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City Vacation: 6 No-Fail Family Travel Activities

By Eileen Gunn
Sea lion feedings never get old for  Tiny Traveler. But I’ve seen enough of them to hold me for quite some time. Unless they’re exceptional—Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum, Baltimore’s National Aquarium, the San Diego Zoo — I skip tourist attractions with fish, animals or waterplay rooms whenever I can find an alluring alternative.

gunn.charleston-marketIt is possible to find activities that make mom, dad, kids and even the smallest toddler happy and that give you a real taste of the place you’re visiting, especially in cities. Cities are surprisingly good family destinations; they have so much variety, it’s easy to please everyone. Here are six activities we’ve tried where old and young have actually had fun.

1. Farmers markets: See what the locals grow and compare it to what you eat at home. Help yourself to samples and buy some edible souvenirs. We often head to the markets at breakfast time, buy baked goods and fruit, then find a place to sit and hope street musicians pop up (they often do). Some of our favorites: New York’s giant Union Square Greemarket, The weekend markets at Marion Square in Charleston, SC, on King Street in Alexandria, VA and the viktualienmarkt in Munich. Seattle’s Pike Place, Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, Montreal’s Atwater and the Mercado Centrale in Florence, IT are awesome indoor markets. For its exotic flavors we love the Temple Street Night Market in Hong Kong.

2. Alternative modes of transportation: Ferry, subway, double-decker bus, streetcar, funicular, whatever. How you get their matters to kids. You enjoy the view, they thrill at the novelty and adventure in it, you get where you’re going eventually. And everyone is happy.

3. Offbeat neighborhoods: Use that public transportation to venture away from tourist central and into a city’s residential neighborhoods. Chances are you’ll find new and cool playgrounds (for the kids), a glimpse of the city’s real character and charm (for you) and casual, inexpensive local restaurants (for everyone). Best way to find these gems: Ask the locals. The girl at the hotel’s front desk, the friendly waiter at breakfast, definitely any tour guides you meet, and that family you pass on the street that’s almost certainly from around here.

4. Ethnic food: The best, most lively urban neighborhoods are often ethnic enclaves; great sources of cheap, kid-friendly food. Chinese dim sum and Korean barbecue include lots of small plates. Sample a few and order more of what you like. Thai or Indian buffets mix spicy, salty and sweet (and there’s plain rice for the really picky eaters). Mexican taquerias and Vietnamese noodle (pho) shops are a good bet, too, when you can find them. After you fuel up, do some unique souvenir shopping.

5. Art museums: Kids like looking at pictures, so this isn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. Before leaving town, check museum websites for family-centric tours and classes for all age groups, even preschoolers. Keep in mind that the national museums in Washington, DC are free all the time, Target sponsors free-admission days at cultural institutions all over the country and many museums have one free day a week (often Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday). These are great for families because you aren’t out steep admission fees if the kids are done with Jackson Pollock after 20 minutes. If they just can’t get enough of those impressionists, you can make a donation on the way out.

6. Carriage tours: Building on tip #2. Touring a new city with kids is a challenge. Bus tours are confining and walking tours are booo-riiiing for kids until they’re nominally interested in history. The compromise we like: carriage tours. They’re hokey and not especially in-depth, but they hit the high notes, kids like horses (which can carry you a long way), and the tour will be done in 30 to 45 minutes, just about when your kids are, too.

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