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Family Postcards: 4 Classic U.S. City Sights

Where to take the family to see the best of Philadelphia's history, San Francisco's street cars, Boston's perfect park, and New Orleans' French Quarter.

500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights cities, museums, and trips throughout the world. The destinations below represent four picture-postcard-worthy city sights in the U.S.

What: Philadelphia: Cradle of Liberty
Who: All ages

It's no exaggeration to call this the most historic square mile in America, the very place where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution of the United States hammered out. The look is tidy and stereotypical, steepled red-brick buildings with neat white por-ticos. Yet there's nothing tidy about what happened here -- it took enormous courage for these British colonists to leap off this cliff -- and when you see your child's eyes light up, realizing that these were real people and not just Faces on the Money, that's when you'll be glad you came to Philadelphia.

The focal point of Independence National Historical Park is Independence Hall, Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th streets, where in a chamber known as the Pennsylvania Assembly Room, the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775. Virginian Thomas Jefferson was assigned to write a document setting forth the colonists' grievances (Jefferson worked on it while boarding at Graff House, nearby at 7th and Market sts.), and by July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was ready to be signed by the Congress -- in Independence Hall you can even see the silver inkwell they used. You can also see the Rising Sun Chair that George Washington sat in 11 years later to preside over the Constitutional Convention, as President of the new United States. In a glass pavilion next door rests the 2,000-pound Liberty Bell, which was rung in 1776 at the first public reading of the Declaration; circle around it to find the famous crack up its side, which has been there since it was cast in 1751. At the northern end of grassy Independence Mall, the modern National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St., is so darn interactive, the children may not even notice how educational it is -- you can take your own Presidential Oath of Office or try on a Supreme Court robe. In Signers Hall, bronze life-size statues depict the delegates who signed the Declaration -- putting faces to those famous signatures was enormously satisfying.

Contact: Visitor Center, 6th and Market sts. (tel. 800/537-7676 or 215/965-7676;

What: Washington, D.C.: Having a Ball on the National Mall

Who: All ages

When Congress hired Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant to design a capital city for the new United States, he came back with a supremely rational plan: a grid of numbered and lettered streets laced with diagonal avenues (named after states) and punctuated with circular plazas. In a stroke of genius, L'Enfant laid at the heart of it all the National Mall, a 2½-mile-long, 300-foot-wide plain lined with neoclassical government buildings -- one unbroken sweep from the dome of the Capitol to the back lawn of the White House. What I wonder is this: Did L'Enfant foresee what a great place this Mall was going to be for children?

Most buildings along the Mall these days are museums, many of them run by the Smithsonian Institution, which means free admission; you can give restless kids a chance to stretch their legs between visits to the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Natural History, or the Air and Space Museum. We also love the National Museum of American History, Constitution Avenue NW between 12th and 14th streets, where you can see everything from the original Star Spangled Banner to gowns worn by various First Ladies, to Julia Child's kitchen and Archie Bunker's armchair. The Rotunda of the National Archives, Constitution Avenue between 7th and 9th streets, displays three incredibly important (and rare) original documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. If admission hadn't been free, we'd never have coaxed the kids into the Freer Gallery of Art, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, where we skipped the vast collection of Asian art just to see the amazing Peacock Room designed by James Whistler.

The Mall's diversions include a 19th-century carousel at Jefferson Drive and the pool in the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden at 7th Street, where kids can splash their feet in summer and ice-skate in winter. Vendors sell ice cream and soft pretzels; families jog, bike, and fly kites. What could have been a grandiose ceremonial space becomes instead a happy picnic ground.

Visiting the U.S. Capitol, the Mall's eastern landmark, requires some effort; line up early at the visitor center at 1st and Independence for your timed-admission ticket for a free half-hour tour. Visiting the White House, at the other end, requires even more effort, beginning with a call to your congressperson 6 months in advance. But seeing the stately monuments that lie to the west requires nothing more than hopping onto a narrated Tourmobile tram (tel. 888/868-7707 or 202/554-5100; and hopping off again whenever you please. We were content to do a drive-by of Lincoln's, Washington's, and Jefferson's, but we were glad we got off for the Vietnam Memorial to be deeply moved by endless ranks of soldiers' names, simply etched in smooth black granite.

Contact: Tourist office (tel. 202/789-7000;

What: New Orleans: The Treasure We Almost Lost
Who: All ages

For some people, it took a hurricane for them to realize they should have visited New Orleans. Here was a true original among American cities, a place where people danced with parasols at funerals, ate beignets and po' boys, believed in voodoo and vampires, and threw plastic beads off parade floats. Despite its raunchy Bourbon Street reputation, it was always a great family destination. Even in the Mississippi Delta heat (and every time I've been there it was sweltering hot), something about New Orleans always seemed laid-back and incredibly cool, darlin'. And Hurricane Katrina nearly wiped it off the face of the earth.

Luckily, the reports of New Orleans's demise were premature -- though damaged, New Orleans is still very much with us, and open again for business. You've been given a second chance. Take it now.

The part of New Orleans least affected by the disaster was its prime tourist area: the French Quarter, one of the few areas that had been built above river level and escaped heavy flooding. The French Quarter -- or as local signs have it, the Vieux Carré -- is, despite the name, a Spanish-flavored fantasy of wrought-iron balconies and tiny flower-filled courtyards and alluring louvered windows, its centerpiece being gardenlike Jackson Square. Just walking around here is entertainment, but several attractions are especially appealing to families: the touristy-but-fun Historic Voodoo Museum, 724 Dumaine St.; the kitschy Musée Conti Wax Museum, 917 Conti St.; the Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., which despite the name is all about New Orleans jazz history and Mardi Gras traditions; and the open-air French Market, Decatur Street, from Jackson Square to Esplanade Avenue, where you can buy snacks like gator on a stick. Really.

Be sure to ride the historic St. Charles Streetcar; it goes from the Quarter to the Audubon Zoo at 6500 Magazine St., which displays 1,800 animals among lush subtropical plantings and a replica of a Louisiana swamp (dig the white alligator). Right on the banks of the Mississippi, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, 1 Canal St., is a world-class facility with exhibits of penguins, sharks, a coral reef, a rainforest, and a swamp. And though Mardi Gras itself may be overwhelming to children, they can get an eyeful of floats and larger-than-life character sculptures at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, 223 Newton St., Algiers Point; they can even try on some fabulous costumes.

Contact: Tourist office, 2020 St. Charles Ave. (tel. 800/672-6124 or 800/748-8695;

What: The Cable Car Hills of San Francisco
Who: All ages

Maybe it was all those Rice-A-Roni commercials from my childhood, but I get a thrill when I hear the clang-clang of a San Francisco cable car. These beloved wooden icons, the only moving landmarks in the National Register of Historic Places, are absurdly impractical; San Francisco had nearly torn up all the tracks in 1947 until a public outcry saved the last three lines. And now, whaddya know, they are San Francisco's most iconic attraction, the one must-do for every visitor.

San Francisco's steep hills are notorious; it's a great location for filming car chases (remember Bullitt?) but a challenging place for everyone else. In 1869 engineer Andrew Hallidie watched a team of overworked horses pulling a heavy carriage up a rain-slicked San Francisco hill and resolved to invent a mechanical device to replace the beasts; in 1873 the first cable car traversed Clay Street. They really are ingenious: An electrically powered steel cable under the street constantly moves at 9½ mph, which each car clamps onto with an underground grip to get hauled along (operators are thus called "grippers," not drivers). Listen for the distinctive underground clickity-clack of the cable. Daredevils choose to ride in the open-air sections, not the enclosed seating areas, standing up and hanging onto a strap, which at under 10 mph isn't as perilous as it sounds.

Two cable car routes start at the intersection of Powell and Market streets: The Powell-Hyde line ends at the turnaround in a waterfront park by Ghirardelli Square, and the Powell-Mason line meanders through North Beach to end on the east side of Fisherman's Wharf. The Powell-Hyde line has the steepest climbs and drops, if that's what you're interested in; take it from Market Street north, past crooked Lombard Street on your right before heading down Russian Hill with a breathtaking vista of Alcatraz and the San Francisco Bay. The California Street line runs east-west from Market and California streets over Nob Hill to Van Ness Avenue. Queues to board the Powell Street cars at either end seem endless, but there are strategies to avoid them: Ride at less-popular night hours, jump on at an intermediate stop (this is iffy in high season, when cars get so full that they can't pick up passengers en route), or board at Powell and Market rather than the crowded turnarounds near Fisherman's Wharf (for the California line, the Van Ness end is less crowded). Even though we waited for over an hour at the Ghiradelli Square terminus, we actually had fun -- street musicians played, tourists swapped travel tips, and we could watch three or four cars pivot grandly around on the turntables. After that long wait, the ride seemed surprisingly short, but no one in my family complained.

Contact: San Francisco Municipal Railway (tel. 415/701-2311; Convention & Visitors' Bureau, 900 Market St. (tel. 415/391-2000;

This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.