San Francisco deserves its regular designation as one of America’s beautiful cities. It is the cultural and financial center of Northern California and known for consistently it scenic bay, cool weather, regular fog and rolling hills. Nearby Silicon Valley is a major technology and social media hub where the headquarters of Apple, Google and Facebook are located.
We booked our 2012 trip to San Francisco on a whim after seeing a friend’s post on Facebook about $100 round trip flights to California. We wanted to take a Fall vacation with our boys who were aged two and four but had not chosen a destination. It was as if San Francisco chose us with that airfare deal. My husband had never been to California, and I immediately got excited about also traveling from San Francisco to Napa Valley and Yosemite National Park. As I started checking out flight availability online, my husband called his good friend who was living there to finalize dates. We had four seats booked at a total cost of about $500 within about an hour.
San Francisco is a relatively walkable city, but the hills are steep. With two young boys and plans to travel to Napa and Yosemite, we rented a car for our time in California and used it to get around everywhere. We stayed with friends while in San Francisco over the course of two separate weekends and had a particularly laid back visit. We did not go to any of the children-focused attractions like the San Francisco Cable Cars, the Children’s Creativity Museum or the Aquarium of the Bay, but our boys spent a glorious morning collecting leaves in our friends’ back yard and also visited several local playgrounds, including Mission Playground.
We did hit a few of the city’s main attractions and particularly enjoyed these five fun family activities.
#1: Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge is virtually synonymous with San Francisco. This art deco icon spans across the San Francisco Bay between San Francisco and Marin County and is a huge draw for the city. It is an impressive 1.7 miles long, and the two towers are each 750 feet tall. From its 1937 completion until 1964, the Golden Gate Bridge had the world’s largest span. It is currently ranked 14th.
However, due to the high percentage of overcast days, visitors cannot necessarily be guaranteed a clear view of the Bridge. On our drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods, very little of the Bridge’s specially formulated international orange hue was actually visible.
Luckily, the fog cleared by the time we returned later in the day, and were able to see Bridge’s picture-perfect contrast against the blue sky, which we enjoyed even more because of the foggy view earlier in the day.
We happened to visit the weekend that the Blue Angels were in town. Watching the planes buzz the tower was definitely the highlight of our trip.
- Kid Facts: American Society of Civil Engineers recently named the Golden Gate Bridge as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
#2: Japanese Tea Gardens
The Japanese Tea Gardens are the country’s oldest public Japanese gardens and located inside Golden Gate State Park. Our boys loved exploring the manicured paths and ponds, which are all arranged in a Japanese style. These gardens are designed to highlight the natural landscape. It is the perfect place to slow down and enjoy nature. We were fortunate to meet several friends here and wander through the gardens together.
The miniature pagodas originate from Buddhist tradition.
The boys especially enjoyed checking out the enormous carp swimming in the ponds. These stunning gardens were really a perfect place for our family to visit.
- Kid Facts: The Japanese Tea Gardens were originally built to feature during the 1894 World’s Fair.
#3: Muir Woods
Muir Woods National Monument is a magical redwood forest featuring the Sequoia sempervirens, the Earth’s tallest living things. It is located in Marin County about 45 minutes from San Francisco assuming no traffic but totally worth the trip. A walk through these woods is nothing short of awe-inspiring. These trees are around 250 feet tall and hundreds of years old.
The forest canopy is nothing short of breathtaking.
Muir Woods is a pedestrian park. We were able to easily push our toddler in a stroller on the walkways. When we visited in early October, we did not experience massive crowds or parking hassles. However, these are common in high season. Starting in January 2018, advance booking for parking and shuttles is necessary.
- Kid Facts: Muir Woods is named to honor conservationist John Muir who is known as the “Father of the National Parks.”
Alcatraz was the first military prison in the US and later served as a federal penitentiary that housed maximum-security A-list criminals. Famous inmates of “the Rock” include Al Capone. The prison was closed in 1963 because of the exorbitant costs involved with transporting guards and supplies to the prison.
We viewed Alcatraz from the mainland, but tours are extremely popular. The 15-minute ferry ride to the island offers stunning city views but can often be quite chilly.
- Kid Facts: Of the 36 prisoners who attempted to escape Alcatraz, 23 were caught and returned to the prison, six were shot and killed, two drowned, and five are “missing and presumed drowned.” No known successful prison escapes have been verified.
#5: Eating Out
As with most large metropolitan areas, there are many great restaurants in San Francisco. Because we were visiting friends, we enjoyed some great food both eating out and carrying in.
- Humphrey Slocum may be our favorite ice cream shop ever. Our friend who took us is an ice cream aficionado and even makes his own. This gourmet shop offers unexpected ice cream combinations like Salt + Pepper, Red Bean and Dr. Pepper and Kumquat Poppyseed. But, you are welcome to sample everything and likely to be blown away by taste of the unusual flavors. We ordered the signature flavor Secret Breakfast, which is bourbon ice cream with corn flakes. It was so delicious that we made a return trip to purchase a pint.
- Pi Bar is a craft beer bar and pizzeria in the hip Mission District. It’s brilliant name comes from π/pi, a homophone of pie, and it is open daily from 3:14-6:28 PM. Pi Bar specializes in pizza by the slice with a πr2 deal including a slice of pizza and a beer of the day for $8.50. We ordered a few carry out pies that we enjoyed with our Secret Breakfast ice cream.
- Burma Superstar offers Burmese cuisine, which I had never tried before but is heavily influenced by neighboring India, China, Laos and Thailand. We had an amazing meal here with friends and would definitely plan another meal here next time I’m in San Francisco even if there is almost always a wait to get in.
- Kid Facts: San Francisco has one of the country’s largest Burmese communities.
San Francisco is an amazing city for a family vacation. Now I can’t wait to go back and to try some of the things we missed! What’s your favorite San Francisco attraction?