San Francisco, the city by the bay, is one of my favorite cities in the world. The beautiful views, the architecture, the quaint neighborhoods with their own distinct feel, the abundance of amazing restaurants, and the glorious fog. I first fell in love with San Francisco’s windy cool summer air when I was 10 years old out visiting my cousins for summer break. I vowed I would live there someday. And I did, for almost 8 years. It is during that time that San Francisco cemented itself into my heart and soul. Seeing the city from the air or as I cross the Bay Bridge makes me feel like a kid with a crush, butterflies in my belly and my heart beating faster. No matter how far I go, or how long I stay away, it will always be one of my favorite places in the world.
In the past 6 years, I have been lucky enough to re-discover this fabulous city through my son’s eyes. Through these visits, I found that we return to a few places over and over again that I thought I should share them with you all here.
Somehow we find ourselves at Fisherman’s Wharf on almost every trip. If it’s not the end point of our cable car ride, it’s to check out the sea lions (again!) at Pier 39 or to get a junior ranger badge at one of the national park sites. Fisherman’s Wharf is a tourist hot spot, and for good reason. There are some great attractions at Fisherman’s Wharf for everyone in the family to enjoy, it’s the starting point for tours on the bay and has some of the best seafood in the city. Don’t forget to check out Musée Mécanique while you are there for some fun old school arcade games and a look back in time through machines.
Ride a Cable Car
No matter how many times we have ridden the iconic cable cars up and down the hills of San Francisco, it’s something my son wants to do again and again. There are three different cable car lines servicing the city. The most popular lines are the ones going from Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, the Powell-Hyde line and the Powell-Mason. The third line is the California line which takes riders up and down California Street from the Financial District (Market Street) through Chinatown to Van Ness. Download a map before you venture out.
Our recommendation is to grab one from Union Square, head down to Fisherman’s Wharf for the day and then take the other line back up. If you don’t want to wait in line at either Union Square or Fisherman’s Wharf, walk up a few blocks and catch one as it passes by. Make sure to buy your tickets online via the Muni Mobile App to avoid the need for cash.
If your kids can’t get enough, head over to the Cable Car Museum where you can see the winding wheels that pull the cable cars along in the city!
Explore Golden Gate Park
We could spend days and days exploring the large expanse of Golden Gate Park that stretches from the edge of the Haight-Ashbury District all the way to the ocean. We have a few favorite go to’s that we always try to fit in, but there is even more to explore depending on the age of your kids and the time that you have available. Our favorites are the concrete slides at Children’s Playground (Koret Playground), saying hi to the buffalo at Bison Paddock and cruising around the Japanese Tea Garden.
If you have lots of time to explore the park, hit up the California Academy of Sciences which is another great SF museum that will keep the kids enthralled. Or spend some time exploring the park by foot or bike. A fun way to explore the park is to look for fairy doors! Search online for several different fairy doors that can be found in the park. Here’s one near the Japanese Tea Garden. Not your thing? Check out the Detour App for guided walks around the city and GG Park.
Get Hands-on at the Exploratorium
If you have limited time in the city, the Exploratorium should be one of your first stops. I know.. you won’t be outside soaking up all that SF has to offer, but it is one of the best children’s science museums out there. We have been several times and discover something new and exciting every time. For young children, it can be overwhelming as it’s usually crowded, but even so, they will have a ball running from each hands on exhibit to the next. The wonderful thing about this museum is that it grows with your child. The older they get, the more they will understand and get out of this exciting center.
Lounge with the Locals at Dolores Park
San Francisco has so many amazing parks and play areas for children that it was difficult to narrow it down to just a few. Dolores Park was, during my years in SF, not a playground for kids, rather one for grownups. Hipsters, families (more of the pet variety) and everyone in between would make their way to the large grassy mounds on sunny days to lounge around basking in the sun. Since it’s remodel a few years ago, there is now a great playground there as well making it even more of an attraction for families needing some downtime. Our routine is to take the Muni Metro to the park or BART to the mission, grab a burrito at Taqueria Cancun and head over to the park for lounging and people watching.
Go Across the Golden Gate Bridge
Kids, young and old are always entranced by the Golden Gate Bridge. The first question will enviably be “But why is it red/orange?” To quell your child’s thirst for information and exploration, head over to the Bridge’s Welcome Center where you will find indoor/outdoor exhibits providing detailed information about the bridge and it’s history and operation. There is also a gift shop here along with a small cafe. A few times a week, free walking tours also leave from the visitor center.
The bridge is 1.7 miles long from one end to the other, which makes walking the entire length with smaller kids a little bit daunting since you will have to return as well. If your child is old enough, considering renting a bike to go across. However, note that the bridge gets busy, so is not the best place for new bike riders since during the week days bicyclists and walkers share the same eastern path.
If walking or biking across isn’t feasible for your family, head across in your car. Stop off at the eastern view point before making a detour to check out the western side as well where there are beautiful views of the bridge and city in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Check Out Murals in the Mission
Hailing from Los Angeles, we are no strangers to street art, however we still love to make a visit to the Mission to check out the latest works of art at Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley. Both Balmy & Clarion are each a block long alley filled with tons of murals displaying the community’s history and current community concerns in picture form. Clarion Alley is between Mission Street and Valencia Street, while Balmy Alley is between 24th and 25th Streets parallel to Treat Avenue and Harrison Streets. If you want to delve deeper into the history of the murals and the neighborhood, join a weekend tour with Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center.
If you are hungry, there are tons of great places around to sample. We love the pupusas at La Santaneca de la Mission, burritos at El Farolito (a favorite late night snack too!) as well as old school diner food from St Francis Fountain.
End your street art visit off with a little play time at the cute 24th Street Mini Park located at 24th and York Street. Open the gate and head right in to enjoy the murals and mosaic tiled snake. Be aware that during the summer and hot days, if you press the green button on the post near the bushes, water will spray out soaking your kids!
Explore Sutro Baths
One of our favorite quick nature fix areas inside the city is at the Sutro Baths. The Sutro Bath ruins are located at the end of Golden Gate Park with views stretching out to the ocean and up towards the Golden Gate Bridge. In times of old, the Sutro Baths were a local hotspot with 7 swimming pools at varying temperatures. The pools could accommodate 10,000 people at once.
From the Lookout Visitor Center there is a dirt trail (or dirt stairs) leading down to the former bath houses. I have done this with my toddler, but definite care is needed as some of the paths close to the baths are slippery. If you want more of a hike and less exploration, hop on the California Coastal Trail walking towards the Golden Gate Bridge for some beautiful views. Walk as far as you want and turn back to return to your car or catch an Uber home if you have gone too far!
Dress in layers. You never know what the weather will be like when you arrive. It is typically quite windy here as well, so wear hats that won’t fly off or tie your hair back.
Walt Disney Family Museum
A newer addition to the scene (for us!) is the Walt Disney Family Museum. My husband and I were married in the Presidio so we often return to this area just to check it out and thats how we happened upon the Disney Museum. While we do not consider ourselves Disney fanatics (even though we have had season passes for Disneyland for 4 years!), this is a fun museum to explore. While there is a ton to see and read here, kids of all ages will surely find something to attract their attention. Check the daily movie listings and considering adding that on to your admission. Don’t miss the large scale model of Disneyland which will keep everyone busy for a while, especially if you have visited Disneyland!
Looking for more things to do in San Francisco? Take a drive out of the city to Muir Woods for a day among the trees. Or check out some of my favorite San Francisco sites that my 6 year old doesn’t love quite as much as me (well except the playground!)
- Visit my former neighborhood and Full House favorite – Alamo Square
- Check out expansive views over the city with a drive up to Twin Peaks
- Walk or drive down the world’s curviest street – Lombard Street
- Explore North Beach on your way to Coit Tower
- Stroll through Chinatown
- Check out history and shops in the Haight -Ashbury
- Have toddlers? Check out the super fun Presidio Heights Playground
Share with us your favorite things to do in San Francisco!
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