Over spring break, my co-founder-in-crime and sister-in-law Kelly and I pulled out of Detroit (where it was snowing in mid-April) to embark on an epic design road trip to New Orleans for our blog Designtripper. Our mission: Uncover great architecture and design in unexpected places, with stops in Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville, and rural Alabama along the way. For two weeks, we chronicled our finds–from an edgy art hotel in downtown Louisville to the mind-blowingly cool Pie Lab in rural Alabama.
It would have been hectic and demanding enough with that singular missive. Now add the fact that we were traveling with our kids in tow–two toddlers, ages one and two, and a four-year-old. To say that this was not an easy task is an understatement. Right, parents? Not only were we making our way down Route 65, navigating from point A to B, sourcing cool stuff, blogging daily, and shooting photographs and video to document it all, we were also changing diapers, reading bedtime stories, soothing boo-boos, and making sure children were fed on time with a few vegetables consumed. Let’s not forget the afternoon of the interrupted naps when our two tired, hungry and impossibly cranky little ones wailed from their respective Ergo carriers throughout a tour of a design shop (note: owners not amused). Or the epic meltdown in the backseat while we were lost in downtown Cincinnati (thank you navigation system).
Yes it was hard. Borderline manic at times. It was overwhelmingly busy and sometimes it felt like we would never sleep. But it was also incredibly inspiring–perhaps even transcendant at the very best moments. For every meltdown and wrong turn, there was a glorious moment of travel perfection–ranging from toddler bonding and rollicking belly laughter to the a mom’s night out a fantastic local restaurant–to make up for it. Those things that are made special and significant by the fact that you’re outside of your daily life. Amid our parenting, traveling and blogging duties, we managed to have some ridiculously good fun along the way. And one of the best parts–we never had to drive more than 4 hours between cities–perfect road trip chunks for kids! Here, our design junkie-approved list of kid-friendly favorites from Detroit to New Orleans. (And for way more info, if you pull the trigger and go, here’s a page of collected blog posts from the entire trip.)
The Unmuseum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Best kids museum experience ever. The entire sixth floor of the Contemporary Center for the Arts houses a bunch of kid-oriented exhibits, like the Sensory Elephant, which has little drawers that make noises and offer sensory experiences when you pull them out, an Airstream-like trailer that kids can sit inside and rock, and lots of curvy, stepped Dr. Seuss-like surfaces for kids to climb, walk and play on. Plus, they have a bunch of cool, complimentary art supplies for kids to use. Our kids had a blast.
Hotel 21C, Louisville, Kentucky
It’s billed as the only museum hotel in the country, and for that, its praise cannot be overstated. But the 21c also a fantastic place for kids. Seriously. The exhibits are not all roped-off, traditional wall installations. Many of the installations are interactive and big fun for kids. Ollie and Ruby loved playing in the video installation of a sleeping couple (tangled in bed sheets) projected on the floor in front of the reception, and the staff seemed to genuinely enjoy watching them. One evening, after a particularly long day, there was a knock at the door just as we were getting ready for bed: a plate of fresh-baked cookies and tall glasses of milk for the kids. Unsolicited. Totally appreciated.
Top of Woodland, Nashville, Tennessee
This Victorian bed & breakfast is the perfect Nashville home base for a family. Cases in point: a koi pond with a jar of fish food hidden stealthily behind a mushroom statue in the landscaping; a giant patio for playing and outdoor picnics; the family-friendly pizza parlor across the street, where the sweet owner gave my one-year-old a stuffed animal to take home.
12th South, Nashville, Tennessee
Such a great neighborhood to spend an afternoon in with kids. Make a stop at the super-hip Imogene + Willie to see their impressive denim operation. Our kids ran around the store, and the staff could not have been more joyfully tolerant, even entertaining them while I tried on a signature pair of “Imogene Stretch” jeans. On Friday nights, there’s a little outdoor party in front of their rehabbed gas station digs and art activities across the street. Grab some takeout burgers (chicken, lentil, beef or buffalo) with sweet potato fries from Burger Up and take it across the street to the lush park, where the kids can swing, run and eat dinner at a picnic table instead of a jam-packed patio. Las Paletes–gourmet, handcrushed popsicles with flavors like raspberry-lime and basil honeydew.
Pie Lab, Greensboro, Alabama
One of the big reasons we decided to stop in Greensboro, Alabama (just after Magnolia trees) is the Pie Lab–part humble pie shop, part ambitious social change experiment. Started in Belfast, Maine two years ago by the design collective Project M, the Lab, which opened as a pop-up, has grown into a permanent fixture in this small Alabama town of 3,500. After being in the car for three hours, a piece of delicious berry pie and a gooey scoop of vanilla ice cream was just the thing to put the kids in a good mood. The employees were so friendly, and it’s absolutely the kind of unpretentious place where kids can run around the space and not annoy anyone. My one-year-old was fascinated with the display of baseball card-sized photography exhibit.
Folsom Inn, Alabama
On this amazing, working farm, which has been in the family for seven generations, you can stay in the the 1920s caretakers cottage. Decorated with simple farm antiques, paintings of the country life, old family and farm photographs, and vignettes put together with pinecones and branches gathered from the grounds, the house feels like a living record of those who passed through before. And the entire experience is perfect for kids: sheep ambling by the house; 1800s outbuildings, old barns and greenery as far as the eye can see make for a great hike around the sprawling property; antique tractors that little ones love to climb and pretend to drive; and a big front porch for breakfast (complimentary juice, milk and a delicious sausage and cheese spread homemade by the owner–don’t even think about asking for the recipe).
City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana
If you do anything with your kids in New Orleans, go to this 1,300-acre park in the middle of the city. You will be rewarded with a carousel amusement park, botanical gardens, a handful of playgrounds, birding, biking trails, and, my kids’ favorite, the outdoor sculpture garden associated with the Modern Museum of Art. They also loved the great old live oaks (the park is known for having the largest collection in the world) with giant low-hanging branches for little climbers and a sculptural, ethereal spread of dying moss-like growth. My four-year-old called them “old man trees,” because he said the grayish growth looked like “tree beards.”
Cafe du Monde, New Orleans, Louisiana
It’s touristy and cliched, yes, but kids love it–giant beignets like fluffy clouds of sugar-covered goodness. The outdoor patio t’s so bustling and such a spectacle, my four-year-old is still talking about it.
Satsuma, New Orleans, Louisiana
If Cafe du Monde is the the best kid-friendly junk-food tourist must, Satsuma, the polar opposite, is the healthiest, most delicious neighborhood gem. Located in the Bywater, this artsy cafe serves up fresh-squeezed juices and a menu of handmade brunch specialties, sandwiches, muffins and pastries. My kids sucked down a carrot-orange-cucumber-pineapple juice and feasted on a green-eggs-and-ham breakfast sandwich under the canopy of trees on the laid-back patio.
Race & Religious, New Orleans, Louisiana
We stayed in this amazing historic set of houses in New Orleans, and even with all its impeccable design and rare, super special antiquities, it was still perfect for kids. One word: pool. Situated in the shade of the most beautiful courtyard I have ever seen, the black slate pool was our playground every steamy New Orleans afternoon. We ate dinner as a family and relaxed outside every night after the little ones went to sleep (except the night we hit Frenchman Street for some live music).