The air is cool and misty, and thick fog curls over the Golden Gate Bridge’s signature crimson-orange towers reaching into a somber sky. A blustery wind relentlessly whips at our backs as we traipse along the pedestrian sidewalk of the iconic suspension bridge stretching across the Golden Gate Strait that connects the San Francisco Bay with the Pacific. The combined six kids in our group excitedly skip ahead of us, white clouds racing overhead to reveal brief breaks of blue and waves violently churning more than 200 feet below.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t sure whether the kids in our crew, who range in age from 3 to 10, would fully appreciate this world-famous engineering marvel built more than 80 years ago. Sure, the bridge’s mind-boggling stats are capable of impressing any adult — it’s 1.7 miles in length, weighs 887,700 tons and was constructed between 1933 and 1937. But the day was cold and foggy, and I didn’t know if those colorful knitted beanies we purchased our kids from vendors along Fisherman’s Wharf the night before would be enough to stave off complaints before reaching the first tower and turning around. But, like many pleasant surprises we encountered during our stint in this cool coastal city, walking the entire length of the historic bridge ended up being a trip highlight for our kids. It was one of those memory-in-the-making moments that take shape before your eyes — and no amount of fog could cloud the experience.
San Francisco, famous for everything from hilly streets and historic cable cars to iconic bridges and microclimates that bathe one neighborhood in sunshine and cloak the next in clouds, brims with family fun. If you’re considering a family trip, be sure to put the Golden Gate Bridge and these nine other discoveries sure to please the kids in your crew and their parents, too, on your San Francisco bucket list.
1. Visit the California Academy of Sciences
Tucked inside sprawling Golden Gate Park, the California Academy of Sciences, calacademy.org, is a must-stop for curious minds of all ages. Touted as the only place on Earth to house an aquarium, planetarium, rainforest and natural history museum all under one green living roof, this San Francisco museum lives up to the hype. Here we wandered through a four-story living rainforest full of fluttering butterflies and colorful birds. We passed beneath the gargantuan skeletons of a T. rex and an 87-foot-long blue whale. We visited faraway galaxies on a 3D tour of space. We peeked at the playful African penguins, got an up-close glance of a timid octopus and touched starfish in the Steinhart Aquarium, home to nearly 40,000 live animals.
2. Refuel on Ninth Avenue
With brains full of knowledge and bellies grumbling, we wandered from the museum through the San Francisco Botanical Garden and onto Ninth Avenue, a lively Inner Sunset street sprinkled with restaurants, bookstores and boutiques. We munched on avocado toast piled high with goat cheese and arugula, crispy Brussels sprouts and garlic Parmesan fries while sipping locally brewed craft beer at Social Kitchen & Brewery, socialkitchenandbrewery.com — there’s kid-friendly fare and sippers, too. For dessert, we stepped into San Francisco’s Hometown Creamery, sfhometowncreamery.com. As the first in the city to make small-batch ice cream from scratch on-site, this cozy creamery still hand-cracks and separates more than 2,000 eggs weekly to make its homemade ice cream and waffle cones behind the counter. While our kids picked out tricks in Misdirections Magic Shop, we shopped for adorable outfits and accessories for them next door at Kira Kids, kirakids.com.
3. See San Francisco from a cable car, bus or bay cruise
For kids, getting around San Francisco in a historic cable car or atop an open-air bus is half of the fun. Plus, it’s a great way to soak in history on the way to your next stop. Whether you climb the hills aboard a cable car or take a seat beneath the California sunshine on the top deck of a Big Bus, bigbustours.com, a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, you can spin past San Francisco’s distinctive neighborhoods while giving little legs a rest and picking up some fun facts. Want to see San Francisco from the sea? Aboard Blue & Gold Fleet’s hourlong Bay Cruise Adventure, blueandgoldfleet.com, you get unobstructed views and prime photo-ops of iconic San Francisco sights without all of the walking and crowds. This fully narrated 60-minute cruise sails beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, voyages around Alcatraz Island and past Angel Island State Park and cruises along the city’s historic waterfront.
4. Play at Pier 39 and explore Fisherman’s Wharf
When the lines get too lengthy to climb aboard San Francisco’s historic cable cars, ride the F-Line streetcar to popular Pier 39. This two-level playground of entertainment is said to be the most visited destination in San Francisco, bursting with souvenir shops, restaurants, sweet stops and an old-fashioned carousel the littlest ones in our group couldn’t get enough of. Visit the famous California sea lions that lounge on Pier 39’s K-Dock, or walk beneath the sharks at Aquarium of the Bay, aquariumofthebay.org, which is home to 20,000-plus marine animals. Cut through the crowds of tourists and wander a bit farther along Fisherman’s Wharf to capture postcard-worthy waterfront views of the Bay Bridge and Alcatraz. Then continue onto Ghirardelli Square, a chocolate factory-turned-specialty retail and dining complex, brimming with shops, restaurants, a craft brewery and miniature golf.
5. Discover Chinatown
Pass through the Dragon’s Gate, marked with an emerald-tile roof and flanked by two lions, and you’ll enter the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest in the U.S. Colorful souvenir shops and Chinese restaurants hug the hilly streets, where you can purchase everything from rich woven silks to hand-painted chopsticks while inhaling wafts of authentic Sichuan dishes. We followed the sweet scent of fortune cookies to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, a pint-size place hidden on narrow Ross Alley where thousands of molded-by-hand fortune cookies are made each day right before your eyes. It’s worth waiting in line to squeeze inside — and paying $1.50 to write your own fortunes and watch skilled hands fold them into freshly made cookies and place them in to-go boxes for you.
6. Sleep in the city
We bunked up with our kids in the heart of the city, splitting our stay between two properties. At the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, a historic three-tower hotel, families can book oversize rooms with three double beds while enjoying stellar city and bay views up to 46 floors. There’s also a 2,800-square-foot health club, a rooftop pool and an impressive breakfast buffet spread offering everything from traditional favorites to an Asian station so you can fuel up for whirlwind days before leaving the hotel. We also stayed at the stylish Galleria Park Hotel, jdvhotels.com/hotels/california/san-francisco/galleria-park-hotel, located within walking distance to San Francisco’s top restaurants, famous Union Square and Chinatown. The Joie de Vivre property is an architectural landmark with origins dating back to the early 1900s but recently received a multimillion-dollar renovation. Wanting a little extra space for our family of five, we booked one of the hotel’s eight reimagined suites, which offer spacious two-bedroom accommodations that marry luxury with comfort. Downstairs, guests can sip a classic cocktail during the evening martini hour before indulging in classic French dishes at Gaspar Brasserie, one of San Francisco’s top-rated French bistros tucked inside the hotel.
7. European eats and tasty treats
Just beyond the entrance of Galleria Park Hotel, escape San Francisco’s bustle and stumble upon a European sidewalk dining scene known as Belden Place. This cozy alley is sprinkled with restaurants spanning French bistros to northern Italian cafes serving handmade pastas, but we were transported back to Barcelona dining on Catalan tapas like Jamón Ibérico and patatas bravas and sharing a savory seafood paella at the lively B44, b44sf.com. Another afternoon we experienced a steamy spin on ice cream at Chocolate Chair, which serves made-to-order liquid nitrogen ice cream and the famed Dragon’s Breath — a tall cup of colorful fruity cereal puffs soaked in liquid nitrogen that release “smoke” when eaten.
8. Spend a day at Yerba Buena Gardens
Not only do its green, sprawling lawns provide the perfect place for kids to run freely in the middle of the city, but Yerba Buena Gardens, yerbabuenagardens.com, is an urban oasis that brims with public art, museums, award-winning architecture, a children’s garden, a movie theater and a playscape. View works from Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol inside San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in the country, which offers free admission for visitors age 18 and under. Or let little ones check out the interactive exhibits and record their own music videos at the Children’s Creative Museum before taking a whirl on the historic LeRoy King Carousel ($3 with paid museum admission).
9. Explore San Francisco’s breathtaking beaches and redwood forests
While San Francisco’s beaches aren’t the best for swimming (brrr), they are undeniably beautiful. Bundle up and take a barefoot beach stroll along Baker Beach, China Beach or Kirby Cove while soaking in stellar views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Just north of San Francisco, wander beneath the ancient coastal redwoods of Muir Woods. Last year, the National Park Service implemented a parking and shuttle reservation system at Muir Woods National Monument to protect the park and enhance the visitor experience, so plan ahead.
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