Ah, the city by the bay. Just thinking of San Francisco makes me smile as I picture the heart-pounding hills, the seals barking on Pier 39, and the endless vistas that fill the eye with mountain, sea, and skyscraper alike. It has long been one of my favorite American cities, and is filled with such variety and paradox that I’m always leaving the Bar Area simply intrigued. It’s with this in mind that my wife and I decided to spend our kid’s spring break (ages 6 yrs and 9 months). While the Bay Area doesn’t scream family as loudly as San Diego or Anaheim, we had a memorable trip exploring one of our favorite places through our Children’s eyes. Having experienced SF many different ways, I wanted to highlight 5 particular experiences that make it a surprisingly great family travel destination.
Top 5 Things to Do in San Francisco With Children
Nothing says family vacation like visiting one of the world’s most infamous prisons. But surprisingly, the experience is so educational and so well-done that everyone in the family was surprised and delighted by the experience.
First, the boat ride is a beautiful way to see the bay, and provides the opportunity to explore Alcatraz island, which you see clearly from the mainland. Once on land, you almost feel like you’ve stepped onto a movie set. It almost looks like a caricature of itself, with the historic buildings, Native American graffiti, and blooming flowers galore. But the island has incredible natural beauty, and the architecture of the prison is fascinating (I did mention SF as a place of paradoxes, right?)
The audio tour is so well done, that my 6 year old was hooked the entire hour. She really enjoyed exploring the spaces, and the audio brought to life what life in this place would be like (also lead to great conversations about why we follow the law!).
The views from the island are also beautiful and make for great family portraits (see below).
Pro Tip: book your ticket early, as they sell out. Also, arrive early, as there is a long line and it takes a while to figure out where to go (even if you have tickets). Strollers are fine to bring along.
- The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory
While this place is tiny (as in, 3 people wide), it’s fascinating. Consider it a stop on part of a larger walk around China town (which is a must with children). The ‘factory’ lies within an alleyway that looks like a place you wouldn’t want to enter, but the whafting smell of vanilla throughout the alley tells you you’ve reached the right place. Once inside, you’ll see workers making the fortune cookies, stuffing them by hand (note: bring change as they charge 50 cents to take a pic). The visit will not take long at all (maybe 10 min, as it’s tiny), but after watching the workers you can buy all varieties of fortune cookies to try, or bring home as gifts.
- Muir Woods
This is a forest filled with giants. The redwoods are so towering that you feel as if you’re an ant traipsing through a fairyland forest. Obviously a big hit with kids and adults alike, this park provides serenity and calm that I dream of in my daily life. There is an easy loop that you can walk that’s all level, so it’s stroller friendly.
Pro Tip: Book a parking spot online. You must have a reserved parking spot to enter the park.
4. The Color Factory
We couldn’t get tickets to the Museum of Ice Cream, so we opted for (and were thoroughly delighted by) The Color Factory. Filled with room after room of Instagram eye-candy, this immersive experience is fun for all ages. Ranging from a confetti room to a ballpit, the entire experience is super fun, in a Willy Wonka kind of way. Book tickets early, as you must reserve specific times.
5. Pier 39 @ The Wharf
OK…this one is the most cheesy and expected on the list. Admittedly, I don’t normally like these kind of areas (Times Square is my least favorite part of NYC), BUT, when traveling with kiddos this place is a must. First stop has to be the sea lions hanging out on the back pier. I could watch them for days. I recommend going early in morning as there are fewer people and the sea lions are more active than they are in the lazy afternoon sun. The pier is chock full of standard tourist fare, but the double-decker carousel was also a bit hit with our 6 year old. After you get your fill, walk to nearby Boudin Bakery for the legendary San francisco Sourbread, then stop it off with desert at Ghardelli Square, just a short walk farther.
Other notable activities we did included the Children’s Museum, which was a great respite on a rainy day. We also visited the SFMoMA, which had some world famous works, in addition to some unique intriguing visits that my 6 year old appreciated.
Where to Stay
For a solid family stay, the InterContinental San Francisco near Union Square provided an excellent option. There is a pool and hot tub, and if you upgrade to the club lounge you’ll have a space where you can get snacks anytime, which worked out incredibly well for us. The staff couldn’t have been more kid-friendly; when we checked in, we were greeted by a wagon of plush toys for my daughter to pick one (even the baby got one!). We stayed here 5 days and could have stayed longer.
Another favorite spot of ours is the Fairmont on Nob Hill. They have a beehive on property, and the location in Nob Hill allows for amazing views. Just across the street is also a park with a playground.
Where to Eat
San Francisco is such an amazing food city with no shortage of options. Check out Eater’s list for family-friendly options (with family or not, a lot of these recos are solid). However, I did want to point out some highlights from our experience.
The Embarcadero is a great market area with lots of food options. If you’re a foodie and feeling fancy, The Slanted Door provides haute Vietnamese cuisine and is kid friendly if you go early. We didn’t have a reservation, but stood in a line for about 15 minutes for a 5:30pm seating.
As mentioned earlier, Boudin is a place we always visit on every trip to SF. Anything that
involves their sourdough bread is a hit. Our family favorite is the chocolate volcano bread.
For an early morning treat, head to The Cliff House for breakfast and a walk around Lands End. The view is amazing, and rather quiet in the morning. Also a great place for sunset as the sun dips into the Pacific from this area.
Additional trip Option:
- If you have time, you can easily take a day trip to Napa (yes even with kids). We visited the Castillo de Amorosa winery, which was VERY kid friendly. It’s located in a replica medieval castle, and even has a family wine-tasting room where the kids get grape juice, chocolates, and coloring supplies! Also, in the town of Napa the Oxbow Market is a great place to grab a bite and gifts.