Last September Brian and I celebrated our sixteenth anniversary with a trip to San Francisco. The plethora of cultural activities and attractions set amongst the beautiful blue waters of the Pacific and colorful Victorian and Edwardian architecture made for a perfect grown-up getaway. What surprised us was how many times we found ourselves saying, “our kids would really love this!”
In fact, when it came time to decide on a destination to surprise our kids with as their Experience Gift for Christmas, San Francisco topped our list. We decided to make it the first stop on a West Coast California to Arizona to Nevada road trip.
Many more blog posts on our big adventure to come so stay tuned!
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Two days in a big city is a tough gig – there’s so much to do and see that it can be overwhelming. Though we experienced a bit of a flight delay that cut in to our touring time we were still able to pack a ton in to our 48 hours in San Francisco with kids. We focused on our favorite activities that we knew our kids would love and added in some other fun attractions.
We were able to maximize our short visit by using Go Card San Francisco All-Inclusive Passes and the awesome itinerary I put together that focuses on experiences that are fantastic for families. We also learned a few tips and tricks and discovered some gems that will help you plan your own trip to San Francisco with kids.
We took an early direct flight out of Charlotte to San Francisco. Even with the delay the time difference going in this direction really worked in our favor. After taking a shuttle from the airport to our hotel in Union Square, we were able to check in, drop our bags off, grab a backpack with essentials and set off to explore.
Our starting point for Day 1 was Union Square where our Hilton hotel is located. This public plaza takes its name from the pro-Union rallies that took place here during the Civil War. These days it’s all about the bright lights and the big shops. It’s a lot like Times Square in New York –but a little more low-key. The square is a shopping haven, home to stores like Macy’s, Bloomingdales and Sak’s Fifith Avenue and features many high-end eateries. Of more importance to us though, it has easy access to the historic cable car lines.
Cable Car Rides
Getting around San Francisco with kids is easy to do without a rental car. Uber is prevalent everywhere and the Municipal Metro service is vast with numerous buses and trains running across the city but you simply can’t come to San Francisco and not use the Cable Cars! Not only do the lines cover many main points of interest these moving landmarks are iconic, unique and insanely fun! Our kids had such a thrill being hauled up and down the steep hills, bells ringing!
TIP: Our top piece of advice here is to completely skip the endless line at the beginning and end of the Cable Car lines and head instead to ANY other stop where you can simply just hop aboard. We can’t for the life of us figure out why people wait in the hours-long lines where the cable cars turn around instead of just walking a block or two to another stop.
BONUS TIP: One-way fare on the cable cars is $7 per person for a single ride. I suggest getting a one-day pass that’s good for all of city’s public transportation. You can purchase them from the MUNI app and keep them stored for everyone in your family right on your phone.
The world-famous Fisherman’s Wharf was our first destination and where we spent a good chunk of our time in San Francisco with kids. This neighborhood, which runs along the northern waterfront of San Francisco is a hive of activity with no shortage of fun things to do, with entertaining street performers and activities at seemingly every turn.
After getting off at the end of the Cable Car line we made a bee line for Boudin to grab some lunch. We enjoyed soup and sandwiches in the casual café and then spent some time watching the professional bakers carefully craft batches of bread and shape the sour dough into intricately designed animals like bears, crabs and turtles.
We made sure to take a quick trip upstairs to where the Bistro restaurant is located to see the small museum and learn more about the history of the bakery and catch a peak into the bakery itself and see (and smell!) where the “Mother” dough is kept in a special vault.
Bridge to Bridge Cruise
Bellies full it was time for our kids to get their first real view of the Bay by boat. There are many companies offering a cruise around the waters surrounding San Francisco. Since Brian and I took the Blue and Gold bay area cruise on our last visit to San Francisco we figured we would check out the Red and White Fleet this time. Both are included on the Go Card San Francisco.
The historic Red and White Fleet cruise ship, operating in the Bay Area since 1892 offers the only cruise that goes under both the iconic Golden Gate bridge and the gigantic Bay Bridge. It is also the only one that offers guided narration in 16 different languages via personal headsets you wear while cruising. This was awesome as we didn’t have to strain to hear a guide and instead got all the insights into the city’s history, architecture and little-known facts right in our ears as we sailed along the waterfront for 90 minutes.
TIP: Make sure to line up at least 30 minutes in advance of departure if you want to be up top for prime viewing. And don’t forget to bring a sweater or jacket. It can get chilly and windy on the bay! In fact its always a good idea to dress in layers in San Francisco. A cool 60 degrees from the chilly fog feels much colder than 60 degrees in the sun. Dress warmer than you think you need to be.
Next, we hopped aboard the USS Pampanito, one of two historic ships docked at Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf. This authentic Balao class Fleet submarine went on six missions during World War II. Today it serves as a floating museum, memorial and National Historic Landmark. We enjoyed the headset with a pre-recorded audio tour of the submarine while exploring various compartments and rooms, from the living quarters to the torpedo bays. It really gives you a feel for what life aboard the Pampanito and similar vessels was like. This activity was also included in our Go Card San Francisco.
Just a short bit further along on Pier 45 is one of our favorite places in San Francisco –Musee Mecanique. This privately-owned vintage arcade features a huge collection of coin operated games, instruments and mechanical oddities from self-playing pianos to fortune telling talking heads. Not surprisingly our kids were captivated by everything from the antique music boxes and nickelodeons to the 1980’s retro video games like Pac Man. The pin ball machines were a huge hit and I always love a good game of skee ball.
TIP: This retro arcade is completely free, but we made sure to bring a bag of quarters from home. There are plenty of change machines on hand if you need change.
For dinner it had to be none other than In-N-Out Burger! We couldn’t come all the way to California without taking the kids to this exclusively west coast establishment. In-N-Out Burger has been serving up delectable hamburgers and cheeseburgers to loyal patrons since 1948. Every meal is cooked to order using only fresh, quality ingredients and its mouthwatering spread. Their French-fries are hand cut and never frozen and neither is their beef. You can’t go wrong with any order, but it was the “secret menu” items that our budding foodies were most excited to try.
TIP: Try an “animal style” burger or fries –these secret menu items served with grilled onions, melted cheese and thousand island sauce were our favorites. Wash it all down with a “Neapolitan” shake –also from the secret menu” which combines vanilla, chocolate and strawberry flavors in one yummy creation.
San Francisco Dungeon
Our final first day stop was at the San Francisco Dungeon which was also included on our Go Card San Francisco. This isn’t an attraction that is geared to younger children, but our teens and tween loved it and so did we! The 60-minute journey is partly a costumed theatrical performance through a series of vignettes which regale you with tales of San Francisco’s sordid past and recreate authentic historical events. We learned about the Gold Miner’s Greed, the Gangs of Old San Francisco, and the Ghosts of Alcatraz. It’s one of those wonderfully educational attractions in disguise where the kids learn a lot but aren’t bored. The second part of the experience is a thrill ride that plunges you into the depths of San Francisco with your fellow inmates –but I won’t spoil the fun of escaping “The Rock” with too many details.
We started our second day in San Francisco with the Early Bird Tour of Alcatraz, embarking from Pier 33 at 8:45 AM. I highly recommend this option but it’s definitely not a spur of the moment activity. Tickets to Alcatraz sell out months in advance with the Early Bird (first tour of the day) and Night Tour (last tour of the day) being the most difficult to come by, often selling out as soon as they go on sale 90 days before the tour date. Having done the Night Tour already I knew we wanted to do the Early Bird option as it is substantially less packed than the regular day time tours. It is totally worth the extra effort to see Alcatraz uncrowded.
Alcatraz means “pelican” in Spanish, a reference to the first inhabitants of this rocky island. It’s location in the middle of the bay is both strategic and exposed to harsh ocean winds. In 1859, the US Military established a fort at Alcatraz to guard the Bay. In 1907 it became a military prison and in 1934 it became a maximum-security federal penitentiary which it remained until 1963 when it was closed due to the extremely high cost to maintain. Commonly called “The Rock”, Alcatraz housed some of the most notorious criminals like Al “Scarface” Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Our kids were enthralled with the stories on the award-winning audio tour included with admission. It is truly OUTSTANDING! I really can’t express that strongly enough. It is unlike any other audio tour we’ve ever done. Not only does it walk you step by step through the extensive prison complex you are immersed in the sounds and narratives of the island’s fascinating history from first-hand accounts of the actual guards and prisoners. You truly get a sense of what it was like to be in Alcatraz prison when it was in operation. You’ll even be walked through an extensive escape attempt and riots complete with sound effects and an exciting description of what later become known as the Battle of Alcatraz. From start to finish Alcatraz is one of our favorite experiences in San Francisco!
TIP: Alcatraz Cruises is the one and only official tour boat that actually takes you to Alcatraz Island. It is best to book with them and not through a tour company that marks up the tickets. You can book 90 days in advance of your desired tour date.
After returning from Alcatraz we walked along the Embarcadero to Pier 39. This area is a must-do when visiting San Francisco with kids. Sure, it’s touristy but there is no shortage of fun diversions! You can take a spin on the Pier’s carousel, check out the 7-D theater or do some dockside shopping. Our kids loved that there was an entire store dedicated to Biscoff, one of their favorite treats! After a look around we decided to grab a quick counter service lunch from The Hook. The perfectly fried shrimp was the stand out winner with our crew!
Sea Lions at K-Dock
Pier 39 is also home to the famous sea lions who make their home on Pier 39’s K-dock. The roughly 1,700 sea lions that took up residence on the docks of Pier 39 late last century now rarely ever leave. This cuddly bunch of creatures play, splash, and sometimes even fight, but mostly they sun themselves on the floating wooden docks while hundreds of tourists look on. It’s an amazing sight well worth taking some time to enjoy. It’s easy to find the sea lions at K dock from either side of Fisherman’s Wharf or straight through all the shops and restaurants of Pier 39. Just follow the sound of barking!
Aquarium of the Bay
Our Go Card San Francisco passes also included a visit to the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39. The interactive exhibits, hands-on displays and naturalist presentations were enthralling. We also enjoyed exploring touch pools filled with bat rays, sea stars, sea cucumbers and leopard sharks.
Our favorite activity was the 300-foot crystal-clear tunnel system that gives an immersive scuba diver’s view of the marine animals from San Francisco Bay and surrounding waters housed at the aquarium. The Aquarium of the Bay aims to inspire not just wonder but conservation. We had the opportunity to learn about important environmental challenges of the day like climate change, plastic pollution in the oceans, and habitat loss and how we can be a part of conservation efforts.
Biking the Golden Gate Bridge
Biking across the Golden Gate Bridge was the highlight of our previous trip to San Francisco and the number one thing we wanted to do in San Francisco with kids. Lucky for us full day bike rentals were included with our Go Card San Francisco!
The friendly and knowledgeable staff at Blazing Saddles got us all outfitted and set up for our biking adventures. Our bike rental included a helmet, a bike lock, and a custom map with route recommendations.
Starting in Fisherman’s Wharf we followed the National Park bike path on a scenic ride through the Marina, Crissy Field, and the Presidio stopping to take many photos along the way. We could not have hoped for bluer skies or more idyllic weather! I definitely suggest waiting until the afternoon when the infamous San Francisco fog subsides before you head out across the country’s most iconic bridge.
The whole experience was unforgettable! Feeling the ocean wind in your face and sensing the majesty of this landmark was absolutely exhilarating. It’s an adventure that our kids will never forget! None of our photos really do it justice!
TIP: Pretty much any route in San Francisco will include hills due to the city’s unique geography, so you’ll want to consider that when deciding the best type of bike for your family. We chose two tandem bikes which we rode with each of our girls and one single for our teenager who is a more confident and experienced rider. Blazing Saddles also offers tagalong bikes and trailers perfect for younger children and toddlers.
Palace of Fine Arts – Presidio
Not only did we get to ride along the waterfront and up and over the 1.6 mile architectural wonder that is the Golden Gate Bridge we got hang on to our bikes for the rest of the day. We continued our explorations through the Presidio area. Once the nation’s premier army post, the Presidio, located on the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula is now it is home to museums, restaurants, recreational paths and architectural remnants of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition. The most prominent of which is the Palace of Fine Arts. Easily one of the most beautiful historical monuments in San Francisco, we stopped by to explore the impressive structure.
Walt Disney Family Museum
Our other stop in the Presidio was at the Walt Disney Family Museum –which once again is awesomely included in the Go Card San Francisco. Founded by Walt’s older daughter, Diane Disney Miller, San Francisco was chosen as the home of the Walt Disney Family Museum because her family settled nearby in wine country. The museum features 40,000 square feet of interactive and entertaining exhibits and galleries detailing the life and legacy of Walt Disney and the company he founded.
Beautiful, expansive galleries feature all kinds of Disney films, photographs, sketches, clips, cartoons and more. Many of the stations are narrated by Walt’s own voice. We learned about Walt Disney’s impressive personal life, from the early beginnings and his success and grand ambitions to the building of Disneyland and how he created an empire that continues to inspire innovation and imagination, even today.
The museum includes over 200 video screens and interactive exhibits, but our unanimous favorite was the intricate model of Disneyland housed in the second to last gallery. It was the perfect way to prepare for one of the next stops on our road trip! Stay tuned!!
Next up was a visit to Madame Tussauds wax museum which was also included in our Go Card San Francisco. This stop surprised us by just how crazy our kids were about it! They truly had a blast here hamming it up with top tier celebrities and athletes and even some more notorious famous figures.
Madame Tussauds San Francisco features seven different themed galleries that recreate iconic cultural scenes, like Elton John at his piano or the bus seat where Rosa Parks once sat. You can also hop into favorite films like E.T. or Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was like a little slice of Hollywood right in San Francisco.
The “Spirit of San Francisco” exhibit, which showcases local legends from the arts and culture scene, from art to music to literature was particularly cool and dare I say even educational. You can march with Harvey Milk, sing a song with Tony Bennet on Lombard Street or check out Al Capone’s cell on Alcatraz.
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not
Just a hop skip and a jump down the wharf we found Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, another popular attraction included with our Go Card San Francisco passes. Considered the most interactive of any museum in the Ripley’s franchise, this institution boasts over 400 quirky and unusual exhibits scattered throughout 18 different galleries. This celebration of the weird and wonderful is certainly entertaining. Some highlights included the kaleidoscope room, the room with shrunken heads and mummified remains and the room that appears to spin around.
There was one other iconic San Francisco food we had to experience before calling it a day; Ghiradelli! A beacon bayside landmark since 1862, this former chocolate factory and woolen mill is now a three-level modern shopping and restaurant complex. The square retains the famous Ghiradelli trademark clock tower and the original Ghiradelli electric roof sign but the real draw here is the decadent desserts served in the soda shop and sold in the Ghiradelli store. We polished off some delicious sundaes and enjoyed checking out the Vintage chocolate making machinery that still operates inside the shop to demonstrate the process Ghiradelli uses to make their trademark treats.
On our last morning in San Francisco we picked up our rental van at a parking garage conveniently located across the street from our hotel in Union Square. After we loaded up, we had to make a couple last stops in the Bay City before heading out on our next adventure down the Pacific Coast Highway.
First up we took a turn down Lombard Street. Eight turns actually! Known as the “crookedest street in the world” Lombard Street stretches for only one block between Hyde and Leavenworth streets yet has eight hairpin turns. The street was originally straight, but the grade is so steep that developers had to make it curvy in order to drive down safely. During the summer weekends they close it off to through traffic so we were glad to be there on a weekday when we could drive down and before any there were any long lines.
Finally, we made one last stop to see San Francisco’s iconic Painted Ladies. If your kids are Full/Fuller House fans like mine they are sure to recognize the set of six colorful Victorian homes right away from the opening credits. We also had our kids watch Mrs. Doubtfire before out trip which also features the three-story homes. So many grand old Victorian houses line the streets in this area that it has been declared a historic district.
One Last Tip!
San Francisco is HILLY! Even if you plan your route to avoid the biggest ones, you are still going to have to conquer a few hills, so be prepared for walking and bring along a stroller for toddlers and make sure everyone has good comfy shoes on!
There you have it. Our itinerary for 48 fun-filled hours in San Francisco with kids. If you are planning on visiting several attractions like we did it might be worth it to purchase the Go Card San Francisco. From the fun in festive Fisherman’s Wharf to exploring the Embarcadero by bike many of these great ideas above are included were included in our passes and it was so nice to know our total cost ahead of time…not to mention saving a ton of money versus paying at the gate.
Hopefully this itinerary has inspired you to take your kids to the beautiful city by the bay too. If you enjoyed this article, please save it to Pinterest by clicking the ‘P’ button on any image.
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