Forget planes, trains, and automobiles. When in San Francisco, your family will scoot around town in electric buses, ferries, and cable cars. This dramatic city by the bay is stacked with picturesque outdoor landscapes to explore with your children—but don’t try to do it by foot. Ridiculously steep hills and double strollers just don’t mix. Instead, arm yourself with transportation maps—and extra layers of stylish duds to ward against the city’s unpredictable weather—before setting off on your brief affair with this gorgeous city. Aside from spectacular state parks and long stretches of scenic waterfront spaces, San Francisco is also home to unique and fascinating museums sure to capture the hearts of all.
For maximum convenience, make downtown your home base. The Ritz-Carlton in Nob Hill is on the California Street cable car line and offers children the city’s most indulgent service. For an elegant family-friendly hotel option that won’t break the bank, stay at the Omni, also located in Nob Hill.
Traveling from the east coast? Nip all jetlag in the bud by gobbling up the city’s most decadent breakfast at Mama’s on Washington Square in North Beach. Get there early (we mean 8am early) if you want to avoid a wait. Chocolate French toast and warm crumb cake will provide the boost you need to conquer the vigorous streets of San Francisco.
Sunny days in San Francisco should only be spent outside, soaking up the most striking city landscape in the continental United States. Burn some calories by walking or hop a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf. While the waterfront is oozing with touristy storefronts, the wharf does have a uniquely quirky personality that children will appreciate. Stay focused and head to the Aquarium of the Bay on Pier 39. This small, but satisfying space introduces children to the bay area’s wettest inhabitants. Children will love walking through the underwater tunnels and marveling at dancing jellyfish and menacing sharks. Brave children can pet live bat rays and sea stars at the museum’s interactive exhibits. When you’re done, pay a visit to Pier 39’s most famous residents, the laziest —and loudest—sea lions on the planet.
Seafaring families can opt to visit two of the city’s iconic landmarks up close. A quick, 60-minute boat tour will bring you face-to-face with the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, as well as the allure of the city’s exceptionally curvy skyline in the distance. Back at the port, lunch awaits. Boudin Bakery bakes fresh sourdough bread in the shapes of animals and favorite storybook characters. For the most delicious burgers on the west coast, head to In-N-Out Burger on Jefferson Street across the waterfront.
Don’t leave the wharf without a quick visit to the Musee Mecanique on Pier 45, an enchanting treasure sure to transport you and your children back to simpler times. This museum houses the largest collection of coin-operated arcade machines in the world. The best part is, you can actually play with the collection, which includes the arm wrestler, really old pinball machines, mechanical fortunetellers, and other boardwalk classics.
Later in the afternoon, venture by car or bus to the Marina District for hands-on entertainment at the Exploratorium. This museum is like walking into your middle school science fair—an inviting space filled with magnets, steam shooters, wheels, floating objects and other contraptions straight out of Doc’s wacky lab in the film classic, Back to the Future. Though older types can challenge their cerebral abilities, younger children can apply their fine motor skills when handling the fun and interactive exhibits. Outside, take a quick peak at the impressive Greco-Roman architecture of the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre as well as its surrounding duck-inhabited lagoon. And don’t leave the area without crossing the highway for open play at Crissy Field—the beach has incredible views of the Golden Gate Bridge and is the perfect place to burn off some energy running with local dogs. If you don’t have a car, a taxi company’s phone number will come in handy, as taxis are hard to come by in this area of town.
On your second day, set aside a meaningful chunk of time to visit the 40,000 animals that reside at the California Academy of Sciences. This can’t-miss destination re-opened last year in a bright sustainable building and houses a rainforest, an excellent aquarium, a natural history museum and a planetarium. If the little ones under five need a break from all the excitement, visit the Early Explorers Cove to sit back, catch your breath, and watch junior play.
If you’re lucky enough to enjoy good weather on your visit, plan to spend the rest of your day exploring the many treasures of Golden Gate Park. The Koret Children’s Quarter, often considered the best playground in the entire city, has San Francisco-steep cement slides and a climbing wall shaped like a crashing wave. Also worth your consideration is the observation tower of the de Young Museum for excellent views of the city, and the Japanese Tea Garden for its wonderful bridges, sculptures, and of course, tea and cookies.
For dinner, nab the 5:30 reservation at Delfina in the city’s flourishing Mission District. This nationally acclaimed Italian gem and local favorite is cozy, family-friendly and serves pastas that are artful and delicious. If the family is craving pizza, check out Delfina’s pizza restaurant next door, although Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach is a fantastic coal-oven option closer to downtown.
On day three, embrace your exploration of the lively downtown neighborhoods. The whole family can find something to do at Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco’s answer to Chelsea Piers and the perfect rainy day attraction. Here you’ll find a bowling alley, ice-skating rink, playground, carousel, and movie theater. The highlight is definitely Zeum, Yerba Buena’s awesome digital-arts museum where imaginative children can dabble in animation and production. Move over Pixar, as pint-sized creatives attempt to animate their own cartoons with clay figures they’ve created during their visit. Lastly, reward this action-packed experience with outstanding food that will ensure the development of creative and cultured children. Transport yourself to another continent by walking through Chinatown’s bustling streets and watch little ones fearlessly slop up the Chicken Chow Fun at local Chinese staple R & G Lounge.
For longer stays, consider a road trip over the Golden Gate Bridge to nearby Sausalito and Muir Woods. The Bay Area Discovery Museum is a local favorite of the preschool and elementary school set, boasting seven acres of indoor and outdoor space and a full range of activities for the whole family to enjoy. Muir Woods National Monument is home to California redwood trees, the world’s tallest living things. The whole family can explore this majestic national park with the Muir Woods Quest, a poetic treasure hunt created for the park’s youngest guests. This activity should take you 30 minutes and is an adventurous way to engage your children in the exploration of nature at its highest.