The Quad Cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline/East Moline, Illinois, tend to get a bad rap in the Chicago area. But the four towns on either side of the Mississippi River offer plenty of fun to keep families busy and entertained, all of it affordable and much of it free.
It's less than three hours from the Chicago metro area, just about the farthest you would want to drive for a weekend getaway.
Bring the bikes and hiking shoes for exploring some of the 150 miles of riverfront bike trails. If you don't have bikes, or don't want to haul them across the state, you can rent bikes Monday through Saturday from the Quad Cities Convention & Visitors' Bureau offices at 102 S. Harrison St, Davenport; 1601 River Drive, Moline, and 226 17th St., Rock Island.
Not surprisingly, the Mississippi River is the hub of activities in the Quad Cities. A ride onboard the 770-passenger paddlewheel boat, the Celebration Belle, is a great way to while away an afternoon and get a feel for the area and its relationship to the river. Stick to the shorter cruises if you're traveling with kids.
If your kids get a little bored on the cruise, keep them on their best behavior by promising a stop at Lagomarcino's. This turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor in downtown Moline serves ice cream the way Great Grandma would have ordered it -- rich and piled high with toppings.
Walk off your Lagomarcino's sugar overdose by strolling a few blocks to see another Moline original, the John Deere Pavilion. This is the place for kids -- and their adults-- who love to play with tractors. The free attraction features huge tractors for kids to climb. Don't be surprised to see 70-year-old men elbowing out 10-year-old boys for a chance to sit in the driver's seat of one of the giant John Deere models on display.
If that's not enough to feed your tractor jones, you can also take a tour of the John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline. It's the company's largest combine factory. Free, 90-minute tours are offered at 8 and 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. Note: No one under age 13 is allowed on the tours.
If your kids are too young for the factory tour, head over to the impressive Putnam Museum in Davenport. This small town museum packs a lot of value into its small admission price -- just $12 for adults and $10.50. The natural history museum gets even better this month when it opens a 10,000-square-foot science center with more than 45 hands-on stations.
Free things to do in the Quad Cities
The small town prices of the Quad Cities make it an affordable family vacation destination. But nothing is more affordable than free. These four are some of the best free things to do in the Quad Cities.
• Mississippi River Visitor Center. Learn about the river while you watch barges move through Lock & Dam 15 and see the world's largest Roller Dam. If you visit from January to March, this is the best place to view the majestic bald eagles that flock to the locks and dams to feed in the winter. Best for ages 6 and older. Rock Island Arsenal Island. (309) 794-5338.
• Backwater Gamblers Water Ski Show. Each summer, the Mississippi River backwaters on the Rock River become a performance area for the award-winning Backwater Gamblers water skiers. Expect a one-hour show with an intermission during which they ask the crowd for donations to keep the non-profit company afloat. Shows are at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, Memorial Day-Labor Day. All ages. 44th Street and Rock River, Rock Island. (309) 786-8987.
• Fryxell Geology Museum. This museum sits on the idyllic campus of Augustana College in Rock Island. It is home to one of the largest collections of rocks, minerals and fossils in the Midwest, including the kid-pleasing dinosaur remains of a Tylosaurus sea serpent; the skulls of Parasaurolophus, Ankylosaurus, Apatosaurus, Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex, and a 2-billion-year-old fossil. 639 38th St., Rock Island. Best for ages 7 and older. Closed July-mid-August. (309) 794-7318.
• Nahant Marsh. This 265-acre preserve is part of a 513-acre wetland complex bordered by the Mississippi River, Interstate 280, and Highway 22. At one point, this was a lead-contaminated Super Fund site. The cleanup has been so successful that the area is home to nearly 400 wildlife species and a boardwalk walkway to the water's edge. All ages. West Davenport. (563) 322-2969.
• Cindy Richards is a veteran Chicago journalist and the editor for TravelingMom.com, the prime website for moms who travel with and without their kids.