It's 7:30 in the morning on a cool, overcast Sunday in San Francisco's Cow Hollow neighbourhood, a wedge of upscale housing lodged securely between the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf. This is the third morning in a row my husband, Dave, and I have loaded our son, Nathan, into his stroller and staggered through the gates at Moscone playground, a five-minute hike from the hotel.
And we're not the only ones here. Other parents are wheeling in, clutching colossal cups of Jamba Juice smoothies.
Last time we visited San Francisco, we were newly married and carefree, having booked our tickets for a last-minute Easter vacation. We sipped drinks in romantic restaurants perched over the ocean, toured Napa Valley and, gasp, slept in.
Fast-forward three years.
My back hurts from lugging a diaper bag. Extra napkins equal fine dining. And we can't pass a playground without taking it for a spin. Still, there's nothing like offspring to make you feel like an adopted city's resident, ensconced in the secret club of other bleary-eyed parents at local parks. Here you can absorb a city's underlying pulse, one that's mostly ignored by tourists who come armed with checklists of cathedrals to see and nightclubs to do.
And, despite the fact that "impractical" is listed as a synonym for "romantic," new and more experienced parents with school-aged children can travel to romantic destinations -- Paris, New York, San Francisco and Montreal -- and still have a good time, if they learn how to set their expectations at kid height.
"The city ceases to have a night life," says Michael Forbes, a father in Toronto who rented a Paris apartment a few months ago with his wife and 21-month-old daughter for 10 days. "Great restaurants, cool bars and even movies are no longer options. But you do get to discover new things and new places that you may have previously taken for granted, like parks and public art."
Paris has a dual reputation for both being romantic and patronizing. But Forbes says he was happily surprised by how accommodating locals were. Waiters slipped Madeleine cookies as her parents waited for take-out meals. They accomplished quick diaper changes on the bench in front of the Louvre without suffering the hairy eyeball. His apartment's concierge found a crib.
Heather Jack, a Vancouver-based mom, also travelled to Paris with her husband and three boys and says older kids are portable when travelling -- up to a point.
"Don't be disappointed when your kids (who spent hours poring over books of Renoir and Monet before the trip) spend all of three seconds looking at the actual original paintings and sculptures in the Musée d'Orsay," she says.
Where to stay: It's as easy to rent an apartment in Paris, says Forbes, who visited www.vrbo.com to find listings. The upside? Loads of room and a kitchen to prepare meals. Staying in non-tourist neighbourhoods such as Quartier Batignolle keeps costs down and offers a more laid-back, family atmosphere.
Where to eat: Take-out rules when you have kids. Try Le Pot Lisson, (28 rue Truffaut) for bistro fare in a hurry. Or just walk into the numerous bakeries lining Paris streets for a baguette or sandwich.
Transportation: Walking is your best bet. The Métro, which opened in 1900, is not known for being stroller-friendly because of a lack of elevators and escalators.
Where to play: Paris is filled with parks. Forbes loves the Square des Batignolles, the neighbourhood haunt close to his apartment, with its antique carousel and playgrounds. "We were there twice a day," he admits. Other kid-friendly parks include: Jardin du Trocadéro and the Jardin des Plantes with its zoo.
Travelling with a toddler gives new meaning to the phrase "the city that never sleeps." But there's just so much to do in New York, that even if you are up at dawn, it hardly matters. Wander through Central Park and watch the runners pound the pavement. Visit Times Square before crowds hit. Grab some breakfast at a deli.
Matthew Younder, a father from Toronto who visited New York with his wife, Jennifer, and his daughter, Caroline, when she was eight months old, says he's amazed by how accessible New York really is.
"The days were busier and the nights quieter, but that wasn't an inconvenience. Honestly, we did the same number of things as we did when we went by ourselves," he says. His family spent the day pushing a stroller along the Upper East Side to check out the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art before dipping down to Times Square for a photo op.
"Visiting New York actually opened my eyes. We probably should have travelled more when Caroline was young," says Younder, who now has a three-month-old son.
Where to stay: Try renting a suite at Wellington Hotel (55th and 7th Ave.; www.wellingtonhotel.com), four blocks south of Central Park. Or try Embassy Suites New York (102 North End Ave., Battery Park City; www.embassynewyork.com) located next to the financial district.
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