Knowing kids have different interests than their folks, we’ve put together a couple of kid-friendly days to make sure you and your offspring cover some of the “musts” with a bit of time to hang and relax.
Best of San Francisco with Kids in 1 Day
If you’ve only 1 day to explore the city, the best place to spend it is around every kid’s favorite—Fisherman’s Wharf—and The Embarcadero. First stop of the day is a tour to Alcatraz, then a short walk to Pier 39, where you should see the sights, including the sea lions, grab some lunch, and then head to the aquarium. Next stop will be one of the greatest science museums in the world, and then a really cool underwater restaurant for dinner. Finish the night with a cable car ride.
Start: F-Line Streetcar to Pier 33.
The boat ride over is half the fun. Once on the Rock, if you’re lucky, one of the wardens, or even a former prisoner, might be there to greet your boat. Watch a quick movie about the place, and then get your audio tour. Step into a real cell and grab the bars for a photo op. Check out solitary confinement. Look at the dummy masks that three escapees left in their beds to fool the guards. When you feel like leaving, take the ferry back to Pier 33.
Walk a few minutes towards Golden Gate Bridge to Pier 39.
2. Pier 39
Yes, it’s touristy and crowded. But with a carousel, nonstop puppet shows and magicians on the stage (behind the carousel), a store with barrel after barrel of candy, cool shops, and bungee jumping, it also happens to be a lot of fun.
3. Crepe Café
Why have a healthy lunch when you can have a crepe dripping with melty Nutella instead? OK, have a ham and cheese crepe for lunch, and save the Nutella crepe for dessert. The Crepe Café is located about halfway down Pier 39.
Now, sneak out the back door to:
4. The California Sea Lions
Watch the sweet-faced swimmers bark, splash, sleep, and fight for space on the docks. If you’re lucky, naturalists from the Aquarium of the Bay will be on hand to answer questions.
5. Aquarium of the Bay
We’re not quite done with Pier 39. At yet another “kid favorite” place, you’ll be able to see all sorts of sea critters in their near-to-natural habitat. We love the conveyor belt that slowly takes you through a tube under a giant tank filled with sharks and rays; there’s also a large otter habitat and an area where you can touch bats and starfish (they’re so deep you’ll have to roll your sleeve up to your armpit). Located streetside, where Pier 39 meets the Embarcadero.
Now, walk back toward Pier 33 and continue down the Embarcadero for 15 minutes (you can also take that historic F-Line streetcar) to Pier 15.
6. The Exploratorium
Originally housed in the Marina District’s Palace of Fine Arts, the Exploratorium—one of the best science museums in the world—moved in 2013 to these new waterfront digs. It tends to be crowded as all get-out, and on busy days lines in the cafeteria can be long, but that’s only because so many kids love this multi-room, multimedia, hands-on experience. It could easily captivate them for an entire day.
Continue down the Embarcadero for another 10 minutes, or hop on the F-Line streetcar, to:
7. Dinner at The Ferry Building Marketplace
You’ve had a long day exploring and it is time to take a break. Luckily, you’re close to one of the top stops for delicious downtown eats. Inside the Ferry Building, you’ll find gourmet burgers and shakes at Gott’s Roadside, famous upscale Vietnamese at the Slanted Door, ridiculously good Japanese takeout at Delica (come early; they close most days by 6pm), healthy Mexican food at Mijita, and much, much more.
Best of San Francisco with Kids in 2 Days
On Day 2, it's time to leave Fisherman's Wharf and get familiar with a couple of the other famous spots in the city. Start with a tour over that big orange bridge, lunch in Sausalito, and a ferry ride across the bay. Next, stop to play a few old-fashioned video games, and then it's off to a working museum. End your tour at the crowded, colorful world that is Chinatown.
Start: Historic F-Line Streetcar to Fisherman's Wharf.
1. Guided Golden Gate Bridge Bike Tour
The perfect way to start your day is a pedal across one of the most recognized landmarks in the world. Don’t worry, you are not alone! You’ll have a great guide from one of the Fisherman's Wharf area bike shops to show you the way.
Bring a jacket and meet a few minutes early for a safety briefing. Follow your guide up and over the bridge, then down into Sausalito.
Say goodbye to your guide and stop for lunch or refreshments anywhere along Bridgeway (the main drag through Sausalito). Two of my favotires are Barrel House Tavern (660 Bridgeway; barrelhousetavern.com; [tel] 415/729-9593), which has spectacular bayfront patio seating, and the beachside bocce ball and fire pits at Bar Bocce (1250 Bridgeway; barbocce.com; [tel] 415/331-0555). Explore the town, and then take the ferry from Sausalito back to the city. It’s a quick ride from the ferry back to the bike shop to ditch the bikes.
Walk 3 blocks to the corner of Taylor and the Embarcadero at Pier 45.
3. The Musée Méchanique
Give the kids a roll of quarters and let them run free at this antique penny arcade where everything works. Capture the moment in black and white at the classic photo booth.
Walk 2 blocks inland, then turn right and go 4 blocks west on Beach Street.
4. Ghirardelli for Ice Cream
Aptly located in historic Ghirardelli Square, this ice cream parlor of the same name is embarassingly pricey, but it’s one of the best places to grab a sweet treat in the city.
Retrace your steps 1 block on Beach Street, turn left onto Jefferson Street, and walk 1 block to the corner of Jefferson and Hyde streets.
5. Powell–Hyde Cable Car to Nob Hill
Take a cling-clang over the hills; it's a thrill for kids of all ages. Stay on long enough, and the spot they’ve been dying to sit or stand in is sure to open up.
Hop off at the corner of Washington and Mason sts. on Nob Hill for the:
6. Cable Car Museum
After riding these moving landmarks, kids will love this quick museum that shows how the cable cars work. The actual cables that pull all the cars through the city are right here spinning on giant wheels.
Walk a few blocks downhill on Washington Street. By the time you get to Stockton Street, you’ll be in:
The perfect way to end the day is a stroll through this very colorful neighborhood. Kids will love the shops selling everything from air guns to kites to fireworks to live animals. When it’s time for dinner, the possibilities are endless.
Best of San Francisco with Kids in 3 Days
If you are lucky enough to have 3 full days in San Francisco with your kids, head to the other side of town on Day 3 and hit Golden Gate Park. There you'll visit a science museum, go for a boat ride, wander through the park some more, then go relax at the beach, and have yummy shabu-shabu for dinner.
Start: Bus nos. 5, 28, or 44.
1. California Academy of Sciences
Anchored in Golden Gate Park is this family favorite spot where you can visit a planetarium, find an albino alligator, climb through a tropical rainforest, learn about earthquakes, see penguins splash about, and check out jellyfish and other sea creatures. Grab a gourmet snack at the surprisingly good cafe if hunger hits.
Walk west for a few minutes until you reach Stow Lake.
2. Rent a Boat on Stow Lake
Frogs, ducks, seagulls, strolling residents, pretty much everyone loves this picturesque little lake with a walkable center island called Strawberry Hill. Rent a pedal boat, a rowboat, or a low-speed electric boat at the Boathouse and take in a classic San Francisco experience.
Wander at will around this vast city park.
3. More Golden Gate Park
By now the kids are probably tired of having an agenda—enjoy this beautiful park. Maybe the Japanese Tea Garden? Perhaps the Conservatory of Flowers? There’s even a fantastic and elaborate children’s playground complete with a carousel.
Either walk or hop on a bus and head west to the beach. Use www.511.org to figure out which bus to take, depending on where you are in the park. At the end, where the streets all stop, is Ocean Beach. At its north end, on Point Lobos Avenue, you’ll find:
4. Cliff House
Stop in the famous Cliff House for a drink and a bathroom break. Look at the pictures all over the walls showing what this area looked like 100 years ago. Once refreshed, head outside and look for wildlife on Seal Rocks. Walk to the right and climb around the ruins of the Sutro Baths. Go relax on the beach and take a nap, or dig a hole. Do not go swimming here; the currents are dangerous.
Take bus no. 38 to the corner of Geary and Fillmore sts.
5. Japantown for Dinner
Chinese last night—how about Japanese tonight? Fun options inside the Japan Center mall include perennial kid favorite Benihana (1737 Post St.; [tel] 415/563-4844; reserve in advance!) and Isobune Sushi (in Japan Center, 1737 Post St.; [tel] 415/563-1030; drop-in okay), where you’ll pluck plates of surprisingly affordable sushi off of little boats floating around a circular centerpiece stream.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.