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Three Cities for a Song

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.

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