San Francisco has a little bit of everything, from cable cars to sea lions, baseball to penguins, and even chocolate. With so many fabulous family-friendly activities, picking and choosing what to do and what not to do is the hardest part. San Francisco enjoys mild weather year-round, so even winter days can often be spent outside exploring. Pace yourself: The city is big and two nights is too short to see it all. But that’s OK, because your first trip to San Francisco won’t be your last.
There’s no denying that Fisherman’s Wharf has a touristy side, but if you know where to go, you’ll find all the makings for a fun-filled day in the city.
Sea lions are the stars of the free show at Pier 39, barking, belly-flopping and simply snoozing on floating docks. Before your trip, visit the Sea Lion Web Cam with your kids. Along with sneaking a peek, kids can learn how they came to call Pier 39 home and why they carry on in the boisterous way they do. At the Sea Lion Center, located directly above the sea lions’ regular hangout, kids of all ages can touch a sea lion pelt, see a skeleton and learn all about some of San Francisco’s most famous residents.
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The Sea Lion Center is operated and managed by neighboring Aquarium of the Bay. The small aquarium is packed with more than 20,000 marine animals, many of which are viewable via glass tunnel walkways. Be sure to save time at the end for the touch pools, where kids have rays and sea stars at their fingertips.
You’ll need to be organized and make reservations ahead of time, but older school-age kids will enjoy a visit to Alcatraz Island. Part of the National Park Service, Alcatraz was a military fortress and home to the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast before it became a famous prison. Plan on spending at least a few hours here to explore. The audio tour features memories of former Alcatraz inmates and correctional officers. Kids can also take part in the Junior Ranger program.
From Pole Position and Ms. PacMan to pinball, Musee Mecanique is home to more than 200 coin operated antique arcade machines that date back to the 1800s. All are in working condition and just waiting to be played. Admission is free and change machines are plentiful.
You can jump aboard a cable car at two locations in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. One turnaround is dangerously close to Ghirardelli Square and its endless supply of chocolate. Consider yourself warned.
Hey batter! If the World Series-winning San Francisco Giants are in town, pick up tickets and hit a game. Along with all the action on the field, AT&T Park sports the Fan Lot, an interactive play area for kids and parents. Slide through a giant Coca-Cola bottle or check out the world’s largest baseball glove. Behind-the-scenes ballpark tours are offered year-round and include typically off-limits locales like a dugout, the visitors’ batting cage and the press box.
All museums are not created equal. If you don’t believe me, just go to the Exploratorium. Not far from AT&T Park, perched on Pier 15 with an amazing San Francisco waterfront view, the Exploratorium is a huge, colorful laboratory that makes learning about science fun and easy. With more than 600 interactive exhibits, it’s easy to spend a day here with kids and still not see it all.
When hunger strikes, it’s a quick walk to the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace and its array of delicious restaurants. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, offers everything from fresh fruit and veggies to flowers and artisan street food.
If the kids just need a morning to run around outside, Crissy Field, a former U.S. Army airfield, is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Along with beaches and picnic tables, you’ll be rewarded with holiday-card-worthy views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Escape the hustle and bustle of city life without leaving city limits. Stretching over more than a thousand acres, Golden Gate Park is the third most visited park in the United States. It’s filled with playgrounds, gardens, animals, lakes and museums that hold everything from fine art and flowers to fish and other water creatures, like an albino alligator named Claude.
Claude is just one of the critters you’ll meet at the California Academy of Sciences, part aquarium, part planetarium and part natural history museum. The resident colony of African penguins tend to make a splashy impression, but walking through the Steinhart Aquarium and a four-story rainforest comes with vacation bragging rights too.
The de Young Museum is just across the street from the California Academy of Sciences. Art museums and kids typically don’t mix well, but since you’re so close, make a quick trip to the Observation Level of the Hamon Tower. Glass walls offer 360-degree panoramas of San Francisco and there’s no charge to take in the view.
If you have time for just one thing in Golden Gate Park, the choice is easy: the Koret Children’s Quarter and Golden Gate Park Carousel. There’s something for kids of all ages to love, and a seemingly high percentage of parents like to play here too. Maybe it’s the concrete slides — grab a piece of cardboard and down you go. Want something a little slower? The carousel is calling. Be prepared to go around more than once. It’s so hard to choose among the brightly colored lineup of animals: horses, camels and ostriches, oh my.
San Francisco is loaded with family-friendly hotels, so it’s tough to go wrong. That said, some properties have a way of standing out. The lobby at Hotel Zetta sports a two-story Plinko game that connects to the upstairs playroom, complete with a Ping-Pong table, a photo booth, an oversize Jenga game and a pool table. Getting the kids to leave could be tough.
Rooms at Hotel Zephyr come with games like backgammon and magnetic dartboards. The hotel backyard is a dream for kids, with a giant Connect Four game, fire pits, shuffleboard and a giant Jenga game. There’s also an indoor play area where guests can play pool, Ping-Pong and table shuffleboard.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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