If I had to pick one place in California to recommend everyone visit at least once, it would be San Francisco. San Francisco is so versatile that it’s great as a stand-alone vacation spot, but it’s also an amazing starting point for a road trip to Los Angeles.
One of the best things about a trip to San Francisco is that you don’t need to rent a car, the Muni public transportation system is really easy to use and you get 3 days of it included in your city pass. Plus, every tourist wants an authentic cable car experience or five, so why rent a car when great transit options abound? I like to arrive mid-morning so that I can go out and enjoy the afternoon and evening and then get on California time to help with jet lag. (I also really don’t like wasting a day travelling, so morning arrivals are ideal).
Day 1: Getting Our Bearings
I like to stay in different parts of the city for a few nights each when I travel to San Francisco. Kids love exploring new hotels, and by moving areas, more of the city is accessible by walking. Our first ‘base’ on this trip was the Union Square Hilton. We dropped our luggage at the hotel, managed to resist the siren call of the comfy beds and left in search of a Pier. It really doesn’t matter which pier you go to, they all have interesting things to see, eat, or do. A favourite of the kids is Pier 39 – because you take a ride on a carousel and watch the seals, who have made part of the wharf their home. When you’ve had your fill of the seal antics (or when you’re hungry, because we could watch the seals all day), head to the Pier Market for dinner, and then head back to your hotel to head to bed since you’ll all be tired.
Day 2: Alcatraz!
You can’t go to San Francisco and not visit Alcatraz. You’ll want to do the tour in the morning – it gets busy and hot in the afternoons and it can take 3 hours to get through all the activities for the kids so you want to do it first thing. You can book tickets online to confirm your spot and avoid the lineup, or take your chances at Pier 33. The first tour is at 9:30 and you take the ferry to get to Alcatraz. The gardens are absolutely beautiful and be sure to look for the water birds. A prison tour may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re looking for a kid-friendly activity but there is a lot for kids to do. We’d have missed a lot of the activities if we hadn’t been doing the scavenger hunt with the kids. If they complete the scavenger hunt activity book, the kids can be sworn in as junior rangers at the end of the tour.
After an action-packed morning, you’ll want a substantial lunch. I recommend Fisherman’s Wharf – yes it’s touristy, but there’s amazing street food there. We like to grab some portable food like sandwiches or wraps and walk around with our lunch to take in the energy.
I find my kids do best when I pair an active morning with a quieter afternoon. The Aquarium of the Bay is a great way to spend an afternoon and isn’t too far to walk to (though you can also take transit).
We like to do some more adult-oriented restaurants along with the usual ‘family’ ones. You’d be amazed at what your kids will eat when they are being treated like a grown up! The Palm House is a great restaurant with a fun, casual vibe and amazing food. You really can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, but I loved the Chicken Roulade!
Day 3: On to the Presidio
The next base we used for our San Francisco adventure had a very different vibe than the first. We chose the Presidio of San Francisco and were amazed at how it felt like we were in a different city entirely. The Presidio is the historical core of San Francisco. Today the Presidio is a National Park site and a National Historic Landmark district located in the centre of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. If you’re looking for some relaxation, choose the Inn at the Presidio as your accommodation – they go above and beyond to make your stay amazing. They have a daily wine, cheese, and cracker time from 5-7pm and you can enjoy your snack on the patio by the fire pit either as a family or you can treat the kids to TV in the room and get some adult time with your partner.
Truthfully, you could spend a week in the Presidio and not run out of things to do. You can tour the Walt Disney museum, visit the home of Star Wars creator George Lucas, take the shuttle all around the Presidio, geocache, and kids can go exploring with the explorer backpack.
The area around the California Academy of Sciences is full of things to do, so plan to spend an entire day there. You can explore most of the California Academy of Sciences at your own pace but some things are ticketed – like the movies in the planetarium. A great place for lunch that’s a short walk away is the Pacific Catch. Their kids meals are delicious and full of healthy options and the poke is amazing – so there’s something for everyone. After lunch you can return to exploring the California Academy of Sciences (the playground was a huge hit with my kids), or if you’re ready for something a little different go to the San Francisco Botanical Gardens and have a nice unguided tour / walk around and admire the pretty flowers. The carousel is only a $1 to ride and the kids went crazy for it.
Something we like to do to make family vacations really special and create lasting memories is to plan for a fancy dinner on the trip. Pack a dressy outfit and head out to an upscale restaurant. In San Francisco, a good option is The Dorian. Note that they have 2 seating areas – I’m partial to the room at the back with the chandelier. My favourite thing about the Dorian is that it looks super fancy, but the prices are still quite reasonable so you aren’t going to break the bank on your special night out.
Day 4: The Golden Gate Bridge
I’m sure you’re all wondering by now, ‘how can you write about travelling to San Francisco and not mention the Golden Gate Bridge”. Don’t worry, it’s coming. The Presidio offers fantastic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and you can hike from the Inn at the Presidio over to the Inspiration Point Lookout. If that hasn’t satisfied your appetite for the iconic bridge, head over to Chrissy Field for some of the best views of the bridge and bay area. Finally, you can head over to the Golden Gate Visitor Centre to grab the perfect photo for Instagram. (It’s also where you need to go if you want to walk across the bridge.)
If there’s a beer lover in your family, stop at GOTTS for lunch. It’s a casual restaurant with a menu that will please everyone in the family, and has some good IPAs on tap. Notice the lettuce wrapped chicken sandwich for me. As someone who recently developed some food sensitivities, I loved that I had lots of options to choose from even though it was a casual restaurant.
There are tons of other things to do in San Francisco – you can let your City Pass be your guide for the last afternoon – do you want to take a cruise of the Bay Area with Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise? Take in some art at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art? Or would the kids enjoy an afternoon at the Exploratorium? It’s up to you how you spend your last afternoon.
Of course if you want a longer trip there are lots of other great activities to do in the San Francisco area – like exploring Chinatown, spending a day at the Children’s Creativity Museum, or even sitting in a real stagecoach at the Wells Fargo Museum. Don’t forget to take a cable car ride and if you really want a unique experience, try one of San Francisco’s historic streetcars – you can learn all about them at the San Francisco Railway Museum. Really the only limit on a family vacation to San Francisco is your imagination and the length of time you have to explore this fabulous city.