The sky's the limit when you choose one of these family-friendly and affordable urban hubs for your next trip.
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.)
Washington, D.C., Orlando, and Chicago
3. Washington, D.C.
Hit the Streets Most of the family-friendly attractions in D.C. are free, so there's no pressure to stay all day to get your money's worth. While the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History (dinosaurs galore) and National Air and Space Museum (lunar rockets) are obvious stops on the National Mall, don't miss the National Museum of American History. Kids can see Dorothy's ruby slippers and Harry Potter's Hogwarts robe. "Take breaks by riding the carousel or flying a kite on the mall," suggests Eileen Ogintz, author of The Kid's Guide to Washington, DC. While not near the other main attractions (you'll have to hop on the Metro), the free National Zoo -- with its 2,000 animals, including pandas -- is well worth the hike. Another favorite: The National Portrait Gallery in Chinatown. "We love the big, bright atrium where we can take the kids to see portraits of the presidents," says resident Tricia Bowman Pietravalle, a mom of three. "And if you have a crawler, you'll appreciate that the gallery is mostly carpeted." For a fun meal, try Jaleo, in Penn Quarter, which serves up tapas on a glass-covered foosball table so you can play between courses. Or go celeb-watching at Carmine's Italian restaurant across the street.
Hit the Sheets Just six blocks from the White House, the Hotel Rouge entices kids with animal-themed bathrobes and a goldfish bowl in the room. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $149 per night and bunk-bed rooms that sleep up to six start at $219. Use the promo code PARENT for a 10 percent discount; rougehotel.com.) Or stay in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, at The Residence Inn Alexandria Old Town/Duke Street and catch the Metro to D.C. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $109 per night; marriott.com.)
Hit the Streets "Pick three or four theme parks to visit on a weeklong trip -- fewer if your kids are under age 5," says Ogintz, the founder of TakingtheKids.com. Disney's Animal Kingdom offers a new Wilderness Explorers program with sticker badges and field guides for kids ages 7 to 10, while SeaWorld Orlando opened the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin exhibit in May ($89 for 12 and up, $81 for kids 3 to 11, free for younger kids). The highlight: a chilly ride through the South Pole. Princesses will delight in the Magic Kingdom's made-over Fantasyland (with a new castle for Belle) while kids obsessed with superheroes, Transformers, or Harry Potter may prefer the two theme parks at Universal Orlando Resort ($140 for 10 and up, $130 for kids 3 to 9, free for kids under 3, for a two-day ticket to both parks). Universal's new attraction Transformers: The Ride -- 3D opened in June. On very hot days, head to a water park; Wet 'n Wild Orlando ($55 for 10 and up, $50 for kids 3 to 9, free for younger kids) and Disney's Typhoon Lagoon ($52 for 10 and up, $44 for kids 3 to 9, free for younger kids) have fun sections for younger kids. Balance the rest of your trip with lower-key stops like the Orlando Science Center ($19 for 12 and up, $13 for kids 3 to 11, free for younger kids) or Lake Eola. "My kids like riding the swan boats and feeding the ducks there," says Orlando resident Melanie Edwards, who blogs at modernmami.com.
Hit the Sheets To be near Walt Disney World, stay at the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek; 84 of its 400 rooms have bunk beds and two sinks -- one is kid-size. (Rooms with two double beds start at $159 per night and bunk-bed rooms start at $239 per night. Get 15 percent off a two-night stay and a $50 resort credit with the promo code PARENTS; wyndham.com.) Have a large family, or bringing the grandparents? Book a two- bedroom suite, which sleeps eight, at Sonesta ES Suites Orlando. A kitchen, pool, and free breakfast are perks. (Rates for a two-bedroom suite start at $149 per night; sonesta.com/orlando.)
Hit the Streets Three of the city's must-do attractions are happily right next to each other. While Sue, the largest, best-preserved T-Rex on the planet, is the star of The Field Museum, the new Creatures of Light exhibit, with interactive features like iPad games and a glow-worm cave, will wow kids too ($23 for 12 and up, $16 for kids 3 to 11, free for younger kids). The Shedd Aquarium's aquatic show, featuring dolphins, whales, and sea otters, is breathtaking, especially with views of Lake Michigan ($35 for 12 and up, $26 for kids ages 3 to 11, free for younger kids, with advance online purchase of the "total experience pass.") The Adler Planetarium offers eight different shows, including One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure ($22 for 12 and up, $18 for kids 3 to 11 for admission and one show). In another part of town, take a break from the bustle at the North Park Village Nature Center. "It has a forest preserve with a waterfall, ponds, and wildlife you wouldn't expect to see in Chicago," says resident Karen Harmon Curin, a mom of two. Other ideas for your to-do list: American Girl Place, the Lego Store Chicago next door, and Navy Pier, which has fireworks every Wednesday and Saturday through Labor Day.
Hit the Sheets An easy walk to attractions, the newly renovated Hyatt Chicago Magnificent Mile woos kids with an indoor pool. (Rooms start at $179 per night. Get a 10 percent discount with promo code PARENTS; hyatt.com.) In the Lincoln Park neighborhood near the free zoo, Hotel Lincoln has family suites with bunk beds, a kids' table and chairs, and a step stool. (Family suites start at $309 per night. For a 10 percent discount, call the hotel at 855-514-8112 and mention Parents; jdvhotels.com.)
San Francisco, New York City, and San Antonio
6. San Francisco
Hit the Streets "Everyone is a kid in San Francisco," says Robert Reid, former U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet guidebooks. One of the coolest places for families: The Exploratorium. Its new digs on Pier 15 transformed it from a great science center into one that's truly in a league of its own. Everything is meant to be tinkered with -- from teddy bears for dissection to a fog machine to a high-end microscope ($25 for adults, $19 for kids ages 6 to 17, free for younger kids). On nearby Fisherman's Wharf, check out the river otters on Pier 39, grab a sourdough roll at Boudin Bakery, or hop the ferry over to Angel Island for terrific views of the Golden Gate Bridge -- or take a cable-car ride. When you're ready to relax, jump on a subway or a bus to Glen Canyon Park, in the Diamond Heights section of the city. "Tall eucalyptus trees provide wonderful shade for a picnic," says resident Naomi Laguana. "Pick up food at the market a few blocks away; my boys, who are 5 and 8, usually choose the pecan-crusted chicken fingers."
Hit the Sheets Consider the newly renovated Radisson Fisherman's Wharf, which has an outdoor heated pool. (Rooms with two double beds start at $249 per night. Get a 20 percent discount on stays of three nights or more with the promo code PARMAG.) For a funkier pick in Union Square, look into a Kids' Suite at Hotel Diva; your little travelers will have their own room with bunk beds, toys, a desk, and a chalkboard while you sink into your king-size bed. (These suites start at $299 per night. Mention Parents at check-in for a free goody bag for the kids and treat for you; hoteldiva.com.)
7. New York City
Hit the Streets "A priority is to see the Statue of Liberty because it's such a memorable experience even for young kids," says Ogintz. Liberty Island, home of the New York icon, reopens July 4 after being closed for nine months because of damage from Hurricane Sandy. Book a ferry ticket ($17 for 13 and up, $9 for kids ages 4 to 12, free for younger kids) and make a reservation if you want to climb the 393 steps to the crown (permitted for kids over 4 feet tall). Back in Manhattan, put the American Museum of Natural History and MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art (read the children's book Seen Art? before you go) on your schedule ($19 for 13 and up, $10.50 for kids 2 to 12, free for younger kids for AMNH; $25 for adults, free for kids 16 and under at MoMA). Spend at least a half day in Central Park, where there's a zoo, a carousel, and climbing structures to explore. Also consider tickets to a Broadway show. The Lion King, Matilda The Musical, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella, Newsies, Annie, and Wicked are all great picks for kids 6 and up; you may be able to snag last-minute discounted seats at the TKTS booth in Times Square. Young kids will be thrilled with a $5 Ferris-wheel ride at the largest Toys "R" Us in the country. Any time left? Squeeze in a trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden ($10 for 12 and up, free for younger kids); it's a short subway ride.
Hit the Sheets Many tourists stay in the Times Square area, but it's crowded and pricey. The Hotel Beacon, on the upper West Side near Central Park, offers more spacious rooms with a mini kitchen, including a fridge and a microwave. (Rooms with two double beds start at $260 per night. Use the code PARENTS to get Jacques Torres chocolates at check-in; beaconhotel.com.) Another option if you're planning to visit the Statue of Liberty or World Trade Center memorial: The new Conrad New York, located in lower Manhattan, is an all-suite hotel with a closed-off living room so you can hang out after the kids go to bed. (A suite with two double beds starts at $259 per night; conradnewyork.com.)
8. San Antonio
Hit the Streets Although San Antonio has a lovely zoo, children's museum, and theme parks, remember the Alamo! Your kids will genuinely enjoy the exhibits and can burn off some steam roaming around the grassy areas. Besides, it's free. Relish the local flavor by taking a boat ride or strolling the River Walk, which will be expanded from 3 to 15 miles by the end of the summer. If your child has special needs, head to Morgan's Wonderland, the country's only fully accessible park where kids can hang out in the butterfly playground, music garden, sand circle, or carousel ($15 for 11 and up, $10 for kids ages 3 to 10, free for younger kids and anyone with special needs).
Hit the Sheets The new Embassy Suites -- San Antonio Riverwalk Downtown is close to many of the city's big attractions. Family perks include an outdoor pool, a free cooked-to-order breakfast, a mini fridge, and a microwave. (Rates for suites with two double beds start at $189 per night. Go to embassysuites.com/parents to book a room with a 10 percent discount.) If you don't mind staying about 15 minutes from downtown, you'll get more space for less money at the newly renovated Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa. It has its own water park! (Rooms with two queen beds start at $169 per night with promo code PARENT. You also receive a free breakfast daily for 4; hillcountry.hyatt.com.)
Indianapolis and Philadelphia
Hit the Streets Who would have thought that the Indianapolis Children's Museum is the largest in the world? Plan to spend the whole day there checking out its five levels with 15-plus exhibit areas (including ones on dinos and trains). And there's something for grown-ups to look at too: A special Avatar exhibit is coming to the museum from June 22 to September 22, with props and costumes from the popular film ($18.50 for adults, $13.50 for kids ages 2 to 17, free for younger kids). For car lovers of any age, race to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, which has 75 cars on display ($5 for 16 and up, $3 for kids ages 6 to 15, free for younger kids). Often overlooked by tourists who focus on White River State Park downtown, Indianapolis also has an art and nature park called 100 Acres. "It's free and you can take in some fantastic art while your children have fun climbing on the 20 fiberglass benches that make up the 'Funky Bones' sculpture or swinging from a giant-chopstick sculpture," says local mom Lindsay Parker Williams.
Hit the Sheets Families flock to the Omni Severin Hotel, which greets tiny travelers with a backpack filled with games and crafts and delivers milk and cookies to their room. (Rates for a room with two queen beds, including breakfast and tickets to the family-friendly Indianapolis Zoo, start at $159 per night; omnihotels.com.) Or consider staying at the SpringHill Suites Downtown, which offers free breakfast, family board games in the lobby, and balloons at check-in. (Rates for rooms with two queen beds start at $129 per night. Get a 15 percent discount with promo code P91; marriott.com.)
Hit the Streets Start with the historic attractions because you can't see those anywhere besides Philly. Make your home base the National Constitution Center, which has hands-on exhibits and ever-changing kid programming ($14.50 for adults, $13 for kids 13 to 18, $8 for kids 4 to 12, free for younger kids). From there, walk two blocks to see the Liberty Bell; displays include an X-ray of the famous crack. Betsy Ross's House is also nearby, where kids will learn about the famous flagmaker's life and meet a woman pretending to be Betsy herself ($5 for 12 and up, $4 for younger kids). If you have children age 7 and under, plan to visit the Please Touch Museum, a lovingly restored children's museum that's home to a railway exhibit ($16 for kids and adults, free for babies under 1). Have older kids? Then opt for The Franklin Institute, where a giant walk-through heart, a sports challenge, and a new spy exhibit will blow their minds ($16.50 for 12 and up, $12.50 for kids ages 3 to 11, free for younger kids). You'll also enjoy the Philadelphia Zoo's new KidZooU, a combo wildlife academy and petting zoo that's filled with interactive features ($20 for 12 and up, $18 for kids ages 2 to 11, free for younger kids). End your visit with a trip to a local fave: Philadelphia's Magic Gardens dishes out funky folk-art fun for the whole family ($7 for 13 and up, $3 for kids ages 6 to 12, free for younger kids).
Hit the Sheets In the heart of downtown, the Loews Philadelphia Hotel caters to families with loaner baby gear, childproofing kits, and healthy kid menus. (Newly renovated rooms with two queen beds start at $179 per night. Get a 10 percent discount by using the promo code READER; loewshotels.com.) The Rittenhouse Hotel greets kids with a toy from its treasure chest. Stop by the lobby on Fridays and Saturdays from 2 to 6 P.M. for free chocolate-covered strawberries, cookies, and champagne. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $249 per night. Use the promo code N28C for a 10 percent discount; rittenhousehotel.com.)
Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Parents magazine. This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.