Headed to San Francisco with kids and trying to figure out how to make it an enjoyable time for everyone? Completely understand. I’ve wanted to go to San Francisco for years and was eager to finally get to go recently. But, since my daughter was going to be going with me, I started being my usual crazy-planner self and reading all kinds of articles on Things To Do in San Francisco with Teens and 10 Best Things To Do in San Francisco with Kids… So let me pass on what we most enjoyed from that list to make your planning even easier.
Stay in a Funky Hotel in San Francisco with Kids
Whenever I’m traveling with our kids, even as they’ve gotten older, I look for more interesting hotels and resorts to actually stay in. It is so helpful, on an afternoon or evening when they are just DONE with the running around, to have a hotel that is welcoming for them. And it’s much better if they don’t feel confined to the room where we all just wind up soaking in electronics for down time!
So, this time while exploring San Francisco, I chose the Zephyr hotel. The interior is quintessentially Instagram ready, with bright colors and comic-style wall murals. Just off the lobby there is a game room very well equipped for kids and teens with ping-pong, pool tables, and televisions throughout , and the outdoor courtyard with it’s bonfires, enormous connect-four game, and food truck, actually had guests hanging out and chatting in the evenings. There’s a new quirky something around nearly every corner, so keep your eyes open! (Check out my full post about Hotel Zephyr San Francisco with lots more pictures!)
Touristy Fun in San Francisco with Kids
Just around the block from the Zephyr hotel is Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39. Yeah, yeah, “that’s so touristy!” Whatever. When traveling anyway, including San Francisco, with kids – you do touristy. Especially Pier 39 is purposely created to draw you in with fun and quirky shops, kid friendly foods, and the colorful carosel – so take advantage of it!
We highly recommend Trish’s Mini Donuts as a stop. These tiny treats taste like the fluffy, thick part of a funnel cake, and are dusted with the same powdered sugar. When ordering, you can see the little machine creating the little dough circles and cranking them through the bubbling oil, then spilling them out on the drying rack where they are scooped up, and given directly to you. (Yes, they are hot, so use care with the kids!)
Pier 39 is also where the seals regularly hang out making quite the barking rukus, and just by their usual flopping around, grunting, and occasionally getting into a skirmish amoungst themselves, entertain everyone who comes for a glimpse.
Finally, be sure to check out the Pier 39 Events Page for any special happenings. We hadn’t done this, and just lucked out when we decided to do another donut run on our last evening in town – and wound up also treated to a fireworks display! So check it out, just in case you can take advantage of a fireworks show, outdoor movie night, or other fun activity.
Lock Up the Kids in San Francisco (Sorta)
When in San Francisco with kids, Alcatraz is an excellent choice for a half-day activity. Visiting an abandoned prison is cool no matter your age, and Alcatraz offers more than I realized. The prison is the focus, but there are other buildings and history to the island that adds more depth to the trip. Also, the ferry to and from the island is only 10 minutes, making it very kid-attention-span friendly, and the views of both the city skyline and the Golden Gate bridge are pretty amazing.
Once on the island, welcome and initial instructions are kept nicely brief and direct. Up the hill and in the actual prison building, the line and audio tour distribution happens in the prison shower room – so even that “standing in line” time is still interesting. As you continue through the complex, the unique attributes of the prison, famous prisoners, and even the story of escape attempts keep you moving steadily through and entertained. Highlights for us were getting to stand within the solitary confinement cells, learning there were times the prisoners could actually hear the sounds of San Francisco, and dramatic escape stories.
ProTip: The Early Bird Alcatraz Tour gives you a less crowded visit, and also makes it possible to easily be back in San Francisco by 11am for lunch and afternoon activities.
Exercise in San Francisco with Kids
Bike Golden Gate Park
When we were in San Francisco, and I was trying to think of what to do with my kid, I knew I wanted to explore Golden Gate Park. After all, the park is pretty remarkable, with a Japanese tea garden, windmills, a sizable pond, and even buffalo! But, I didn’t want to take the entire day just to walk from one place to another. Then, inspiration hit! We have loved bike tours in the past. So, I googled bike rental places, and there are several just outside the western end of the park.
From one end of the park to the other is just over 4 miles (including the panhandle), so if you just directly bike from one end of the park to the other, and back again, it will take about and hour, or a little more. Of course, what you really want to do is stop at the interesting places as you go, so be sure to factor in whatever stop you want to make for time estimate, take a picnic lunch, and get in some good family exercise while seeing the sights. We recommend the Japanese Tea Garden as a stop – the garden is beautiful and perfectly maintained, and lots of spots for gorgeous photography.
We rented from the aptly named Golden Gate Park Bike Rental just outside the park on Haight street. Easy pick up and drop off, and it is located only a few steps from Whole Foods and McDonalds depending which way your tastes lie for an easily purchased drink or picnic.
ProTip: The bike path map we got from the bike shop was… not the best. You can get a Much Better Bike Path Map Here.
Great Views of San Francisco with Kids:
Coit Tower View
It’s always fun to find a great view when visiting a new city. Especially if you are a shutterbug like me. For our time in San Francisco, we visited Coit Tower for incredible 360° views of the city. Coit Tower itself is historic and a fine example of art deco architecture – not that this generally interests most kids. However, the murals that encircle the first floor make standing in the tolerable line more interesting. If your kids are old enough to understand irony and dry humor, read the book titles in the law library section of the mural for a few chuckles.
Once you ascend the small elevator to the top, the views are stunning. We slowly made our way around the perimeter, taking pictures out the windows and spotting landmarks we had visited. Look for Lombard’s curviest street, the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, Alcatraz and the Trans America Pyramid while you are there.
ProTip: For an added bonus, walk down the Filbert Street Steps after leaving Coit Tower. It’s a unique little pocket of homes that reside on a “street” which is actually a seemingly endless and picturesque gardened stairway.
Iconic Thing To Do in San Francisco with Kids:
Ride a Cable Car
Riding a cable car is an iconic San Francisco thing to do, and that holds true if you are visiting with kids. The cable cars appeal to so many different interests, it’s doubtful that anyone in your group would be disappointed: History buff? Train/mechanical buff? Instagrammer? Rollercoaster lover? Long walk avoider? They’ll all be happy.
These are truly public transit and not an amusement park ride, so they stop regularly with people getting on and off. During the summer months the Powell/Hyde and Powell/Mason lines get very busy, especially at the turnaround stops, unless you get on early in the day or after 5pm. The California line is rarely so busy.
ProTip: Instead of getting on/off at the turnaround spot, walk a few blocks up the line. You can often get on much quicker that way!
Treat Your Kids in San Francisco
Humphrey Slocombe in The Ferry Building
The Ferry building is a foodie favorite stop in San Francisco, and I realize ‘foodie’ doesn’t always relate to our kids. BUT, how about we just say ‘really cool old building with some of the best ice cream in the city’? Does that work for your kids? Yeah. Mine too.
A must stop inside the Ferry Building if you have kids with you (or, let’s get serious, even if you don’t) is Humphrey Slocombe. It’s a little shop with the day’s ice cream flavors written up on the wall and a little area for a line. Humphrey Slocombe is famous for their creative flavor combinations like French Tickler (banana & creme fraiche ice cream with spicy sugar cookies) Firebrand (caramel ice cream with chocolate covered pretzels) and Secret Breakfast (bourbon & cornflakes – yeah, maybe save that one for you!) They also are happy to let you sample the different offerings, so don’t be shy about asking for a taste. Otherwise, it’s really hard to say whether “Diebencorn” is really what you are in the mood for.
If you plan the ferry building around a meal time, another good stop with the kids in San Francisco’s Ferrry Building is Cowgirl Creamery. I know, sounds like another ice cream spot – but it’s not! (Not that there’s anything wrong with two ice cream stops, I don’t judge. I don’t want to watch your kids afterward, but I don’t judge.) Cowgirl Creamery sells artisan cheeses, and it also does some of the tastiest updated grilled cheese and tomato soup I’ve had in a long time. Comfort food taken a step up from the usual.
Interested in more about the other shops & restaurants, and maybe learning about the ups and downs of the history of this San Francisco landmark, check out my post on the Ferry Building’s History and Marketplace.
San Francisco with Kids Beach Time
Anytime we are traveling somewhere with a beach, it is a guaranteed favorite thing to do with our kids. San Francisco or otherwise. Even if it’s too cold to actually get in the water, looking for shells, digging in the sand, and racing the waves are more than enough to keep our kids happy.
Many different spots around San Francisco will serve you well for a little beach time, but we particularly appreciated Ocean beach, just west and across Great Hwy from Golden Gate Park. It worked really well to take a break here when we were biking the park, and use the beach as a rest & explore spot before heading back out across the park again. (Important to note though, Ocean Beach is known for rip tides – so exercise great caution near the water.)
According to the lovely and talented Kristine, a San Francisco local who commented below: If you’re up for exploring another beach with kids, I highly recommend venturing over into the Presidio. The West Bluff Picnic Area and Beach is just off Crissy Field. It’s a bit more contained and protected whereas Ocean Beach is known for having a rip tide. On a nice day, kids can venture into the water here without a problem and make sandcastles in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge as well as in full view of Alcatraz.
I hope this gives you a great starting point for taking your trip to San Francisco with kids! It’s a beautiful city with a lot to offer. Let me know what your favorites are with your kids, or any ideas you have!
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