How to Make the Most of a San Francisco CityPASS with Kids

On my family’s first trip to San Francisco, we wanted to see and do as much as our kids could handle in five days. We purchased a San Francisco CityPASS and visited every attraction in the booklet, especially taking advantage of the free transportation options, which include cable cars and trolley cars.

CityPASS can be a great value in San Francisco with kids; if you use every attraction voucher, it can save up to 50 percent off regular ticket prices, with added privileges like skip-the-line passes at some places. It’s straightforward to figure out if the pass is a good fit for the length of the vacation and interests of your family. The San Francisco CityPASS site has details about each attraction included (California Academy of Sciences; Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure or Alcatraz Island; Exploratorium or de Young Museum; Aquarium of the Bay or Monterey Bay Aquarium). The site also lists different options and add-ons that are available for certain venues.

Here’s what to keep in mind if you’re considering the CityPASS strategy for sightseeing:

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from the visitor's center

Sunny view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the visitor’s center

Tips for Using San Francisco CityPASS for Families

First-Time Visitors to San Francisco

If this is a first visit to San Francisco, it’s the perfect time to consider using CityPASS. The museums and attractions included are all located within the main tourist areas, and the two main museums, the Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences, are very popular with families. There’s no overlap in content, so both are worth visiting.

Amount of Time in San Francisco

Two full days in the city for sightseeing is the minimum time to consider using CityPASS. If you’re planning to see Muir Woods National Monument and Alcatraz, which are half-day visits, three days total is necessary to experience all the sights without having to run from one thing to the next.

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Family Interests and Ages

Since two of the most valuable attractions included in the CityPASS are museums, it’s important to understand if visiting museums is a priority. The Exploratorium and the California Academy of Sciences are both excellent and often visited by local families and schools. Families will almost universally want to choose the Exploratorium over the de Young Museum, which appeals more to art aficionados than kids.

The jellies captivate all ages at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

The jellies captivate all ages at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Choosing the Right Aquarium

Is San Francisco one of your stops on a longer road trip that includes Monterey? If the answer is yes, then consider that CityPASS gives holders the option of visiting either the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco or the Monterey Bay Aquarium — the latter is usually on a family’s list of attractions to see on a California road trip.

Blue & Gold Bay cruises pass by the sea lions at Pier 39

Blue & Gold bay cruises pass by the sea lions at Pier 39. At times, guests get only a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge through the famous fog

San Francisco Bay Cruise vs. Alcatraz Day Tour

The San Francisco CityPASS includes a Blue & Gold bay cruise, which you can swap for an Alcatraz Island day tour by purchasing a San Francisco CityPASS directly from Alcatraz Cruises either via phone or in person at their Pier 33 offices. The Alcatraz option is not available for purchase online. Considering that a visit to Alcatraz is on most first-time visitors’ must-do list, this is a great option and another reason that CityPASS is a good value. By contrast, Blue & Gold sails under the Golden Gate Bridge, around Alcatraz and past Angel Island (called the Ellis Island of the West) and is a good option for young children not ready for the prison atmosphere of Alcatraz.

Golden Gate Park is is home to windmills, a living roof at California Academy of Sciences, Stow Lake. Ride. Cable car lines run near Chinatown.

Golden Gate Park is home to windmills, a living roof at the California Academy of Sciences, and Stow Lake, while cable car lines run near Chinatown

Neighborhood Exploration

A bonus of using CityPASS is that it encourages exploration throughout San Francisco. Several of the museums are in the Golden Gate Park, San Francisco’s equivalent to New York’s Central Park. The park has playgrounds, a few bison, and a lake; on Sundays, it’s closed to traffic and filled with biking families. Leaving the main park entrance, there are restaurants and a local artisan ice cream shop within a 10-minute walk. With a car, head to the opposite end of the park, where oceanside and cliffside walking paths offer views of the Golden Gate Bridge en route to Lands End Nature Center. These paths are better with school-age kids and up.

A Grand California Family Road Trip

Get our essential guide to exploring the best of the Golden State by car >

Another idea for exploring, and a strategy to beat the long cable car lines, is to get up early and take a cable car to breakfast in a new neighborhood. East Coast visitors tend to wake up early due to jet lag, so this is doable even with teens who would otherwise not enjoy rising at this hour. San Francisco CityPASS offers unlimited cable car rides in a 7-day period.

Relevant Links:

Best family hotels and things to do in San Francisco

72 hours in San Francisco with kids

Tips for checking out San Francisco’s tourist spots

Things to do in the Presidio with kids

A family sleepover on Alcatraz

Must-see stops on a California Central Coast road trip

Editor’s Note: CityPASS provided two passes to Ciao Bambino in order to facilitate our review. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Kristi Marcelle.

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