Is San Francisco doable with kids? Definitely! In November 2018, I had a conference to attend in San Francisco, and we decided to all go and extend the trip so we could explore the area. We spent two weekends in the city, plus three nights in Yosemite in between that I’ll talk about in another post. I was worried that we might not have enough to do, but we barely scratched the surface. San Francisco was an amazing place to visit, and I highly recommend taking the trip with your family.
When we travel as a family, we have a strong preference for space. Our kids go to bed at 8:30 or 9, and everyone has a better time if they have their own sleeping space. Our preference is to use AirBnB or VRBO/HomeAway whenever we’re in one place for more than a couple of nights (for short stays it gets expensive, since site and cleaning fees are tacked onto the advertised price of a rental). Prices are usually comparable to if not cheaper than hotels, and you usually get an apartment with rooms and often a full kitchen and laundry. Make sure you read the reviews if you go this route, and in an unfamiliar city I would only select a home that has plenty of positive ratings on the site.
Where to Stay
Monte had been to San Francisco once before, but it was new to the rest of our family. Fortunately we have a few local friends, so we hit them up for advice on where to stay. You need to find the right balance for you between price, convenience, and safety. We decided to concentrate our search in the Richmond/Outer Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods, or just stay downtown. Several people before and during our visit recommended that we avoid the Tenderloin for safety reasons, and we decided to take that advice despite the lower prices of rentals and location that appeared convenient on the map.
We rented a lovely apartment in Outer Richmond for the first weekend of our trip, and then found a place in Fisherman’s Wharf for the second portion since my conference was downtown. Outer Richmond was perfect and I would absolutely stay there again. The neighborhood was safe and quiet, our rental was spacious, on-street parking was available, and we were only a few blocks from a variety of restaurants on Geary and Balboa. We had amazing Vietnamese our first morning at Kim Son, which had the kids begging me to start making pho at home. We were a bit farther from downtown, but closer to Golden Gate Park and the Presidio and Golden Gate Bridge.
During the second weekend I had my conference to attend, so we found a place to stay in Fisherman’s Wharf. Pickings were a lot slimmer and significantly more expensive, but we decided to pay for the convenience since my husband would be entertaining the boys alone during the daytime. Honestly we might not bother in the future. We liked our first rental better in general, and the second was so much more expensive that walking to activities didn’t save us any money or much time. There were restaurants and nightlife in the vicinity, but we actually had a hard time finding a place to eat breakfast Friday morning that was more than a bakery and didn’t have a crazy line.
How to Get Around
If you can avoid driving in San Francisco, do. Parking is an expensive nightmare, especially downtown, and gas prices were double what we pay in the Midwest. Car break-ins are supposed to be very frequent, so if you do drive make sure you leave nothing of value inside. We rented a car to drive to Yosemite and back, but picked it up a mile from our first rental and dropped it off near our second one when we returned. No trip to San Francisco is complete without a ride on one of their iconic cable cars, which are operated along with the Muni bus services by the SFMTA. Uber and Lyft ride sharing services were incredibly easy to use, and our drivers were never more than two minutes away.
During both of our stays, we walked anywhere we needed to without issue. We felt very safe in both locations, even after dark. We saw some evidence of the homeless population in San Francisco when we walked around downtown, but never witnessed any crime and were not hassled or made to feel uncomfortable. San Francisco is a big city, so obviously take normal precautions when walking alone or after dark.
What to Do
We never ran out of activities, despite seven nights in the city! I would highly recommend checking out FunCheap San Francisco to see what local events are going on during your stay. We wound up spending most of our first day at a free science festival at AT&T Park (now called Oracle Park), and they had a plethora of hands-on activities for all ages. m
If you’re only going to go to one museum with the kiddos, please check out this one. I was stuck in a conference room learning about difficult airway management that day, but my family said the Exploratorium was the most impressive science museum they’ve ever been to. It’s located in the Embarcadero district on Pier 15, a little north of the Ferry Building. They went at open and were politely asked to leave at close, and did not feel they were able to see the entire museum. Permanent exhibits include human and natural phenomena, the living world, “tinkering” (exploring with your hands), sight and sound, and Bay Area ecology. My family felt the price was very reasonable, and they would have gone back a second day if we were staying longer.
California Academy of Sciences
This is another fabulous science museum, located outside of downtown in the eastern portion of Golden Gate Park. The California Academy of Sciences is smaller than the Exploratorium, but beautiful, and houses an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest, and natural history museum. For planning purposes, be aware that you need (free) timed passes for the Planetarium shows, and that they enforce the age restriction on kids under 4 attending any of their full screen shows. We were a little disappointed in this, since our 7 year old has been very much into astronomy lately, but chose not to split up our group since we only had a few hours before meeting friends.
You could spend an entire day at the Academy of Sciences, but it isn’t necessary. Four hours would probably be sufficient to see everything. Pricing was comparable to the Exploratorium. We spent most of our time in the aquarium and rainforest, and both exhibits were very well done. There are two dining options in the museum, and we chose the more formal Terrace for lunch. Service was quick, appetizers and flatbreads were tasty, and we were able to sip an adult beverage while the kids ran and played with new friends in the garden.
The Musée Mécanique is “San Francisco’s Antique Penny Arcade.” Admission is free and you won’t stay more than an hour or two, but it houses over 300 antique and vintage arcade games that actually work. You do have to pay to play, and most games are $0.25 or $0.50 for a turn. It’s located at Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf, so if you’re in the area and your kids are into arcade games, pop in for a little while. I missed this one too while in my conference, but the boys definitely recommend it.
We briefly walked through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with our local artist friend, but otherwise didn’t have time to tour any of these on our visit. SFMOMA is downtown, near the Yerba Buena Gardens. Admission is free for kids 18 and under, and some of the exhibits are interactive so they may enjoy it. The deYoung Museum of fine arts is located in Golden Gate Park, near the Academy of Sciences, and is also free for the 17 and under set. They offer free family art making on Saturdays between 11-4, so keep that in mind if you’d like to plan a visit. Included in your ticket to the deYoung is admission to the Legion of Honor, which offers “unique insights into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history.” The Legion of Honor is north of Golden Gate Park in Lincoln Park, near the Holocaust Memorial and Lands End.
Other options in town include the Asian Art Museum, Cartoon Art Museum, Museum of the African Diaspora, Randall Museum, Museum of Ice Cream (how did we miss this?!), Contemporary Jewish Museum, Children’s Creativity Museum, Cable Car Museum, and the Walt Disney Family Museum. There’s also the Bay Area Discovery Museum across the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito – that was on our list but we never made it all the way across. Many of these are supposed to be fabulous, we just didn’t have time to check them out ourselves.
San Francisco Zoo
The San Francisco Zoo is located on the Pacific Ocean, south of Golden Gate Park. We didn’t make it here either, but it houses 2000 species in a variety of exhibits, including an African Savannah, Australian Walkabout, Penguin Island, and an Insect Zoo. There are gardens and a children’s zoo to explore within the grounds as well, and it’s supposed to be a wonderful zoo.
Pier 39: Aquarium of the Bay and Sea Lions
We had lunch one day on Pier 39, and got to check out the famous sea lions who hang out on K-Dock. They are not captive or fed intentionally by the marina. They began to congregate there after the earthquake of 1989, and stayed due to the protective nature of the marina and the bountiful supply of fish to eat. There is no charge to visit, listen to their barking, and take pictures, and it doesn’t take long. Pier 39 itself is pretty touristy, but if you’re nearby the sea lions are worth seeing.
I love aquariums, but we also ran out of time to get to the Aquarium of the Bay. It’s located on Pier 39 downtown, and is home to 20,000 local marine animals. Per their website families should allow around 90 minutes to explore the whole facility, and admission is $75 for a family of four (kids 3 and under are free). This aquarium is dedicated to marine life in San Francisco Bay and Northern California, and animals include giant octopus, a variety of jellyfish, sharks, rays, and river otters.
I had no idea what to expect when we toured Alcatraz. I was afraid it would be too crowded and touristy, or that the kids would be bored. Quite the opposite! We spent maybe two hours on the island, with a 15 min boat ride each way from Pier 33. Go right to the source and book your tickets from Alcatraz Cruises, and book early. They’re listed 90 days out. We booked about a month early, and the “day tour” was the only one that was still available and fit our schedule – the more detailed tours (night and behind the scenes) sell out first. The day tour wound up being a great fit with 3 and 7 year olds, however, since 45 minutes was about the extent of their attention span. Ages 4 and under do get free admission to the island, and the minimum age for the highly recommended behind the scenes tour is 12.
We had rented a car that morning as we were heading to Yosemite that afternoon, so we had to find parking near the pier. We looked ahead and found a reasonably priced spot on SpotHero, and I recommend doing that as spaces are limited. Public transportation or ridesharing services would be preferable and probably cheaper, if you don’t need to have access to your car that day. Pier 33 is located conveniently near Fisherman’s Wharf, and it’s a short walk to Pier 39 before or after your tour. We walked to Pier 39 afterwards, found a place for fresh seafood and sourdough bread bowl clam chowder, and then spent some time gawking at the sea lions I discussed above. If you have a full day, combining Alcatraz with the Aquarium or Musée Mécanique would work out well.
The Cellhouse Audio Tour is included with all tickets, and I would recommend getting a set of headphones for everyone in your party above toddler age. We decided not to take one for our 3 year old, and I wish we would have. He might not have followed everything, but he would have understood some of it and had a better idea of what we were doing there. Our 7 year old did very well with the headphones, and found the tour extremely interesting. He picked out a history book from the gift shop at the end so he could learn even more about Alcatraz and who was housed there over the years.
For those visiting with young children, be aware that the island has both hills and steep stairs, and is NOT stroller-friendly. They have trams for the mobility-impaired, but the website says they cannot accommodate strollers and young children. Baby carriers are welcomed, so I wore my preschooler on my back for most of the morning. Our 7 year-old did just fine with the walking and climbing. Wear comfortable shoes and layers, and definitely plan to take pictures. There are beautiful views of the city and the Golden Gate Bridge from the island, and plenty of birds and flowers to check out in addition to the prison itself. Food and drink are sold on the boat in both directions, but only bottled water may be carried out of the dock area onto the island itself. They also do not permit coolers, so plan to eat before or after your tour.
Golden Gate Bridge/Presidio/Muir Woods
Like Alcatraz, we figured seeing the bridge was a must-do on our first visit to the city. I had hoped we could rent bikes and ride across to Sausalito that day, but we wound up making plans to meet a local friend for some park play time and dinner in Chinatown. Had we chosen to bike, we would have done a self-guided tour through Blazing Saddles. They have kids’ bikes as well as tag-a-longs, baby seats, and trailers, and helmets and locks are included. They also include a ferry ticket for the way back, but of course you can bike both ways if you choose.
We didn’t have a whole day to devote to Sausalito and Tiburon, so we just walked partway and took pictures. Every time we see a picture of a big bridge or drive across one now, our 3 year-old asks if it’s the Golden Gate – I guess it made a bit of an impression on him! There is a narrow sidewalk on each side of the bridge, which is loud and busy with car traffic. The day we were there one side was for pedestrians and the other for bicycles, but there was also a dividing line on the pedestrian bridge suggesting walkers should stay to the right. We were passed by a few officers on bicycles, so be aware. The traffic is loud, so you may not hear them approach. The bridge is 1.7 miles across, and between the wind and the noise our 7 year-old only made it about a third of the way across (the little one was on my back again, so he didn’t get a vote).
The San Francisco side of the bridge is located in Presidio National Park. We didn’t allot much time to explore here, but in nice weather you could spend most of a day if you chose. The park has plenty of hiking and biking trails to explore its natural beauty, and there are beaches to walk on even if it isn’t warm enough to swim. For art fans, a three mile loop will let you view Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptural works. The Presido Officer’s Club is a free history and cultural museum on the grounds, and the Walt Disney museum is here as well.
We were planning to see the giant sequoias in Yosemite, but if you are not venturing out of the Bay Area you can add Muir Woods to your itinerary. Various tours are available from San Francisco, or you can drive to the park and hike through the redwoods on your own. The park service recommends against using rideshare services, as there is no cell service in the park and pickup is difficult to impossible. The two easiest trails are on a boardwalk, and are stroller and wheelchair-friendly. The sequoias are quite literally awesome, and they should be on everyone’s itinerary when coming to Northern California.
Golden Gate Park
First of all, you need to know that the Golden Gate Bridge is NOT in Golden Gate Park. It’s in the Presidio. The park, however, is absolutely worth a visit. Not only does it house both the California Academy of Sciences and the deYoung museum, it’s a huge and vibrant urban park with multiple playgrounds, beautiful gardens, and even a herd of bison. If the weather is nice, you can head to Stow Lake to rent a paddleboat or feed the ducks at Mallard Lake.
We spent some time at the Koret Children’s Quarter playground after checking out the Academy of Sciences, as they’re within walking distance of each other. It’s a huge playground with multiple climbing structures, and even an odd throwback concrete slide that the kids can ride down on pieces of corrugated cardboard. Our boys love merry-go-rounds, so of course we acquiesced to demands for a ride on the 1912 Herschell-Spillman carousel. Other playgrounds in the park include the 45th Ave Boat Park and the smaller Fulton Playground.
Neighborhoods to Explore and Dine
San Francisco is home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia, and kids of all ages will delight in the colorful sights, smells, and tastes. It is centered at Grant Ave and Stockton in central San Francisco, between the Financial District and Nob Hill. Parking can be challenging, so use alternative method to get there if possible. Streets can be crowded and hilly and shops and restaurants are narrow, so avoid bringing a big stroller if you can.
Enter through the Dragon’s Gate at the south end of the district, and then wander the streets. Check out the farmers’ market centered at Stockton and Jackson, grab takeout dim sum or egg custard from the small restaurants and bakeries that line the streets, poke in shops for cooking supplies or toys that you can’t find everywhere, and watch fortune cookies get made by hand (and try a sample!) at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory on Ross Alley between Stockton and Kearny. Take the kids through the free Chinese Historical Society of America to learn about Chinese heritage, and if they need to blow off steam you can stop in the Willie “Woo Woo” Wong playground right around the corner. The Portsmouth Square playground is another option on the eastern edge of the district. We had a sit-down dinner at Begoni Bistro that was very good, although the kids had filled up a bit on street food and weren’t very hungry.
We started with a late lunch with friends at Cafe Mum’s Home of Shabu Shabu. They offer a la carte and American items in addition to an all you can eat (and drink) shabu menu, so picky eaters can easily be accommodated. Shabu shabu is a communal hot pot meal, and diners cook thinly sliced beef and vegetables in steaming broth as they go. Our boys love fondue, so they were very excited to eat here. We mostly cooked for them, but they enjoyed the experience and did a great job eating.
Japantown, or Nihonmachi, is about six square blocks in the Western Addition of SF, west of Van Ness and a little further from some of the more touristy parts of the city. It was much larger prior to the interment of Japanese Americans during WWII, but remains the largest Japantown in the United States. I was an exchange student in Japan as a high school student and studied the language for many years, so this was a must-stop for me. My kids have been eating sushi since they were in diapers, so the flavors here were not new to them. Parking seemed easier here than in Chinatown, although we didn’t drive, and there was plenty of room most places for a stroller.
After lunch, we let the kids play on the benches by the fountain on the Peace Plaza, admired the five story Peace Pagoda, and then headed into the indoor Japan Center mall. The mall had a wide variety of delicious-looking restaurants, including Marufuku ramen with a line stretching far out the door. We browsed the giant Kinokinuya bookstore, which is a must if you have a manga or anime lover in your family, and bought a few souvenirs at one of the shops. A few pieces of sushi and some ice cream for our little one finished the day, and we headed back to the apartment to crash.
North Beach is San Francisco’s Little Italy, and was walking distance from our Fisherman’s Wharf apartment. It’s tucked in between Chinatown, the Financial District, and Russian Hill, and is a great place to grab a bite before or after an Alcatraz tour or a visit to Pier 39. Parking is at a premium here as well, but there was plenty of room on the sidewalk for a stroller. The neighborhood is dotted with bakeries, coffee shops, gelato stands, and trattorias. We found breakfast and great coffee at Caffe Grecco one morning and dinner at the touristy (but delicious) Stinking Rose a couple of evenings later. There was less for the kids to do here than in China and Japantown, but it has a high density of restaurants serving food that they’ll find familiar.
I’m sure we missed quite a few things, despite spending more than a week in the area. We never got burritos in the Mission, didn’t get to go on a whale watch, and never got to take fire engine tour of the city. Please comment below and tell me about your favorite part of visiting San Fran with kids, and if there’s anything we shouldn’t miss on our next visit!