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Three Cities for a Song

How to afford New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Really.

Welcome to three of America's most exciting, sophisticated, and expensive destinations. But don't let that last point put you off a family trip. You can live it up on the cheap—just follow these insider reports and get to know the town as the locals do. Here, the best low-cost hotels, restaurants, snacks, attractions, souvenirs, and ways to get around—on a budget that won't blow anyone's allowance. Plus: dollar-by-dollar breakdowns of a perfect day in each town. Save in our cities!

 

New York City

FUN FOR FREE Board the Staten Island Ferry at the southern end of Manhattan (Whitehall Terminal, Whitehall and South Sts.; 718/390-5253) for a thrilling, engine-churning, hair-whipping half-hour ride that offers a view of the downtown skyline—still stunning, even after the loss of the Twin Towers. Ride over, stay on, and zoom back into the thick of things. • Program a robot and compose a symphony using car horns at the Sony Wonder Technology Lab (550 Madison Ave. at 56th St.; 212/833-8100; www.sonywondertechlab.com). Good luck getting your kids to leave. • Take one of the up-for-grabs kayaks out for a spin on the Hudson (Downtown Boathouse, 646/613-0375; www.downtownboathouse.org); to avoid a wait, go to the uncrowded Pier 66A launch (at 26th St.). • Visit a museum on its no-charge evening: that's Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Ave. at 75th St.; 212/570-3676; www.whitney.org) and the Guggenheim (1071 Fifth Ave. at 89th St.; 212/423-3500; www.guggenheim.org). Note that at many of the city's museums, such as the Metropolitan (1000 Fifth Ave. at 82nd St.; 212/535-7710; www.metmuseum.org), visitors can pay whatever they wish.

DO AS THE LOCALS DO Browse the Sunday morning flea markets on Sixth Avenue at 26th Street (212/243-5343) and Columbus Avenue at 77th Street (212/721-0900). • Fortify yourself at the fabulous Chelsea Market (75 Ninth Ave. at 16th St.; 212/243-6005), where bakers make baguettes in full view. Then check out Chelsea's contemporary-art galleries. • Sample hand-twisted hard pretzels and just-picked strawberries at the Union Square Greenmarket Farmers' Market (212/477-3220; www.cenyc.org).

GETTING AROUND Go on foot—it's the best way to see the sights and get your exercise (that's 20 north-south blocks per mile; let the kids keep count). Or hop on the subway (718/330-1234; www.mta.info; $2 per ride, seven-day unlimited pass $21); 714 miles of track will take you near and far—fast. Pick up MetroCards and free subway maps at all stations. Can't walk another step?Taxis can be hailed when the rooftop number is lit and the off-duty sign is not.

LUNCH AND SNACKS The sandwiches, salads, and muffins are divine at City Bakery (3 W. 18th St.; 212/366-1414)—and at around 3 p.m., all baked goods go on sale. • The hand-cut tubers at Pommes Frites (123 Second Ave. at E. 7th St.; 212/674-1234) are served Belgian-style, in a paper cone, with 30 choices of sauce, from curry to ketchup. • The cupcakes everyone devours while strolling the narrow streets of the West Village come from Magnolia Bakery (401 Bleecker St.; 212/462-2572).

DINNER'S READY After a walk to Brooklyn over the famous bridge (the entry ramp is just east of City Hall), reward yourself with pizza at the passionately loved Grimaldi's (19 Old Fulton St.; 718/858-4300; dinner for four $35). Dessert—and great New York City views—are down the block at the Fulton Ferry Landing's Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory (718/246-3963). • In Manhattan, get your tacos and burritos at Gabriela's (685 Amsterdam Ave. at 93rd St., 212/961-0574, and 315 Amsterdam Ave. at 75th St., 212/875-8532; dinner for four $40). • The Chat n' Chew (10 E. 16th St.; 212/243-1616; dinner for four $40) is all about meat loaf and macaroni and cheese. • Sure, the View (Marriott Marquis Hotel, 535 Broadway at 45th St.; 212/704-8900; dinner for four $150) is touristy and expensive, but consider the special effects: you shoot up to the 47th floor in a glass elevator, where, as you eat your steak, the restaurant makes a full revolution every 70 minutes.

CURTAIN CALL At the New Victory Theater (209 W. 42nd St.; 646/223-3020; www.newvictory.org), a joyful restored 1900 landmark, tickets start at $10 for the smartest, most innovative children's shows from around the world. For discount Broadway tickets, get in line at TKTS (Times Square at 47th St. or South Street Seaport at Front and John Sts.; 212/768-1818), or try www.theatermania.com or www.playbill.com.

WHERE TO STAY Cool off in the rooftop pool of the Holiday Inn Midtown (440 W. 57th St.; 800/465-4329 or 212/581-8100; doubles from $149 with 21-day advance purchase), a few blocks from Central Park. Request one of the renovated corner rooms. • Just north of Times Square, the Howard Johnson Plaza Hotel (851 Eighth Ave. at 51st St.; 800/426-4656 or 212/581-4100; doubles from $119) puts you a block from Ninth Avenue's Afghan kebab houses, Greek cafés, and Thai restaurants. • The rooms in the stately Excelsior Hotel (45 W. 81st St.; 800/368-4575 or 212/362-9200; www.excelsiorhotelny.com; doubles from $129) are impeccable (if small). And the Upper West Side location can't be beat: it's just opposite the Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th St.; 212/769-5100; www.amnh.org) and a block from Central Park.

BEST GUIDES The Cool Parents Guide to All of New York (Universe), by Alfred Gingold and Helen Rogan, details excursions that the whole family—yes, even you—will enjoy. Grab the latest Time Out New York (and its new TONY Kids) or New York magazine for current listings of performances, street fairs, and art openings.
—Jane Margolies

Washington, D.C.

FUN FOR FREE It costs absolutely nothing to visit all 14 museums of the Smithsonian Institution—from the kid-pleasing National Air and Space Museum (Independence Ave. at Fourth St. SW; 202/357-2700) to the National Gallery of Art (Constitution Ave. between Third and Ninth Sts. NW; 202/737-4215). And don't forget the National Zoological Park (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/673-4950; www.fonz.org). Hello, giant pandas. • Try to spot the lunar rock in the Space Window at the National Cathedral (Massachusetts and Wisconsin Aves. NW; 202/537-6200; www.cathedral.org), the world's sixth-largest cathedral. • Watch money being made—$696 million worth of currency daily—at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (14th and C Sts. SW; 202/874-3019; www.moneyfactory.com). • Race up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (23rd St. NW; www.nps.gov/linc), then ask a ranger for a junior-ranger booklet and take a self-guided tour of the Mall.

MUSEUM NOT TO MISS The International Spy Museum (800 F St. NW; 202/393-7798; www.spymuseum.org; adults $13, children $10; under five free) sends kids on undercover missions, in-house. Look for the lipstick that doubles as a KGB pistol. The Spy City Café is the best place to eat within walking distance of the Mall.

GETTING AROUND In a city of unmetered taxicabs with zoned fares that seem oddly inconsistent, the Metro (www.wmata.com; $1.20 to $3.60 per ride) is the way to go (except to Georgetown, which requires a cab).

LUNCH AND SNACKS Since 1958, Ben's Chili Bowl (1213 U St. NW; 202/667-0909; www.benschilibowl.com) has served up sensational chili dogs to everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Bono. • The crispy individual pies at Pizzeria Paradiso on Dupont Circle (2029 P St. NW; 202/223-1245) attract crowds; you'll have a shorter wait at the newer Georgetown branch (3282 M St. NW; 202/337-1245), which puts you right by the mule-drawn barge ride at the C&O Canal National Historical Park (1057 Thomas Jefferson St. NW; 202/653-5190; www.nps.gov/choh; adults $8, kids 5-14 $5). • The 30 flavors at Thomas Sweet Ice Cream and Chocolate (3214 P St. NW; 202/337-0616) are made on the premises. Chelsea Clinton is a fan of the Swiss chocolate.

DINNER'S READY At Lebanese Taverna (2641 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202/265-8681; dinner for four $60), a few blocks from the National Zoo, the mezes—kibbe (meatballs) and chicken kebabs—are perfect finger foods. • Go to Rocklands Barbecue and Grilling Company (2418 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/333-2558; www.rocklands.com; dinner for four $35) for baby back ribs and pulled-chicken sandwiches. Warning: You'll leave smelling as if you've been barbecued. • Buttered pasta is served alongside seared salmon at the highbrow-lowbrow Diner (2453 18th St. NW; 202/232-8800; dinner for four $50).

DAY TRIP Tour George Washington's house, still-working farms, stables, and cramped slave quarters at Mount Vernon (3200 George Washington Memorial Pkwy., Mount Vernon, Va.; www.mountvernon.org), overlooking the Potomac. It's 45 minutes from Union Station on a Gray Line bus (Gray Line Bus Tours; 202/289-1995; $30).

WHERE TO STAY Fresh from its 2003 makeover, the Holiday Inn on the Hill (415 New Jersey Ave. NW; 202/638-1616; www.holidayinnonthehill.com; doubles from $139) has cobalt blue rooms, zebrawood armoires, and black-granite bathrooms. Its Family Fun package includes free parking and daily boxed lunches. • The White House and the MCI Center (home to the NBA's Washington Wizards) are within walking distance of the Marriott at Metro Center (775 12th St. NW; 202/737-2200; www.marriott.com; doubles from $129). Also consider its sister hotel, the Washington Marriott (1221 22nd St. NW; 202/872-1500; doubles from $119), near the Lincoln and Vietnam Veterans memorials.

TIP You'll find the best hotel rates on the weekends, when the movers and shakers skip town. Don't be shy about asking for special prices. Most popular month: April, when the Mall's cherry trees blossom. Best month for deals: August—if you can take the heat.
—Lauren Paige Kennedy

 

San Francisco

FUN FOR FREE Join a group walking tour of Chinatown, North Beach, or Haight-Ashbury with City Guides (415/557-4266; www.sfcityguides.com; custom tours also available), sponsored by the San Francisco Public Library. • Climb aboard and clang the bells at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum (415/474-1887; 1201 Mason St.; www.cablecarmuseum.org). • Picnic in the gardens at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Third and Mission Sts.; www.zeum.org). There's a big playground, a butterfly garden, and the inspiring Martin Luther King Jr. fountain. (You can also skate, bowl, and visit Zeum, an art and technology museum, all right here.) • For extraordinary views of the Golden Gate Bridge, stroll the waterfront at Crissy Field (603 Old Mason St.; 415/427-4779)—don't miss the Warming Hut (Bldg. 983, Presidio; 415/561-3040) for hot chocolate.

DO AS THE LOCALS DO On Sundays, a large stretch of Golden Gate Park (Kennedy Dr. between 19th and Stanyan Aves.) is closed to cars and turns into a sea of cyclists and in-line skaters. Rent your own wheels at Surrey Bikes & Blades (50 Stow Lake Dr.; 415/668-6699). Or go paddleboating at Stow Lake (www.parks.sfgov.org).

GETTING AROUND Cable cars are for tourists. Locals use the city's bus and streetcar system, Muni (415/673-6864; www.sfmuni.com; $1.25 for adults, 35 cents for children 5-17). If you're spending the week, nab CityPasses (www.citypass.com; $36 for adults, $28 for kids 5-17): seven days of unlimited rides on Muni (and cable cars!), plus reduced admissions to the Exploratorium (3601 Lyon St.; 415/561-0399; www.exploratorium.edu) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third St.; 415/357-4000; www.sfmoma.org). Only have stamina for one museum?Make it SFMOMA.

LUNCH AND SNACKS Join the debate over whether the dim sum at Yank Sing (101 Spear St.; 415/957-9300; www.yanksing.com; lunch for four $60) is the city's best. • Taste the Bay Area's prize produce, cheese, and baked goods at the Farmers' Market at the Ferry Building (Market St. at Embarcadero; www.ferryplazafarmersmarket.com), land of the free sample. The adjoining Ferry Building (www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com) has first-rate food stalls and restaurants. Look for the Slanted Door (Vietnamese), Lulu Petite (take-out sandwiches and homemade potato chips), and Scharffen Berger chocolate—sorry, Ghirardelli, this is the city's finest.

DINNER'S READY Plouf (40 Belden Place; 415/986-6491; dinner for four $65), an outdoor French seafood café, specializes in mussels and roast chicken and frites. Also ideal as a lunch stop. • Pasta Pomodoro (1875 Union St. and six other San Francisco locations; 415/771-7900; dinner for four $45), near the Marina District, is fast and satisfying—unless you're on Atkins. • Scoop sushi from floating boats at Isobune (1737 Post St.; 415/563-1030; dinner for four $65) in Japantown.

BEST CHEAP SEATS SBC Park (Third and King Sts.; 415/972-2000; www.sfgiants.com), home to the San Francisco Giants baseball team, has up to 500 bleacher seats on sale for $16 each on game days.

TO KEEP TEENS HAPPY Head to the Haight, for CD shopping at Amoeba Music (1855 Haight St.; 415/831-1200) and vintage clothing at Wasteland (1660 Haight St.; 415/863-3150).

WHERE TO STAY The Hotel del Sol (3100 Webster St.; 415/921-5520; www.jdvhospitality.com; doubles from $149, including continental breakfast), in the Marina District, is as groovy as it gets. Doubles are wildly colorful (think blueberry and tangerine), if tight. And there's a heated outdoor pool. • The Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf (2500 Mason St.; 415/362-5500; www.sheratonatthewharf.com; doubles from $139) also has a heated outdoor pool. • The nautically themed Argonaut (495 Jefferson St.; 415/563-0800; www.argonauthotel.com; doubles from $149) is a new boutique hotel on Fisherman's Wharf. Frette linens ahoy! Climb aboard the 1886 Balclutha and other historic vessels in the Maritime Park (499 Jefferson St.; 415/447-5000; www.maritime.org) next door.

BEST GUIDE Locals turn to the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle's Datebook—a.k.a. the Pink Section—for listings of plays, screenings, and kids' activities.

TIP It's chilly when the fog rolls in. Save yourself the cost of a tacky sweatshirt. Year-round, pack a pullover.
—Laura Hilgers