10 Things to do in San Francisco with Children

In May this year we were lucky enough to visit San Francisco for a fortnight. What a wonderful city! We all loved it, and felt right at home pretty much straight away. It was easy to find things to do which we all enjoyed, so here is our recommended list for any one lucky enough to go with little ones (or bigger ones!)… These are in no particular order of preference, they’re all just things which we enjoyed. If you are there for a few days with time to explore, I highly recommend buying City Passes for each adult and children 5 and up. These include all your transport around town, plus entry into 5 top attractions. They proved to be brilliant value as we were planning to visit all the attractions anyway. Just make sure you remember to take them out with you each day!

1: THE  WATERFRONT & PIER 39: Take a stroll along the waterfront, along from the Embarcadero to Pier 39, which is dedicated to tourists. Here you can find icecreams and candyfloss, souvenir shops, the Aquarium of the Bay, and the now famous sea lions who arrived over 20 years ago and decided they liked it so much they’d stay. We did visit the Aquarium as it was included on our Citypasses, but it was not one of our highlights. Pretty much like any other seaside Aquarium, the best thing about it was the fantastic views of the bay from upstairs…

2. BAY CRUISE: From  the head of Pier 39 you can catch a cruise boat around the bay for an hour, which will take you out past Alcatraz and under the Golden Gate Bridge and back. This would normally be around $23 for an adult and $15 for a child, but we used the vouchers in our City Passes, and Sam was free because he is under 5.

3: SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Again you get entry included on the Citypass. Home to some interesting pieces like this 3D collage above. (Definitely gave me the “we can do one of those…” feeling. Watch this space!). They also have a small but beautiful collection of Paul Klee works, some great sculpture – check out Louise Bourgeois ‘The Nest’ in the rooftop cafe. Don’t plan to eat here though, the cafe is very limited and very pricy. They did serve some rather cool Mondrian cake which Sam really wanted, but it was $8 a slice! (Again I think we’ll make our own…)

4: RIDE THE STREETCARS: San Francisco is full of trams. They are all fun, and the absolute best way to get around the city. But if you get to your last day like we did, and you haven’t yet been on one of the Historic Streetcar Lines on the Market Street Railway, brave the queues and make it a must-do! This is not included in the Citypass, but just pay the fair, it’ll be worth it! (children under 5 are free again). We took the Powell-Hyde Line from Powell on Market Street all the way to the end of the line. We stepped back from the queue when we got to the front, just so we could ride on the outside, sideways facing seats instead of inside. It was crammed part of the way but so much fun, and we got the views:

The Powell-Hyde line takes you to Fisherman’s Wharf, and it’s then a short walk to Ghirardelli’s famous chocolate factory. Get yourself an icecream (with some chocolate added of course) from their shop in Ghiradelli Square, perch yourself on the edge of the turtle fountain and relax a while…

5: THE JAPANESE TEA GARDEN in Golden Gate Park. This was definitely up in my personal top 3. We went fairly early in the day, around 10 when it had just opened, and so it wasn’t very busy, which made it all the more beautiful. It’s quite small, but enchanting for children and grown ups alike. A relaxing oasis for a few moments of calm, and then a great, safe place to play hide and seek (quietly – if that’s possible!).

6: THE GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE. This was an absolute must-do for us. Before we came we had read about it, looked it up on Google Earth and walked the little man on Google Maps right across it… You can park easily at either end in the designated sightseeing areas, then drink in the view across the bridge and the bay. Of course you can walk across the bridge but you can also walk underneath it, which, if you’ve got little ones interested in construction, is fantastic. Think Meccano on a grand scale!

7: THE EXPLORATORIUM at the Palace of Fine Arts. Take the 30 line as far as it goes towards the Marina, jump off at Broderick and Beach and walk West one block until you see this view,  The Palace of Fine Arts surrounded by a peaceful, turtle filled lake. Alternatively, if you drive, it’s just off the 101 near the Golden Gate Bridge and has it’s own parking which wasn’t crowded at all when we were there. Be warned that it’s closed on Mondays. It’s a little pricy ($15 per adult and $10 per child over 4), but it’s worth every penny…

We spent half a day here and the time went too quickly. If we went again (…WHEN we go again!), I would plan to take a picnic (again the cafe’s not great – but we are also vegetarian, so that limits things even more…), come outside to the grounds for lunch, then go back in for some more exploring for the afternoon.

What sets The Exploratorium apart from other science museums is that they have their own workshop, where they make all their own exhibits. It means they have things which are completely different to anywhere else, which have a very real, old fashioned, ‘Grandpa could have made this in his shed’ kind of feel. Also, every single thing we tried was WORKING! Hurray! So often have we been full of anticipation, only to find the thing we have spotted from across the room and made our way eagerly towards is out of order and quite clearly has been for a long time. Not here, the people who made the equipment, work alongside it everyday, and know how to restore it when it’s tired, no problem. I’m a hands-on kinda girl so this all satisfied me greatly… (actually I wanted to see if they had any jobs going…)

Ok enough of my kicks, on to number…

8: THE CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES in Golden Gate Park. This is included on the Citypass, and is easy to combine with the Japanese Tea Garden mentioned above or perhaps with a visit to the Conservatory of Flowers (sadly we ran out of time for that one), or a row on Stow Lake.

When I asked Sam later which bit about the Academy he enjoyed best, he said the roof. I think it was a roof quite unlike any he had ever seen before.

9: VISIT THE REDWOODS in Muir Woods. About a half hour drive North of the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge, plan to stop for a while in the woods.

The trees speak for themselves really…

10: THE YERBA BUENA GARDENS, Soma. Just across the road from the San Francisco Museum of Modern art (SFMOMA), these gardens provide an oasis of light and calm in the very heart of the most built up area of San Francisco, SOMA (South of Market St. Area). There is a wonderful terrace for a cup of tea and a rest, an enclosed children’s play area and Sam’s personal favourite: plenty of child friendly water features. For slightly older ones, there is also Zeum, a community-based art and technology museum “with a mission to foster creativity in young people…”

If you take the footbridge which runs between the Moscone Convention Centre and the Yerba Buena Gardens, there is a great view of the downtown highway and the fabulous rainbow flags. Great, safe spot for car and truck spotting…

11: AND LAST BUT ONE … if you’re into trains…  TRAIN TOWN! This isn’t actually in San Francisco so I haven’t included it in the 10, it ‘s about an hours drive North just outside Sonoma, but we had a car for the weekend and we found a leaflet for this and, of course, we just had to go…

12: AND LASTLY FOR REAL NOW, if you’re out Sonoma way (the town itself is lovely by the way with a great shady central park with a play area), check out Cornerstone Gardens. Sunny home to an eclectic collection of sculpture, gardens, and funky shops. It’s free as it’s basically a garden centre, but well worth a visit to check out the sculpture, and enjoy mini golf and a small but very fun sandpit for the children.

So that’s it. If you get to go anytime, I hope you enjoy these places. We are currently trying to work out how we can go and live in San Francisco for a year! We loved it THAT MUCH!! Maybe one day…


3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Hilary said,

    Hi Jo, Jay and Sam, you really packed so much into your holiday. It really took me back to our visit several years ago, we also thought San Francisco was a great place, but had only 3days to decide another visit would be good! So pleased it all went well for you, what a wonderful experience for you all. Love Hilary and Dave x

  2. 2

    Edie said,

    Really fantastic commentary on San Francisco. Made me want to go immediately. Great to see you managed to do so much in such a limited time. Lovely to read all Sam’s memories and what he thought of so many of the things.

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