Thanks to our partners at parents.com for allowing us to share excerpts of this story. For a lot more great info on these places, go here. Here are the first five best cities for family travel: stay tuned for the rest next week.
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
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.
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).
3. Washington, D.C.
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 Streets ” up, $13 for kids 3 to 11, free 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 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.
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.
Much more to come!