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.)