With Nick’s family living on the West Coast, we always make an annual pilgrimage to California. For the past few years, we’ve been meeting them in San Francisco for a mini vacation, exploring the Bay Area and Monterey Peninsula. We typically spend about 1.5 – 2 weeks split between San Francisco’s city sights and a week in the Monterey Peninsula (Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Carmel Valley, and Big Sur). And with toddler in tow, the city and ocean-side mix gives us plenty to entertain the little one!
While we’ve been very used visiting the Bay Area as adults (from college scouting tours as a high school senior, Nick and I had our first Valentine’s Day in Carmel after the “meet the parents” visit, one of our best birthday presents to my Dad was golfing at Pebble Beach, and I even had my bachelorette party in Napa / Sonoma), we’ve rediscovered tons of gems, as it’s such a great place to visit with kids, too! San Francisco has fantastic museums, lots of green spaces to burn off that energy, and so many fun sights to take in for young kids. And if that’s not enough, there are so many great day trips or weekend excursions within a few hours drive outside of the city. Here are some of our favorite kid-friendly things to do in San Francisco!
San Francisco – Where to Stay
There are so many great hotels in San Fran, but for the past two years, we’ve been staying at the Fairmont Ghiradelli Square. With its 2 and 3 bedroom suites, it is super family friendly. We like their corner 2 bedroom suites which include a full sized kitchen, dining area, living room, washer / dryer, and 2.5 baths. A continental breakfast is included as is a wine tasting / happy hour at 5! Plus the location can’t be beat – late night hot fudge sundaes at Ghiradelli Chocolate Factory, shops and restaurants at Ghiradelli Square, a 5 minute walk to the touristy and kid-friendly Fisherman’s Wharf, down the block from an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista, and a block away from the Powell Street Cable Car Turnaround. And, if you need to head elsewhere in the city, they have a complimentary fleet of vehicles to drop off and pick up within a 2 mile radius.
San Francisco – Our Favorite Kid-Friendly Attractions
There are so many awesome sights to see in San Fran! We love exploring the various neighborhoods, but with a jet-lagged toddler in tow and nap schedules to abide by, our adventures take a little more curating. For example, we’ve visited Alcatraz before, but decided to skip it with Bash this time in favor of more active attractions where he could run around more freely. Below, we’ll highlight the attractions that Bash (at 2.5 years old at the time) enjoyed the most.
On another note, we’ve never used City Pass before, but as I was planning out the attractions we wanted to visit, we found that it really did offer the best deal. It offers admission to the California Academy of Sciences, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, Aquarium of the Bay, and Exploratorium or San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, along with unlimited public transportation access via the Cable Cars and Muni Bus Passport (city buses / streetcars / trolleys) for 3 days. We knew we would most likely skip the Aquarium of the Bay since we were already planning to spend a couple of days at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But it was still well worth the $89 adult / $69 child (ages 5 – 11) pricing, especially considering we planned to ride Bash’s favorite cable cars and streetcars a lot (seriously, I’m pretty sure we rode them 5x a day). Most of the attractions offered free admission for kids 3 and under, so we didn’t buy the City Pass for Bash.
Fisherman’s Wharf: Get ready for sensory and tourist overload, but definitely worth a stop for kids. With our hotel so close by, we were at Fisherman’s Wharf probably once a day (and there’s an In-N-Out right near Fisherman’s Wharf). Highlights include:
- Pier 39: for sea lions, the San Francisco Carousel, and street performers (this is where Bash discovered a fascination with break dancing, which he continues to replicate some pretty fancy footwork and ground spins). If you are taking the City Pass Blue & Gold cruise, the boats depart near this pier and the Aquarium of the Bay is also located here.
- Hyde Street Pier: you can walk along this pier to check out the ships and nice bay views for free. To board the historical ships, there is a $10 fee. We find this pier to be a nice late afternoon walk when the sun shines on the Golden Gate and burns off the fog. For submarine tours, you can find two submarines docked at the nearby Pier 45.
- Boudin Bakery: stop here and pickup a couple of their famous sourdough baguettes or grab a hearty bowl of clam chowder. Relax and enjoy the sights and smells of freshly baked sourdough loaves.
Embarcadero: Take the historic street cars (E-Embarcadero and F-Market & Wharves Lines) from Fisherman’s Wharf over to the Embarcadero for a nice stroll along Pier 7 and great views of the Bay Bridge.
- Exploratorium (Pier 15): there is something for everyone (adults and kids alike) at the Exploratorium! There are so many hands-on activities perfect for those curious eyes and hands! For little ones, we recommend the Seeing and Listening Gallery, Tinkering Gallery, Dolby Atrium, and Living Systems Gallery.
- Ferry Building: stop here to browse local vendors, pick up artisanal supplies for a picnic, or have lunch / dinner. For a casual fare stop at Gott’s Roadside or Out the Door. For more upscale with a water view, check out the ever-popular Slanted Door.
- California Street: head across Embarcadero towards California Street for a great photo opp of the cable cars. We like the shots of the cable cars coming down the hill around California Street and Front Street.
Pacific Ocean – Lands End: For a nice hike and great views of the Golden Gate Bridge, check out the Lands End trails. Leave the stroller at home and use a carrier for kids. Some sections of the trail are steep and have sheer drop offs, so keep kiddos close. There’s street parking near Cliff House or at the Visitor’s Center. From the Visitor’s Center, take a quick detour to check out the Sutro Baths ruins, then head back up to the Lands End Trail to pick up the Coastal Trail, which follows the coastline and heads inland a bit towards a grove of cypress trees. Take a detour to stop at Mile Rock Beach and Lands End Labryinth, then follow the trail back west along the coast. You could make a stop at the Legion of Honor Museum or continue along to Lands End Trail Eagles Point. If you parked at the Visitor’s Center, you’ll need to retrace your steps. If you are more inclined to enjoy the view and skip the hike, grab a meal at Sutro’s at the Cliff House!
Golden Gate Park: Just to the south of Lands End lies the expansive Golden Gate Park, a recreational area with a ton of great attractions from world-class museums to a herd of bison to the Koret Children’s Quarter with rock slide and carousel! Two of Bash’s favorites include:
- California Academy of Sciences: kids will love this museum, which houses an aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum! Bash’s favorites included the simulated earthquake exhibit and the Osher Rainforest.
- Japanese Tea Garden: I was a little nervous that Bash would be running amok amongst the serene zen rock gardens and meditative stone stepping paths. Surprisingly, he loved the garden, calmly hopping from stone to stone, enjoying the zigzags, and climbing up the drum bridge.
Cable Car Rides and Museum: Hands down, riding the cable cars is Bash’s favorite activity! Starting your ride at one of the turnarounds (the beginning/end of each route) is the most popular spot, so get there early as the lines start snaking around the block. For a faster way to get a spot on the trolley, you can always walk up a block to the next stop (just look for the signs along the cable car route and wait on the sidewalk). You’ll need to get a new ticket for each ride unless you get the SFMTA’s Passport (offered as 1-day, 3-day and 7-day passes) or have the CityPass (which gives you 3 days of unlimited rides). The Cable Car Museum is free and worth a stop for an insider’s look at how the cable cars are powered. For some great photo opps, start at the Powell / Hyde Turnaround and choose a seat on the west side. As you ascend up Hyde Street, you’ll be in prime position for some great Bay views, including Lombard Street (the world’s crookedest street). You can always get off here and walk down the street, then pick up the Powell / Mason line at the base.
Fun Neighborhoods: During some downtime or a stroller nap, we also like just strolling and exploring these neighborhoods:
- Marina District: Chestnut Street for shopping and dining – there’s a cute kids’ clothing store, Peek Kids along with a hole in the wall deli, Lucca Delicatesssen
- Cow Hollow: Fillmore / Union Street: cute cafes and shops
- Union Square: a commercial hub with luxury shops, large selections at Saks, Barneys, and Neiman Marcus (which also has a great cafe), and Cuyana’s showroom. I always make a stop in Union Square (now during Bash’s naps) as they always have the best selection of size 4 / 4.5 / 5 shoes (seriously, the best for small feet)!
- Other great neighborhood walks: Haight-Ashbury, Mission, North Beach (Italian), and Chinatown
San Francisco – Eats
There are so many great restaurants in San Fran; a few of our favorites:
- Casual / Kid-friendly: Roam, Delarosa, Pizzaria Delfina, The Grove, Surisan
- Date Night: La Mar, Slanted Door, Barbacco / Perbacco
What are your favorite San Fransisco activities with kids?