Ten years ago, when I made my backward migration to San Francisco from the Pacific Northwest, I couldn’t understand why anyone with kids would live here. The city seemed overwhelming, and where were all the brunch places with baskets of toys? Since then, with three kids in tow, I’ve learned the shortcuts. Whether you are a visitor or a resident, on a picnic with the Golden Gate Bridge or the Bay Bridge in the background, you can’t help but feel pinch-yourself lucky. Here is our family’s top 10 list of San Francisco’s can’t-miss places and their sweet just-for-kids pairings.
1. Dolores Park + Bi-Rite Ice Cream
San Franciscans don’t take beauty for granted; they live every sunny day as if it could be their last. Sundays in Dolores Park can be glorious. The iconic hillside park in the Mission district creates a natural amphitheater overlooking the city. Even on busy days, you can find a spot to throw down a blanket and become part of the mix. The imaginatively redesigned new playground with soft sand play area and a steep slide is no less of a scene for kids, and the view from the mini Golden Gate Bridge is spectacular. Not for the faint of anything.
Pair with: At the corner of the park, at Dolores and 18th Street, is ice cream hot spot Bi-Rite Creamery. Bi-Rite ice cream routinely makes the city’s list of foods to eat before you die. After only a few weeks in the neighborhood, my kids learned to go to the soft-serve window to avoid the line. On Saturdays, the flavor is vanilla/chocolate swirl.
2. The Exploratorium + The Ferry Building
The Exploratorium will blow your mind. In its new three-times-larger location on the Embarcadero at Pier 15, this massive hands-on science museum contains more wonder than you can probably handle. Explore Mars, learn skateboard physics, play with mirrors, sound waves, earthquakes, magnets and pendulums. Dissect a cow’s eye or just make giant bubbles.
The Tactile Dome, a totally dark interactive exhibit created in 1971, is still a revelatory experience. The new venue includes outdoor exhibits such as a musical Golden Gate bridge you can play like a xylophone, designed by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.
Pair with: A milkshake at Gott’s Roadside in the Ferry Building. The local produce found at the Ferry Building is an embarrassment of riches, and there is plenty to sample; browse the farmers’ markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
And If you happen to be on the Embarcadero after dusk, take in the lyrical light installation by light artist and programmer Leo Villareal scattered on the Bay Bridge’s suspension cables every night until 2 a.m.
4. Cable Car + The Fairmont Hotel
The lines for cable cars might be long, but given a choice of walking or riding up some of the steepest hills in San Francisco on the classic form of transportation, it can be worth the wait. Fight for a good spot on the car, and hang on!
Tip: Opt for the less traveled California line from its charmless terminus at Van Ness to the wow-factor top of Nob Hill. Hop off for the view and, if you aren’t too dizzy, take time out to walk around the labyrinth at the gothic Grace Cathedral.
For everything you need to know about cable cars, read Maybelle, the Cable Car by Virginia Lee Brown, author of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.
Pair with: For an upscale treat while on Nob Hill, dip into the Fairmont Hotel’s swanky lobby restaurant for dessert, tea or the Big Cookie. The Fairmont is a landmark hotel with a Grand Central Station feel. Stop and see the rooftop hives in the hotel’s culinary garden, home to 200,000 honeybees.
3. Crissy Field + The Warming Hut
My kids’ first choice for a city beach is bayside at Crissy Field, just east of the Golden Gate. The gentle, no-surf beach on the west side of the old airfield is perfect for toddlers — and for snapshots of them against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. Walk out to the end of the fishing pier, balance stones on the rock wall jetties or take the walking path that runs from under the bridge to East Beach. Paragliders and sailboats fill the bay when there is wind, and a parade of container ships powers past to the port of Oakland.
Pair with: Hot chocolate at The Warming Hut, a cozy place to step inside on a foggy day for drinks and snacks and a souvenir poster of the Golden Gate parks.
5. Chinatown + The Fortune Cookie Factory
San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest Chinese community outside of China, and even within the vertiginous grid of San Francisco, the sights, sounds and smells of Chinatown will transport you beyond borders. A walk down any of these streets will raise more questions than answers. For instance, “What is a duck chin?”
Yelp will not help you here; better to follow the crowds and take your chances. For dim sum, try the Hang Ah Tea Room. Check for local or seasonal festivals, such as the Autumn Moon festival and Chinese New Year, as these are special times to visit and usually come with a parade.
Pair with: A bag of rejected fortune cookies from the Golden Gate fortune cookie factory on Ross Street. Take the cookies and head to the playground at Portsmouth Square for an interesting cultural exchange, conveniently located just above Chinatown’s main underground parking garage. Children can swing and slide in a courtyard lined with mah jong tables in the shadow of the Transamerica Building. It’s the perfect place to put down the fans and lanterns and pause from the frenetic shopping scene.
6. Sutro Baths + "IT'S-IT"
Painted concrete foundations are all that is left of the seven pools of the Sutro Baths, a Victorian-era private bathing complex built in 1896 by Adolfph Sutro, onetime mayor of San Francisco, who made his fortune blasting tunnels! Your kids will love scrambling around these picturesque ruins by the sea. The tall grasses are a favorite place to stalk seashore wildlife, including the resident otter, Sutro Sam.
Pair with: At the top of the Baths is the beautiful new Land’s End visitors' center and gift shop. Pick up an IT’S-IT, San Francisco’s other famous treat: an oatmeal cookie ice cream sandwich dipped in chocolate, available in the café. IT’S-ITs were sold for four decades at San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach on the site of the former baths. Try to say it five times fast.
7. Golden Gate Park + Children’s Quarter Carousel
Golden Gate Park is three miles long, a half mile wide and best seen from a bike. There are bike lanes throughout the park, and John F. Kennedy drive is blocked to traffic on Saturdays and Sundays. Stop to check out the Sunday Roller Disco Party at Sixth Avenue from noon to 5 p.m. with the Godfather of Skate!
Golden Gate Park Bike Rentals has a shop on Haight Street a block from the entrance to the park. Grab and go. Kids' seats and trailers available. The park is mostly flat, with a slight downgrade to the sea. If you bike its length, stop for lunch at Park Chalet/Beach Chalet and visitors' center. Have a basket of garlic fries and a sampler rack of the Beach Chalet brewing company’s ales on the lawn while watching the kids play in the tangle of trees behind the beer garden.
Pair with: The park is full of family fun, from the Academy of Sciences to Stow Lake paddleboats to the playground (pictured above). Let your kids use the map and pick the destinations. With young ones, don’t miss the Koret Children’s Quarter playground and carousel. The carousel, built in 1914 and originally steam-powered, gives free rides for children under 5 with a paying adult ($2).
8. City Lights Bookstore + Gelato in North Beach
There are bookstores and there are bookstores, but City Lights is a landmark. A beacon for poets since founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Howl in 1956, the shop at Columbus and Broadway in North Beach is surrounded by the cafés of Little Italy. Bring your literary bohemians to soak in the atmosphere that inspired a generation, just around the corner from the Beat Museum. More a place to stop by than to linger, City Lights has carefully curated shelves, the floors and stairways creak, and the place smells like a bookstore should. Walk quietly up to the poetry room, where there are often readings going on; listen in for a moment, and take away something intangible. There is a section for limited children’s books and young adult books in the basement. No bathrooms.
North Beach caters to every appetite. Eyes wide open, people: The va-va-voom lights of the Lusty Lady may spark an interesting conversation.
Pair with: After City Lights, try Gelateria Naia for a reward. Gelateria Naia sources local flavors for its candy-colored palette of sweet handmade small-batch gelato. Lighter than ice cream and not as cold, gelato comes in flavors that pop like a starburst.
My daughter is always happiest when there is a bookstore on the agenda. For a map of the city's bookstores, click here.
9. Golden Gate Bridge + The Bay Area Discovery Museum
The Golden Gate Bridge is a renewable resource of awe, and you can’t go home without crossing it. Views of the city and bridge from the other side, in the Marin Headlands, are worth crossing for by car — but walking the bridge, about 20 minutes each way, is best. It’s loud and often windy, and sometimes the bridge itself is invisible in the fog. The best pairing for a bridge walk is a warm jacket.
Pair with: The Bay Area Discovery Museum. On the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, imaginatively housed in and around the barracks of Fort Baker, this museum has a designed-by-Roald-Dahl sensibility. The environment is mercifully sans screens. In one room, a real crab boat rocks in the painted waves for kids to crawl through and captain. In the garden, become a spider on a rope-spun web stretched between the trees. The onsite Bean Sprouts Café has organic children’s food staples and adorable sandwiches, such as the Flutter Bite: waffles shaped like a butterfly.
10. Friday Nights at the de Young Museum + The Academy of Sciences
Take your budding artists to see fine arts at San Francisco’s de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Check out the de Young’s Observatory Tower for panoramic views of the east end of the park, seen from the flat top of the building’s striking inverted pyramid. Every Friday evening, starting on March 28, the de Young hosts themed parties inspired by current exhibitions for families. Live performances and interactive exhibits fill the interior hall. It also hosts free Saturday classes for kids ages 4–12 called "Doing and Viewing Art." They are free with admission but can fill up, so arrive early.
Pair with: The Academy of Sciences (55 Music Concourse Dr., Golden Gate Park). This incredible multipurpose museum contains a botanical garden, a planetarium, an aquarium and a living roof, and it sits just across from the de Young. Visit Claude, the rare albino alligator — you won’t forget him. Don’t miss the Academy’s excellent library and resource room just for kids. It's a good place to chill out in a comfy chair.
Where to stay
VRBO: San Francisco is a collection of neighborhoods, and hotels are rarely embedded there. The solution may be found in the excellent inventory of vacation rentals with nightly rates ranging $120 a night and up. Try the quieter neighborhoods of Cole Valley, a stone’s throw from Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park, or Hayes Valley, near the theater district and Civic Center.
Argonaut: For access to tourist central, try the Argonaut. This Kimpton Group hotel in a refurbished brick warehouse is in the middle of it all, with easy access to the Embarcadero, the Maritime Museum, the end of the Powell Street trolley line, the Musée Mechanique, baskets of crab legs and the Ghiradelli chocolate madness.
The Kabuki: Japantown is a central launch point for city explorations and provides a good home base for food and downtime. The Kabuki is located in the Japantown mall complex, which includes the Sundance movie theater and dozens of ramen and manga houses. Teen appeal times ten.
Hotel Nikko: Another Kimpton hotel, centrally located beside Union Square at 222 Mason St., Nikko has one of the city's largest indoor swimming pools.
Fairmont Hotel: For a splurge, you can’t go wrong at the Fairmont. Perched on Nob Hill, this is San Francisco’s special-occasion place. Downstairs in the kitchy Tonga Room tiki bar, you'll find an indoor thunderstorm every 10 minutes, complimentary leis and a dance floor that welcomes children. Why would you ever go to the Rainforest Café again?
What to eat: More San Francisco treats
Chinese dim-sum takeout: A great street for delicious grab-and-go dim sum is Clement, in the Inner Richmond district. Take your pick from a number of cheerful and unassuming storefronts, or try Good Luck Dim Sum between 8th and 9th.
Mission burritos: With a taqueria on every corner, it is hard to go wrong in San Francisco. Once a week, we take ourselves to Puerto Allegre, at 546 Valencia St., where the bowls of chips and salsa flow and the margaritas for grown-ups are made to order. Hint: When eating in the Mission, go before 7 p.m.
The no-nonsense diner with a killer view: Louis’, above the Sutro Baths. If you are lucky, grab the corner booth overlooking the sea for a basic burger and fries. Cash only.