WORCESTER - Only 40 miles west of Boston, Worcester often is overlooked as a tourist destination. And that’s a mistake. The state’s second-largest city, home to a half-dozen colleges and a robust cultural and dining scene, offers enticing activities for visitors, especially families with children. Animals, science, art, sports, theater, jousting knights - it’s all here. Many attractions partner with the Worcester Cultural Coalition’s WOO card - folks here have embraced the phonetic “Woo’’ to identify their city - to offer discounted admissions (www.woocard.org).
Many chain hotels have locations here. The Hilton Garden Inn (35 Major Taylor Boulevard, 508-753-5700, www.worcester.stayhgi.com, from $169), in the heart of downtown next to the DCU Center, has an indoor pool, as does the Courtyard by Marriott (72 Grove St., 508-363-0300, www.marriott.com/boswr, from $149). The Hampton Inn (110 Summer St., 508-757-0400, www.hampton-inn.com/hi/worcester.com, from $119), another downtown lodging, offers a complimentary hot breakfast. The Quality Inn & Suites (50 Oriol Drive, 508-852-2800, www. qualityinnworcester.com) offers family-friendly suites with full kitchens (rooms from $109, suites from $139).
Show the kids where people ate back in the day (back in their grandparents’ day, that is) at Miss Worcester Diner (300 Southbridge St., 508-753-5600, $3.50-$11, cash only). The classic 1948 diner serves breakfast and lunch and is renowned for its French toast. George’s Coney Island Hot Dogs (158 Southbridge St, 508-753-4362, www.coneyislandlunch.com, $1.50-$4.30) has a similarly retro atmosphere, with its scuffed floors and worn, high-backed wood booths. For a modern take on comfort food, try the Flying Rhino Cafe (278 Shrewsbury St., 508-757-1450, www.flyingrhinocafe.com, sandwiches $8-$17, entrees $17-$29), a cheery place with psychedelic-swirled tabletops and lots of windows hung with stained glass panels. A sandwich of Cajun swordfish medallions on ciabatta with arugula and lemon aioli was yummy; the restaurant participates in woofood.org, an initiative to integrate healthy food into every city restaurant. Another member of woofood.org, EVO (234 Chandler St, 508-459-4240, www.evodining.com, $9-$23) is known for its vegetarian selections, but the massive menu includes Kobe beef burgers and brick-oven pizzas. (EVO, by the way, is a shortened form of “American Dining Evolved.’’) In the year since it opened, Smokestack Urban Barbecue (90 Harding St., 508-363-1111, www.bbqstack.com, dinner $8-$22) in the city’s Canal District has attracted quite a following for its barbecued meats, all hickory-smoked on site, and signature fried pickles. The fried chicken, with sides of macaroni and cheese and steamed collard greens, was mouth-wateringly crisp.
DURING THE DAY
The EcoTarium (222 Harrington Way, 508-929-2700, www.ecotarium.org, $14 adults, $8 children ages 2-8, under 2 free) is a sprawling indoor and outdoor discovery center that covers animals (owls, river otters, foxes, and bald eagles), minerals, stars, and weather. In “The Arctic Next Door,’’ an exhibit focusing on the severe weather on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, you can experience hurricane-force winds; “Playing Together’’ looks at games from the time of the ancient Egyptians to the present. At the Higgins Armory Museum (100 Barber Ave., 508-853-6015, www.higgins.org, $12 adults, $7 children 4-16, under 4 free) children can view intricate suits of armor dating from medieval times and an assortment of weaponry such as samurai swords, then try on pieces of armor, build a model castle, and test their archery and jousting skills in the interactive Castle Quest exhibit. The Worcester Sharks (50 Foster St., 508-929-0500, www.sharksahl.com), the American Hockey League’s affiliate of the National Hockey League’s San Jose Sharks, play home games at the DCU Center and offer discounted Family Fun Packs for tickets, hot dogs, and sodas. The Worcester Art Museum (55 Salisbury St., 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org, $14 adults) is free for those 17 and under, and families can pick up a scavenger-hunt type guide for children. The museum’s 35,000-piece collection includes striking Roman floor mosaics, European masters, photographs, and contemporary art. The city has several lovely parks, including Elm Park at the intersection of Park Avenue, Highland, Russell, and Elm streets; in winter there are rinks for skating or pickup hockey.
The historical Hanover Theatre (2 Southbridge St., 508-471-1767, www.thehanovertheatre.org) first opened as a burlesque house in 1904. Today the elegantly restored playhouse presents Broadway shows, concerts, dance, opera, celebrity speakers, and children’s productions. “Shrek the Musical’’ runs Feb. 24-26. The DCU Center (50 Foster St., 508-755-6800, www.dcucenter.com) is the region’s premier entertainment venue. The Harlem Globetrotters are scheduled to appear Feb. 26. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 1857 Mechanics Hall (321 Main St., 508-752-5608, www.mechanicshall.org) is widely recognized as an acoustical masterpiece. Irish tenor Ronan Tynan will perform March 3 as part of the Worcester Rotary Club’s 100th anniversary celebration.