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When we first moved to the Bay Area just under two years ago, we lived in San Francisco for two months. It was WONDERFUL. Had it not been a two hour commute – each way – for my husband to get to work, we likely would’ve tried to make city life work for us. Alas, it doesn’t work for now, but we still love going up to explore our favorite haunts every chance we get.
From the beginning of the two months, we knew living in SF long-term likely wouldn’t work for our family, so we went in prepared to squeeze as much out of those two months as possible. Turns out, just under 60 days is a really good amount of time to get to know a city pretty well if you’re committed. It’s much longer than a typical tourist stay, but short enough that we felt like we had a deadline, too. We knew we’d be back up frequently, but without the ease of being able to walk many places or being a short bus or car ride away. So we packed as much as we could into that time.
So based on that stay, and our many, many visits since, I put together what is, in my mind, a perfect itinerary for families with young kids to spend four days San Francisco like a local. I never like to go somewhere and only hit the top 10 list on Trip Advisor, terrific as they may be. I always like to include a few slightly off-the-beaten-path local favorites, as well. Whether you’re coming to San Francisco sooner or later, I hope you enjoy!
Note: Public transportation in SF is spotty, in my opinion. The buses/trolleys/cable cars are decent when you stay in the Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown, or Union Square areas, but aren’t convenient when trying to get further out. Golden Gate Park is such a wealth of wonderful (and very child-friendly) activities, and the Mission is definitely worth a stop, so I recommend renting a car with kids if you can to give you a little more flexibility on activities and timing.
(Prep the day before by picking up basic picnic stuff for this day.)
Start the day off strong while your kids are feeling fresh and head to the California Academy of Sciences. Make sure to walk through the amazing rainforest, and don’t forget to check out the earthquake simulator.
Head outside around lunchtime and eat your picnic in Golden Gate Park. The Twirl ‘n Dip is right by the museum, so be sure to save room for a chocolate & sea salt-dipped soft serve cone!
After getting some sustenance, pop into the de Young Museum across from the Academy of Sciences. The building itself is incredible, and it’s free to head up the observation tower for a gorgeous view of the city. If you happen to be there on a Saturday, be sure to check out the (also free!) family programming – they have the best craft projects!
(If your kids are done at this point, it’s a good time to head back for a nap. Otherwise, carry on! Or if your interests lie elsewhere than what is mentioned above, GG Park has SO much good stuff – the Japanese Tea Garden, paddle boating on Stow Lake, the Conservatory of Flowers, the Dutch Windmill & Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, the Botanical Garden, hiking Strawberry Hill…there’s even a buffalo paddock! Truly something for everyone.)
By afternoon, any lingering fog will have hopefully burned off, so go check out the Sutro Baths and Land’s End for an easy, child- and stroller-friendly hike with spectacular views. From there, pop down to play on the beach in the glowy afternoon sunlight. Baker Beach and China Beach are both smaller and a little quieter, while East Beach by Crissy Field is expansive and perfect for running around.
On your way out, be sure to drive through the ritzy Seacliff neighborhood to see all the gorgeous San Francisco homes that probably cost more than some small cities.
If you still have some time before 5pm, head down to Fort Point, an old Civil War fort and one of our favorite stops in San Francisco. (Note: the fort is only open Friday-Sunday in the fall-spring, but is open 7 days a week in the summer.) You’ll enjoy an amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge from beneath. Keep an eye out for whales!
Grab some food nearby and walk down the jetty from the Marina Green to the Wave Organ. Your kids will have a blast hearing the different sounds while you eat!
(I would recommend walking or using public transportation as much as possible this day.)
Today, get geared up to learn a little about the history of San Francisco! First, head to Pier 39 before it gets crowded and check out the can’t-miss sea lions. It’s also fun to wander down the pier, ride the carousel, or pop into Magowan’s Mirror Maze, which is surprisingly fun and relatively short (and almost always has a Groupon deal running).
Stop into Boudin Bakery for an early lunch. Beware – it will likely be crowded even then, but it’s worth coming to this location to be able to peek at the giant mixers, huge batches of dough, and tons of animal-shaped loaves. There’s even a little museum that explains a bit of the history of Boudin, including how the flavor of the sourdough is specific to San Francisco. Definitely get soup in a bread bowl!
From there, walk through Fisherman’s Wharf on your way to the Maritime National Historical Park visitors’ center. There’s a terrific and and interactive exhibit on SF’s historic waterfront neighborhoods that we love. Don’t forget to pick up a free Junior Ranger booklet so the kids can get a badge!
From there, head straight out onto Hyde Street Pier. There are a bunch of historic ships you can board. The Balclutha especially has terrific exhibits inside, and kids LOVE getting to go aboard. Cost is $10 per person, or free if you have a National Parks annual pass. If you’re really into the maritime stuff (and likely if you have more than 4 days in the city), getting to sail on the historic scow schooner Alma is a terrific experience (and one of the cheapest ways to get out on the waters of the Bay).
If you’re up for a treat, feel free to pop into Ghiradelli Square (just up the hill from the Maritime Museum). (Honestly, I think the desserts at this location are overhyped and overpriced, and usually have a lengthy line. But if you feel like it’s a must, go for it – it’s your vacation!)
After lunch, you can head back for naps, or stop into the Musée Mécanique. The Musée Mécanique is filled with all kinds of old arcade games and other toys that take change, such as air hockey, dancing puppets, etc. It’s a fun and slightly random little stop. Give your kids each $5 in change and I guarantee they’ll be thrilled!
From there, hop on a cable car up to the (free!) Cable Car Museum. (Tip: if the line at the turnaround is long, walk up the hill to the next stop, where there’s almost never a line. Or you can walk up the street to see the famously-twisting Lombard Street, or another couple blocks up to Filbert Street, which is actually even steeper and holds the title of the steepest street in San Francisco.) The museum won’t take long, but it’s fun to see the giant cables rotating and learn a bit about how it all works.
From there, head to dinner at the Italian Homemade Company, where you can watch them making all the fresh pasta. If you still have room, pick up some fresh Bob’s Donuts to take back to your hotel.
Stop by Liguria Bakery first thing to pick up some delicious focaccia before they run out. Then, head over to Coit Tower for a gorgeous view of the city as well as a peek at a small-scale Diego Rivera fresco. From there, head down to the Exploratorium. There are just SO MANY fun and educational toys and games that kids love. Prime age for understanding scientific concepts is probably 6+, but younger ones will still love the experience even if they don’t necessarily understand the hows and whys.
From there, head down to the charming Ferry Building to walk around and grab some lunch (it’s only about a half mile walk, but hopping on the trolley – not to be confused with the cable car – is always fun!). Our favorite place is Cowgirl Creamery, a Marin County staple. The grilled cheeses and raspberry milk are amazing!
Hopefully it will be warming up by this point and the fog will be lifting, so enjoy walking up to San Francisco’s famous Chinatown. Take a peek at Dragon’s Gate, wander through the many stalls, and stop into the Fortune Cookie Factory for a sample (and to purchase fortune cookies in bulk, if you’d like).
You may want to take a rest at this point in anticipation of heading to a baseball game tonight (spoiler!). If you’re still feeling energetic, though, you can either walk over to Nob Hill to check out the famous Grace Cathedral and all the beautiful homes, to Union Square to walk around the shops, or over to the beautiful City Hall, which has occasional free tours that give a terrific overview of the city’s history. (The very excellent Asian Art Museum is also close by.)
After you’ve taken a break, head over to AT&T Park to check out SF’s beloved Giants play and grab dinner there!
If you’ve prepared far in advance, you’ve hopefully managed to snag some tickets for a tour of Alcatraz. If so, head out that morning to check out the old prison and enjoy some salty Bay air. After that, grab some lunch at Molinari Deli or Golden Boy (delicious focaccia pizza). If you’re not doing Alcatraz, you can head straight up to the Mission district in San Francisco.
Hop in your car and head to Mission Dolores, the oldest building in San Francisco. Take a quick tour, then grab lunch (or dinner) at Tartine Bakery (there’s almost always a line, but it’s worth it!). Get it to go and take it over to Mission Dolores Park. Stay over on the playground side if you want to avoid some of San Francisco’s more…pungent scents.
After playing at the park for a while, stop for some delicious Bi-Rite ice cream. Salted caramel is the most popular, and for good reason. If you’re okay with just one or two flavors for everyone to share, skip the line to get a cone and go straight to the front to purchase pints. You may also want to walk around the Mission a bit to see some of the fun murals.
If you want to work off that ice cream, head over to Twin Peaks for a bit of hiking and (hopefully, if it’s clear) a great view of the city. Another option is Bernal Heights, which has a short little hike and a fun swing that makes it feel like you’re flying over the San Francisco. If you’re there later in the day for either of these (for instance, if you’ve managed to do Alcatraz in the morning), you may catch a glorious sunset over the Bay. If you’re a Full House fan, you may also want to drive by the Painted Ladies!
If you’re not totally exhausted, you may want to look into some special programming for the evening – the San Francisco Ballet and Symphony are both world-class (the Ballet was the first US-based company to perform The Nutcracker), and the Beach Blanket Babylon revue show is a San Francisco classic (it’s pretty tame, but only the matinee shows allow children ages 5+).
If you have more time, consider adventuring outside the city (although there’s plenty to keep you occupied within the city itself, if you prefer). Some favorites include Muir Woods, the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Point Bonita, Point Reyes, Berkeley (Cheeseboard pizza is a must), Oakland (stop to get Fenton’s ice cream), the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Marin, or The Tech Museum in San Jose (which has the amazing Body Worlds Decoded exhibit). Santa Cruz is beautiful and has lots of gorgeous beaches. Monterey and Carmel aren’t terribly far, and the aquarium itself is worth a visit.
Basically, you could return an endless number of times and never run out of activities or things to hold your interest. Enjoy your visit!!