San Francisco was the first and last stop on out 7 week trip to the USA for a much anticipated white Christmas. I compiled this list of our top 7 things to do in San Francisco with kids so you will have an idea of what to do when planning your trip. San Francisco provided us with our first impressions of the USA and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Even though San Francisco was the first and last stop, we only had a three days to explore and see as much as we could before heading to San Diego and Los Angeles. We had all good intentions to drive the California Coast Road including Big Sur however we were limited on time and the coast road was experiencing some pretty intense bushfires. Unfortunately that meant we had to take the boring Pacific Highway.
San Francisco is a great city for a stop over and is a great alternative to flying through Los Angeles which is one of the busiest airports in the world. You can still connect to all other US airports from San Francisco and immigration is so much more efficient and and less frantic than Los Angeles on a good day. There is a huge amount of things to do in San Francisco with kids.
While in San Francisco we stayed at the Hotel Union Square. We found it to be a great central boutique hotel and I would gladly recommend it to my readers especially those visiting San Francisco with kids. You can book the hotel using the link below for a slightly discounted rate with Hotels Combined.
Our top things to do in San Francisco with kids
Ride over the Golden Gate Bridge
On our first full day on San Francisco we hired bikes from Blazing Saddles and rode across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, planning to get the ferry back. Upon arrival we were told that the Sausalito Ferry wasn’t running that day so we had two options. We could drop the bikes in Sausalito and get the local bus back or ride all the way to Tiburon 14 kms further on, the plan was to go to Tiburon with a detour to Muir Wood to see some giant redwoods. We had our bikes and helmets fitted at the Blazing Saddles store and then walked the bikes down to the bike path that takes you up and over the Golden Gate Bridge. You get some outstanding views of the Golden Gate Bridge while riding over and its definitely the best way to experience it.
I wouldn’t say it was a hard ride but parts of it was challenging. I’m not overly fit and I managed quite well minus a couple of mountains (hills for everyone else).
Read our post Riding the Golden Gate Bridge with kids for more information.
This was top of Craig’s list for San Francisco and one of top things to do in San Francisco with kids. I have to admit I was a bit concerned that our kids wouldn’t enjoy it, man was I wrong! We got the Alcatraz ferry across to the island, had a quick introductory history lesson and then went up to the entrance to receive our audio headsets. Once the kids had their audio headsets, they were off.
I was so surprised that they went from spot to spot in the audio trail and I could tell that they were listening and taking it in. They were one stop ahead of me and they pretty much stayed there which confirms they were listening and I could see them stop and read some of the information on the walls.
At the completion of the audio tour we returned our headsets and then had a wander around the grounds and spent some time checking out the amazing views these prisoners enjoyed each day of their sentence. There were also a number of families that grew up on Alcatraz, these were families of the prison guards and prison managers. It was interesting to hear the stories from kids that grew up here, the prison officers and some of the prisoners themselves.
The ferries run every 20 mins or so, you line up and board the next one that arrives to take you back to Fishermans Wharf. The trip across only takes 15 mins and wasn’t very rough when we went across.
Read our post Visiting Alcatraz with kids for further information.
Fisherman’s Wharf – Pier 39
Fisherman’s Wharf is located on the San Francisco Bay. There are about 40 different piers at Fisherman’s Wharf and all are utilised for different purposes. Pier 33 is where you get the ferry to Alcatraz Island but Pier 39 is where it all happens. It’s a shopping centre and popular tourist attraction built on a pier just for something a little different. It’s one of the most popular things to do in San Francisco with kids.
It’s a must do attraction for anyone visiting San Francisco with sea lions, waterfront dining, street performers, live music and shopping. It even has an aquarium, Aquarium of the Bay, located at the waters edge where you can view 20,000 local sea creatures that can found in San Francisco Bay and the surrounding waterways.
There are so many dining options on Pier 39, from those you recognise and love to those that are San Francisco specific, a lot were new to us as San Francisco was our first stop in the USA. There is Aunt Fanny’s Hot Pretzels, Beer 39, Biscoff Coffee Corner, Boudin Bakery Cafe, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co, Candy Baron, Chocolate Heaven, Crepe Cafe, Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream Cafe and the Hard Rock Cafe San Francisco to name just a few.
Pier 39 is set over two levels with plenty of shopping options, Alannah detoured straight to the Pandora store and Keira and Caelan to the plentiful souvenir shops. There are clothes stores, jewellery stores, NBA/NFL merchandise stores, Alcatraz Gift Stores, Christmas in San Francisco, Image Arts with amazing photos of San Francisco’s most well known locations and my favourite Only in San Francisco where you can purchase yourself something that can only be found here in San Fran.
Smartwater Stage at the end of Pier 39 is where you’ll find the street performers, these multi-talented tricksters, magicians, jugglers and comedians perform at different times over the day starting from 12pm. They do ask for a tip at the end of the show though. If you walk to the end of the pier and manage to get the kids successfully past the enormous lolly shop you will enjoy an amazing view of Alcatraz on a clear day out in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
Walk around to the West Marina to see the Sea Lions aka “Sea Lebrities”. These guys appeared in 1990, soon after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. There population has grown to 300 and up to 900 in winter. Bet that smells glorious!
San Francisco Cable Cars
San Francisco cable cars are an iconic experience when visiting San Francisco. We stayed at the Hotel Union Square and the cable cars came straight past our hotel door on Powell St about a block away from Union Square. It was nice to look out our hotel window and see them whipping past with all the tourists on them.
We were in San Fran in December and many of the cable cars were adorned with Christmas decorations. It added that very special festive feel and they looked really cute. There are 3 different cable car routes to choose from, we chose the Fisherman’s Wharf to Powell St Cable Car, this is also the most popular route as it takes you up all the steep roads instead of down! I ain’t walking those crazy roads! It will take you past the worlds most crookedest street (see below) and if you have your camera ready you’ll be able to snap a great shot of Alcatraz from the corner of Hyde and Lombard Streets, then past Union Square.
The kids had seen other tourists standing on the outside and hanging off the cable car so they were keen to have a go at that. Alannah was able to stand on the outside step but Keira and Caelan had to stand inside were Craig and I could hold on to them. I still let them hang out a little bit though! I even had a little go myself. I did however get an awesome photo of them all hanging out on one of the stationary cable cars which is now on my photo wall.
I’m tipping a lot of readers won’t know what the Painted Ladies are! I wasn’t expecting the kids to even know but Alannah had been watching the 80’s sitcom Full House without me knowing it! The Painted Ladies are the beautiful pastel coloured townhouses in the opening credits of Full House. I used to watch it as a kid and was so surprised that Alannah knew them.
We were a bit ambitious with what we thought we could see while in San Francisco, I was determined to see the Painted Ladies and we were of course catching public transport. Craig had looked up the bus route and we were confident we knew how to get there. We were right but we got there as the sun was going down so we didn’t pick up the lovely pastel colours they are famous for.
The Painted Ladies are directly opposite Alamo Square Park which had a dual level playground, the kids had a play there while I took photos of the lovely restored and painted Victorian townhouses. The houses are lovely but what’s probably even nicer is the jaw dropping view of San Francisco city behind the houses and having been there at sunset it really was prefect timing. What I thought was going to be disappointing turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
So what are these famous houses worth? One sold for $3.1 million in 2014, it went on the market in 2010 for $4 million but the price was reduced over time when the house didn’t sell. I think they would fetch much more than that if on the market today though.
Lombard Street a.k.a Crooked Street
Lombard Street runs east-west in San Francisco city and is famous for being the worlds crookedest street. We caught the public bus from the Painted Ladies to Lombard Street but the bus dropped us off at the bottom on the other side of the hill. So off we went two blocks up the famous steep San Francisco streets, needless to say I wasn’t very happy! Its a very, very vertical climb, you feel like you have to lean into it to climb up, it’s quite the workout and one I could have done without!
So we came up over Hyde St and walked down Crooked St and its best explained as a zig zag containing 8 hairpin turns. The houses along the street are just lovely although you probably wouldn’t really want to live there for 2 reasons, its very steep and there’s a lot of tourists wandering around and looking in your window all day!
This will only need about 30 mins of your time as once you walk down it and take a few photos you probably won’t want to walk back up it that’s for sure!
We were in San Fransisco a few weeks before Christmas so Union Square was in full festive spirit! The giant Christmas tree was out and beautifully decorated and there was an ice skating rink in the middle of the square. I was keen for the kids to ice skate in New York when we headed there although that was quickly decided against when we arrived in NYC to subzero temperatures. We did however return to San Francisco on our final day in the country and went and had an ice skate before heading to the airport for our flight home.
Union Square is surrounded by 5 star hotels and luxury shopping malls and a giant Macy’s store that takes up one whole side of the square. There is a nice cafe to sit in while you watch the kids have an ice skate or to watch the world go by as you sip coffee and indulge in a fancy cake.
Our hotel was just down Powell St from Union Square and we walked through there a few times and stopped to listen to the Christmas carols being played by a local busker. It’s also where you find the Instagram worthy love heart with an iconic picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on it, just in case you forget where you are. Union Square is the centre of the city and the surround buildings are definitely worth seeing, especially the Westin Hotel right on Powell St facing Union Square.
What did we think of San Francisco?
There were plenty of things to do in San Francisco with kids it was the first port of call for us and first taste of America. The place is etched in our brains from so many movies and sitcoms we have come to love over the years. San Francisco feels a bit like Melbourne, bit more laid back than Los Angeles as Melbourne is to Sydney.
There are also great places to explore outside of San Francisco as well such as Sonoma, Yellowstone National Park, Monterey, Napa Valley and Sacramento however unfortunately on this trip we didn’t have any extra time. I would love to explore a bit further afield if and when we return. I would also be the perfect place for romantic getaways in California as there are so many places to enjoy the sunsets and its the perfect city to walk around and explore.
It is definitely a better airport to land in than LAX, we were greeted with not too much craziness and were moved into a family queue which expedited our clearance through immigration which was fantastic. We arrived at 12pm and the kids were tired, we had left home over 24 hrs earlier. We had a slight delay in Sydney Airport and as we had already travelled from Melbourne, we were a little exhausted. As of September 2018, Qantas will be flying direct from Melbourne to San Francisco which will be a much better flight than having to transit through Sydney like we did.
We picked up a hire car in San Francisco and managed to safely navigate the one way streets out of the city and all the way to San Diego, then on to LA. In LA we hit 7 straight days of theme parks so consider me the expert in all things theme parks. You can read about out experiences by hitting the links below:
Disneysland California, no visit to the USA is complete without a visit to the happiest place on earth! Read my post to get the best out of the new Disneyland MaxPasses. Also check out, Best hotels near Disneyland California to help decide which hotel is best for you.
Knott’s Berry Farm, reportedly America’s first theme park! If you love crazy roller coasters this is the place for you.
Universal Studios Hollywood, great experience and the Wizarding World of Happy Potter is like nothing else but the Studio Tour is pretty impressive as well.
Warner Brothers Studio Tour, for all things behind the scenes and have a coffee at Central Perk from the Friends set, we even cameoed on the set and I was a perfect Rachel of course!
I’m definitely happy we had San Francisco on the itinerary, we found it a great introduction to America and I would gladly return and visit some of the National Parks that are an easy drive from San Fran. I think if we ever return that would be one of things we would most like to do and return to the Grand Canyon, this time visiting Bryce Canyon.
Have you been to San Francisco? What did you think? I just wish we had more time there as it really is a very beautiful city and has so many wonderful things to do in San Fransisco with kids. Leave your comments in the section below.
Sal, Craig & our3kids.