Family fun in Fort Worth

May 15, 2013 at 9:27 a.m. ET

You might think of Fort Worth as just a sidekick to Dallas, but the city has a flavor and culture all its own. If you are traveling in Texas this summer, spending a few days in Fort Worth can be a whole lot of fun for the entire family.

Fort Worth Stockyards

Known for its cowboys and culture, Fort Worth is the 16th largest city in the country. And though it's growing rapidly, it hasn't lost any of its "down-home" appeal.

Visit the Stockyards

The Fort Worth Stockyards National Historical District takes you back to the days of the Old West. Twice a day you can see a real cattle drive right on the street as a team of cowhands navigates a herd of longhorns along Exchange Avenue. This area is filled with attractions from the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame to the Grapevine Vintage Railroad. You can catch the rodeo at the Cowtown Coliseum on Friday and Saturday nights or ride a mechanical bull at Billy Bob's Texas.

Kids love the Cowtown Cattlepen Maze as well as the many shops and restaurants in the old sheep and hog barns at the Stockyards Station. On our trip to Fort Worth, our kids enjoyed getting up close and personal with the animals. They went on pony rides at the stables plus loved all the baby animals at the petting zoo. Of course, sitting atop a real live longhorn was the best photo op of all.

Where to eat: Riscky's Barbecue at the Stockyards

Explore Sundance Square

Head downtown to Fort Worth's entertainment and business district in Sundance Square. Surprisingly, Sundance Square is cleaner and quieter than you might imagine for a downtown area. And there's so much to see and do— from restaurants and clubs to shops and galleries. Some might say the area is a little "sleepy" compared to your typical downtown experiences, but if you are looking for a laidback yet fun atmosphere, it can't be beat. Sundance Square is also home to a number of festivals, concerts, theatre performances and other special events, so be sure to check out their calendar.

The Molly the Trolley "Downtown Get-Around" service provides free transportation around Sundance Square from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily in a vintage-style trolley.

Where to eat: Cowtown Diner on Main St.

Enjoy the Fort Worth Cultural District

You want culture? Fort Worth has plenty of it. In the cultural district, you'll find five world-class museums, all within walking distance of each other, so this area is the perfect place to spend an afternoon. Kids and adults alike will enjoy the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame as well as Kimbell Art Museum. But if you just go to one place in the Fort Worth Cultural District, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is a must.

Fort Worth Museum of Science and History

Everything about this museum is spectacular, from the Omni IMAX Theater to the Planetarium to the Titanic: Iron and Ice show. However, if you have young kids, the things that you can't miss are Innovation Studios, the DinoLabs and DinoDig, and the Children's Museum.

Innovation Studios are located off the central corridor of the museum. These unique learning spaces are spectacular glass-walled studios called "Designer," "Doodler," "Explorer," "Imaginer" and "Inventor." Each one houses some extraordinary hands-on experiences where your kids can foster their creativity and imagination while learning about science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Though they are geared toward kids older than 8, my children (who are 4 and younger) did love to check them out with a little help from mom and dad.

DinoLabs is a 3,700 square-foot gallery where you can really see the immensity of these amazing prehistoric creatures, but what our kids really enjoyed was the DinoDig. This outdoor, interactive experience invites young guests to "become a paleontologist" and actually get out there and dig. DinoDig features rock formations embedded with fossils -- from shark teeth to snails -- that kids can uncover and excavate.

Though the DinoDig was awesome, the highlight of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History for our family was the children's museum.

We've taken our four young kids to children's museums all over Texas, and without a doubt the children's museum at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is top-notch. Our kids played in the grocery store as well as the healthy kids' clinic where they tended to their baby dolls. The space also has live reptiles and amphibians— including a Galapagos turtle. We were also impressed that the children's museum had both a family restroom and a nursing room for moms and their babies.

Don't miss the Fort Worth Zoo

Our kids are of preschool age so, of course, they love zoos. We've been to a number of zoos around the country and enjoyed every minute at the Fort Worth Zoo. It's really lush and beautiful and nicely laid out.

Fort Worth Zoo

Our children liked the primate exhibit where you could view the gorillas from up top outdoors or face-to-face through the plexiglass down below. The African Savannah exhibit was also quite nice with plenty of giraffes, hippos and other animals. The white tiger in the Asian Falls area was absolutely gorgeous, and the kids couldn't get enough of the penguins.

The zoo has many other attractions outside of the traditional animal exhibits, including a rock climbing wall, a carousel and a shooting gallery. Perhaps the only thing that we didn't like about the zoo was the petting area. The animals are in corrals that you have to lean over, so the kids can't get as close as they can to animals at other petting zoos. Plus, you aren't allowed to feed the animals in the petting corrals.

Where to stay in Fort Worth

As you'd expect, Fort Worth offers a wide array of hotels to choose from, and you'll have to assess your own needs and preferences for your family to find the best one for you. From small boutique hotels to lavish upscale destinations, you can find accommodations to fit every need and budget.

If you are visiting Fort Worth for more than a few days, I'd recommend an extended stay hotel. We were fortunate enough to stay at the TownePlace Suites by Marriott Fort Worth Downtown on our visit. We liked that it was not in the heart of downtown, but just a few blocks away.

Each suite features free Wi-Fi and a full kitchen— perfect if you have little ones who get hungry at all times of the day and night. The hotel offers free hot breakfast every day and evening socials Monday through Thursday where they serve complimentary wine, beer and other drinks, as well as a free dinner. I can't say enough about the friendly staff at this hotel. From the moment we arrived they treated us with genuine hospitality and terrific service.

If you are visiting Texas on your next family vacation, don't overlook Fort Worth. It has plenty to offer families, from the stockyards to the museums to the zoo.

Image credit: Kori Ellis

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