shopped until we dropped in Ghent. We needed food stat… and maybe a drink. Whiskey preferably.

The menu is tapas style, making it easy to sample a lot on the menu. We ordered a warm salad, char-roasted vegetables, salmon crudo, manchego and honey, and a roast pork stew that was so new they hadn’t even printed it on the menu yet. As for my drink, only the “Almonds and Honey,” which consisted of bourbon, burnt honey and black walnut bitters, would do. Swoon.

 Norfolk VA restaurants

Chef Eric Nelson was playing with desserts in the back. We were there in the middle of the afternoon, while things were slow, so he surprised us with his latest creation- a deconstructed bread pudding type concotion with apples and a fresh pumpkin chai ice cream paired with just a tasting of Grand Marnier peach liquor. To say that we rolled out of there very happy is an understatement.

Best of all, we found out that Crudo Nudo does special dinners with wine and cocktail pairings. Keep a close eye on their social media for the next dinner announcement. We might just have to pop down for it.

Varia’s Wine Bar

Love wine? How about a good sommelier who can tell you exactly what you will love? Varia has all of that and a whole lot more. Every month there is a wine class, where you will learn about 8-10 wines by region, country, old world versus new world, state, bubbles, but never just red or white.

If you don’t snag a seat at this coveted class, you can still pop in for dinner or drinks at the bar, where they will happily pour you the perfect glass of vino.

Check the Varia site for class listings.

Norfolk VA restaurants

Tour the NEON District with Norfolk Tour Company

The NEON (New Energy of Norfolk) District, is pretty much the place to be if you are a mural arts enthusiast. It is Norfolk’s first official arts district, creating a place for public art to exist, as well as long time institutions like the Harrison Opera House and Chrysler Museum of Art. More funky venues can be found here too, including the Push Comedy Theater and d’ Art Center, and even outdoor performances at The Plot.

Yes, you can wander the streets to see the NEON district murals on your own. However, if you really want to understand the art work and why Norfolk is significant in the street art scene, you call Joshua Weinstein.

As the founder of the Norfolk Tour Company, history buff and lifelong resident of the area, Weinstein is the inside guy you want to know. While touring around the NEON District, we kept bumping into people Weinstein knew in the neighborhood. He’s a regular fixture in these parts, having grow up in Hampton Roads, plus he knows many of the artists whose works are up on the walls, sidewalks, and benches. Suddenly a little graffiti in a back alley just got a lot more interesting with Joshua by our side.  

Learn more about the NEON District here.

Take Flight at the MacArthur Center

You know the wing murals by Kelsey Montague that you see all over Instagram? Black and white wings found in Nashville, colorful ones on the walls of Detroit, Galway (Ireland) and Singapore. We even have six in the DC area. Well, you can actually find three of her pieces in MacArthur Center, the downtown mall in Norfolk. Go to the second floor, below the cinema and you will find them.

While you are in Macarthur Center, pop into Hamilton Perkins just a few shops down to pick up a locally made bag. You may even meet the man himself. Each bag is made with recycled materials, and no two are alike. We love the open concept in the store that makes it easy to browse, and even harder to leave without a bag of your own.

After Montague’s murals went up, three more were commissioned to adorn the walls of MacArthur. Instead of leaving blank space on the walls, the mall hired artists to fill the space with beautiful colors and designs, bringing a bit of the NEON District indoors. On a cold, winter’s day, it’s especially nice to see these pieces of art as you sip your hot coffee, with your coat off indoors.

Norfolk VA Seldon Market

Discover How Local Takes on New Meaning at Seldon Market

In an unassuming office building just a few blocks away from MacArthur Center, you will find Seldon Market. In a space that looks like it should hold a bunch of chain stores, you will actually find several small, local shops. The city set up this space to give designers, bakers, coffee roasters, and craftsmen and women the opportunity to get front and center with customers in a way they couldn’t afford to before.

Instead of waiting years to get a brick and mortar shop of their own, local artists and makers are able to rent space in a historic venue that will get them noticed. Vendors rotate out, so new talent is always getting a chance to shine.

Norfolk VA Seldon Market

While we were there, we got to taste Vessel Craft Coffee, find new bags at Werther Leather Goods (all locally made) and lust after the designs of Mod & Soul and Lorak Jewelry. Pop-ups take over the center aisle of the first floor, generally of the food variety, including S’mores Amor (yes, there are non-chocolate s’mores for those who can’t have chocolate!), Baked AF (gluten-free and diabetic friendly-treats that actually tastes good) and Filipino fusion at JackEats.

Eat the best She-Crab Soup in an Old Church

Moving onto a Mid-Atlantic staple– What the heck is She Crab? Well, if you aren’t from the area, and you don’t care about crab too much, you probably don’t know that she crabs are simply female crabs of any variety of crab. They tend to be sweeter tasting, which is why they are distinguished from the male crab for recipes.

And the people of Norfolk take their She-Crab soup VERY seriously. In fact, there is a yearly competition in Virginia Beach- the Annual East Coast She-Crab Soup Classic- to determine who has the best. Freemason Abbey Restaurant won the competition so many times they were asked to be one of the judges just so they would stop entering and give someone else a chance to win.

This 30-year-old restaurant isn’t just your run of the mill spot either. Set up in an 146+ year old church, even on a Thursday night, you should grab a reservation, especially if there is a show in town (Broadway’s Fiddler on the Roof was playing down the street the night we popped in).

Yes, most the clientele leans towards the older generations, but that doesn’t mean the food is old and stuffy. That She-Crab soup brings in kids of all ages, as do the drinks. The bar is a great spot to pop in for happy hour, and the old church stain-glass and old wood facade is just fun to check out while you wait for your perfect prime rib to come out of the kitchens. Just think– someone once worshipped here, although the pews are long gone, as are the sermons about sinning and the virtues of prohibition.

Things to do in Norfolk VA

Norfolk Botanical Garden

I’ve saved the best for last! I love a good garden, no matter what time of year. Our trip coincided with the start of the Million Bulb Walk at the Norfolk Botanical Garden. This meant that we could savor every quiet, weekday moment of the holiday lights… without our kids! Do you know how rare that is for a mother, let alone two moms with five boys between them?

My friend and I bundled up in our coats, mittens and hats, but thanks to a nice cloud layer, it really wasn’t too chilly. We soaked in every tree lit with twinkle lights, the floating octopus and dolphins in the underwater scene, waved at a fire breathing dragon and giggled when we found things our kids would have been dragging us over to explore.

What did we love most? The fairy lights the garden designers had placed in the weeds. No joke. In one section, the lights looked like fireflies floating around the tall grasses of the field. In another, the lights were white with a random colored bulb popping up. It sparked so many ideas of what to do at our own homes that we were frantically taking pictures and sending them to our husbands. Obviously, we had to let them know what they would be doing at our houses the following weekend.

Million Bulb Walk at the Norfolk Botanical Garden

A hot cider and snack cart was set up towards the front of the walk, and we could have taken a tram back to the parking lot at the end. We opted to walk back through the entire display, just because we could.

There were no crowds since it was early in the season and a school night. We wanted to savor the quiet and take a little more time with our favorite lights, especially the Starry Nights area, fairy lights and Under the Sea, which we had passed early on when it wasn’t quite dark out yet.

Things to do in Norfolk VA

More Things to do in Norfolk VA

There is a lot more to explore when you are trying to figure out what to do in Norfolk, VA. You can climb aboard the USS Wisconsin to dive into the national maritime history of the country or say hello to some critters at the Virginia Zoo. Neighboring cities of Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads and Newport News also have plenty to offer, but we prefer to make Norfolk our home base.

Things to do in Norfolk VA

Looking for a Norfolk Hotel? Check out the following:

Looking for more? Search for a great deal on Booking.com!

This post is part of a paid partnership with Visit Norfolk VA. As always, my opinions are my own. When they aren’t, you will be the first to know. This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of those links I will receive a small commission.

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Things to do in Tampa FL

Things to do in Tampa, FL for the beach, animal and history buff

Rolling into Tampa, you might think you’ll only hit up Busch Gardens or the Florida Aquarium before heading to the St. Pete and Clearwater beaches. At least that’s what I thought when I headed south with my friend to explore. Little did I know that I would find myself in another unexpected Florida food town, whose proud history and wealth stems from the late 1800s cigar industry in Ybor City.

Things to do in Tampa FL

Marine mammal education is widespread on the Gulf Shore thanks to Winter the dolphin and the popularity of the Dolphin Tale movies in Clearwater. You’ll find the same focus on marine wildlife conservation at Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay and the Florida Aquarium. Sea turtles are the focus along both the East and Gulf Coasts and manatees abound on the Gulf Coast.

So many things to do in Tampa, FL!

The warm coastal waters aren’t all there is to do in this thriving Florida city—walk, stroll, eat, and explore. Just don’t forget to grab your Tampa Bay CityPASS, which will save you a ton of money on must-see downtown Tampa attractions.

Things to do in Tampa FL

Walk the Tampa Riverwalk

The cheapest thing to do in Tampa is to walk the Riverwalk that runs along the Hillsborough River. You’ll find sculptures, restaurants, playgrounds, splash zones and gathering areas as you go. You can also take a boat, but where’s the fun in that? We like to walk the river at sunset with the locals.

Moms will love that they can sip and stroll along this 2.6 mile pedestrian path in Tampa, Florida. Just make sure that your beverage is in a Riverwalk cup. Finish your drink before you leave the Riverwalk, since the rest of the city is not zoned for open containers on the streets.

Things to do in Tampa FL

Eat the Oysters at Ulele Restaurant

Seafood is a staple of the diet for many Tampa residents because of the city’s close proximity to the water. If you don’t order the Charbroiled oysters (Barbacoa-grilled, with garlic butter, grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses) at Ulele, well, we just can’t be friends anymore. I’d fly back to Tampa just to eat at this locally-inspired restaurant alone.

Things to do in Tampa FL

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of those links I will receive a small commission.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

If you love theme parks with a side of zoo, you will love Busch Gardens. As you scream down the hill of Cobra’s Curse, one of the park’s many roller coasters, you will see giraffes calmly munching their lunch. When you are skipping to the Falcon’s Fury (a 335-foot freestanding drop tower), you can say hello to the elephants. If you want to soar over it all, hop on the much more peaceful Skyride or take a ride on the Serengeti Safari to experience a Giraffe feeding at this amusement park.

Grab a Tampa Bay CityPASS to save at Busch Gardens

Things to do in Tampa FL

The Florida Aquarium

Dive into the marine life of Florida’s beaches and beyond when you enter the Florida Aquarium. You’ll love getting up close with sharks, sea dragons, stingrays, an octopus, jellyfish (my favorite), river otters and a whole lot of Dori and Nemo’s friends from Finding Nemo.

Weather permitting, jump on a Wild Dolphin Cruise just outside of the Florida Aquarium to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Inside the Aquarium, you can book a behind the scenes pass to meet a few of the resident African Penguins. But be warned, those little penguins do get cheeky and might not be willing to take the perfect selfie with you.

For tired parents, there is the Splash Pad, which is included in the price of admission. This is perfect for parents with toddlers; not only can their kids can play outside, but the café is right next to it. Tables are set around the splash zone so parents can eat, and yes, mom and dad, there is a Tiki Hut with coffee and other adult beverages. It’s like this aquarium finally heard our prayers for a parent and kid-friendly play zone.

Things to do in Tampa FL

ZooTampa at Lowry Park

While most zoos focus on land creatures, ZooTampa has a secret behind its gates. Manatees are a huge part of Florida’s animal culture, which is why this Lowry Park zoo is so important. Their David A. Straz Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center rescues and rehabilitates manatees throughout the year that have been injured by boats and other harmful human interactions. Guests can see the manatees via viewing platforms and chat with the animal specialists to find out who is currently in their care.

Things to do in Tampa FL

Aside from the local manatees, you can also meet more Native Florida wildlife on the Florida boardwalk, Key West Dock or during the Sting Ray Touch experience. A few creatures you may spot include red wolves, Florida panthers, black bears, sandhill cranes, skunks, river otters, American alligators and American bald eagles.

Asian Gardens and Primate World is where you will find big cats like tigers and clouded leopards, as well as Komodo Dragons, Malayan tapirs, Indian rhinos, Bornean orangutans, Colobus monkeys and lemurs. When the kids need to cool off and get their pint-sized fun in, bring them over to Wallaroo for a splash, ride on the Tasmanian Tiger Coaster or Overland Express Train, or go to the petting zoo or see the Koalas.

Things to do in Tampa FL

The daily Macaw flyover is a big hit at the zoo that kids will especially enjoy. Two lucky kids may even be asked to participate in the show by pressing the release button. See these gorgeous creatures soar in unison overhead as they make their way through the park for a little treat when they are done.

Stop paying full price for tickets! Buy your Tampa CityPass HERE

Things to do in Tampa FL

Museum of Science and Industry

For parents and kids who are science enthusiasts, MOSI is where you go to play in the city of Tampa. This futuristic building houses a Diplodocus in the Dino Lab as well as a peek inside the human body and a look at the technology of tomorrow. Get out of this world in “Mission: Moonbase” and immerse yourself in NASA’s vision of living on other planets. You can also explore the moon’s surface and collect samples moon dust samples to analyze.

Sauders Planetarium is a must for anyone who loves to look up at the stars. A rotating schedule shows you Earth past, present and future, distant stars and nearby planets. This is also a great spot to rest your feet when you have been wandering the museum all day.

Your kids WILL want to try out the Sky Trail Ropes Course. I’m warning you right now. This course, along with the Planetarium, costs extra, but can be worth it if your kids have energy to spare.

Things to do in Tampa FL

Tampa Beaches

Tampa is in a perfect location to pop over to the beach for the day and extend your trip for a little extra sun and sand while you are in Florida. Clearwater Beach and Caladesi Island State Park have gorgeous sand and water with very different vibes. While Clearwater is a built-up beach town, Caladesi is uninterrupted natural beauty that allows you to reconnect with nature. Want to go camping on the beach? Head over to Fort De Soto Park for pristine white sand beaches with enough amenities (i.e., bathrooms!) to make your stay comfortable.

Tampa Day Trips

St. Petersburg and Clearwater are easy day trips from Tampa, although we also love spending a night or two in these beach towns. They have a different feel, and you can bring that “slow-down and enjoy” spirit to your trip that you may be craving after all of the Tampa sites.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Quite possibly my favorite attraction on the Tampa Bay CityPASS is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Anyone who has seen Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2 knows why this aquarium is such a big deal. For those who don’t, this aquarium is home to Winter, a rescued dolphin who had to have her tail amputated in order to save her life. Winter now lives full time at the aquarium, swimming with a prosthetic tale alongside her friend Hope, who was stranded as a baby and can’t be released back into the wild, and a few other permanent friends.

While dolphin rescues are part of the aquarium, they rehabilitate a greater number of sea turtles that need help every year. The main mission of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is rescue, rehab and release, which it does as much as possible. Visitors can learn about the local residents, walk through the hospital wing to see which animal is getting treated and for what, and learn why plastic is so harmful to sea creatures. Even a harmless balloon can look like a jellyfish to a sea turtle looking for food.

Going to see WInter? BUY YOUR TAMPA BAY CITYPASS HERE and save

Chihuly Museum St Petersburg FL

Chihuly Collection

The Chihuly Collection presented by the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg is one of the first spaces designed specifically to hold Chihuly’s work. Anyone who has been to the Chihuly Garden and Glass will recognize a few of the pieces, including some from his Macchia, Ikebana, Niijima Floats, Persians and Tumbleweeds series. This isn’t the same Seattle-based exhibit though—you will see new works and get the chance to view a live glass-making presentation at the Morean Glass Studio behind the museum.

Tampa Restaurants

Best restaurants in Tampa

We love to eat and Tampa restaurants are happy to accommodate our love of seafood and pie for breakfast. Three restaurants stand out that you won’t want to miss. In fact, one is actually a food hall in an old cigar factory. Not only do you get to eat, but you can combine a little history with your meal.

Armature Works

Location: 1910 N Ola Ave, Tampa, FL 33602
Read the TripAdvisor reviews here

Located in Tampa Heights right on the Hillsborough River, this is the food hall to get you immersed in the local Tampa food scene. While co-working spaceS and other businesses are located in Armature Works, it’s the Heights Public Market that you will want to check out.

Inside you will find two restaurants, SteelBach and Oak & Ola, along with a number of food stands you can pop between to assemble your own dinner. Food options include ramen, BBQ, all-day breakfast, juice and smoothies, wood-fired pizza, salad bowls, ice cream, burritos, sushi, empanadas, Cuban food and a bakery full of goodies. Of course, we can’t forget ice cream from a local favorite, Astro Ice Cream Co. And yes, there are cocktails, coffee and local brews available to savor too.

Tampa Restaurants

Ulele

Location: 1810 N Highland Ave, Tampa, FL 33602
Read the TripAdvisor reviews here

Get the chargrilled oysters. Period. No matter what else you want to eat that is on the menu, these oysters are not to be missed. Ask for a bit of extra bread to go along with those little shellfish so you can soak up all of that buttery, garlic goodness.

Aside from oysters, Ulele embraces its native Florida culinary roots, combining local ingredients with multicultural flair and a nod to the cuisine of its namesake, Princess Ulele. Dishes are prepared on a 10-foot round barbacoa grill which gives meats and seafood that rustic, earthen flavor. Ulele Spring Brewing Company selections and a number of other craft beers and cocktails are on the menu, and we do encourage you to try at least a few—responsibly, of course.

Tampa Restaurants

Goody Goody Burgers

Location: 1601 W Swann Ave, Tampa, FL 33606
Read the TripAdvisor reviews here

While Goody Goody Burgers is known for (you guessed it) their burgers, we love coming here for a giant breakfast in the morning. These pancakes, which include a gluten-free sweet potato pancake, fall off their 12-inch plate and make inhaling a few extra carbs worthwhile. If you must have a burger in the morning, there is the Goody Goody Slinger: two patties under two over-easy eggs, home fries, chili, cheddar and jalapenos. If you can finish that plate of goodness, we applaud your stomach muscles.

Aside from breakfast and burgers, you will want to order pie. Lots of pie. And yes, we order pie for breakfast. Our favorite? Butterscotch. They also offer coconut cream, banana cream, chocolate cream and apple pie. Don’t be surprised if they have a few specials when you pop in though—they do like to keep the locals on their toes.

Things to do in Tampa FL

Save Money on Tampa Attractions

With the Tampa Bay CityPASS, it’s so easy to save money on Tampa attractions, St. Petersburg museums and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. For a fraction of the cost you can hit six of the best things to do in Tampa and the surrounding area, including:

  • Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
  • The Florida Aquarium
  • ZooTampa at Lowry Park
  • Clearwater Marine Aquarium
  • Museum of Science & Industry or the Chihuly Collection

Buy your Tampa CityPASS here

Things to do in Tampa FL

Where to stay in Tampa

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Bismarck ND

13 Things to Do in Bismarck North Dakota that Fuel Your Brain and Belly

Flying over Bismarck North Dakota I was bewildered by the rivers and trees below. Wasn’t this one of the plains states, filled with only corn and cows? While many do simply fly over the capital of North Dakota, there are plenty of reasons to get off the plane, or stop for a few days on your road trip across the Midwest.

Bismarck ND

Want to track those planes? North Dakota residents use the Flightradar 24 app to see what planes are going where.

Don’t race through North Dakota

I met one mother/daughter duo who were driving from Bozeman to Fargo to pick up her son from French Immersion camp, then onto Minneapolis where her husband would meet up with them. They would then go onto Chicago before landing back at home in Maryland just before school started.

This is a common tale.

Bismarck ND

People wiz through town on their way to somewhere. The problem is, you miss out on a lot of the best stuff. While chatting with the mother, I ran through the list of things my son and I had done in under 24 hours, and still had yet to do. The mother was astounded. She was suddenly regretting their timeline.

Bismarck ND

Things to do in Bismarck North Dakota

There were are so many things to do in Bismarck, also referred to as Bismarck-Mandan do to the proximity between both cities. North Dakota is a treasure trove, not only of activities, but coffee lovers rejoice, Bismarck has great coffee and they open up early. The food and art scene shouldn’t be dismissed either.

Bismarck ND

Bismarck Art Alley

If you are a mural stalker, you won’t want to miss the unassuming alley off of 5th Avenue, known as Art Alley. Right next to FireFlour Pizza, you will be greeted by large scale paintings depicting scenes from across North Dakota, as well as the history of the region. Students and local artists have all contributed pieces, but there is still a bit more space. Don’t be surprised if you see a new murals around Bismarck next time you are in town.

Bismarck ND

North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum

We love free museums, and when they have dinosaurs and an airplane, you know we will be the first ones through the door. The North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum has several educational exhibits, all located around the state capitol grounds, but most parents know it for two things—the Treehouse and Geologic Time exhibit.

Bismarck ND

The Treehouse is a mini children’s museum within the museum. Climb through the treehouse, slide down the shoot, have a dance party in the trunk, soar above the trees in the cockpit of a real airplane, learn all about local farming with a few tools, ride in a train (touching ALL the buttons), and of course, steer a boat. Best of all, there are plenty of spots for parents to sit while their children play.

Bismarck ND

The Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time is where you will find the dinosaurs. Not only that, there is a turtle larger than a grown man in there too. Interactive screens allow the kids to sneak a little video game time in, while also learning about how dinosaurs battled each other, as well as exploring the different dinosaur time periods.

Life-sized casts of a Triceratops and T-Rex battle it out, as if you stepped back in time to see North Dakota as it was 65 million years ago. Western North Dakota was a dinosaur hot spot. Scientists are still discovering new bones throughout both North and South Dakota, as well as Montana.  

Things to do in Bismarck North Dakota

The exhibit brings you from the time of dinosaur through climate change and the ancestors of horses, dogs, camels and deer. Our favorite—the giant sloth. He sure didn’t look like his cuddly cousin we know today. Although, maybe he would have been fun to ride.

Other exhibits include the Innovation Gallery: Early Peoples where the indigenous tribes of North Dakota come to life. Bison roamed free, providing food and clothing to the people across the plains, as well as the United States. The Governors Gallery hosts traveling exhibits, but don’t miss the hallway exhibits either. You will find moon rocks, local gems and rocks, and paintings in this Bismarck state capital building.

Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site

Step back in time to the days when gentlemen wore hats because they had to, and ladies skirts were heavier than a bison (well, almost). From 1893 to 1960, the Former Governors’ Mansion housed chief executives, transferring over to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1975.

The two and a half story Victorian home is now a museum, featuring furniture used by governors in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as exhibitions on the restoration process. While this might not be the best attraction for young kids, history buffs will love it.

Bismarck ND

Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center

Just about 45 minutes outside of Bismarck is an educational experience no parent with grade school students should miss. For any child studying American history, and the great expansion west, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive center is a must.

Exhibits dive into the tools Lewis and Clark packed for their journey, and the soldiers that accompanied them on their adventure to map the trail out west. You will also get keen insight into the roll Sacagawea played in their journey. She may seem like a myth, but this woman has played a huge roll in American history.

The center is a great spot to load up on snacks, refill your water bottle and use the restroom before you make the short drive down to Fort Mandan.

While you don’t have to stop at the Interpretive Center before Fort Mandan, it does lay the ground knowledge for what you will see in the fort. You will get a good background on the expedition. You can also pay your entrance fee at the Interpretive center and find out when the next fort tour will depart.

Bismarck ND

Fort Mandan

Get ready to step back in time as you explore Lewis & Clark’s winter camp. The Fort visitor’s center has a wonderful play area for kids, which includes costumes, a dugout canoe to paddle, and child-size tent to camp in. Don’t miss a photo with Seamen, Lewis & Clark’s trust Newfoundland pup who joined them on their journey.

Bismarck ND

Park rangers give guided tours of the fort every hour, on the hour (or just about). It is a short, level walk from the visitor’s center over to the recreated fort. The tour lasts about an hour. Most guides will cater their tour to children, keeping things moving along, while still satisfying the curiosity of adults who are eager for as many historic details as possible.

After your tour, take time to hike the nature trails and paths along the river. The mighty Missouri played an important role in Lewis and Clark’s expedition west, and was the reason they had to stop in North Dakota for the winter. When the river got too icy, they decided to make camp until their boats could navigate the waters once again in the spring.

Bismarck ND

North Dakota State Parks

North Dakota State Parks are plentiful and ready to educate you and your kids, whether your kids are willing or not. It’s easy to sneak in a few hikes, as well as some learning, if you know where to go. If you are staying in Bismarck, you go to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.

Bismarck ND

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

My little boy is obsessed with battles right now. Getting to see the barracks, general Custard’s House and the commissary just about made his day. We wandered the Infantry Post Blockhouses, taking in the view of the valley and Missouri River below.

You can climb all the way to the top of the blockhouses and walk around the roofs. My youngest thought it was pretty cool to see the slots the soldiers would stick their guns through if enemy came up the hill.

Horseback riding and historic trolley rides are available during the summer months. Check in at the visitor’s center for departure times, and to check out the mini exhibit featuring On-A-Slant Village and the restoration of Fort Abraham Lincoln.

Bismarck ND

On-A-Slant Indian Village

On-A-Slant Indian Village is the earliest known settlement in the area, and named because of the slope towards the river. The Mandan Indians, or “Nu’Eta” built earth mound homes that were later recreated by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The original village was abandoned sometime in 1781 after smallpox epidemics and attacks by other tribes. Lewis and Clark passed through in the early 1800s. In 1872 the area would be reestablished as the Fort McKeen infantry Post, which would later become Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.

Things to do in Bismarck North Dakota

Today, you can walk in and out of several of the village homes. Regular programming takes place to dive deeper into the culture of the local people who inhabited the land. Check with the visitor’s center to see if anything is happening during your visit.

Want more state parks? Read our guide to Devils Lake ND

Things to do in Bismarck North Dakota

Bismarck Restaurants

We had many surprises during our trip, but none more than the Bismarck restaurants. Breweries are popping up all over town, but the cocktail culture is also emerging. Pizza is easy to come by, even for those looking for a high-end slice (yes, it’s a thing). Coffee is definitely easy to come by, especially if you want to get beyond Starbucks, which we always do.

Bismarck ND

Fireflour Pizza

If you love brick-oven pizza, go no further than Fireflour pizza. Grab a salad to start and then dig on in. They can make half and half pizzas if your kid doesn’t want to be adventurous with you. Pizzas are thin crust, but larger than a dinner plate. A family of four could easily eat two or three. We enjoyed a half pepperoni/ half prosciutto arugula pie.  

Butterhorn

Fine dining comes to Bismarck, along with some of the best service in town. I walked in for a hot date night with my seven-year-old son. The staff greeted us with open arms, producing a kid’s menu too. Not only that, but another mom and her eight-year-old daughter came in as we were wrapping up. The cocktail menu was imaginative, blending gin with fennel and arugala, or whiskey and blackberries. Dinner included a fresh watermelon arugula salad, and roasted chicken with skillet vegetables over creamy parmesan polenta. 

One thing you do not want to miss are the Butterhorns. What are these? Imagine the best dinner roll had a baby with the best crescent roll, and you may get close. Soft, buttery, light, with a sprinkling of salt, made these the highlight of the night for my beige-food loving son. Even better, they make a bread pudding out of these butterhorns. Make sure you save room for dessert. You won’t want to miss this sweet after-dinner treat.

Bismarck ND

Terra Nomad Company

Quite possibly the best coffee in town, but then again, we may be biased. I love a smooth lavender latte and honey coffee. If they can make it decaf and put it in my reusable mug for a drive to Devils Lake, ND, all the better. The smoothie bowls are healthy and delicious, and the pastries are easy to pack up for any road trip.

Bearscat Bakehouse

Bearscat, what the cowboys used to call donuts (maybe they still do?), is an institution in town. There a are at least 20 varieties to choose from, none of them labeled, so we will help you out with a few suggestions.

Make sure you order a Bismarck donut! This jelly filled, angel iced confection is a must when in town. After all, how often can you say you had a Bismarck in Bismarck? The maple bars are also delicious. There are no cream-filled donuts, only Boston crème. You can also never go wrong with an iced donut with sprinkles.

Bismarck ND

FOMO 10/40 Creamery

Ice cream with a mission? We can get down with that. Andrew Hershey created FOMO 10/40 to support those in countries close to the equator (latitude of 10 degrees and 40 degrees north of the equator). Part of the proceeds are donated to help start small businesses in these communities, even if it is simply selling, running or producing purified water, ice, goats, jams, coffee, or ice cream.

Ice cream flavors are named after the countries the company supports, but it doesn’t end there. The spirit of giving back resonates throughout the community with a “Scoop it forward” board. Patrons are able to buy a scoop (or two or three) for friends in town who pop in. That ice cream surprise brightens someone’s day when they least expect it, creating even more goodwill and joy throughout Bismarck.

Bismarck ND

On the night before school started, FOMO 10/40 through a party to celebrate the “end of summer.” Giant Jenga games, a photo booth and a corral of puppies were out for everyone to enjoy at Tatley-Eagles Park. Of course, ice cream was available for purchase too.

The line only got longer as the night went on, never shortening, as more people showed up to enjoy the event. As strangers to the area, no one looked twice as we mingled, chatted and enjoyed the puppy snuggles along with the other kids and grown-ups (when we could steal a puppy from a kid that is!).

Bismarck ND

This is just the type of town Bismarck, ND is we found. Come as a stranger, leave as a friend. As I grabbed my coffee from Terra Nomad on our last morning, the coffee shop employees recognized me. Granted, I had just been there the morning before, but the town isn’t THAT small that they should know every stranger.

When you are traveling solo with your kids, a little welcome, and some conversation goes a long way. As does that coffee they handed over. Off to Devils Lake ND we went.

Things to do in Bismarck North Dakota

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Devils Lake North Dakota

Ultimate Bismarck to Devils Lake ND Road Trip Itinerary

Elk, bison, prairie dogs and fish. One of these things I never thought I’d be actively looking for in the wild. Can you guess which one it is? If you said fish, you would be correct. But, Devils Lake, ND is known for its fishing, so much so that serious dudes drag their families up there every summer, and even in the winter months for ice fishing.

Now, I am no fisherwoman. I love to eat fish. Hand me a plate of sushi, fish tacos or a nice fillet, and I am very happy. Tell me I have to put a worm on a hook and sit in a boat for hours waiting for a wiggling, scaly fish to bite… no thank you.

Naturally, that’s exactly what I did when I took my youngest son to North Dakota. What can I say, I’m a sucker for that kid and what he wants to do on our trips.

Devils Lake ND

Learning to fish in Devils Lake ND

When North Dakota asked us to explore the region and check out the fishing, he was the first to say yes. For my son, I would do it. What I didn’t realize was that I would become crazy competitive with myself and need to hook that fish before we could go back to the dock, despite the fact that it was cold and windy; not ideal conditions on the lake for fishing.

No matter, we still had a blast fishing Devils Lake, but it was more about the journey getting up there than just sitting around on a boat. As most trips are, this was filled with surprises, wine, a giant buffalo, and of course, bacon. So let’s get going.

Devils Lake ND

Bismarck to Devils Lake North Dakota Road Trip

It’s time to hit the road. Whether you have spent a few days in Bismarck or you just flew in, you better be ready to drive north into the prairie lands and lake region of North Dakota. We are getting up close with bison, elk, birds and a whole lot of fish. Even if you never thought you would try fishing, if you are ever going to do it, especially for your kids who have been begging to give it a go, Devils Lake, ND is where you do it. But it’s a three hour drive from Bismarck to Devils Lake. Naturally we will need a few rest stops to get us there.

Frontier Town Jamestown ND

Jamestown, North Dakota

Jamestown is located about an hour and a half east of Bismarck on Highway 94. The James River winds its way around the town meeting up with the Pipestem Creek, creating little waterways for local residents. North of downtown you will find the Jamestown Reservoir with plenty of hiking, biking, fishing, swimming and even a frisbee golf course for the entire family to enjoy. Students from the University of Jamestown certainly take advantage of this man-made recreation zone whenever they have a little free time. You might not have time to swim, so you should head to Jamestown’s main attraction

Worlds Largest Buffalo Monument Jamestown ND

World’s Largest Buffalo Monument

Who doesn’t love a buffalo? Well, how about the world’s largest bison. Every road trip needs a largest/greatest/tallest/biggest stop along the route, and this is yours. Dubbed Dakota Thunder, this 26-foot, 60-ton concrete buffalo can’t be missed from Highway 94.

Don’t drive by though. Stop and take a photo with the behemoth. Try to arrive earlier in the morning or late in the day for the best light with him. Your kids won’t mind a selfie or two for the Christmas card. In the field just beyond, you can see Dakota Thunder’s brethren in the form of a live bison herd roaming around the grasslands.

Frontier Village Jamestown ND

Frontier Village

Kids will love running around Frontier Village, as they stretch their legs after being in the car for a few hours. Parents be warned– there is an active parking lot and street running through town, so tell your kids to stick to the sides. There are several play spaces, including a stage couch and playground for kids to climb around. Pony rides are offered daily, and many of the buildings are open to wander. A few have been converted into shops, with local history guides.

Frontier Village Jamestown ND Louis L'amour

One notable figure who frequented Jamestown was author Louis L’Amour. His recreated writer’s shack is part of Frontier Village and comes with a lovely gentleman who is happy to tell you stories about the writer, his books and fun facts about the area.

My dad is a huge fan of L’Amour, so naturally I had to take a few photos with all of the author’s books for him. Even better, the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument is on Louis L’Amour Lane. You better believe my son and I sent that photo back to grandpa.

National Buffalo Museum

National Buffalo Museum

Just around the corner from Frontier Village and the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument, you will find the National Buffalo Museum in a 6000-square-foot log building. As the exhibits show, the buffalo has a special place in American history, although not always a happy one.

Buffalo, more accurately known as bison, used to graze across the plains of North Dakota and much of NOrth America, feeding and clothing the Native America people and early settlers. As more humans, particularly white settlers, moved in, hunting the bison to near extinction, the bison numbers went from millions to dozens across the continent.

Jamestown ND White Cloud

NATIONAL BUFFALO MUSEUM EXhibits

Exhibits focus on the Native American’s relationship with the bison, how close the bison came to extinction and how the bison numbers were brought back up. In 2016, President Obama named the bison the official mammal of the United States in the National Bison Legacy Act. You can even find bison at the National Zoo in Washington DC once again.

There are still 25-30 bison munching grass in the 200 acres behind the National Buffalo Museum. You can sit on the back deck of the museum watching them wander by. If the herd is a bit farther away, you can view them through the museum binoculars. Since your kids are probably just like mine, even if the bison are right below you, your kids will still use those binoculars.

National Buffalo Museum

White Cloud in Jamestown ND

The most famous residence to ever wander the museum was White Cloud, a rare albino buffalo. Although she passed away of old age in 2016, she is on display inside for all to see and learn about thanks to taxidermy.

White Cloud inspired the town of Jamestown through White Cloud Days, parades, special Native American events, and more than 3 million people who came through town to see her during her 20 year life. She went on to have several calves, including Dakota Miracle, another white bison assumed to be an albino, who roamed the fields until June 2019 when he passed away.

During our visit, there was a beautiful art show on display in a few of the rooms. Most were paintings and drawings depicting bison in various pursuits and natural backgrounds. Many pieces were for sale, and the prices were actually within reach for the average traveler. If the exhibit is not on display during your visit, make sure you hit the gift shop. Not everything is bison inspired, but there are loads of goodies to stock up on, especially if you need more entertainment for your road trip.

DAKOTA SUN GARDENS AND WINERY

Carrington North Dakota

It’s time to head north out of Jamestown and get off the main highway through North Dakota. As you drive up Route 52, you may think you should only stop for gas in Carrington, ND. Yes, you should definitely fill up the tank, as it is one of the few places you can grab gas along the way to Devils Lake. However, there is a hidden gem lurking just outside of town in Foster County for those living in Carrington, or traveling through the area.

Dakota Sun Gardens and Winery

Bruce and Merleen Gussiaas live about 10 minutes out of Carrington, ND, on land that Bruce’s family settled back in 1883. That’s before North Dakota became a state in 1889. After selling off their bison herd up north, and a few other twists and turns that got them there, Bruce and Merleen started distributing the fruit wine they had been making for themselves, as well as offering garden tours.

Merleen had started building out her garden, and never really stopped. Bruce began to add sculptural elements, grabbing rusted, cut out sheets from farming equipment companies that created a beautiful pattern. He then hung them up, creating a curtain in the back of the garden. More ideas grew from old farm parts that were salvaged. Some pieces have since been commissioned, but all tie back to the rustic garden theme.

Wines of Dakota Sun Gardens

As for the wine, Bruce is producing 35+ varietals these days, many of which are winning awards at an international level. My favorites? The Pear wine and Aronia Berry wine. Aronia Berry is said to be the next superfood, so I should drink more, right?

Best of all, since these are not grape wines, those of us suffering from migraines and can’t sip red wine, can have many of the red varieties because they aren’t grapes. No red grape microbials (or tannins, no one is 100% sure) here to trigger those nasty headaches that have me throwing up for 24-hours (too much information? It’s just the truth of what migraine patients suffer).

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

Things to do in Devils Lake

Now that your car (not you) is loaded up with fruit wines, you can keep heading north into one of the prettiest parts of the state. As you might have already figured out, Devils Lake, ND is all about fish. Everything revolves around fish in this lake region. At first, I wasn’t really sure what to do with this though.

I’m used to visiting places with tons of things to do, especially on a lake. Every summer we sit at a cabin in the woods right on a lake. We swim, kayak, watch water skiers, pontoon boats, jet skis, and the sunset dip below the mountains. Ice cream is always involved, as are s’mores.

A new lake experience in North Dakota

Devils Lake was a very different experience. Boats lined the lakefront at Woodland Resort where we were staying. The resort didn’t get the beach front view, the boats and boat ramps got it. There were no trees, just sand and gravel. Lodge rooms faced east for sunrise, not west for sunset. Cabins were tucked behind the lodge in the woods far from the water. RVs were parked close by. Everyone had a boat… except us.

Groups of men pulled up with boats in tow during the week (kids were already back in school). Families arrived on Friday night. Storms had been brewing for days, but rain never came. Everyone held their breath, keeping an eye on the windsocks at the marina, waiting for the wind to die down. A few brave kids dipped their tows into the water at the sandy beach, but none lasted very long. We were lucky, we’d gotten our fishing in early before the wind really picked up across the lake.

As a storm continued brewed down south, we found a few more things to do in Devils Lake, ND to keep us entertained off the water. There were some critters, besides fish, that we needed to find. It was also time for my son and I to go for a hike. He claims he doesn’t like hiking, despite the fact that he loves it every time we do.

Devils Lake Fishing

If you do want to fish, book a Perch Guide through Woodland Resort (if you have kids, ask for Rich) to take you out on the lake. The guides can provide everything you need– boat, fishing poles, lines, tackle, and their expertise so you actually catch a fish.

Devils Lake has some of the best fishing in the Midwest, so this is an experience you don’t want to miss. Perch and Walleye are the top catch of the day, and fairly easy to grab on a calm morning. When the wind is kicking up, it gets much trickier, but the kids will still have a great time no matter how big (or small) the fish.  

Grahams Island State Park North Dakota

Grahams Island State Park

Grahams Island State Park is one of the largest, and most popular state parks in North Dakota, especially if you like to camp and fish. For those who don’t do either, you can still hike the two trails within the park and enjoy swimming along the rocky shore at the beach. In winter, they have some great cross country skiing.

If you do want to go hiking, follow the blue arrows from the Silvert Thompson Activity Center parking lot. The hiking map isn’t very well marked, but you can figure it out as you go along. The grass is mowed where the trail leads. When the trail splits, just pick a direction. We always headed towards the lake to capture great views, which is considered the Silvert Thompson Loop. The other trail, the North Campground Loop, takes you around the campground and through more woodlands.

Grahams Island State Park North Dakota

Make sure you pack your bug spray and sunscreen. Ticks are a problem in the state park, as is poison ivy. Know how to recognize poison ivy before you go into the park. Check for ticks as soon as you are off the trail and back at your car. Lyme disease is no joke, as we learned when my oldest had it a few years ago.

For those looking to do a spot of camping, but didn’t bring their RV or tent, there are four cabins you can rent for under $100 at Grahams Island State Park. Each cabin can sleep up to five people, but you will need to bring all of your own linens.

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

Sullys Hill is the best Devils Lake attraction to visit if you aren’t interested in fishing. President Theodore Roosevelt set up this game preserve in 1904 as a refuge for wild animals and birds. Nowadays you are most likely to see bison, elk and prairie dogs, along with migrating monarch butterflies and several species of birds. Every Saturday in the summer, the visitor center hosts educational programming aimed at children (but all are welcome) that focuses on a different aspect of the park or creature native to North Dakota.

Keep in mind that a large part of the park is viewed from your car. A herd of bison and elk are given free range and these animals should never be approached by humans. You are not to get out of your car, except in designated viewing areas, and only if animals are not near your vehicle. More than one person has been tossed by a bison at a national park, especially when baby bison are present. Female bison are very protective of their young, just like human mamas.

Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

Prairie Dog Town is one of the highlights of the park, especially for kids (and excited moms). You can pull your car right up to the side of their grasslands. Stay in your car to watch these little critters eat grass, while their friends keep a look out for large predators. If you hear a high-pitched chirping, that means a predator is close by. Surprise– you might just be that predator they are warning their friends to watch out for today. Staying in your car will get you closer to these little critters as you will be quiet and well hidden.

If you need a good workout, climb up to Sullys Hill Overlook for a view of the valley and lakes below. It can get windy up there, but the climb is worth it. Enjoy a snack while you sit on the bench and your kids peer through the binoculars on the viewing platform.

North Dakota Corn

Devils Lake ND restaurants

Load up on groceries at Leevers (great organic food section) to save on food while staying at Woodland Resort. Each cabin has a full kitchen, so take advantage. You can also dive into the local food scene, visiting favorites like Cedar Inn Family Restaurant. Breakfast is served all day, which was definitely a favorite for our crew (bacon for dinner!). Other local favorites include:

  • Proz Lakeside at the Cove
  • Kneadful Things
  • Cedar Inn Family Restaurant
  • Devils Lake Donuts
  • Blue Hippo Frozen Yogurt
  • The View at Spirit Lake Casino

Annual Community Fish Fry & Corn Feed

If you happen to be in Devils Lake at the end of August, make sure you pop into town for the Devils Lake Annual Fish Fry and Corn Feed. This community gathering celebrates the local walleye and corn grown at the farms you will see all across the region. It is also a fantastic place to meet locals.

Just don’t be late! They won’t save you a plate if you show up even 30 minutes before it ends. We made that mistake.

Devils Lake ND

Downtown Devils Lake ND

While Devils Lake is best known for its water pursuits, there is actually a downtown to explore. It’s about three square blocks, with a few shops, restaurants and bars. For those taking Amtrak into town, you can’t miss it. The best part of is the history behind the buildings you wander past. Twenty buildings are on the national register for their turn-of-the-century architecture, built between 1885 and 1914. If you pop into the alley ways between buildings, you will see remnants of the old advertisements, including Coco-Cola painted right on the walls.

Devils Lake ND

There is also one very special surprise for Dr. Seuss lovers in the form of a mural straight out of The Lorax. The Engen Law Firm, where the mural is placed, commissioned the truffula tree mural in Devils Lake, creating a bright spot that is popular throughout the community. Using the existing brick on the side of firm’s building brick and an electrical pole, the artist brought this beloved eco-friendly tale to life. My son just stared in wonder as we read the well-worn phrase “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Devils Lake Hotels

Devils Lake Hotels

Devils Lake hotels tend to stick to the smaller, budget chain hotels and local motels, with one major exception. The Woodland Resort is the best spot for out-of-towners to camp out while exploring the area. The staff is ready to help, and it is right on the lake.

Woodland Resort

One of the largest Devils Lake hotels, as well as the most luxe you will find in the area. Families can rent cabins or opt to stay in the lodge for lake views. All cabins and lodge rooms come with a full kitchen, cable television, all linens (towels, sheets and blankets).

For moms needing a little more comfort, definitely book a room in the lodge with lake views. If you are traveling with a larger group, book a few cabins together so the kids can run around while you sit on the deck. You can all take advantage of the communal grills and firepits.

There is one restaurant on site, the Proz Lakeside at the Coze, which serves up your typical bar food (mostly fried, but a few salads) and drinks. You can easily get a taste of the local walleye caught right off the lake. The Bait Shop/Check In building has fresh coffee every morning and a limited supply of groceries if you run out of milk in the morning.

Camping in Devils Lake

If you are a fan of camping or have an RV to park, Devils Lake is ready for you. Grahams Island State Park has several campgrounds for tent camping, as well as RVs. There are also a few cabins to rent if you didn’t bring your gear. Woodland Resort also has RV parking on site, and there are multiple RV parking sites in and around the town of Devils Lake. A simple search brings up:

  • Bayview Resort
  • Kenner’s Campground
  • APRV Park
  • Black Tiger Bay Campground
  • Eagle Bend Henegar RV Park
  • Spirit Lake Casino & Resort
Sullys Hill National Game Preserve

Getting to from Bismarck to Devils Lake

Fly into Bismarck. Stay a few days to enjoy the state parks, historic forts and great coffee. Rent a car (we love RentalCars.com), and start driving east on I-94, before heading north on Route 52. There are slightly faster routes, but they are more remote and you will want to make sure you have a full tank of gas. There is only one, maybe two, self-service pumps along the way.

If you are traveling through North Dakota in the summer months, don’t skip a chance to see the sunflower fields in bloom. They are worth (carefully) pulling over to get a closer look.

This post is part of a paid partnership with North Dakota Tourism. As always, my opinions are my own. When they aren’t, you will be the first to know. This post may contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking one of those links I will receive a small commission.

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