Traveling with Kids in San Francisco: Get to Know Your ABCs
With so many things to do, planning a trip to San Francisco can be overwhelming—Fisherman’s Wharf, China Town, North Beach, Muir Woods, first-rate museums, restaurants and more. If your group of travelers includes young children or teenagers, it can get a bit more complicated.
What attractions will hold everyone’s interest? How do we get there? Is it kid friendly? Will there be food my little ones will eat? Are reservations required? Is Wi-Fi available for mobile devices?
Based on more than ten years guiding families to crowd-pleasing activities in San Francisco, here are my 5-star favorites beginning with ‘A’ for Awesome!
A – Climb half-way to the stars on a cable car.
You’ll want to start your throw-back transit experience at the San Francisco Cable Car Barn & Museum (1201 Mason St). Does the “grip” still use pine blocks to brake the cars? Find out.
Want a ride that avoids the long lines? Take the Powell/Hyde car from Union Square to the top of Lombard Street (check out the views of Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge and Berkeley!). Get off and walk down the “crookedest” street this side of Wall Street. Ha! You can buy tickets from the conductor on the car (children under the age of 4 are free).
Photo Credit: https://hitherandthither.net/
B – Get elevated by Coit Tour.
From the bay side of Telegraph Hill (near Sansome and Filbert) look for the first of 400 stairs to the base of Coit Tower. No need to hurry. The views are spectacular from any spot in Pioneer Park. Be on the lookout for the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. That’s no joke.
Your huffing and puffing will be rewarded with a 360-degree city panorama at the top of the 211-foot tower (the elevator costs $8 for adults; $5 for kids). Check out the once-controversial murals in the tower’s lobby.
When finished, gather the group and continue the other direction (West) down Filbert Street toward North Beach where you can reward yourself with a visit to Tony’s “world’s best” Pizza. Over lunch you can Google “Firebelle” Lil’ Hitchcock and learn why she dedicated this memorial to San Francisco firefighters.
C – Pier 39: water-front theme park with a San Francisco flair.
Pier 39 and its neighboring piers are an all-you-can-eat buffet of attractions and food. Check out the walk-through glass dome at the Aquarium of the Bay. Snap selfies with the sea lions. Have the world’s only 7D Experience. When you’ve had your fill, stroll down a couple of piers to Musee Mecanique where parents (or grandparents) can explain how coin-operated musical instruments and arcade games were the ORIGINAL video games.
Photo Credit: http://sf-waterfront.com/
D – At Boudin’s Bakery, conclude that some things can’t be improved upon.
Looking through floor-to-ceiling windows at Boudin, you get to watch bakers work dough into fun animal shapes. Established in 1849 in the early days of the California Gold Rush, the bakery still uses remnants of its original starter yeast culture.
This is a great spot for lunch. Try the sourdough bread bowl filled with clam chowder or the margarita pizza. Delicious! Hint: If you want to sound like a local, its pronounced: “boo-DEEN”.
Photo Credit: https://www.takingthekids.com
E – An afternoon of “edutainment” at the California Academy of Sciences.
At this natural history museum…slash…planetarium…slash aquarium, young and not-so-young can do their own scientific discovery. Don’t miss being shaken at the earthquake exposition, trekking through the living rainforest or clapping at the penguin project.
It’s the greenest museum on earth! Touch plates of food and the display tells you how you can reduce your carbon footprint with better food choices.
Photo Credit: https://inspiredimperfection.com
F – Do some hard time on Alcatraz Island.
Alcatraz locked up some of America’s most ruthless and legendary criminals: Al Capone, Robert Franklin “Birdman” Stroud, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Designed as a maximum-security prison, authorities believed the frigid waters and strong currents of San Francisco Bay would make Alcatraz escape-proof. Was it? You decide.
“The Rock” also has a soft side—gardens, tide pools, bird colonies and stunning San Francisco views. When making reservations (do it early!), consider the Behind the Scenes, Angel Island Combo and Night tours. Tickets sold out? An alternative Escape from Alcatraz tour combines a fun ferry boat ride a waterfront view of the prison.
Photo Credit: John A. Martini
G – Get up close and personal with the incomparable Golden Gate Bridge.
What’s the best spot for the iconic San Francisco family portrait? Our favorite vantage for the Golden Gate Bridge is from Fort Point where kids can duck behind iron cannon and imagine defending the city from enemy fleets. The museum has interesting displays, a well-equipped gift shop and bathrooms!
The day before the bridge opened in 1937, 200,000 people crossed the bridge on foot and roller skates. You can do the same in dedicated walking and biking lanes! Thirsty? Head down to a local favorite—the Warming Hut.
Photo Credit: http://www.wikiwand.com/
H – Try “sittin’ on the dock of the bay” in Sausalito.
Once there, pick a lunch spot with breath-taking views of San Francisco’s waterfront. Screamin’ for ice cream? We recommend Lappert’s on Bridgeway—Sausalito’s main street. Yes, there will be a line. It’s worth it!
Time to get back to the City? Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge or hop on the Blue & Gold ferry to Fisherman’s Wharf (Pier 41).
Photo Credit: http://redtri.com/san-francisco/
I – Slip into something uncomfortable at the Seward Street Slides.
This mini-park near the Castro District features a community garden of native plants. But the main attraction is two incredibly steep concrete slides offering cheap (free!) thrills for kids and adults alike. Bring a piece of cardboard.
When hunger strikes, head over to the Mission District in search of the perfect burrito. We recommend El Farolito (2779 Mission St). Try the super burrito with carnitas. Perfecto!
Photo Credit: https://www.wheredoitakethekids.com/
J – Take the Land’s End trail to the edge of the continent.
From the Land’s End Visitors Center, there are several mostly flat coastal hikes. Be sure not to miss the ruins of the Sutro Baths—a early 20th Century spectacle and public bath house that burned to the ground in 1966.
Photo Credit: http://www.niseiskiclub.org/
K – Soar above it all in a vintage seaplane.
During a 30-minute flight kids of all ages will be spellbound as they soar over Baker Beach, Pt. Bonita Lighthouse, then the glorious Golden Gate Bridge herself! You’re not done. See Crissy Field, downtown San Francisco, AT&T Park – home of the Major League Baseball San Francisco Giants, and the island prison of Alcatraz from above!
Your party will touch down in Sausalito where you can continue your Marin County day of adventure with a stroll through giant coastal redwoods in Muir Woods or a hike up Mount Tamalpais.
Photo Credit: https://www.expedia.com/
Getting organized. Some last advice: don’t over schedule yourself. Leave some free time for spontaneous moments. In the end, they can be some of the most memorable.
On your first day or two in San Francisco, I suggest that you take a couple of guided bus or van tours by a well-regarded operator like Extranomical Tours. This way, you delegate the planning to a local expert as you get the “lay of the land”. Then, the family can decide where they’d like to return for a more in-depth experience.
Take Extranomical’s City Insiders AM tour to capture that perfect family photo with the Golden Gate Bridge, see the California Academy of Sciences and Land’s End. At the end of the tour, you’ll be dropped within walking distance of Pier 39, Boudin Bakery, the Pier 35 ferry to Alcatraz Island, the Powell/Mason cable car turnaround and the Embarcadero entrance to the Coit Tower steps.
Alcatraz tickets are included with Extranomical’s Bay in a Day or Total Yosemite Experience tours. We also offer Escape from the Rock tour tickets at our website.
On another day, take a morning Muir Woods tour and leave the bus at Sausalito where you can enjoy this bayside community and its ice cream. From there, you are just minutes from the takeoff spot for an aerial seaplane adventure.