The fastest way to create priceless vacation memories: Go somewhere with lots to do. Big cities boast the coolest museums for families, the bulk of the historical treasures, and massive parks. But navigating them can be a hassle. To find places that make it easy to bring the kids, we looked at the number, quality, and cost of family-friendly attractions; hotel prices; walkability; airport play areas; public-transportation options; crime rate; and more in each of the 100 largest American cities. Use our list of winners and special discounts to map out a last-minute family trip.
1. San Diego
Hit the Streets Wonderful weather and loads of family attractions helped San Diego snag the top spot. "Balboa Park is one of the best places to kick off your trip," says Katie Dillon, founder of LaJollaMom.com. The zoo is legendary, but families should also explore some of the park's gardens and 14 museums." You can buy a passport ticket that includes one-day admission to The San Diego Zoo (pandas and koalas are the headliners) and one-time entrance to the other museums all week long. ($85 for 12 and up, $49 for kids ages 3 to 11, free for younger kids). Must-sees include animatronic dinosaurs at TheNAT San Diego Natural History Museum, the quirky, hands-on science exhibits at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the kids' aviation hangar (where they can dress up in a space suit) at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and the tall palm trees dotting Palm Canyon Trail. "When we go there, my kids, who are 5 and 9, pretend to be explorers," says local mom Jennifer Sabo Spencer. On your downtown to-do list, add The New Children's Museum ($10 for adults and kids ages 1 and up, free for babies) and a spin on the antique carousel at Seaport Village. Families with school-age kids will have a blast at SeaWorld San Diego (where Madagascar Live! Operation: Vacation is now on stage) and Aquatica San Diego, a SeaWorld water park that opened in June. ($97 for 10 and up, $89 for kids 3 to 9, combo price for both parks). End your trip by unwinding on San Diego's pristine beaches. "Don't miss the tide pools below Cabrillo National Monument," says resident Jen Byard, mom of three.
Hit the Sheets Stay downtown at the Omni San Diego Hotel, which has a heated rooftop pool, DVD players in all rooms, and a walkway to Petco Park, one of the most family-friendly baseball stadiums in the U.S. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $229 per night. Get 10 percent off and free parking with promo code PARENTS; omnihotels.com.) Also downtown, the Hilton San Diego Bayfront recently added a toddler pool and another with a slide. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $159 per night. Enter promo code PMAG for free kids' meals with the purchase of an adult meal at Vela Restaurant; hiltonsandiegobayfront.com.) In Mission Bay near SeaWorld, the beachfront Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa offers kids' activities, a free arcade, and a boat cruise. (Rooms with two double beds start at $169 per night. Use promo code P15 for a 15 percent discount; catamaranresort.com.)
Moneysaver Plan your trip for October 2013, when all the major attractions in town will be free for a child with the purchase of an adult ticket. Get the full list (as well as details on resort and restaurant deals that month) at sandiego.org/kidsfree.
2. Portland, Oregon
Hit the Streets Portland is about as easygoing as it gets, so it's perfect if you want a city vacation minus the hustle and bustle. "The city's public transportation is low-cost and extensive; you can easily get to the major attractions without having to rent a car," says Linda Cabasin, editorial director of Fodor's Travel. Spend a morning at the Oregon Zoo, the new home for a flock of pink flamingos, a baby Asian elephant, and a newborn river otter ($11.50 for 12 and up, $8.50 for kids ages 3 to 11, free for younger kids). The five massive halls of the Oregon Museum of Science & Industry entice the under-8 crowd with submarine tours, a planetarium and light show, a new mummy exhibit, and live lab demos ($13 for 14 and up, $9.50 for ages 3 to 13, free for younger kids). And the Portland Japanese Garden is also surprisingly kid-friendly ($9.50 for adults, $6.75 for kids 6 to 17, free for kids 5 and under). "My 4-year-old is engrossed with the treasure hunt -- we scour every inch of the garden looking for hidden statues," says resident Minda Seibert. Act like you live there by biking the streets (there are many rental options in town), exploring the Portland Farmers' Market, which offers kids' cooking classes, and grabbing a meal from a local fave like The Grilled Cheese Grill (more than two dozen twists on the classic) or Laurelwood Public House and Brewery (craft beer for you, play area for the kids).
Hit the Sheets The two indoor heated pools at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower make it a top downtown pick for families. (Rooms with two double beds start at $189 per night; hilton.com). For more space, book the all-suite Inn at Northrup Station, which has a free breakfast, wine tasting on Wednesdays, and locally made taffy in the lobby. The hotel provides free tickets to the Portland Streetcar, which offers transportation to downtown. (Suites start at $179 per night; northrupstation.com.)