San Francisco comes alive for kids with museums, parks and other off-the-beaten-path diversions.
By Tess Eyrich
Long considered a playground for adults, San Francisco has finally come into its own as a vacation destination for families, with an impressive crop of affordable activities, including museums, parks, playgrounds and local landmarks that’ll keep the entire gang entertained.
Begin your own adventure by choosing a base camp. The city is filled with kid-friendly lodgings like the Omni San Francisco Hotel, which embraces children with personalized touches such as welcome backpacks and milk and cookies before bed. The Union Square retreat even features a Kid’s Fantasy Suite furnished with bunk beds, plush toys and books—a perfect place for children to decompress after a day of sampling the sights and sounds of the City by the Bay.
Here, we share our itinerary for a fun-filled weekend with the family in San Francisco.
3 p.m.: Following check-in, use the remaining hours in the day to explore the surrounding area. Start at Pier 15, just a 10-minute walk from the Omni, with a stop at the Exploratorium, one of the country’s most accessible science museums. Exhibits at this expansive warehouse appeal to guests of all ages and are divided into easy-to-digest categories, including everyday science, the human body, the mind, and astronomy and space. Even the admittedly right-brained will find themselves entranced by the roughly 600 bold displays (an assortment of plants that visibly respond to touch, a series of decaying rat corpses used to illustrate the process of decomposition) on view at the museum.
5 p.m.: If the kids can handle more stimulation, travel up the Embarcadero to the Musée Mécanique at Pier 45, one of the world’s largest privately owned assemblages of vintage mechanical machines and arcade games. While most of Fisherman’s Wharf is best left unvisited due to crowds, the more than 300 pieces that comprise the Zelinsky family’s collection are truly awe-inspiring and include one of the last-remaining steam-powered motorcycles in existence. Best of all, the museum is entirely free and open to the public daily.
6:30 p.m.: Just steps away from the Musée Mécanique, Pier 39 offers a broad spectrum of fast-casual and fine dining options, many of which cater to little ones with children’s menus and kid-friendly dishes. Sample the chewy sourdough bread bowls at Bistro Boudin, or opt for local seafood from the Crab House, Eagle Cafe or Fog Harbor Fish House.
On your way out, say hello to the clusters of California sea lions that have made the docks home since the early 1990s. Now local celebrities, the sea lions began appearing in the waters off the pier following 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake; scientists who study the animals believe they continue to flock to the docks because they feel safer in the bay’s tame waters.
8 a.m.: Hit the pavement early and walk to Mama’s on Washington Square for breakfast. The lines outside this North Beach restaurant have been known to snake outside the door, and for good reason—the thick-cut French toast, omelets and buttermilk pancakes are considered some of the tastiest in San Francisco.
9:30 a.m.: By this point, you’ll no doubt be in the kind of food coma that impairs basic mobility, so drive or take the streetcar to Golden Gate Park, a sprawling, 1,017-acre wonderland complete with museums, playgrounds, gardens, lakes and even a historic carousel.
The California Academy of Sciences begins welcoming guests at 9:30 a.m. every day of the week except Sunday (when it opens at 11 a.m.), and its award-winning facilities are best enjoyed before the inevitable midday rush. Designed by lauded architect Renzo Piano, the building reads more like a naturalist’s treasure chest than anything else, with a massive aquarium that holds more than 900 species of rare animals like Claude, the albino American alligator; an all-digital planetarium; natural history exhibits including a hall of dioramas and blue whale and Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons; and a four-story living rainforest accented by scores of free-range butterflies. A recently debuted earthquake exhibit, meanwhile, allows guests to experience the seismic jolts caused by the 6.9-magnitude Loma Prieta quake and the legendary 7.9-magnitude rumble of 1906.
Upstairs, the on-site Naturalist Center is a perfect space for older children to interact with fossils, bones, pelts and taxidermy animals, or pore over books, magazines and other print resources. If you find yourself needing a breath of fresh air, simply board the elevator to the living roof, its rolling hills covered in native grasses and wildflowers.
Noon: Tour some of the park’s other offerings for the young and the young at heart. Its oldest building, the Conservatory of Flowers, was completed in 1878 and houses hundreds of aquatic, tropical and potted plants. Through Oct. 19, the conservatory is hosting “Chomp! They Came From the Swamp,” a family-friendly exhibition of carnivorous plants like Venus flytraps and butterworts.
Walk across John F. Kennedy Drive and you’ll arrive at the Koret Children’s Quarter, which features a variety of areas for kids to blow off steam, including one of the top-ranked playgrounds in San Francisco and a stunning carousel made in 1914 by the Herschell-Spillman Co.
For more of a challenge, set out toward Stow Lake, a 12-acre hot spot for hiking and boating. Rent a pedal boat, electric boat or rowboat from the Stow Lake Boathouse’s fleet, or take to the trail that winds around the perimeter of the lake to Strawberry Hill, passing landmarks such as Huntington Falls, a 110-foot artificial waterfall; a colorful pagoda that was a gift from Taipei, China, San Francisco’s sister city, in 1976; and the iconic Rustic and Roman bridges. The trail ends at the highest point in Golden Gate Park (400 feet) amid the ruins of Sweeney’s Observatory, a regal brick structure that was leveled by the 1906 earthquake.
1:30 p.m.: Take a break for lunch at a nearby eatery. Combining culinary prowess with convenience, Park Chow on the edge of Golden Gate Park serves a range of organic soups, salads, sandwiches, pastas and pizzas. The restaurant also boasts a kids’ juice bar and healthy children’s classics including macaroni and cheese, burgers and chicken fingers with fries or vegetables.
3 p.m.: Appetites sated, head to the Presidio, home of the Walt Disney Family Museum and its impressive array of the original Imagineer’s personal drawings and memorabilia. The museum’s detailed displays are geared primarily toward older children and adults, but little ones can relax in the facility’s on-site digital theater, which screens classic Disney films daily. Now through Nov. 3, the museum is presenting “Leading Ladies and Femme Fatales: The Art of Marc Davis,” an exhibition of the work of the artist responsible for the villains and heroines encountered in Disney’s “Peter Pan,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “One Hundred and One Dalmatians.” If you’re traveling with children under 5 or so, however, consider substituting the Presidio trip with a visit to the Randall Museum, a free play space with live animals, crafts, toddler-friendly science exhibits and a tree house.
6 p.m.: Fuel up after an action-packed day at Rigolo Café, which bills itself as “the most child-friendly restaurant in San Francisco.” Situated between the Presidio and Golden Gate Park, the French bistro lives up to its word with a full-page kids’ menu, toys, a chalkboard, balloons, coloring supplies and more.
And if you’re craving some time alone, remember to book one of the Omni’s qualified babysitters in advance, then embark on your own after-hours adventure (Chinatown, perhaps?).
9:30 a.m.: Begin the day with a late meal at a local restaurant like Union Square’s Puccini & Pinetti, a contemporary Italian eatery that also serves traditional breakfast plates along with gluten- and dairy-free alternatives.
Consider seeing the city from a different perspective altogether. Children older than 6 surprisingly gravitate toward Alcatraz Island, site of the now-defunct federal penitentiary that once hosted Al Capone and a slew of other hardened criminals. Both the ferry ride to the island and the audio tour—narrated by former Alcatraz inmates and guards, no less—are popular draws, and the National Park Service even encourages younger visitors through its Junior Ranger Program, which sees kids complete workbooks and earn badges at the end of the journey. Boats frequently depart from Pier 33 throughout the day, and a full tour typically takes between two and three hours to finish.
From the pier, it’s a short climb up nearby Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower, which reopened in May after months of renovations. The famed landmark offers uncompromised views of the city, and its walls showcase Great Depression-era murals by legendary artists such as Diego Rivera.
Or, save your energy for a family hike through one of the city’s best-kept secrets, the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve. An urban wilderness developed by Adolph Sutro, a former San Francisco mayor in the late 1890s, the reserve’s 61 open acres are now overseen by the University of California, San Francisco and offer a maze of dreamy trails, sky-high eucalyptus trees and spectacular vistas.
Because most of Mount Sutro sits squarely in San Francisco’s fog belt, standing inside the forest on a foggy day will give you the impression that you’re inside a cloud, providing one of the most memorable vantage points from which to experience the city.