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.
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 Balboa Park Explorer Multi-Day Pass that includes one-day admission to The San Diego Zoo (pandas, polar bears, and koalas are the headliners) and one-time entrance to the other museums all week long ($99 for 13 and up, $66 for kids ages 3 to 12, 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 ($14 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 (don't miss the Manta roller coaster!) ($60 for age 3 and up, free for younger kids; purchase tickets on-line to receive this discounted price). 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 double beds start at $209 per night.) Also downtown, the Hilton San Diego Bayfront has a toddler pool and kids-only water slide. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $183 per night.) 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 $174 per night.)
Moneysaver Plan your trip for October, 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.
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, home for a flock of pink flamingos. ($18 for 12 and up, $13 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 ($14.50 for 14 and up, $9.75 for ages 3 to 13, free for younger kids). And the Portland Japanese Garden is also surprisingly kid-friendly ($16.95 for adults, $11.50 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 18 twists on the classic) or Laurelwood Public House & Brewery (craft beer for you, play area for the kids).
Hit the Sheets The indoor heated pool at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower make it a top downtown pick for families. (Rooms with two double beds start at $182 per night.) 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 $145 per night.)
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 ($30 for adults, $25 for teens, $20 for kids ages 4 to 12, 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 About five minutes to the cable car station and a short walk to the art museum, Handlery Union Square Hotel is in the hub of the action—and not as pricey as some of its neighbors. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $179 per night.)
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. Book a ferry ticket ($25.50 for 13 and up, $16 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 ages 4 and up; there's an extra $3 charge per person). Back in Manhattan, put the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Modern Art, MOMA (read the children's book Seen Art? before you go) on your schedule ($23 for 13 and up, $13 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, Disney's Aladdin, School of Rock, SpongeBob SquarePants, 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 or order through the TodayTix app up to a week in advance. Any time left? Squeeze in a trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden ($15 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. 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 $319 per night.) Another option if you're planning to visit the Statue of Liberty or World Trade Center memorial: The 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 $236 per night).
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 was recently expanded from 3 to 15 miles. 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 ($17 for 11 and up, $11 for kids ages 3 to 10, free for younger kids and anyone with special needs).
Hit the Sheets The Embassy Suites—San Antonio Riverwalk Downtown is within walking distance of all downtown attractions. Family perks include an outdoor pool, a free made-to-order breakfast, nightly Evening Reception that also includes something for the kids, a two-room suite with a mini fridge and microwave. (Rates for suites with two double beds start at $189 per night.)
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). (prices vary based on date, starting from $17 for adults, $13.75 for kids ages 2 to 17, free for younger kids). For car lovers of any age, race to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, which has 75 cars on display ($10 for 16 and up, $5 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 or children's museum, start at $177 per night; omnihotels.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, $11 for kids 6 to 18, 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 ($7 for 12 and up, $6 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 ($19 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 brain exhibit will blow their minds ($23 for 12 and up, $19 for kids ages 3 to 11, free for younger kids). You'll also enjoy the Philadelphia Zoo's KidZooU, a combo wildlife academy and petting zoo that's filled with interactive features ($25 for 12 and up, $20 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 ($10 for 13 and up, $5 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. (Rooms with two queen beds start at $179 per night.) Just a few blocks from most of the city's Revolutionary War attractions, the recently renovated Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District boasts a rooftop pool. (Rates for rooms with two double beds start at $220 per night.)
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.