With their museums, parks, sporting events, and restaurants, big cities make ideal destinations for family trips. Our correspondents explored two of North America's top urban tourist sites--Toronto and San Francisco--to find attractions to keep your kids engaged.
Toronto: `It's safe, it's clean, it's fun'
When my 15-year-old daughter, Becky, and her friends set out for a good time in Toronto, they have their work cut out for them. Their challenge: too many choices. Should they shop for vintage clothes in Kensington, ride the roller coasters at Paramount Canada's Wonderland, Rollerblade on the Toronto Islands, or hang out at a Second Cup coffeehouse, Canada's cozy answer to Starbucks? Says Becky, "Toronto is safe, it's clean, it's fun."
Slipping into the local milieu is as easy as diving into a mosh pit. One of North America's most kid-friendly cities, Toronto is a place where teens can wander virtually anywhere, whether on foot, on the spotless subway, or via quaint, above-ground electrified trolley cars. As parents soon find out, adult chaperones are seldom welcome for locals and strictly optional for visitors.
Americans, especially, find the city as comfortable as home, but with an international twist. At an exchange rate of about 65 U.S. cents to the Canadian dollar, they can buy plenty of genuine 1970s bell-bottoms in the Kensington market area, even with the 15% sales tax. The area is chockablock with novelty stores run by European, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern emigres. It's also alive with restaurants and cafes and, especially on the weekends, teens. "The music is loud and varied," says Becky. "You'll hear rap, ska, and jazz from lots of storefronts."
Many teens head for the Queen Street West district, Toronto's answer to Greenwich Village. The neighborhood boasts shops such as Black Market, notable for vintage denims and weird shirts. One landmark is the CHUMCity Building, home of CityTV, a trendy broadcaster, and MuchMusic, Canada's version of MTV. The studio welcomes audiences for live shows and lets them sound off on camera in the walk-in Speakers Corner. Some might even be aired. A hop away, at the harborfront Queen's Quay, teens can swing at alcohol-free dance clubs.
Since Toronto weathers the occasional blizzard, it offers a neat underground world, too. Six miles of passageways thread their way beneath downtown, linking subways and skyscrapers. Well-lighted and as modern as shopping malls, the subterranean complex is jammed with food courts and more than 1,200 stores, coffee shops, and service outlets. One retailing hot spot with both underground and above-ground appeal is Eaton Centre, which also might suit parents because it's in the heart of Toronto's theater district.
SHOE MUSEUM. Want to get physical? Hop a ferry from the Lake Ontario waterfront ($2.40 for adults; $1.20, 15-19; 65 cents, kids under 15) and you're at the Toronto Islands in seven minutes. There you can rent bikes, skate, jog, picnic, or catch the odd concert. The best time of the year is May to October. On the mainland, the Beaches area is a summertime favorite for music, sunning, and swimming.
Even museum-hopping can be a real kick. The Bata Shoe Museum features three floors of shoes, including a 4,500-year-old Egyptian funerary sandal and more recent items such as ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell's Union Jack platform boots, footwear worn by Elvis Presley and Elton John, and even a lone John Lennon boot. Then there's the Hockey Hall of Fame, home to interactive hockey simulators (just try to block a Gretzky shot) and, when it's not out traveling, the Stanley Cup. The Ontario Science Centre offers exhibits on space exploration, Net-surfing, and even sports science--a bobsled simulator makes you feel you're on an Olympic racecourse.
Paramount Canada's Wonderland, a 300-acre park just north of the city, offers 50 rides such as the Top Gun, a looping 110-foot-high roller coaster. Back downtown, don't miss the 1,815-foot high CN Tower, the world's tallest. And be sure to catch a Blue Jays game at the Skydome, or if you can bag a ticket, a Maple Leafs hockey game at the new Air Canada Centre. Indeed, your teenager may come home sporting a Maple Leaf patch. Back home in Philadelphia, Becky's gang finds the miniature Canadian flags downright wicked.
By Joseph Weber
San Francisco: Who thought mass transit could be so much fun?
I admit it: I'm a transit nerd. Not many adults share my fascination with old New York City subway maps or my urge to grab the front seat in airport shuttle trains to get the best view of the tunnel ahead. But children, like me, are charmed by transit. The same bus trip that bores a jaded commuter can be a big kick for a four-year-old. Kids as old as 10 are delighted by a tramway or awed by a high-speed train. And best of all, compared to other tourist lures, transit is dirt cheap.
I put this idea to the test a few years back, when I had to babysit my kindergarten-age niece for a day. What began as a scheme to pass time turned into a whirlwind tour of San Francisco--and one of the most memorable days of her childhood. For less than the cost of a movie, we spent hours exploring the city by bus, train, ferry, and cable car. Anybody visiting San Francisco with kids can easily repeat the experience.
Begin your multimodal tour in Union Square, center of the downtown commercial district. First stop: the glass elevators at the elegant Westin St. Francis hotel. Walk to the back of the lobby, then board any elevator to the tower for a vertigo-inducing, 30-floor trip up the outside of the building. On the descent, peer straight down as you near the ground floor to simulate the sensation of crashing. The thrill and fantastic views will prompt repeat trips. Cost: free.
WATERWAYS. Then it's on to high-speed rail. Walk a few blocks south on Powell Street to Hallidie Plaza on Market Street. Skip the line for the cable cars (for now) and head underground to BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Every passenger needs an electronic ticket, sold at machines in the station, but you only need to spend $1.10 each for this trip. Catch any train headed for the East Bay, and stand in the front car for the best view of the 80-mph trip through the San Francisco Bay tunnel. When you get to the West Oakland stop, disembark and cross to the opposite platform without exiting. Take a westbound train back to the Embarcadero station in San Francisco.
Back above ground, you're at the foot of Market Street and a short walk from the Ferry Building, where Golden Gate Ferry boats depart every few hours for Sausalito. With younger kids, you'll probably want to get round-trip tickets for the 30-minute ride. (Up to two kids under five travel free with a grownup paying $9.40; kids 6 to 12 pay $7.10 round-trip. On weekends, two kids under 12 ride free.) You can return immediately to San Francisco, or walk around quaint-bordering-on-cutesy Sausalito for a minimum of 90 minutes before heading back to the Embarcadero.
With older kids who have more stamina, you can try a longer route back. Buy a one-way boat ticket and catch the No. 20 Golden Gate Transit across from the Sausalito ferry dock. It crosses the Golden Gate bridge--offering great views on both sides--and travels down Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Get off at Market Street and transfer there to one of the restored F-line streetcars for a leisurely trip to the Embarcadero. Cost of the alternate route: $3.20 each.
Either way, you'll find yourself at the base of the California Street cable car, which has much shorter lines and even better views than its Powell Street rival. Kids under five ride free; the fare is $2 each way for others. At the top of Nob Hill, you can transfer to the Powell line to return to Union Square. But before that, you might be tempted by one more sky ride--in the glass elevators outside of the Fairmont Hotel.
By this point, all but superhuman kids will be exhausted. Resist their pleas to do the whole trip again. They've already got memories galore. But don't be surprised if they soon start collecting transit maps and insisting on riding in the front cars of trains.
By Andy Reinhardt