Bay Area: Maritime National Historical Park

It’s no surprise to anyone that we’re giant fans of the National Park System. We’ve driven many thousands of miles traversing them. But not all National Park sites are out in the middle of nowhere. Turns out there’s a really fantastic one smack dab in the middle of San Francisco.
San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park is tucked in between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina district, mere steps from Ghirardelli Square. AKA one of THE most crowded and touristy parts of San Francisco. Surprisingly, though, many tourists and locals seem to somehow skip right over the Historical Park in favor of those other, louder, more famous but, in my opinion, way less exciting stops.
The visitors’ center is right at the edge of Hyde Street Pier, where you can pick up Junior Ranger booklets (of course!) and walk through the really terrific Waterfront exhibit, detailing old SF waterfront neighborhoods. It’s interactive and fascinating to discover what the city used to look like, and the people who built it into what it is today.
After visiting the museum, head out onto the pier to board the historic ships. My kids LOVE this, and I love that they always learn a few things about SF history, trade, and immigrants when we go.
Our very favorite ship is the huge Balclutha, which was moved for dry docking and maintenance last summer but should be returning very soon (scheduled for Spring 2018…). The Balclutha has some interesting exhibits below deck detailing trade routes and goods, and my kids love climbing up high to look around.
The cute little steam tug Hercules is also super fun to explore. The scow schooner Alma actually goes out for sails during the summer, and visitors are allowed to participate! This one is SO fun, and requires advance reservations. Adults are only $40, which makes it one of the very cheapest ways to go sailing on the Bay. At the time, all our kids (aged 5 and under) were free (I believe they charge for 6+, but I’m not sure how much). We all got opportunities to help with the rigging, and it was one of the most fun afternoons we’ve spent in the city.
If you still have time after, step out to Aquatic Park Beach right next to the pier for some calm sand & water play. Since it’s a cove, the water is always very still here so it’s great for babies and toddlers, and there are always folks doing open water swims. Then feel free to head up to Ghirardelli Square or hop on the cable car – the stop is just a block up from the visitors’ center.
While the visitors’ center is free, it’s $10/person (free for kids ages 15 and under) to board the historic ships. If you have a National Parks annual pass, your entire family gets in for free.
This spot is truly one of our very favorites in all of San Francisco. History, beauty, culture, beach, with a tiny bit of adventure. Fun for kids and adults, with a little learning thrown in for good measure. And rarely is it super crowded. If you haven’t gone yet, make sure you head over soon!

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