San Francisco is a city boasting more than enough charisma to make up for its flaws. The decidedly un-Californian weather, the steep hills, the high cost of living, some of these imperfections may have been enough to deter the average budget-conscious, stroller-pushing family from visiting, but I’m here to tell you it’s perfectly possible to see the best of San Francisco without breaking the bank or giving yourself a hernia.
Yes, the weather can be unseasonal, especially in the summer when the infamous fog envelops the city, but as long as you’re prepared, there’s nothing to worry about. Don’t be fooled – you can be less than an hour away in blazing sunshine but sure enough, enter the Bay and the temperature can drop a good 15 degrees. So make sure you have spare layers with you for both yourself and the kids.
On the upside, the cool can be a literal breath of fresh air if you’re struggling with typical Californian temperatures. And it makes it a much more pleasant temperature for exploring by foot, though I wouldn’t recommend attempting any of the city’s characteristic hills with a buggy in tow or baby in a sling. But don’t worry, there are plenty of family friendly ways to see both a satisfying checklist of famous landmarks and a selection of local favourites.
1 Golden Gate Park
San Francisco’s iconic park spreads over more than a thousand acres and boasts playgrounds, Japanese tea gardens, lakes, museums and more. It’s the perfect place to let your little ones burn off some energy after sitting in the car or in between visiting cultural destinations. In typical San Francisco fashion, Kloret playground incorporates both the historical and the modern; from the illustrious carousel dating back to 1912 to the impressive concrete slides which both adults and kids will enjoy zipping down on a piece of cardboard. Carousel rides cost a mere $2 per adult, $1 for 6-12 year olds and under 5s are free. Check opening hours here.
2 California Academy of Sciences
Also in the park is the California Academy of Sciences, a veritable wonderland for curious kids and adults alike, comprised of an aquarium, a planetarium and natural history museum all in one. A million miles from the stuffiness often associated with museums, the Academy is a cutting edge scientific institute where you can explore all four floors of an indoor rainforest, complete with exotic birds and butterflies flying above your head and giant fish swimming beneath your feet.
Kids will adore the menagerie of animals in residence- they’ll be in awe of Claude, the albino alligator whilst they laugh at the playful penguins, especially if you’re lucky enough to be in town for one of the ‘Penguins and Pajamas’ sleepover events. Older kids and adults will be fascinated by the museum’s eco friendly ‘living roof’. The only catch? It’s not cheap. But the entrance fee will keep you all entertained for at least half a day and inspired for much longer. Team a visit with half a day spent playing in Golden Gate Park for free and your wallet will recover.
Over on the other side of town you’ll find another exceptional scientific destination. I promise, this list isn’t going to be all geek, but I had to include the Exploratorium, which is just as wonderful as its name suggests. If science were taught like this at school, we’d all be smart. The Exploratorium encourages kids to think with their hands and learn by doing- imagine every great experiment you’ve seen Stephen Fry do on QI, plus all the creativity of Art Attack. The ‘Tinkering Studio’ boasts the Scott Snibbe quote ‘any sufficiently advanced form of learning is indistinguishable from play’ as their mantra. Don’t miss the incredible model of San Francisco made entirely out of toothpicks.
4 Pier 39, the Aquarium of the Bay and Fisherman’s Wharf
After visiting The Exploratorium at Pier 15, you might want to carry on around the Embarcadero to Pier 39 to see one of San Francisco’s most famous sites and a crowd pleaser for all ages, the resident sea lion colony. Noisy, smelly and endlessly entertaining to watch, they’re everything kids could ask for in a tourist attraction. If you’re big nature fans then check out the sharks in the Aquarium at the Bay or if you’ve got time, go on one of the whale watching tours you can book at the pier. Just a few piers further along and you’ll reach Fisherman’s Wharf; it’s touristy but still a great place to grab a bowl of clam chowder- kids will love how its served in a hollowed out bowl of bread.
5 Crissy Field and Golden Gate Bridge
For more free entertainment, carry on around the bay to Crissy Field marsh and beach, though try and head there early in the day as it gets windy in the afternoon. Shelter in The Warming Hut cafe if it gets nippy. The kids will love to run around the beach and catch crabs with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background- get ready to fill up your Instagram feed here. Cycling across the bridge itself is also a popular activity; Blazing Saddles hires out bikes, trailers and bike seats for kids of all ages.
6 The Presidio
Former military airfield Crissy Field is part of The Presidio which used to be a military base but is now a unique national park. Like Golden Gate Park, there’s plenty to see, including the Walt Disney Family Museum, a perfect rainy day destination showing classic Disney movies daily (except Tuesdays when it’s closed). Another fantastic indoor activity in the vicinity is House of Air, a state of the art trampolining centre. They have obstacle courses, bouncing sessions for little ones and more challenging games of trampoline dodgeball (yes, that’s a thing) for older kids.
7 The Pirate Supply Store and Paxton Gate
Brave young pirates will be rewarded for venturing into the very heart of the Mission by this fairytale, Aladdin’s cave of a store. Here’s where you can get all the equipment you ever needed to embrace that scurvy lifestyle. Think pirate gold, messages in bottles, mermaids’ tears, treasure shining tools and the all essential Belly of the Whale Escape Kit. Imaginations will run wild and you’ll be able to stock up on all the Christmas stocking fillers you’ll ever need. This wonderful store is run by 826 Valencia, a nonprofit organisation co founded by author Dave Eggers, dedicated to supporting under resourced students with their creative writing.
Just down the road you’ll find Paxton Gate, a shopping wonderland for fans of alternative interiors. If you ever wondered where you could get that taxidermy chipmunk, framed butterfly, mounted warthog skull or Mosasaur fossil tooth; turns out, it’s here! Bring home a souvenir people will really remember. They also have a Curiosities for Kids store which is kind of like all the best kids’ sections of museum and gallery shops rolled into one. Find beautifully made toys, educational games and inspiring books for all ages.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has just reopened to rave reviews, and the best news is, it’s now free for under 18s! Kids often appreciate modern art even more than adults; if it lights up or makes a noise, they’re sold. And there’s plenty to get kids interested here, from the living wall of plants to the robotic machine that draws on a wall with chalk. The SFMOMA website highlights some of the best bits to point out to youngsters.
9 Soft Play
Sometimes the kids can’t cope with any more sightseeing, and all they want it is somewhere they can just be kids. San Francisco does indoor play centres so well, they really provide the perfect place for you to just relax and let the little ones go wild in the knowledge that they’re in a totally safe space where they’re not going to disturb any adults desperately trying to contemplate a piece of modern art. Nope, these places are all about the kids, with a healthy serving of caffeine and comradery on the side for the grown-ups.
Play Haven is one of the best, located close by to Golden Gate Park so ideal if the weather turns on you. With a climbing wall, glass and chalk boards to paint on and imaginative play areas, little ones will be more than happy while you enjoy the benefits of the adults lounge, the nursing room and a kitchen where you can warm a bottle or make yourself that espresso. Over by Fisherman’s Wharf you’ll find Peekadoodle, a sort of members’ club for kids, but you can get a free guest pass for your first visit here. The imaginative interior features a giant model Golden Gate Bridge and a child-sized miniature cable car.
And one more, if you have time…
If you can schedule in a trip across the Bay to Oakland, then Fairyland is well worth the visit. Designed by a local architect and artist who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, this twee theme park opened in 1950 and was one of the inspirations for Disneyland. Walt even recruited some of the Fairyland staff for his own project. The little theme park (and it IS very small and decidedly kitsch) still features plenty of nursery rhyme characters, as well as an Alice in Wonderland inspired rose garden and Beatrix Potter themed vegetable patches. The puppet theatre which has been home to performers like Frank Oz, aka Yoda/Miss Piggy is still going strong with a number of daily shows. Entry is only a tenner. Take the opportunity to grab a bite to eat in Oakland where the foodie scene is thriving- try Oni Sushi for teddy-bear shaped sushi rolls and Curbside Creamery for an authentic ice-cream sandwich.